HL Deb 10 February 2000 vol 609 cc773-5

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What importance they place on access to services when measuring the quality of life in rural areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, we realise that access to services is an important component of quality of life in rural areas. The Government featured that both in the sustainable development strategy published in May 1999 and as one of the core set of sustainable development indicators in Quality of life counts published in December. The rural White Paper, which will be published later this year, will set out the Government's approach to ensuring reasonable access to services in rural areas.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that there is some confusion on the part of the Government between quality of life indicators and minimum standards of access for service delivery? Perhaps it was that confusion which led the Prime Minister last week to say that the quality of life of elderly people in rural areas was quite rosy because they lived longer, ignoring the fact that in rural areas 92 per cent of parishes have no daycare facilities and many have no GP or daily bus service. That confusion means that rural communities do not know what standard of access to expect. Does the Minister feel that developing a minimum standard of access would be helpful so that we have factual rather than emotive replies to questions concerning rural areas?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the balance of the quality of life in rural areas is a complex matter, as it is in urban areas. There are minimum standards in relation to some social services and it is quite clear that there are real problems of access for elderly people and others in rural areas. The remarks of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister related to the general standard of living and well-being comparing rural with urban areas, but recognised at the same time that there are huge disparities in both. Many people in rural areas experience real problems with access, low incomes and a poor quality of life. Any rural policy White Paper will heed to address those complexities.

Baroness Hogg

My Lords, will the Minister explain why in distributing local government grant the Government do not pay due attention to population sparcity, despite the explicit recommendation of their expert advisers that they should do so?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, geographical disparity is one of a number of criteria. Local indicators of deprivation and other factors are being developed which include that criterion. That will feed forward in relation to local government finance. Of course, there are a huge number of other criteria. One may particularly favour rural areas, but others will favour urban areas. Again, there is no simple answer to the balance of distribution of services.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that one of the measures of quality of life in rural areas is the provision of police services? Having been a village bobby many years ago, I fully appreciate that resources do not permit the level of coverage that we used to have in villages, but will my noble friend encourage chief constables to provide police surgeries in villages from time to time, perhaps with mobile police stations? Not only will that provide reassurance to the community, but it will also be an invaluable source of intelligence about rural crime.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, without wishing to interfere in the operational decisions of chief constables in my noble friend's area or anywhere else, we need to look at innovative ways to ensure greater access in rural areas to advice and support from the public services, including policing, which have been cut in recent years. I welcome the police force, and other public services, looking at those aspects.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that out-of-hours medical services will not be cut in rural areas? Does he agree that if that happened, it would put elderly and disabled people in a dangerous position?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health indicated that we want not only to maintain services, but also to improve access to services. Again, however, it may be that in certain respects more innovative access to health services may be particularly appropriate in rural areas; for example, NHS Direct may play a major role in that respect.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, what importance do the Government attach to the retention of post offices, usually associated with a village shop, in terms of the quality of life in rural areas?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the presence of, and the distance the average citizen has to travel to, a post office are part of the criteria forming our general indicators. The Government are committed to maintaining a network of rural post offices.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that "services", within the meaning of the Question, include benefit offices? Is he aware that there is a case in Somerset, not one of the most remote areas in the land, of a single parent having to pay £6 in bus fares every time she visits the benefit office? Does he agree that more cases like that may make pressure for an increase in benefit levels irresistible and teach the Treasury—not for the first time—that economy is a very expensive habit?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I recognise that there will be difficulties of access to benefit offices but in a sense there always were, and rationalisation of the provision of benefit is bound to create a few problems. Again, the question of access to benefits and to the services of the Department of Social Security could be addressed more effectively in rural areas by more innovative approaches. Of course, in many of the areas of delivery of social security benefits, the Post Office plays an important part.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister referred in passing to the index of local deprivation, which I understand is being reviewed at present by a bunch of assorted academics from Oxford University. I understand that one of the reasons why there has been a remarkable reduction in the number of London districts which are contained within the top 65 deprived areas is this issue of access to local services. Does my noble friend acknowledge not only that the data backing up those changes should be published, but also that it does not make a great deal of sense to compare very different areas in the country and then try to produce one composite index of deprivation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, these issues are complex. Nevertheless, it is important to be able to measure one form of deprivation against another, as long as one understands the context of the components of that index. My noble friend is right. However, the people to whom he refers as a "bunch of academics from Oxford", I refer to as "eminent independent advisers". The basis of that index is out for consultation. I have no doubt that my noble friend's colleagues in London will have comments on it, as will those from rural areas.