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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is it not extremely important to obtain the support of all people--that is to say, those in the Commonwealth and in the United States, as well as those in the EU? From the point of view of President Mugabe, is it not also extremely important for him to understand that the world is horrified by what has happened in Zimbabwe? Further, is it not equally wrong for my noble friend to upbraid my noble friend Lord Shore, who, like the rest of us who are friends of the people of Zimbabwe, is angered by what has happened?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I certainly understand all noble Lords in this House who feel passionately on the subject. Indeed, that demonstrates the warmth and compassion for which this House is known. I should applaud and commend all those who express that view. I understand entirely the anger and irritation sometimes expressed that more cannot be done and more swiftly. But I wholeheartedly endorse what my noble friend said: everyone must work together. We have had very few things to be warmed by in this debate, but one of the most warming aspects is the fact that there is international consensus on this issue; and we are working together.

Lord Elton: My Lords, I have spoken to friends in Zimbabwe over the past few days and they have made two things very clear to me. The first is their sense of the urgent need for the early appointment of outside observers. I was a member of the team that was sent from this Parliament to observe the elections in Zimbabwe in 1979. To begin with, we had to tell the

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government of the day that they were not responsible for choosing what aeroplane we travelled in and what destination we took. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that we shall ensure that any organisation undertaking outside observation will be sufficiently independent, mobile, secure in its communications and numerous to cover the whole country and give an independent view?

The second thing they bore in on me was a growing concern among black and white communities that the presence of foreign media observers--not political observers--was being used to incite some of the acts of violence so that they would have them to report. Will the noble Baroness use what offices she has through diplomatic channels to bring to the notice of the employers of those teams that this is unsatisfactory conduct? Will she answer the question of my noble friend on the Front Bench about the possible suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth? What does it have to do before it is suspended?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, in relation to the noble Lord's first point, of course we understand the importance of independence, transparency and efficacy. Those issues will be key when trying to put together an effective observer force. They will be taken fully into account.

Secondly, of course I acknowledge what the noble Lord says about the behaviour of the media. Unfortunately, we have some difficulty controlling our media here. Whether we shall have any greater effect elsewhere I cannot say, but the point is well understood.

As regards suspending Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth, noble Lords will know that before a country can be suspended from the Commonwealth it has to be demonstrated that that country has behaved unconstitutionally. Although we are horrified by what is happening in Zimbabwe, unless and until the elections are proven not to be constitutional and Zimbabwe is proven not to have a constitutional government, we would not be able to suspend it. The rules are rigid and frustrating in terms of the current situation. However, noble Lords will remember that Nigeria was suspended because it had an unconstitutional government. Zimbabwe is not yet in that position. It is certainly our hope and aspiration that it never will be; that fair elections will take place and that Zimbabwe will return a democratic, effective government who are able to express the will of the people.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, will the Minister--

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I welcome the Government's efforts to try to bring stability to Zimbabwe and a return to democracy there. I think that all noble Lords on all sides of the House ought to welcome those efforts and do all that they can to complement them. It seems to me that the sole, certainly the primary, objective of President Mugabe is to keep his grip on power in Zimbabwe. His secondary

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interests--if he has secondary interests--are the people of Zimbabwe, the country of Zimbabwe and, a long way down the line, the white farmers of Zimbabwe.

Given those circumstances, it seems to me that President Mugabe does not care what happens in the part of the world we are discussing unless he has the complete power that he has enjoyed for so long. The worst thing that we, the Commonwealth, the Americans or the Europeans can do is to make a difficult situation that much worse. We should all try to solidify our position in as much as we want a return to democracy. We should demonstrate clearly that President Mugabe is completely isolated and we should ensure that there is a return to democracy. That is all that we want.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is quite clearly a hope and aspiration.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, will the Minister--

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am sorry but we have tried to allocate the available time between the different Benches.

Essential Local Services

4.44 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I address this question in the context of bus services. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, I want to define two categories of communities in particular need: first, those who live in cities and larger towns, mostly along radial roads, particularly in areas of dense housing--what is known in public transport circles as "good bus country"--and, secondly, those who live in the further suburbs and smaller centres and in rural corridors.

I intend to leave out of account those living in deepest rural areas where frequent bus services are unlikely to be a viable proposition. Those areas require different treatment. I refer here to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, who said that the rural bus service grant was a waste of money. I believe that he also said that it was wasted principally by socialist councils. I am a member of a county council whose Labour members do not, I believe, describe themselves as "socialists". The money is not wasted--at least not where I live. I travelled by bus to the station this morning in company with quite a lot of other people. Some foolish restrictions are imposed on the way in which the rural bus service grant is spent, but I imagine that the Government will address those as time moves on.

Apart from those who need buses, who are the major target of my remarks, there is a further important group of people who need to be attracted to

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bus use. Getting those people to switch to public transport has two beneficial effects. First, it reduces car traffic and, secondly--and more importantly--it improves the viability of the bus service which has the potential to create a virtuous circle of greater frequency and more investment in modern buses.

The Transport Bill will shortly arrive in your Lordships' House. This debate provides a useful opportunity to indicate to the Minister some of the concerns felt on these Benches and elsewhere and how we believe concerns for those in need may best be addressed. We must remind ourselves that 80 million journeys a week are made by bus, the vast majority by people who have no alternative.

In the 14 years since bus services were deregulated, we have seen costs in the bus industry reduced to an absolute minimum. We have seen staff numbers and the number of vehicles cut. We have seen management and central workshops disappear in many areas. Indeed, in the bus industry cost inflation now ranges between 4 and 6 per cent. That is driven mainly by rising fuel costs and drivers' wages. Most companies are having to raise drivers' wages substantially in order to attract people to take up a pretty unsociable job. This cost inflation of between 4 and 6 per cent compares with inflation in the economy as a whole of between 2 and 2.5 per cent.

That disparity would normally mean that bus fares would have to rise in real terms. However, we have learned from recently published research--I believe that it was funded by the DETR and carried out mostly by Joyce Dargay of the ESRC Transport Studies Unit--that if you raise bus fares above the level of inflation, there is a sharp drop in the number of people using buses. If you raise fares by 10 per cent, at the end of the first year 4 per cent of passengers will have disappeared. However, 30 months after the fares increase 7.5 per cent will have disappeared. Shortly you find that almost all the revenue gained from the fares increase has been lost.

So if fare increases are not an appropriate response to rising costs, there are two alternatives. These are what is called greater scheduling efficiency which, put simply, means that one achieves more miles from every bus, more hours driven by every driver, and better marketing, which appears to mean stable, regular interval services, good publicity, co-ordinated timetables and fares which are seen to be good value for money.

The greatest help which government at national and local level can give to the bus industry, and to those many people who depend on it, is a clear, unobstructed highway and clear access to bus stops. I stress that this is important both to urban and rural dwellers because most rural bus services start in towns. If they cannot get in and out of the towns, they cannot give a decent service to those who live in rural areas.

There is ample evidence that unobstructed highways lead to the efficient use of resources, reduced journey times and reliability. Today I have been to Harlow in Essex to open a very extensive bus priority system, which has been funded by Essex County

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Council, Harlow District Council and the developers of a large housing development, the latter having contributed £3 million towards the scheme. It is the kind of thing that we want to see spread very widely.

However, it is a pity that so little real commitment is shown to developing extensive bus priorities and the enforcement which is necessary to make them effective. The Transport Bill provides relatively little hope in this area. Most police forces have abandoned effective enforcement, slashing the number of traffic wardens and traffic officers. We have already heard, and we shall hear again, about the pressures on the police force.

In turn, the Home Office appears to be woefully slow in approving the use of camera technology as a substitute for police enforcement. Fixed penalty fines are often derisory and regarded as a business expense by those who obstruct the highway and the efficient operation of buses. In London, the red routes are enforced because there is what is called a "service level agreement" between the Traffic Director and the Metropolitan Police, which in plain English means that the taxpayer funds the extra traffic wardens necessary.

It is reported that on the priority bus network outside the red routes enforcement is pretty ineffective. The selfishness of the few who obstruct the highway inflicts delay and costs on bus users who have no alternative. Delaying buses makes the service unattractive to potential users and can lead only to a spiral of decline.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister that funds allocated to local transport plans will be concentrated on those authorities which show real determination in implementing bus priorities and have enforcement policies to back them up. I am not speaking about the odd bus lane along the wider sections of the road, but about priority measures which tackle the bottlenecks and give real benefit. I also hope that the Minister will say something about enforcement and give us some hope that the Home Office will quickly give the necessary approval to camera technology for the enforcement of bus lanes, yellow box junctions and banned right turns.

The Government's consultation paper on the bus industry, From Workhorse to Thoroughbred, refers in paragraph 11.4 to extending bus lane enforcement across London by 2003. It also states that they are keen to see the lessons learned extended more widely. I sincerely hope that we shall not have to wait until 2003.

The bus industry needs that help now so that it can get on top of rising costs without increasing fares and provide an efficient service. There appears to me to be no technical reason why camera use should not be widely extended.

The bus industry, very correctly, is being obliged to buy new buses so that compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act is achieved. The industry takes that obligation seriously, but, I ask the Minister, how seriously do the Government take the issue of bus stop

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abuse, with people parking in bus stop bays? Unless buses can pull alongside kerbs, the benefits of low-floor buses are entirely negated.

Bus companies will feel the full force of the law if they do not comply with the Disability Discrimination Act. It really is time that those who park at bus stops felt that the Government sufficiently disapproved of their selfishness by, for example, adding penalty points to any fine. The rush towards decriminalisation, while it relieves the police of work, should not mean that serious and particularly repeat offenders--people who accumulate 70 or 80 parking tickets a year--should go unpunished.

As well as efficient operation, the bus industry must of course improve all aspects of its marketing. Research shows that simple timetables, giving frequent or at least regular departures, are important. The same research states that 67 per cent of car users would consider using a frequent bus service and that 22 per cent would consider using a regular service. Only 7 per cent said that they would consider using anything else. It is very clear that simple information, network ticketing and co-operation between operators are needed by both the existing users and those whom companies seek to attract.

However, the shadow of the Competition Act hangs over the industry. I believe that the Office of Fair Trading is making progress on the issue of a block exemption for the industry as regards joint and through tickets. However, I was told today that in Southend, where the local authority wishes to buy block travel on the buses for eligible school children, the two bus companies which would be involved believe that they cannot consider the matter together because if they do so they would be in breach of the Competition Act.

Guidance is needed quickly for the industry on issues such as joint timetables, joint liveries and other things which the public find useful. But the OFT says that it is going to charge £5,000 to give guidance on each particular case and £13,000 if a company wants a decision. That is what one has to pay the OFT. It does not cover one's own costs in briefing one's own lawyers to argue the case.

I hope that the Minister will be able to persuade his colleagues that the OFT should offer some general guidance. Many people believe that the OFT takes the attitude that all the present talk about transport integration is a passing fad and that the real idol to be worshipped is the Competition Act itself which states that market sharing is always anti-competitive.

There is a real dilemma here for all transport operators who are told to co-operate by one government department and by their own customers and by another government department and its agent, the OFT, that to do so risks penalties which, as the Minister well knows, are draconian in the extreme. They are 10 per cent of the turnover not of the local company, but of the whole group.

The final issue to which I want to refer is concessionary fares. Bus fares are very expensive. They rose in the decade after 1986 by 20 per cent while at the

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same time the cost of motoring rose by only five per cent. We very warmly welcome the Government's decision that all pensioners will qualify for a half-fare bus pass which will be issued free of charge. We have some doubts as to whether the £25 million set aside to fund it will meet the costs, but at least we are grateful that we are moving that way. When we come to debate the Bill, we hope to persuade the Government that all persons over 60 years of age should qualify and not men at 65 and ladies at 60. It will cost very little to make that change and it would add significantly to the reduction of social exclusion among those most in need.

I ask the Minister whether the Government will make urgent inquiries about the cost of extending half-fare travel to young people up to the age of 18 years. My contacts in the bus industry suggest that the cost will be very low. This group of people comprises those who want to get out and about, have limited means and are most likely to go out and buy an old car. Often in rural areas young people can be very isolated indeed. More reasonable fares would go some way to meeting the transport needs of that group.

We know that the Government will not welcome amendments to the Transport Bill, but as a regular bus user I know that there will not necessarily be another Bill along for some time. We believe that bus users deserve from the Government at least a fraction of the attention they appear to be willing to lavish on the motoring lobby. Many bus users are poor, isolated and less articulate than other members of the community, but that does not mean that their needs are any less important than the needs of those who have the choice of using a car. I hope that our attempts to improve the Bill in the interests of bus users will be sympathetically received.

It is not my place to advise the Minister on which policies are likely to assist the Government's re-election, but addressing the issue of the cost of bus fares will be cheap and popular, particularly among those groups of the population with which the Government are reported to have lost touch.

5 p.m.

Baroness Harris of Richmond: My Lords, I chair a police authority in a huge rural area--North Yorkshire--and I am also a deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities, so I hope that your Lordships will accept my credentials for speaking on rural policing issues today.

I should first like to address the problems of sparsity. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, has already referred to this matter, but I want to tell your Lordships of the practicalities of the sparsity factor on rural police forces.

Research has been carried out which has found that higher levels of officer availability are required to attend to and deal with incidents in rural areas because they happen across vast distances. The number of officers required per incident in rural forces is approximately three times that required in most urban

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forces and, because of the vast distances which need to be covered in rural areas, vehicles and resources are thinly spread.

Consequently, officers are vulnerable because back-up is generally a long way off. With the introduction of the public safety radio communications project (PSRCP) next year, we all hope that better technology will be beneficial to all our officers. However, in North Yorkshire it will cost us more than £3 million to set up and more than £1 million a year to sustain, which will be taken directly from our core police funding. All this will, of necessity, reduce our ability to fund extra officers or other staff throughout the force area.

A lone officer doing a rural beat out on the moors and stopping a suspect vehicle will still have difficulty summoning help, even with the best equipment; colleagues will still take a longer time to reach him or her than would be the case for an urban officer. This is simply a fact of life. Crime investigation costs are increased by travelling costs, and in rural areas we need more vehicles to travel to remote incidents or scenes of crime.

People living in rural areas are as entitled as their urban counterparts to feel that they have equality of police resources, yet this is barely recognised in the present funding formula. It is to be hoped that this issue will be addressed in the next spending review. For instance, in my own force--the North Yorkshire police--£101 per head of population is spent compared with the provincial average of £115. We drive 8 million vehicle miles a year. A minor increase in fuel prices has a major impact on our operational budget.

The police often provide the only 24-hour public service in rural areas, and we know how important it is for a community to identify with its own officers. Local knowledge and intelligence does not just happen; it must be continuously worked at. My noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank referred to the closure of many small rural police stations. I am happy to tell him that in North Yorkshire we have recognised the importance of having police stations in rural communities and we are opening them deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. In an innovative move, in Hawes we have done so in partnership with a "one-stop shop", where the local community are able to take their concerns and report crime in a much more accessible way than have been able to do previously.

If the police are not visible in our communities, two things happen: first, people feel that there is no point in reporting crime; and, secondly, fear of crime increases. We have seen graphic proof of that in the past few weeks. Chief constables, through their police authorities, must be given sufficient funding in order that they can address these concerns.

New legislation, of course, means pressure on all forces, but changes in practices and procedures can have a disproportionate effect on small rural ones. Indeed, in North Yorkshire we have had to take four officers from their front-line policing duties to review all the force policies to ensure compliance with the Human Rights Act. This is a necessity--one with

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which I have no quarrel--but it demonstrates, I hope, that an already small force has no "fat" from which to draw extra officers to undertake what are essentially government orders.

So how do we begin to reassure our rural communities and begin to return a sense of safety and security? In North Yorkshire we have a targeted approach; solving crime problems through tasking and co-ordinating units and the proposed multi-agency problem solving units (MAPS). Crime and disorder strategies, now embedded firmly in community safety partnerships, are beginning to see successful outcomes and are reducing the number of incidents of crime. In North Yorkshire in the past year, the total number of crimes recorded was 53,554--a reduction of 1,755 crimes from the 1998-99 figure of 55,309. This is a 3.17 per cent reduction. Domestic burglary was down 9.9 per cent and auto crime was down 10.5 per cent--and yet there is still a persistent cry for every village to have its own police officer because of the fear of crime. So much more needs to be done.

It would be helpful if the Government could give more financial support for Neighbourhood Watch schemes--I must declare that I am its patron in North Yorkshire--and for neighbourhood wardens. I know that the Government support these schemes and that they are providing some funding for the various pilots of neighbourhood warden schemes throughout the country--I wholeheartedly agree with this action--but we need to ensure that sufficient funding is put in place in order that they might succeed. I am not at all sure that the present funding will be sufficient.

Neighbourhood wardens could make a real difference to the quality of life of whose who live in fear of crime by helping to combat a range of anti-social behaviour. The fact that they will be partnership based will help their acceptance into the community in which they will work. What we do not want, however, is to have to jump through never-ending bureaucratic hoops in order to fund such schemes adequately, as we have to do with most other government-sponsored initiatives.

We need to look further still. We need to look at providing retained officers. The Fire Service has long existed with these officers, why not the Police Service? Retained officers would be fully trained and equipped and put to work in those areas in most need at specified times. Such a person could be nominated to look after a rural community and, even on a part-time basis, would become recognised and accepted, providing the "comfort factor" so sadly lacking in rural areas today.

Finally, the Government could and should be starting a campaign to reduce the fear of crime in rural areas and they should explain that it is the fear of crime which far exceeds the actual risk. Heightening the fear of crime by using emotive and ill-considered language is of no help to anyone, and it harms and frightens people unnecessarily. Living in a rural area has many concomitant problems, as we have heard, but with greater support for our services, especially those which go to the very heart of a secure and safe community,

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we can begin to redress the balance and return confidence to the people in our isolated towns and villages.

5.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, we are much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for introducing this debate on a subject which is of increasing concern to those of us who live in deeply rural areas and also to many people who live in deprived urban areas. I am glad that my right reverend friend the Bishop of Portsmouth was able to speak from his experience of urban areas in Portsmouth itself. I want, naturally, to speak about rural areas, as I come from an extremely rural diocese.

I am sorry that I was not in your Lordships' House yesterday for the Second Reading debate of the Postal Services Bill. I have skimmed through Hansard for yesterday and I know that some assurances were given by the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, at the end of that debate. I apologise in advance if today I make remarks about local post offices which were also made in yesterday's debate.

There is a fundamental philosophical issue to do with the provision of essential services in rural Britain. Is it right to try to make better provision for people to travel to where the services are provided--for example, by better bus services--or should we try to maintain and even improve a system which takes essential services to where people live by means of various forms of mobile outreach or of a decentralised, locally provided system of services? This debate has been going for a very long time and for many years there has been an increasing need for people in rural areas to travel to a main centre for many purposes: most obviously for work in offices or factories, for hospital care, for secondary schooling, for cultural or sports activities of many kinds and even to go to the jobcentre. No one can deny that some services, particularly the more sophisticated and complicated services, must be delivered in that centralised way. That presupposes, of course, the provision of adequate public transport services, even in remote rural areas.

My knowledge of bus services does not begin to compare with that of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who spoke in great detail and with great skill about them, but from my own experience in our area, I believe that there have been encouraging improvements in local bus services in rural areas, particularly on Sundays when in the past buses never ran at all. What I want to urge is that those services and the financial help that makes them possible are maintained for long enough for them to pick up the customers, who will take some time to recognise that the services exist and then to start using them. The real danger is that the subsidy is offered and the bus service is put on, but, "Oh dear, no one is using the bus", so it is taken off again. It needs to be left running for a long time to build the custom. That may be expensive in the meantime, but it is absolutely vital.

The relentless decline in the local provision of the most basic services is alarming, especially as it affects elderly people, the disabled, the poor and those who,

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despite frantic efforts to keep an old car going, cannot have their own transport. Village shops and post offices are the most essential services and are under severe pressure, as everyone knows, but there are many of the simpler medical and social services which can also well be taken to people in the country. I have been involved in helping to fund, through a local charity of which I am a trustee, the excellent scheme of mobile day centres, run by Help the Aged. A specially equipped van, based in a market town, goes out in turn to various villages and parishes and stops outside the village hall or community centre. And, thank goodness, village halls are among the more encouraging aspects of rural life, with some very welcome help available for restoration or replacement projects.

From that location in front of the village hall, services such as hairdressing, chiropody or minor medical care can be offered to people within walking distance of where they live or, in the case of the very isolated and disabled, at a place to which they can be brought by a very short car or minibus journey. People's lives are made very much easier and more pleasant. Much time, worry and expense of travel are saved and an excellent social atmosphere is created for an hour or two while the mobile service is in the village.

It is a splendid system, but it is expensive. Without able and willing volunteers and without the financial help--in our case, from the charity with which I am associated--it simply could not operate. It is an excellent example of social inclusion at work in a way which is very much valued and appreciated by all those who benefit from it. But it has required energy and imagination to provide it and it would, in the absence of the charitable funding, need considerable input from overstretched and underfunded social services. That issue raises the matter of the standard spending assessment, which is notoriously weighted against deeply rural areas, although I acknowledge that there has recently been some improvement, especially in respect of the cost of maintaining domiciliary care for elderly or disabled people. Can the Minister give us some indication of whether social service funding might be increased to provide this excellent form of mobile outreach to those in the deepest country?

But it is village shops and post offices which are bound to be the main focus of our concern. I particularly want to draw attention to what I believe is a remarkable success story about a village shop and post office and to try to draw some conclusions from that story. Let me take your Lordships for a moment to the village of Dorstone in the Golden Valley, west of Hereford, under the Black Mountains. It has a population of about 250 in the village centre and also in farms and cottages scattered far up into the hills. Its village shop closed just over five years ago. The post office, which had been located in a private house, had closed before that. There was a general sense of gloom, as in many villages.

But a small and enthusiastic group of people would not give up. They were determined to get back their post office and a shop as well if it was humanly

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possible. By making ingenious and imaginative use of a range of funding sources, they managed to achieve their ambition, and last year a brand-new purpose-built shop and post office with disabled access and proper parking was opened with due ceremony by one of the oldest inhabitants of the village. Money for that came from the Rural Development Commission, as it then was, from the village focus budget of Herefordshire council, from local contributions in £15 shares and £25 debentures, non-returnable and paying no dividend, bought by local people who made up the Dorstone Village Shop Association, which is in legal terms a provident association. But most of the money--around half at least--came from the European Objective 5b fund.

The shop and the post office are open from eight o'clock in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon, six days a week. They provide employment for a local young man who combines running the shop with a part-time catering business and for a part-time post mistress. It has proved to be of immense benefit to the community and is very much appreciated. But its economic base is fairly fragile. Just as it required a complex package of interrelated funding to provide it in the first place, so it requires a continuing interrelationship of these three activities--the shop, the catering business and the post office--for it to survive at all. If any one of those three were to fail, the whole project would fail. That is why the threat to the post office posed by the possibility of the ending of cash payments over the counter of pensions and allowances is so deeply serious.

The Country Landowners' Association has estimated that 40 per cent of village post office business depends on those cash payments. That figure has already been mentioned today. But the Dorstone post mistress believes that in her particular case it is 90 per cent of the post office business. People come to collect their money. They then pay a good deal of it back over the counter in contributions towards electricity, council tax, water rates, television licences and telephone bills. Cash payments make it possible for pensioners in particular, who can just get by financially, to manage their money carefully and well. Any other system, involving as it would bus fares to a bigger centre and bank charges of various kinds, even if people would or could open a bank account, would severely disadvantage them. And if they did not come to the post office, they might well not come to the shop, or enjoy the modestly priced fish and chip supper provided one evening a week by the shopkeeper.

It is a delicate balance. It works well: it fosters friendship and mutual care, and it keeps people in touch with one another. It is a model for what might be achieved elsewhere. But in the village I have mentioned, that balance depended on the presence of some willing, public-spirited, able, articulate and determined people to make it happen, and such people simply do not exist in many areas of serious deprivation. The village was extremely fortunate to have a retired building society chairman living in it who took charge of the financial side of things--and even he had to go on a course to learn how to get

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money out of Europe. I cannot emphasise too strongly that the whole operation depends on the post office functions continuing as at present in terms of cash payments--although, of course, further extensions and improvements to the role of the post office would also be welcome.

Perhaps I may make four brief final points. First, I have a "good news" story about policing. The new divisional police superintendent in Hereford has been in touch with the Church authorities about his plans to provide a beat manager for every cluster of villages and to enlist local support in the work of policing. We find an uncanny resemblance between the Church's plan of developing local ministry teams under the rural dean and the paid incumbent and keen, trained, able, responsible lay people not just being given jobs to do but sharing leadership and responsibility. The policing plan is to recruit such people, not as vigilantes but as a kind of mobile extension of the neighbourhood watch scheme: people undertake to travel round the district on a regular basis noting strange people, vehicles or activities and feeding information back to the beat manager at the police station.

Secondly, continuing rate relief for the sole village shop is vital to its survival. I shall be grateful if the Minister will assure the House that such rate relief will continue to be available.

Thirdly, there should be a basic presumption against the granting of planning permission for change of use from retail to residential for the last retail outlet in any rural community.

Fourthly, I hope that consideration might be given to a change in charity law to enable a village shop, despite the fact that it is a trading outlet, to be registered as a charity, provided that no profit accrues to shareholders but any profit is ploughed back into the community. That may not apply in many cases even with the most precarious village shops, but it certainly does in some cases, and, in view of the financial fragility of the village shop, it could make a critical difference between its survival and the withdrawal of yet another of those essential services on which rural communities depend.

5.23 p.m.

Viscount Falkland: My Lords, I should like to talk about the role of the public library system in our country and its relevance to the important dissemination of information. It has always been one of the aims of the British public library system to make information available to the widest number of people. That is one of the most important features of a democratic and prosperous society. Those who disturbed the peace on London last weekend should perhaps have borne that in mind. Conversely, one of the first actions of a totalitarian regime, when it gains a foothold on power, is to prevent the dissemination of information. The seizure of radio and television stations in coups in all parts of the world is familiar to us, together with the closing of newspapers, the destruction of books--that remains in the memory of those of us who have reached a certain age--and the

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persecution of journalists, film-makers and all those who are a threat to the power of undemocratic and authoritarian regimes.

The public library system in Britain was a product of that great rush of mid-19th century philanthropy which resulted in the libraries Act which allowed for a halfpenny rate from local councils to make collections of books available free to all who needed them. That has become one of the fundamental pillars of culture and education in our society. It has been very successful, and continues to be so. However, changes are taking place quickly, and there are alarm signals of which we must be aware.

Apart from providing an opportunity for citizens to borrow books in order to entertain, educate and improve themselves, one of the great benefits of the public library system is that it is of particular value to the deprived in our society, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. In passing, perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the enormous value of libraries in the prison system. They help some of the most deprived people in our society. The admirable attempt to get those who find themselves behind bars to progress down a road of learning and information within the libraries in those institutions is one of the most useful ways to lead those who have indulged in criminal activities towards a productive and useful life.

Libraries are not just places where people go to learn. Unhappily, communities are under threat, and libraries are places within the community where those who suffer in some way--apart from the very old and very young, who are particularly vulnerable--can find peace and quiet and can interact with others and find solace in a friendly, calm environment. That is essential--a view which I am sure is shared by other noble Lords. Through peace and war, the public library has become a familiar institution, and one that is viewed with affection. You can always tell when an institution is viewed with affection because it is taken up as a means of comedy. Scenes in plays, films and television programmes where the silence of the library is broken by some well-expected disturbance and the rather unfairly portrayed schoolmistress-type librarian casts stern, censorious looks on the offenders have become as familiar as those of the policeman with his helmet knocked off (perhaps an unhappy subject to mention today after the weekend's events) or the mother-in-law joke. The public library plays an important part in our culture and in the structure of civic life.

Parents and their children, the elderly and the unemployed are particular beneficiaries of the library system. The closure of libraries is perhaps inevitable because an economically advanced society such as ours, with all the controls over budgets and taxation that that implies, always examines the economic effectiveness of institutions and the services provided to the taxpayer.

My experience in the area where I live is that the rush towards the modernisation and rationalisation of libraries, although in some ways admirable, does not

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take sufficient account of the effect on, and the shock to, certain people in our society as a result of closures. Without naming particular authorities, several take the same view as the financial controller--having worked in business for many years, but not being an accountant, I share it--that in their present state a number of libraries are not economically viable because they have too many branches which do not provide the benefit expected of them. There is a quick rush to reduce the number of branches and consolidate in large new buildings where the latest technology can, it is true, be presented in a more appropriate way, together with the books, videos and other items that are presently available.

The idea is an attractive one, but the sudden removal of a familiar institution in this way has had an effect on people. In some areas there is evidence that the enthusiastic support of the accountant's mentality (without seeking to offend noble Lords who have been accountants) has meant that libraries have been deprived of new books on a gradual basis. When, consequently, less use is made of the libraries it is said that the public do not want to use the facilities. They do not use them because they cannot find the books that they want. The books are not available because the libraries have not purchased the requisite books. That situation arises where reform is urged without proper account being taken of the effect on what are, usually, the most deprived in our society. I suggest that the two outstanding groups are the very old and the very young.

As expected, there has also been budgetary pressure in local government on opening hours. Opening hours have reduced steadily over the past 20 years or so. Twenty years ago the majority of public libraries opened for 60 hours a week. I am informed by a very effective briefing document supplied by the Library Association that over the past 20 years opening hours have reduced substantially. Over 200 libraries fall into the category of those which have reduced their hours substantially. There have also been many closures. All of that must be viewed against a scenario in which supermarkets move towards 24-hour opening. Supermarket shopping is now becoming a leisure activity as well as a necessity. In many small towns a good deal of the architecture with which we are most familiar, such as the church, the school hall, sometimes the cinema--sadly, not often these days--the small theatre and the pub is often overshadowed by a supermarket. I am aware that the Government are taking steps to ensure that the indiscriminate proliferation of supermarkets does not take place any more than is necessary. However, this development has changed the profile of the community in a dramatic way.

The Government funded the excellent initiative People's Network with the aim of connecting public libraries with the information super-highway by the year 2002. Libraries have always been in the vanguard of new technology and have never resisted it. They were the first institutions to use microfilms and bar codes. In 1995 Internet access was taken up in a big

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way by both the young and old. I have not yet been coaxed into that activity. However, I am informed that there are wonderful opportunities around the country, albeit in a patchy way, where talented people are able to instruct the old. I am told that when they get the hang of it they become obsessed by the new horizons which the Internet opens up to them. That is a wonderful development, and I congratulate the enlightened and imaginative people who have made this possible. Public libraries have been, appropriately, the first to react to such matters as the BBC's campaign "Computers Don't Bite", with which many of your Lordships are familiar.

I return to one of the most important matters: children. I do a considerable amount of work with one of the play group charities. By statute pre-school children are provided with various facilities in public libraries. Those are increasingly used by single parents and their children. Therefore, closure of those facilities would cause particular harm to that group. In those areas where there is no nursery school or play group provision and a lone mother or father and child are deprived of public libraries the effects on the family unit are absolutely disastrous. Provision is made for schoolchildren in public libraries as long as the necessary expert teaching is available. That expert teaching is disappearing with budgetary constraints. While able volunteers come forward, one needs a nucleus of trained teachers to work with young children. One needs to provide information on parenting, opportunities for story-telling and so on. The holding of a library card by young children is a civic right. A library card is perhaps the first document that a child is likely to hold. School visits to public libraries are also useful. In inner-city areas libraries are particularly valuable to children whose first language is not English. There is no better place for them to go, perhaps without parental interference, than their local library in order to become proficient in a language other than the first language spoken at home.

I do not wish to say any more about library closures. I hope I have made the point sufficiently well that we have here a facility--I referred to the ability of the elderly to keep sharp of mind--which will continue apace. A library is, or should be, a reassuring place. The library has been a familiar part of the town and village landscape and it will be a pity if it disappears. I only hope that the new buildings, some of which may be excellent but may require to be improved, are also attractive and reassuring places for all those who use them. Modernity is good. The Government are keen on modern things but, when rushed, modernity can be intimidating. I hope that architects bear that in mind. The community as we know it is under attack. I suggest to noble Lords that the library is an essential part of the community and must be retained at all costs as effectively as, if not better than, in the past.

5.39 p.m.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for raising these important issues and for allowing me to be a form of unpaid mercenary alongside the Liberal

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partisans as they seek to defend the hills and valleys of rural England--not for the benefit of the people but for their own political benefit.

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