Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Kimball: My Lords, the noble Lord is giving the House a fascinating description of this form of communication. However, can the noble Lord explain a point to me? If a householder electronically communicates face to face with a policeman who is some 40 miles away to inform him that his house is being broken into, how will this wonderful system arrest the offender?

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I did not want to go into arresting the offender, but rather to make the point that communication can be made with the police. It is up to the local police services as to how they work with their communities. That is a point that was discussed by the right reverend Prelate. In my contribution I am discussing communication. The exercise of the law is a matter that must be developed along lines that have already been suggested.

Perhaps I may return to the question of cost. The cost of bringing ADSL to the countryside and to the remoter parts of the land is a question of modernising the telephone exchanges. BT is a commercial organisation just like any other and as such it will focus on urban areas where there is the maximum concentration of people with telephones. Either that company must be persuaded to provide or the Government must invest in the provision of modern local exchanges. I believe this to be an urgent matter. At present rural exchanges will be the last to be modernised because they serve the lowest concentrations of people with telephones. Perhaps the Minister can comment on this. Some £500 million is to be invested in the extremely doubtful Horizon system for the post offices. Could not the Government spend a little of the £23 billion the Chancellor received from the telecommunications companies to modernise countryside telephone exchanges? If that is not done, I doubt whether either BT or its competitors will do it.

We have here an opportunity to give a future to the countryside. We should be prepared to take that opportunity, but we need some encouragement from the Government. However, BT should not be too smug. Over the Christmas period we had no telephone services in Eskdalemuir for some 10 days. Indeed, we had no power either. The Government should ensure that adequate back-up is put in place so that proper services are provided in areas with low populations. If everyone is to use the BT system, everyone must be assured that an efficient service with appropriate back-up is provided. The telephones must work. However, I appreciate that this is a difficult problem in hill and upland areas which can experience excessively bad weather for most of the year.

3 May 2000 : Column 1073

Local universities are springing up everywhere--one is being set up in Dumfries--and I envisage another role for them. Students could develop a role within the communities in their regions whereby they help to educate local people to understand information technology and become computer literate. That is because without computer literacy both the individual and the community will not have a future. For that reason, it is no good whinging about the lack of services; people themselves must get up to date.

Perhaps I may finish by saying that I had thought that several noble Lords would have mentioned such services in their contributions and that they would appreciate how exciting the future will be. As far as I can see, the future does not lie in many of the subjects that have been raised in the debate today.

Finally, some noble Lords, like myself, have the luxury of owning two homes. We will no longer suffer from the age-old dilemma expressed by the poet Horace, whom noble Lords will recall from their schooldays. Two millennia ago Horace made the following cry from the heart in his Satires:

    "Romae rus optas absentem rusticus

urbem tollis ad astra levis".

    "When in Rome, give me the countryside you cry

but when there, you praise the distant city to the sky". From now on, with ADSL or a similar system, it will be possible to enjoy the benefits of the distant city while still enjoying the comforts of one's home in the countryside.

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may correct a point he made. I did not wish to create the impression that I was against electronic communications. However, I am in favour of personal communication--person to person rather than down a line.

Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, but I preferred it when I lived in Newbury at the time when the telephone operator was not "electronified". The operator knew where everyone was and knew who was talking to whom. If one called the doctor, she would intervene to say that he was, "With Miss So-and-so". I do not believe that electronic communication can replace personal relationships.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, perhaps I may say in response that I, too, liked the personal touch of the local operator. However, at the same time I did not enjoy having no privacy at all. There were occasions when I should have liked to be able to make a private telephone call. Telecommunications are the face of the future--and without the operators.

6.48 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, this debate which I am privileged to wind up from these Benches has given the House a clear picture of the year-on-year substantial loss of essential services to communities, both rural communities and urban

3 May 2000 : Column 1074

neighbourhoods. It is a continuing loss, not a loss that has taken place only through time. I believe that it has happened because of the neglect and unwillingness of governments to invest in essential services. This began in the Conservative years when we lost cottage hospitals, small schools and public transport of all kinds. That took place when the Conservatives were pushing their philosophy of, "Every person for himself".

In his excellent introduction, my noble friend Lord Rodgers made the point about our two nations: the haves and the have-nots. Through the 1980s, a feeling was strongly engendered that if one wanted to go somewhere, one should buy a car and if one wanted one's child to play, one should buy a swing. It was not a time that looked kindly on investing in public services of any kind. Not only did it leave the people who could not afford the "buy it" solution without the services that they desperately needed, it also left communities where little value was placed on community resources. We now have to climb back from that base.

In terms of housing, that philosophy left vast under-investment in housing to rent and in affordable housing. Sadly, this Government have not committed new money to investment in social housing; they have only released the councils' own accumulated capital receipts. Nor have they defined what "affordable" means. I am beginning to wonder when, in a village where I live which is neither particularly special nor desirable, small and not especially remarkable houses are selling for between £80,000 and £90,000 yet salaries are frequently between £15,000 and £20,000.

Services too are lost by the private sector's obsession with "big", so well typified by the current Barclays Bank advertisement. It is incredible that it has the gall to continue to run such a campaign in the face of the fact that thousands of customers and small businesses face a future with no bank in their communities.

A number of noble Lords made the point about personal banking services being important. My noble friend Lord Newby made several important points in that regard and painted a clear picture of the FSA's duty to people in poorer communities and the role it could choose to undertake. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth mentioned credit unions and their importance to communities. An interesting article in the Guardian last week pointed out that the FSA could choose to push credit unions, which may choose to be a community-based facility, down the road of imitating the larger financial institutions. I hope that that is something the Government will guard against. The small credit unions were set up to provide the very services that the banks fail to provide.

Economies of scale too have hit food purchasing. There may be more choice at a huge supermarket, but it is no choice at all if one cannot get there. The planning system has desperately let communities down as it allows inspectors to come in from outside and overturn decisions of local councils not to allow out-of-town shopping in favour of huge supermarkets

3 May 2000 : Column 1075

being developed on the outskirts. The Government have changed that system through planning guidance. They produced a sequential test which should maintain the health of town centres. But it does not guard against inspectors not understanding local issues--a point highlighted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth--such as, for example, keeping the last shop in a community. Permission may be refused for that shop to change its use. But a planning inspector can come in and overturn that decision.

The loss of services continues. Even through the honeymoon period of this Labour Government the emphasis on "Education, education, education", did not translate far enough to stop public libraries, particularly in Labour authorities and inner cities, being run down or closed. It is surprising that the tie-up between education and libraries was not made more strongly by the Government. My noble friend Lord Falkland, in his excellent speech, emphasised the role that libraries have to play.

The Treasury decision to pay benefits through an automated credit transfer system was made before considering the effect that that might have on post offices. The panic measures introduced at Third Reading in the other place for an undefined subsidy with no date of introduction, no clear source of funds, unless it is more clearly defined as my noble friend Lord Newby said, is unlikely to be seen as much more than an election sop.

Why does the Post Office strike such a chord nationally? Partly because its services are essential, but partly because it is the last focus for many communities. When a post office closes, the village or neighbourhood information point and sometimes the food shop close with it. Again, close to home to me, the post office was sold. The new owners could not manage to maintain the food shop part and the business is being sold for the second time in six months with no buyers in view. An informal help centre for the village will close at the same time.

If to save government money the ACT system drives thousands of sub-post offices out of business, how much money will then be spent by the DETR on regeneration of those communities? The voluntary sector and local authorities spend large amounts of time, energy and resources putting together bids to central government for regeneration. That system suits central government because it means that they can decide what the focus of a regeneration agenda will be and award bids on that basis--a basis to match their political agenda rather than local needs.

Local people have far less say as to how they want their services to work. Is it surprising then that they take less interest? The Government are currently trying to find measures that will make people turn out and vote more in local elections and give time to the voluntary sector. But if they want that to succeed, they must establish a clearer link between local government finance and local service provision and what local people want. Perhaps they will bear that in mind in

3 May 2000 : Column 1076

their forthcoming review of local government finance and focus not on an increasingly specific national target, but on meeting local needs.

I should like to turn to some of the specific services mentioned by noble Lords and, in particular, transport. My noble friend Lord Bradshaw described the virtuous circle of when more bus use equals better bus services. That applies in fact to many of the services that we have been discussing. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, highlighted the deficiencies of the rural bus scheme. Of course, it has had problems. But the problems arose because a large amount of grant was awarded that had to be used up in an extremely short time. The idea behind the scheme was correct, but there should have been more thought to giving local authorities time to reflect local consultation in their applications. Now, some years into its establishment, the scheme is beginning to have a better effect. But I hope that the next time the Government award grants on that basis they will take account of the time, a point raised again by my noble friend Lord Bradshaw, that it takes effectively to implement a scheme, particularly in a dispersed geographical area.

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones painted a grim picture of access to health services and highlighted in particular the importance of community pharmacies. Although the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, spoke interestingly about new technologies, health is certainly one area where personal access and person-to-person contact is very important, not only because of the physical symptoms that may be present, but also because issues of loneliness and depression are involved. Talking to a computer terminal will never solve those problems.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page