HL Deb 03 May 2000 vol 612 cc1041-91

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 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 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 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 whore 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 Mille at the 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 reelection, 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 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 backup 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 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, 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, 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

Noble Lords


Lord Selsdon

My Lords, it is like a little operetta, with cast and orchestra singing off the same hymn sheet, but with different hymns orchestrated like some form of conference. However, I have great appreciation for their objectives and the points raised. It is probably the only time during my attendance in your Lordships' House that I have felt that we have been outnumbered by the Liberals but never outgunned.

It may be strange but people have political motives for speaking. I have a hereditary motive. My grandfather was postmaster general—a very great and important title, and an important job in those days. He sought desperately to extend the postal services and the sub-post offices into rural England. While others have sought to encourage decline, it is on his behalf that I speak.

For many years I was with the Midland Bank. It had 3,000 branches. One could always find a Midland Bank branch because it was always near a pub. There was no point in giving the address; the branch was always in the middle of the city and the community. Every day each branch received one application for charitable funds, with a further 10 per cent at head office. The bank manager was part of the community. Many managers would resist promotion in order to retain their position in the branch. I have often thought that I would like to have retired to a rural Midland Bank branch (if one exists any more) and be a lay preacher.

I have three reasons for speaking today. One relates to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. When I was at school—I see one of my school colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, in his place—we had always to support a charity—I think that it was the church of St John in Portsmouth. When I joined the Navy I became a Portsmouth rating. I still remember my number: PJ963040. When I sailed in the Solent and around the Isle of Wight my lifeline in storm and calm—I was not the most brilliant of navigators—was Niton radio. Therefore I have a great affection for Niton.

I am not sure what the term "essential services" means. Services usually have to support something that is desirable or viable. As recent debates on agriculture have demonstrated, in rural England grade three land is no longer viable. Therefore the decline of rural England as an economic entity today is inevitable; perhaps it has already taken place. I would hate to say that the failure of any noble Lord from the Back Benches opposite to speak in the debate is indicative that the Labour Party has no interest in the rural community or people. We have, to an extent, become a country of corporate communists. Everything is corporate; everything is controlled. The community and the individual have been destroyed to some extent by circumstances and by events that we have failed to foresee.

When the Prime Minister recently visited the west country—he would have been more openly attacked had he not fled from one destination to another—it was strange to hear him say, "We must modernise. That is the solution". As the right reverend Prelate pointed out, one cannot modernise in one go. There has to be a period of gestation and change.

I was brought up to believe that the pillar of the community was, first, the Church. One had to go to church. But I find now that the first to close the church buildings is the Church itself because its flock has diminished. As do others in rural communities, the churches have to lock their doors because they may be robbed. It is an amazing change. Because I sometimes had to read lessons in church, I used to panic—as I may do when having to make a speech in your Lordships' House—but the Bible was always there to read in churches. I was brought up on the old edition of the Bible; I do not like the new edition. The role of looking after one's neighbour within the community is good; the Church always undertook that. We were grateful for the vicar. (I have always referred to everyone, including important people like bishops, as the vicar.)

The role of the policeman has been mentioned today. When a youth—a term no longer used—had committed a misdemeanour the policeman might put into the bottom of his glove a few coins and give the youth a clip round the ear. That was a known discipline. Within the community people knew "whodunit".

Then we come to the landowner. My grandfather on my mother's side taught me that one had to look after anyone sick or ill who had worked on the farm. I remember, with an old nanny who stayed with my family for 90 years, being made to walk on my own, sometimes returning at dusk, with a basket containing a bottle of port, a chicken and some eggs, for those on the farm or within the community, perhaps in tied cottages—which others tried to get rid of later.

Then there was school, and the school teacher, respected by society, who often received recognition for work outside the school in the community. That was another part of the community.

However, it was the banks and post offices which became an essential part of life. One needed communication and money. Money oiled the wheels and made the world go round. The closure of banks destroys many historic ingredients which cannot be replaced within a community. The presence of building societies in town centres to replace shops is another matter. And we add to that the closure of the post office, seeking to replace the service through bank accounts. I had the privilege of being involved with the launch of the original Giro system, introduced many years ago. In those days, only 30 per cent of people had bank accounts. Some said that no more than 30 per cent should have bank accounts. Bank accounts cause anxiety today; and the banks have forgotten the one basic principle of a bank manager: "Know thy customer". It is almost a legal requirement within banking that one should not do business with people one does not know. Nowadays it is impossible for a manager (if such he is called) to know anyone. He is protected by systems which take the relationship back to a branch or centre miles from the community.

We have found that economic circumstances have destroyed the community environment. How can that be corrected? Let us take the Church. It is part of the community whatever one's religious beliefs. It is a meeting ground. More people now go to church at Christmas than at Easter. On the continent of Europe the attendance at many churches, Catholic or non-Catholic, is relatively high.

The post offices should not be closed unless there is a suitable alternative. People with pensions do not want to have money transmitted electronically to bank accounts. There are many fears. Recent reports have indicated that the security services will examine the Internet. We know that electronic transfer systems are not perfect. We know that anything electronic is not perfect. There is no human element; and some people believe that nothing exists unless one can touch and see it. Payments to people through post offices have been invaluable throughout history. To remove those is a major mistake.

We have to consider why these things have occurred. Let us take transport, an issue which noble Lords beside me support strongly. I wonder why, when we have North Sea oil, we have the highest transport costs in the whole of the European Union. We have the highest prices for petrol, the highest prices for cars, the highest bus fares, the highest train fares and, until recently, the highest fares for internal air transport. That may be accidental or the political demands of government to tax the motorists and receive as much revenue as possible from the transport sector. That does not make sense.

Why do we penalise the old who have less money? A transaction within the Post Office costs about 70p. If it is for only £2 or £3, 70p is a large proportion of it. For breadwinners and earners, the costs of banking and making financial transfers are not as proportionally high. When we are over 60, we receive various kinds of support; for instance, from British Midland Airways when we fly abroad. Why should we not consider providing support for the old and retired people in urban areas, as we do in inner cities and other areas?

I do not want to criticise noble Lords opposite or their Government, but I believe that the Government have forgotten how to care for people. The Ministers care for people, but their hands are tied. The debate has raised issues which, as regards services, may not be financially essential or desirable, but the removal or destruction of such services destroys a large part of our country. That is something that we cannot afford.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I do not know how to respond to the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, about these Benches. Perhaps it is best to pass over them and treat the matter with good will.

I want to remark briefly on topics that have been raised. First, I refer to the suggestion made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that village shops should attract charitable status. I have been pursuing that rather hopeless task for a long time and I know that the problem is that village shops are not exclusively charitable because they serve the needs of all the inhabitants of their catchment area, not merely the poor and needy. That is the stumbling block.

I turn briefly to the predicament of village shops. First, I must declare an interest as a patron of a charity called VERSA, the Village Retail Services Association. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who is also a patron, will speak about the charity, too. Village shops and institutions are making a vigorous attempt to preserve and better themselves. One such attempt is SAVE, Sainsbury's Assisting Village Enterprises. It is an imaginative partnership in which Sainsbury allows village stores to stock its standard products at standard prices. Thus, it does good to both the local inhabitants and the stores. It is an imaginative effort and is to be commended. About 200 stores are utilising it and I suspect that many more will do so.

As regards rural police, we have heard a great deal of informed comment not least from my noble friend Lady Harris. My home town of Sudbury in Suffolk is a thriving market town—it no longer has a live market—of 20,000 people and serves at least 30,000 more. Its local police force has been so reduced in numbers and competence that last week, at an incident in one of the town's off-licences in which a gang of rowdy and, I am happy to say, not-too-brutal youths was causing trouble for the manager, it took an hour for the police to arrive. They came from Bury St Edmunds. Indeed, it took them one and a half hours to arrive at the site of an accident in a village just outside the town. They came from Felixstowe, which is 40 miles away.

I want to raise briefly the issue of rating relief. It is utter nonsense to allow second home owners rating relief. Where that derived from and the justification for it is, I suspect, beyond modern understanding, but surely we can abolish it.

I now turn to the main purport of my comments tonight: law and justice locally. I do not confine myself to villages or market towns because the subject of the debate is communities, which exist also in the larger cities. Where they do not, it is vital that we encourage them to coalesce and to revive. I am sad to say that legal aid, which I am sure noble Lords will agree is a crucial pillar for the poorer sections of our communities, particularly where they are not thriving, is not in good fettle. We had long and anguished debates on the Access to Justice Bill and I have to tell the House that the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, which is the front line of legal aid service providers, is in a state of alarm at the degree to which the new regime discourages solicitors from making their services available to legal aid clientele. Only this morning, an inner London solicitor told me that each day he is turning away between 30 and 50 individuals seeking legal aid. That is not even being done on a carefully considered individual basis; people are simply being turned away in shoals. That is the story across the country.

The simple reason is that this year legal aid rates of remuneration have been frozen for the eighth year running. I am not talking about real remuneration rates; I am talking about absolute remuneration rates. The level of remuneration for legal aid has fallen eight years in a row and it is now a serious issue in terms of maintaining communities of all kinds at a point of the greatest pressure.

I should like to spend five minutes talking about the position of local courts with regard to the strength and health of local communities. Perhaps I may again refer to my home town of Sudbury. Since the war it has lost its Quarter Sessions and county court, and its magistrates' court is now under threat. In 1998, Suffolk got rid of five magistrates' courts, leaving five in existence. We are already one of the most, if not the most, underserviced counties as regards magistrates' courts facilities in the country. The basis on which closures are undertaken is a matter which I am sure your Lordships will want to contemplate and which I hope that the Government will want to review. It is common ground that local justice is important in all manners, aspects and dimensions. One cannot have justice of the people, by the people and for the people if it becomes a distant enjoyment.

The main reason given for the closures, which are occurring in large numbers all over the country, is on grounds of efficiency, particularly on grounds of better facilities as regards premises. Perhaps I may refer to an Answer which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave to a Question that I asked on 7th February (col. 385 of Hansard) about court closures. I asked whether there would be taken into account the extra travel costs and time spent by users of courts when, after local court closures, they had to attend more distant, alternative premises. The noble and learned Lord answered that it was important that facilities were not substandard. He said that the use of, satellite courts, for example parts of local council chambers which lacked essential facilities"— although he did not say what "essential" might mean—should be terminated. He talked of "secure accommodation", although where a prosecution case involves someone in custody whom the police consider to be particularly dangerous there is no problem about having him transferred to a larger court complex. He also talked about, waiting areas for victims and witnesses away from defendants; consultation rooms; and access for the disabled". He referred also to the lack of "'reasonable staff accommodation" and to "unsound" courts in terms of structure. He went on to refer to a variety of other reasons for closure.

There is a heavy preoccupation, if I may express it in that way, with premises. I am bound to say t hat it is not a preoccupation which most users of the courts share and it can go far too far in the balance which must be struck between keeping open a rather old and old-fashioned court and closing it and moving to a shiny new complex 20 miles up the road.

Perhaps I may refer to the case of Haverhill, a town whose court was one of those closed in 1998. It has a population of 20,000 and is one of the fastest-growing towns in Britain. It has serious problems which are not typical of the county of Suffolk; for example, at the last council elections it had a turnout (I believe I am right in saying) of 7 per cent. It has a higher than average crime rate. The report which provided the basis for the recommendation by the Magistrates' Courts Committee for its closure referred to the court's premises in these terms: There are no roads signs to the court". It added that there was no private access to a telephone for solicitors. There are no refreshment facilities", it opined; and, There is no security guard at the court". Oh dear! Then, the crowning criticism: The women's toilet was observed to be in an untidy state with the paper towel dispenser being too small for the towels so that it could not be closed properly". My Lords, one cannot have courts where dispensers are too small for the paper towels which need to be dispensed from the same! The whole matter is lunatic and ludicrous.

The consultation which is carried out with regard to court closures is grotesquely inadequate. The solicitors who use the court were not asked what they felt about it; nor were the users. Above all, in coming to their finale as to the financial savings which would accrue (we are talking about employee, premises and facilities cost savings), the total saving for the Haverhill court would be—believe it or not!—the princely sum of £11,160 a year. The saving of that, dare I call it, "piddling" sum set against all the other non-financial aspects relevant to the closure of that court is beyond my understanding. In relation to the £11,000 saving, the report stated: It does not account for any additional expenditure that may be placed upon other organisations/individuals as a result of such [closure]". The expense to the public of Haverhill of now having to go to Bury St Edmunds, which I believe is 15 miles up the road, or Sudbury, 'which is further than that, is enormous. It involves delay, bus costs and frustration. One-fifth of households in that town and vicinity do not have a car, and the residents suffer from the paucity of travel services in the countryside. I do not need to go on; others have said it.

Finally, I urge the Government to practise what they preach in terms of joined-up government. Other parts of the governmental establishment are saying things that are not consonant with some of the things now taking place in the countryside. I refer in particular to court closures. Because I believe that it is so good, perhaps I may read quickly from this year's Report of the Policy Action Team on Community Self-Help: self-help is an end in itself, as well as a means to an end. It is at the core of the empowerment of communities … It is about involvement and consultation, but also about moving towards self-sufficiency. It is, in its purest form, about communities shaping their own destiny—doing, not being done to". How absolutely true that is.

I know that other noble Lords have referred to the matter, but it cannot be too strongly said that one cannot continue to salami-slice from outer communities the services that they are able to provide for themselves without having a catastrophic impact on those communities. That is particularly the case in terms of the leadership of the communities. I give as an example the courts. If one takes away from a town the solicitors, police, social workers and others who service the courts, those people will go to the nearest large or larger town. One is therefore inflicting body damage on the ability of that community to help itself out of its particular problems.

Leadership is all; self-sufficiency is all. As do many other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, for which we are so grateful to my noble friend Lord Rodgers, I hope that the Government will take back that message and relay it across the departments so that it has real impact in other areas of government.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, in responding directly to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, the part of the hymn sheet from which I intend to speak today is that which deals with the question of access by the public to primary healthcare services; that is, those which are essentially the first port of call, such as GP surgeries and accident and emergency services. Therefore, I hope that the Minister is relieved to hear that I shall not go on at length about the Government's record on waiting lists and waiting times, as those relate effectively to secondary care.

To date, access to and quality of health services have formed an important part of the campaign for the London mayor. It is rather ironic that in the Bill there is so little formal power for the mayor over health matters, despite considerable pressure on the Government during the passage of the Bill. However, I have great confidence, particularly as a result of the London mayor campaign, that in practice the mayor and assembly will have a major influence on health policy.

London has a disproportionate number of people who can be considered to be in particular need of primary healthcare services. We have some of the worst areas of deprivation in this country. A recent survey carried out by the NHS last October showed that the universal complaint by those surveyed in central London was that they had too little time with their GP, it took too long to obtain an appointment and there were major difficulties in arranging home visits. London certainly has particular groups with whom we should be concerned, particularly in the inner city.

There are old people. There is growing evidence that the elderly are being discriminated against and are now the victims of a concerted rationing of treatments by the NHS. There are the poor. There is now evidence that the poor are being penalised unfairly by the health service. Noble Lords may have seen reference to a survey of 26,000 Scottish heart patients conducted between 1986 and 1997 and published recently in the BMJ. It showed that poorer patients and younger female patients in particular were less likely to be classified as urgent and, as a result, had to wait an average of 24 days longer for surgery—24 days longer!

Then there are ethnic minority groups, particularly in the inner city, and also those who suffer from mental health problems. Again, the number is disproportionately high in the inner city. However, as noble Lords have spoken so eloquently today about the problems of isolated rural communities, we must not underestimate the problems in those communities. Recent figures from the Royal College of Nursing indicate that over 80 per cent of rural parishes do not have their own GP. Also, we must not forget that on average there is a greater proportion of older people in rural areas rather than in urban areas.

In the name of modernisation, the Government are implementing sweeping changes across the NHS, from the patient-practitioner interface to the authorities responsible for providing primary care. Those changes are having, and will continue to have, a profound effect on the structure and delivery methods of the health service in this country. It is vitally important that those most in need of the support services are catered for by these changes and are not left trailing in their wake.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of the health service front line is accident and emergency departments. Recently, the Government announced a £115 million capital investment in accident and emergency, designed to enable improvement schemes to be carried out in 182 hospital trusts in England. Yet, although we welcome that level of capital investment, there must be doubts as to whether the investment will solve current problems. The recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing and the Association of Community Health Councils highlighted a number of horrendous situations: an elderly woman with a broken pelvic bone left on a trolley for 40 hours in the accident and emergency department of Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow; an elderly man left to wait on a trolley for over 30 hours at the same hospital; an 83 year-old woman who died of burns after being left to lie by a boiling radiator at the Royal Surrey County Hospital. Those are just a few of the horror stories revealed by that survey.

The announced investment in the infrastructure is therefore welcomed, but surely a large part of the battle concerns investment in staff and their recruitment, as that survey made absolutely clear. The survey clearly demonstrated that the lack of staff beds elsewhere in the hospital is the major cause of bed blockages and delays in accident and emergency departments. What workforce planning assumptions are the Government making to go alongside the bricks and mortar improvements? Will the Government's new proposals for local workforce planning achieve what is necessary to increase the number of doctors in accidents and emergency departments?

There is also a very worrying tendency for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing in NHS planning. The NHS is in the process of closing 80 accident and emergency departments nation-wide, while figures for emergency cases have steadily increased from 3,700,000 in 1997–98 to 3,900,000 in 1998–99. These closures are already creating major problems of access for the public in both rural and urban areas. This, added to the widespread closure of community and cottage hospitals, represents a massive loss of amenity and access to the Health Service. How do all these closures square with the Government's commitment to improving health and tackling health inequalities, which was one of its key health objectives in the public health White Paper, Saving Lives: Our Healthier Nation.

One of the key issues before us all, recently highlighted by the BMA in their publication Shaping Tomorrow: issues facing general practice in the new millennium, is the future of GP practice. Demand for primary care in the future will need to be met in a variety of ways. I welcome many of the innovations that are taking place, such as NHS Direct. According to the consumer surveys, NHS Direct is garnering high praise among its users—in some cases as much as 97 per cent. But there are issues surrounding NHS Direct, especially in its relationship with the voluntary sector specialist helplines for the mentally ill who need access to those specialist helplines, and that interface is not yet coherent.

It is also not clear whether adequate provision is being made for the needs of ethnic minorities, in particular with regard to the language barriers that they face. Neither is it clear what impact NHS Direct will have on GP workloads. There are some very divergent views, with statistics being quoted on all sides, as to exactly what the impact will be. Claims are made that it will reduce the workload of GPs. It is far from clear whether that is actually the case.

In principle, I also welcome the introduction of walk-in centres. They will certainly meet a need for much better access to primary care services. But the location of some of the existing and forthcoming walk-in centres, which will total 36 in the pilot schemes, casts some doubt on the Government's commitment to improve health in the most deprived areas. Part of the Government's argument for walk-in centres is that they will provide a filter for hard pressed GP practices in deprived areas. Yet newly-opened sites, such as Fulham, Soho, and forthcoming locations including Bath, Loughborough, Manchester Airport and the Wirral, are hardly in the most deprived areas. By what criteria are the Government deciding the location of these centres?

Whatever the innovations, I am convinced that the backbone of primary care will continue to be the GP practices. That is why I welcome the 300 or So personal medical services pilots which are now being developed throughout England. These, in some cases, involve developing existing practices and setting up new practices with salaried GPs who can concentrate solely on the provision of medical care without the need to concern themselves with running the infrastructure of a practice. A notable example of one of these PMS schemes is the Pennywell estate in Sunderland, where PMS has provided primary care when none previously existed. That particular practice now has 2,000 registered patients, and that is a testimony to what can be done if proper innovation is applied. There is now on site a team of doctors, nurses and other health workers, catering for some of the poorest and most socially disadvantaged estates in the country.

I also welcome some of the NHS beacon examples, such as the rural downlands practice in Berkshire, which covers 13 villages, with which I am familiar, where they are developing a model of patient partnership. Their response to the rural isolation of their patients is to run a mini-bus service in which they can bring their patients to surgeries and deliver medicines to their patients. There is little doubt, however, that these new initiatives are tolling the bell for the traditional single practitioner doctor. In the BMA publication, Shaping Tomorrow, there is a general consensus that the traditional family GP to whom one goes throughout the course of one's life is very likely to disappear. Calls for on-demand appointments, and particularly out-of-hours services, make this practically inevitable. Single GP practices simply cannot provide these services. There is a likelihood with a multi-partner practice of patients seeing many faces rather than one familiar face.

Some doctors are concerned that easy access to medical care may well result in a deterioration in the quality of care provided. I am not persuaded, however, that this will result in a deterioration. One of the problems that besets primary healthcare in London, particularly in east London, is the number of single practitioners who cannot provide the level and range of care provided by the larger practices to a clientele who desperately need better primary care.

I also welcome the fact that the recent development of the past few years may well mean that the front line for patients in the future will soon be a trained nurse potentially with the ability to prescribe and administer a wide range of medication, rather than the GP or accident and emergency doctor. I believe that this has the potential to provide much better access to healthcare and a better use of scarce medical skills for the benefit of patients. It will also help to ease the current intolerable workload on doctors. I noted that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth referred particularly to this point.

In this context, the removal of barriers to nurse prescription is of enormous importance. Perhaps I may ask, therefore, why the Government are not pushing further and faster ahead with this than they have to date. District nurses and health visitors, with appropriate training, now have limited rights to prescribe. Why are practice nurses in particular not being given prescribing rights? Surely they are in the front line. We should be ensuring that they do, with sufficient training, have the right to prescribe. The Government's intentions in this respect need urgent clarification.

Although many of the changes that I have mentioned are welcomed, there is an important issue surrounding the potential loss of continuity of care, particularly for the elderly, those with chronic complaints and the mentally ill, where multi-practices are involved. The management of these multi-practices and a very close relationship with patients will be absolutely crucial, and I very much hope that the PMS pilots and the NHS beacon schemes will provide some of the answers. However, I believe that one of the key areas in which we can find answers is the area of community pharmacies. I believe that part of their role should be to provide that level of continuity. They have a very important role in the community, but yet again we see no strategy on the part of this Government. The Government promised a community pharmacy strategy about two years ago and we are still waiting for that strategy. We need urgent clarification of the Government's proposals in relation to community pharmacies, not just in urban areas but also in terms of the pattern of community pharmacies in under-served, rural areas, where the current subsidy scheme is of great importance.

There is no doubt that the NHS needs to modernise and embrace change, and it is heartening to see that willingness not only in the NHS but also among other health professionals. It is heartening, too, to see that the resources are, after three years of this Government, finally beginning to make themselves evident. Above all, we need to ensure that those resources are used in the most effective way and directed towards those in need of support, so that they can be provided with the services that they need.

I believe that the Government have begun to recognise the needs of those deprived communities, both in rural and urban areas. But it is not yet clear that they have pulled that together in a coherent strategy. They need to share their strategy with us, perhaps through the six task forces that were recently set up by the Prime Minister. But at all events the Government need to assure us that there is an integrated strategy and that the necessary resources will be provided.

There are a number of great changes taking place with important implications in all those new initiatives. Professionals are worried about the level of resources. Indeed, there is competition for resources between rural and urban areas. All those matters need to be resolved. The Government must make their intentions much clearer than currently is the case.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I wish to concentrate on the provision of financial services to communities and individuals in particular need. In that regard, the emphasis is equally on urban communities and rural communities. Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that the very poorest communities in the UK are all in urban areas. There are very poor pockets of rural deprivation but the major concentration of poverty in this country is in the inner cities and urban areas.

Estimates of the number of adults in the UK without access to any form of bank account currently varies between 2½ million and 3½ million people. Most of those people are on very low incomes and their main source of income is likely to be state benefits. Without a bank account, people cannot receive or make electronic payments; they cannot deposit cash or cheques; they cannot obtain cash from cash machines or use retail cash-back facilities at the supermarket.

A lack of access to a bank account is not simply a problem in terms of not being able to plan your finances very well, to make savings or gain access to affordable credit. It is also extremely costly. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Don Cruickshank's report on the banking industry both demonstrate that, for example, paying energy bills by standing order or direct debit could, or indeed, would, save a low income household some £50 per year, a figure which rises to £75 per year if pre-payment methods are used.

Given that there are substantial financial benefits in having a bank account, why is it that so many people do not have one? First, many people are simply refused them because they are seen as bad credit risks. Research by the Office of Fair Trading in 1999 showed that up to one-quarter of all applicants for a current account were refused and the main reason was the fear by the bank that the account might become overdrawn, remain overdrawn and the bank literally would not get its money back.

Secondly, many poor communities simply do not have banks. Therefore, why would anybody go to great trouble to open an account when there is no easy access to it? As noble Lords have already said, that situation has become worse over recent years as over 25 per cent of retail bank branches have closed and branches are concentrated increasingly in more prosperous areas.

There was an extremely interesting article in the Sunday Times last week about the situation in Skelmersdale, which no longer has a single bank branch. It used to have two or three. Therefore, not surprisingly, it has become an entirely cash-based economy and increasingly a black economy. Therefore, the lack of banking brings with it social costs which go well beyond the immediate cost to individuals who do not have access to the bank.

In that regard, I welcome the commitment by Lloyds not to close any further branches which are the last branches in that community. I only wish that other banks would follow suit.

The third reason why people do not open bank accounts is that they often have little access to information about the type of banking products which may be available. No doubt many of your Lordships are bombarded, as I am, by mail shots inviting me to open yet another bank or credit card account, the last thing I need. The poor do not receive those mail shots. Nor are they regular subscribers to Which?, to Moneyfacts or to any of the magazines which give comparative information about financial services.

That high degree of non-banked adults can and must be addressed in a number of ways. The first and most important is the Government's plans, now well advanced, for basic bank accounts. Those accounts would not offer or allow overdrafts and that would overcome the poor creditworthiness problem which has excluded many poorer people in the past. The main banks are all committed to introducing those accounts by October. They are eagerly awaited and long overdue.

The Post Office is also looking at what it calls a universal bank, funded by the large commercial banks, which run in parallel with the basic accounts operated by the commercial banks. I am not quite sure whether that proposal is as welcomed by the commercial banks as it is by the Post Office but it too deserves serious consideration.

As regards lack of information among low income groups, the citizens advice centres have been grappling for years with inadequate resources in order to bring information on basic financial facts to those who seek it. Their resources are inadequate to the task. Yet when the Financial Services and Markets Bill is enacted, the FSA will have squarely in its remit a responsibility to promote awareness of financial products to consumers. It will need to do that vigorously and imaginatively among poorer communities. In my view, it should pay particular attention to educating teenagers, not only because they will then open bank accounts themselves but because they will also encourage their parents to do so.

All those positive steps will, however, be undermined if people do not have proximate physical access to banking facilities. That is where the Post Office comes in. Here, the Government's proposals on the automatic payment of benefits have threatened many post offices and cause many potential short-term problems.

But there are also major longer-term opportunities to use the Post Office network to deliver financial services to those without bank accounts. Of course, the short-term problem is that automated benefit payments threaten the livelihood of sub-post offices. In turn, that poses a threat to the viability of many communities, particularly rural ones, as many noble Lords have already described, in which post offices remain the focus of community life.

It poses a problem also for recipients of state benefits who not only do not have a bank account but who, for one reason or another, should not be forced to open one against their will.

There are two major roles which the Post. Office can play in dealing with those issues. The first is in providing financial services. Already, it is possible, if you are a Co-op bank account holder, to cash Co-op cheques at post offices. That facility should be extended to encompass more banks and building societies. The Post Office has already put out to tender to various banks a proposal to provide cash machines of the traditional kind in many of its branches. Again, that should be pursued vigorously.

Secondly, there remains the question of benefit payments. Here, an extremely sensible proposal for dealing with the problem has come from what at first sight is an unlikely source; namely, the Link network. As noble Lords will recall, Link sprung to notoriety a couple of months ago in connection with the row over banks charging for the use of cash machines. Link is the computer network which links all the cash machines owned by individual banks. The banks and building societies in turn, between them, own Link.

The Link proposal is that all those receiving benefits but without a bank account would receive a card, like a credit card, which could be used at any cash machine and would give the user access to, in effect, their own state benefits account. The account would receive all the benefits paid to an individual from whatever source; would be accessed like a bank account; and account holders could draw out money as and when they needed it. The scheme would be based, in large measure, on the existing cash machine infrastructure so there would be a low cost attached to introducing the system.

Such a scheme could also assist the Post Office. Link has been in discussion with the Post Office about introducing a simplified variant of the cash machine in which benefit claimants will be able to gain access to their accounts but instead of getting cash from the machine they would get a slip that they would take to the Post Office counter to cash as though it were a cheque. That would give post offices more business and would help to deal with the underlying problem of automatic benefit payments which could take away their business.

One desirable precondition for such a joint venture would be for Link to free itself from its current bank and building society owners. As the Cruickshank report has already proposed, Link should be restructured into a private sector company. That would enable it to raise the substantial funding needed if it is to engage in the new activities that I have described. It would also free it from any potential conflict of interest with the banks as owners and users of the network. In my view, at least the banks could facilitate such a restructuring of Link.

Enabling post offices to provide some degree of banking service along those lines is likely to be a key to their survival in many places, although in many cases that may not be enough. The Government have acknowledged in Clause 102 of the Postal Services Bill that subsidies may be needed. The question is when and under what circumstances such subsidies may be paid.

Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, said of that clause that, this is an enabling clause which will enable us, if necessary, at a suitable time in the future to produce a scheme to subsidise the post office network. It is not proposed to use it at present and we have not tried to put in place a system of subsidy which would not be appropriate at this stage".—[Official Report, 2/5/00; col. 982.] Why not? Post offices are closing every day. How many will have to close every day, every week, every month before the Government feel that it is appropriate to consider putting in place a scheme that will allow subsidy to be paid? Can the Minister explain to the House what cataclysmic event within the sub-post office network would be necessary before Clause 102 in the Postal Services Bill may be triggered?

To sum up, I have described four matters that will go a considerable way towards combating financial exclusion: basic bank accounts; a high intensity awareness campaign; a greater use of post offices for day-to-day banking services; and benefit payments by personalised accounts at existing cash machines and new terminals at post offices.

Indeed, there will be a role for credit unions, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth mentioned. There will also be a role for LETS (local exchange and trading schemes) but the main progress to be made in this area will involve the principal banks and the post offices.

Financial exclusion has not had as high a profile as other forms of exclusion have had in the past. However, sorting out the problem is vital to building thriving communities. I believe that much action is now under way, although the Government are overdue in regard to giving high priority to the issue of access to financial services for communities that are in particular need.

6.33 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, listening to the previous 11 speakers has been rather depressing. I feel that underlining each speech has been a yearning for the good old days of times past: the time when the vicar and the bobby did their rounds in the parish and the village, the squire was in his mansion and the workers were at the doors of their tied cottages waiting for largesse. In the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, one could almost hear the clang of the blacksmith's hammer on the anvil and of leather against willow at the village cricket match. Noble Lords have said that those were the good old days and they have asked what has happened. The House has heard nothing but a tremendously long whinge from one noble Lord after another about where this is leading us and that there seems to be no hope for the future.

In fact, that is quite right in some areas. It is debatable how much longer noble Lords like myself will be able to continue to declare their interest in hill farming. The future of hill and upland economies in the remoter parts of Britain must remain uncertain unless some new element is introduced which can retain the existing rural populations while creating fresh sources of income to subsidise farming and the other traditional businesses of the countryside.

My hill farm is situated in one of the remoter parts of Dumfriesshire. Getting a fresh loaf of bread or other essential requirements like banking, health and veterinary services involves a round trip of 30 miles. There are no signs of new industries, such as the forestry that there was in the 1960s, coming into the district to save the day. As has been said by a number of noble Lords, the lack of local services in the countryside, including education, shopping, banking and police, has accelerated a population drift to the towns and has discouraged an inflow of new residents or businesses.

However, I do not believe that noble Lords are aware that help may be at hand in the form of BT's new broadband telephone system, ADSL, or, to give it its full title, Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Loop. I believe that there is no need to whinge about the loss of the good old days. I wonder why no one, including the Prime Minister, whom I am informed apparently has listened closely to a briefing on the subject of ADSL, given by the chairman of BT, seems to have reacted to it.

Civil servants in the Cabinet Office have just compiled what, in my view, is an outdated and rather self-congratulatory document for the Prime Minister, and they too seem to have missed this latest development in information technology. The document in question is entitled Sharing the Nation's Prosperity, and is subtitled Economic, Social and Environmental Conditions of the Countryside. In spite of being 190 pages thick, with picturesque graphs and statistics, it makes no reference at all to the role of online services.

In fact, the statistics—the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, mentioned one of—them show that death rates are lower in the countryside than in towns, but that is highly suspect. Although I can still drive a car, many at retirement age cannot. Therefore, they end their days in the towns as they can no longer look after themselves in the countryside. Once people cannot reach the services that they need, they have to move to the towns.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, also avoided mentioning online services or information technology. That is sad. Yesterday the Minister for Science, in his introduction to the Postal Services Bill, at col. 936 of Hansard, gave the appearance of having no alternative but to press on with spending half a billion pounds on the ill-fated and outdated Horizon project to distribute social benefits. Why did he not make any reference to ADSL which I would have thought would be far safer and a more user-friendly medium to provide pensions and benefits to rural communities?

Incidentally, can the Minister explain to the House how Horizon, which I understand is based on a barcode system—itself outdated and which was never intended to be a security system—is the most up to date or the safest way to prevent the fraudulent receipt of benefits?

What is ADSL? Just in case some noble Lords do not know of it, I shall refer you to last weekend's Sunday Times which summarised ADSL as BT's broadband Net connection capable of delivering voice, data and television into the home via existing copper telephone lines. According to BT, by next month over 7 million households will receive those services either through a television set-top box connected to the telephone or by a conventional Net connection via a telephone and a PC.

As from July, BT, and later its competitors, will be able to deliver, along existing telephone wires to homes in urban or remote environments, a complete range of online services that will include banking, shopping, unlimited radio, broadcast quality television, video films and e-mail. What is more, all this can be achieved without digging up the roads. We have the ability and the services available to provide these benefits without taking that course.

Medical and veterinary services in the countryside could be transformed by this service. A householder or farmer will, through ADSL, be capable of face-to-face communication with either a doctor or a vet situated 30 or even 300 miles away. Would not the marketing of sheep and cattle via ADSL be greatly enhanced by potential purchasers seeing for themselves the animals on site and the conditions in which they had been reared? Scottish beef and lamb could then be seen to be the best in the world and perhaps at long last receive a price to reflect that.

Much has been said in the debate about the role of the police. The police have telephones and for most rural householders the telephone is their only link to the outside world. The police can communicate face to face with a householder through this system. Indeed, any individual in the community can communicate in this way; the doctor or the vicar can use it. Why has this system not been mentioned so far? Indeed, why am I the only noble Lord who seems to read the newspapers? What has happened to the 6 million households who already have access to the system? The Government are set on modernisation, but I wonder where they stand on ADSL?

Could not the village hall or the local post office become local cyber centres? They could play a pivotal role in entertainment, distance shopping and home delivery from the nearest town via postal delivery services. At the moment, village halls remain locked for most of the year and seem to open only for occasions such as the annual flower show or to give shelter to itinerant morris dancers when it rains. Why cannot such halls become teaching centres for the new technologies? Why cannot they become meeting places for the old, the retired and village people who do not understand computer technologies so that they can learn? As has already been mentioned by one noble Lord, this is where the community can help itself to understand information technology without which—I include the village postmaster or sub-postmaster in this—it will he finished.

I do not see why postmasters should continue to exist if they cannot be bothered to learn how to work a computer. This is what the future is about. If postmasters want to have a future in the countryside, they have jolly well got to learn. The entire community is perfectly capable of taking this on, given proper support from the Government. ADSL is a revolution that is capable of transforming rural life. Why does it not seem to fit in with the Government's concept of modernising Britain, which they are so keen to do? I wonder whether it is a question of cost, or is it simply ignorance of what is available?

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.

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 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 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 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.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I did not say that we should be talking to a computer service. Through the ADSL system, we will talk face-to-face with a doctor or, as in this case, with a vet. He will be able to see, to some degree, how serious a situation is or to offer immediate advice. But one will not be talking to a computer terminal or bits of writing on a screen.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Dourer

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for elucidating that point and I shall return to that issue later in my remarks.

I should like to touch again on the issue of crime. My noble friend Lady Harris gave a particularly good account of the difficulties faced in rural policing. She touched also on the imaginative one-stop shop approach to re-open a police presence in rural areas. Again, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, whose speeches I always enjoy on these issues and no less today, talked of the possibility of mobile services. He also described the complex integrated approach of getting capital together to provide a village shop and post office, and highlighted the need for a similar integrated approach to a revenue package.

My noble friend Lord Phillips illustrated the problems faced by village shops. The Government have yet to understand the difficulties faced by local communities when they put together complicated packages first, to save something, and then to enable it to continue to run. The example of a shop not being ab7le to be a charity, illustrated by my noble friend, was particularly salient. I believe that the Countryside Agency is doing some work on some of the barriers to village shops, but far more consideration needs to be given by the Government to removing all the obstacles facing communities wanting to create their own facilities.

So through these years of declining services every government have shirked the idea of laying down a set of standards for access to services. Do we know how far it is reasonable to expect people to travel to a hospital or a food shop? How long a journey should a parent have to make to take a baby to childcare or a child to school before getting to work? Of course there are targets for emergency services, but there is very little provision for day-to-day living. The fact that national government have been remarkably silent on the issue of laying down standards for access to essential services has, again, enabled them to shirk the issue of what to do as regards closing essential services. People have no basis upon which to judge whether or not they are getting a raw deal if they have to make an hour's journey to see a doctor or take a £1 bus ride to buy a packet of aspirin.

In answer to the concern of my noble friend Lord Phillips about court closures, I am sure that the Minister will say that it is a local matter; and so it should be. However, it needs to be judged against a national view of how hard it may be for users to access alternatives. There could then be a real assessment, both locally and nationally, of the real costs of closure.

As we approach the next spending round, I hope that some of the problems highlighted by the Index of Local Deprivation, which is an excellent and jargon-free report, will give some indication of the extraordinary lack of information about how people can access services physically. When focusing on measuring access to services, it concludes that it can only be measured "as the crow flies". But very few crows are trying to access services. The report says that unfortunately detailed information is not available for the whole of England as regards the routes that public transport or cars would need to take to access services and that it is, unlikely ever to be available". That will make life very difficult.

The Minister may choose to turn to new technology as the means that people will use more and more to access services which do not need an actual physical presence. Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, in that it is a very exciting area. I do not fully understand the technology to which he referred. However, I serve as chair of my local food-links (set up by Somerset County Council) in which I must declare an interest. We are creating a website so that farmers may sell their produce direct to local businesses and, indeed, to local people. New technology is playing a huge role in commercial transactions of that nature, and also in service provision.

But what kind of work are the Government doing to prepare for these changes? Computer ownership and access is threatening to create a new type of two-class system—similar to that created by car ownership in the past century. If you have a smart new model, you can have better and faster access than people with an old model or none at all. This is already becoming an issue in schools where children with access to a computer at home are doing better at their homework. Government service planning needs to consult on ITC use and on how it can best be used for accessing services, especially in needy communities.

Our debate today has been about investment in communities. Up until very recently, services have been seen as distinct from one another; and, indeed, are still seen as such by some government departments. I believe that people are increasingly beginning to understand that diminishing one essential service has a knock-on effect on the way that the rest of the services work, or do not work, in their community.

In its key publication last year, A Better Quality of Life, the Government—and especially the Prime Minister in his foreword—spoke of the importance of living in strong communities. The Government identified their three key indicators for sustainable communities: Number 1 indicator was the number of local authorities with LA21 plans, so that is defined; the second indicator was "community spirit", but the Government say that that is an indicator simply to be developed. The Number 3 indicator was "voluntary activity" but, again, that was an indicator simply to be developed. Can the Minister say whether the Government have carried out any work on developing the "community spirit" indicator? If they have, can be tell us how communities are faring?

Community spirit is certainly what Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat local authorities invest in: it fights for essential services and gets together to build new community facilities, to repair old ones, to bring a baby clinic to the village hall or to start a lunch club for the older generation. The Government must realise the importance of community spirit or "social capital". Social capital is how you get on with your neighbours and how you help each other. It affects people's health and how safe they feel in their homes. That brings to mind some of the issues raised by my noble friend Lady Harris regarding the fear of crime and its perception. We need mixed communities—mixed by age, by income, by working and by being retired. Communities that share problems and create with local and national partners are vibrant and decent places in which to live. That is what we should all be working towards and investing in.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, this is a most timely debate coming as it does in the midst of the furore about the bank closures in rural areas and the future of sub-post offices both in such areas and in the inner cities. I add my thanks to those already expressed by others to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for giving us the opportunity to discuss these pressing issues for those who live in isolated and/or deprived communities all over the country.

We have had a fascinating afternoon. Perhaps I may just mention a few points and then return to my brief. I was most interested by the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, because in a way what he said epitomised one of the problems facing us as a society. As we move forward, we need to be looking forward and using all the modern equipment that is available to us. At the same time, I very much support my noble friend Lord Selsdon in his desire, which I believe many in this Chamber would support, to keep the very things that we believe to be important in this life. I do not necessarily mean in the era upon which my noble friend reflected; namely, that of his youth. However, if we cannot have an interaction one to one, an understanding of one another's problems and a willingness to help one another, we shall in today's society, with all its modernism, be that much the poorer. I look to modernism because it has ways of helping us, but I very much hope that we preserve the things that most of us feel are of great value.

Perhaps I may also reflect on the very good contribution of my noble friend Lord Kimball. We share Leicestershire as home base; and, indeed, the noble Baroness opposite started her home life in the area. It was interesting to note that my noble friend recorded the "Country File" programme that focused on rural fears: 55 per cent burgled; 45 per cent have experienced vandalism; 20 per cent have experienced arson; and 10 per cent have suffered physical violence. As I listened to my noble friend giving us those statistics, I thought, "Yes, Hazel, you qualify on numbers one and two and your brother-in-law qualifies on number three". Fortunately, we do not qualify on number four—physical violence. But those of us who live in rural areas experience extreme difficulties from time to time.

It is very upsetting when one is burgled because someone actually enters your home. But as those of us involved in farming and in rural communities know very well, there is the deliberate—and I mean "deliberate"—vandalism to our property; for example, people coming along with wire cutters and opening gates. They then turn cattle out on to the roads, which could cause accidents. These are equally pressing problems for those who live in rural areas. I should like to express my thanks for the suggestions that came from the contributions to which I referred. Such matters are important in society today.

I am not against modernising. Last weekend, if I may go local again, the way in which we need to use modern techniques while having regard to our past experience was epitomised for me a t the Leicestershire County Show. I noticed the way in which one farmer promoted his product. He was using modern technology to do so, but he said that it was essential to have good husbandry in the first place. That is why he is producing good quality animals that people want to buy. That example fits in well with today's debate.

I, too, struggled a little over defining "essential services". Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, set us quite a task in that respect and many speakers produced their own themes. I should like to begin by concentrating on one or two of the obvious services.

First, I turn to banking. Banks are commercial institutions. They are in business to make profits. They make profits by offering financial services to individuals, to companies and to other bodies which either have enough money to need it serviced as opposed merely to held safely for a short time, or have enough money to be able to afford expenditure on a range of services, or have enough money to have acquired some of the more valuable items that money can buy such as property, foreign currency accounts or investments.

Even in these days of e-commerce banks prefer their customers to be situated in fairly large numbers close to each branch. By and large, banks do not find it profitable to site branches either in rural areas—only 9 per cent of English villages have one—or in deprived inner-city districts. People who live in such places have to travel, sometimes quite long distances, to visit their bank. They can switch from the bank of their choice to another which has a branch closer to their home if they are lucky enough to have that choice; they can switch to telephone banking, as many hundreds have; or they can make little or no use of banks and employ other methods of holding money, paying bills and gaining access to cash.

The latest regional development council survey of rural services found that only 57 per cent of villages still have post offices. Some 70 per cent of these have combined post offices and shops which are interdependent, as other noble Lords mentioned. I do not have figures for post offices in the inner cities—I do not know whether the Minister will be able to provide them—which are threatened with closure when the Government adopt automatic benefit payment. The new system will also pose great difficulties for those who live in heavily populated, deprived areas.

Government Minister Mr Rooker said on 24th January that the Government will pay benefits only into a bank account. Yesterday we discussed this at length. I should be happy for the Minister to respond to some of my points in writing. Will he compel one or more banks to open accounts for people whose sole income may be the benefit to which they are entitled and for people whose sum total of worldly goods may not even reach four figures? Will the Minister forbid those banks the right to charge account holders for converting computerised benefit transfers into hard cash? Will he assure us that he will institute a foolproof method to ensure that none of those accounts will be eligible for overdrafts, for personal loans or for security for credit cards at only 21.9 per cent APR. and an annual fee of a mere £10? The situation is frightening. It may cost the Government less in money terms to pay all benefits through ACT, but I remind the Minister that government are to a democratic people what oil is to the internal combustion engine—without it there is a horrible noise and nothing works for long.

I now turn to health. As recently as last night in "Case Notes" on Radio 4 we were assured of the proven links between health—or should I say ill health—and poverty, not even dire, old-fashioned Dickensian poverty but relative poverty. Mr Blair's study pronounced the quality of life in rural areas as being better in many respects than in conurbations. I have no doubt that those living in straitened circumstances in villages are likely to be healthier than their counterparts in the city. However, there are developments in health provision for both sets of people that cause me grave concern. Will the Minister confirm that the number of GPs applying for city vacancies is falling? Can he tell me how much of a work overload this is creating for existing city practitioners? Is the Minister also aware of persistent reports that practitioner committees are directing that one or two doctor practices, where an incumbent dies or retires, will be amalgamated with larger units? Can he say how many such moves have already been made and whether any of them has occurred in inner-city areas?

I have received a number of reports that primary care groups have instructed their members to stop writing repeat prescriptions to cover three or six-month periods, as has been past practice. If that is true, I am mainly concerned for those who have difficulty reaching a phone to ask for a prescription renewal or getting to the surgery to pick one up. However, this measure will also prove an added cost for those who are not exempt from prescription charges and I fear the resultant workload for doctors and their staff because of all those extra incoming calls, prescription forms and collection visits. Will the Minister explain what is going on and the reasons behind the measure and state whether it results from instructions issued by the Department of Health? For many years prescriptions have been left at some post offices for people to collect. That is an important role.

Several of the points that I have made under the health heading will have a considerable impact on transport requirements. Unfilled vacancies in GP practices, the closure of practices and increased frequency of prescriptions will all result in some patients having to travel further and more often to seek the help that they need. As has already been said, the problems of rural transport are well known. Therefore today I draw attention to a problem of inner-city transport.

It is possible for someone wishing to bring a child to London for the day from the Midlands to do so for as little as £1. However, someone who needs to take a child a mile and a half to a doctor or to a hospital appointment may be faced with a fare of at least that much. London Underground has a minimum fare of £2 for all children over five. Is the Minister aware of any moves to tackle this problem?

I return to the rural areas. The National Federation of Women's Institutes recently published its 1999 survey, The Changing Village, which considered the state of rural services. It contains many points of relevance to today's discussion. I hope that it will be widely read in the corridors of Whitehall. Among the most important demands for improvements is that for youth facilities in some remote rural areas where there are few such facilities. The survey listed four main concerns which have not all been mentioned today: housing, the closure of shops, the increase in traffic and the lack of public transport. I am sure that the Minister is aware of many of the good innovations in some rural areas. For example, youngsters in Warwickshire are loaned a bike for a year which enables them to travel to jobs that otherwise would be inaccessible. Other areas provide community bus services which are not included within the scope of rural buses. However, I understand that there is talk about the withdrawal of the VAT exemption from some of the charity/community bus services. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

Yesterday I spoke at great length about post offices and the ACT system for the payment of benefits. Like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I, too, am a patron of VERSA, which helps to encourage the preservation of rural villages and their shops, which often also comprise post offices. It is difficult to decide which are the priority issues in this area. I refer to transport, post offices, health and dental services. In some areas it is becoming extremely difficult to access dental provision. Community hospitals and the withdrawal of some of their services have not been mentioned directly today. I refer also to appropriate housing, particularly in rural areas, and affordable housing for first-time buyers and for retired people. I believe that small businesses have not been mentioned. Rural areas contain many small businesses which survive, grow and, I hope, become big businesses. The majority of such businesses in rural areas employ fewer than 10 people.

Another matter that I touch on is education and accessibility to jobs. Another speaker mentioned magistrates' courts, and not only in Suffolk, where I know there is a problem. Colleagues in Derbyshire have experienced exactly the same situation where many magistrates' courts have been closed. It may be easier for those who work within the service, but for those who want to go to court and have to appear it is an extra cost which sometimes involves three or four changes of transport.

Before I sit down perhaps I may put one more question to the Minister as regards magistrates' courts. There is increasing use of stipendiary magistrates. I believe that communities are immensely important to us all in the Chamber tonight. Many of us have slight concerns about having more stipendiary magistrates rather than people who live and work in the community and who know it.

I am sorry that my winding-up speech has been so wide-ranging. In particular I thank noble Lords on my Benches who have spoken in the debate. I do not particularly envy the noble Lord in making his response but I know that we look forward to hearing it.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Baroness's reply because, as a result of the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Quarry Bank, I have to act as a one-man joined-up government in a way which we do not have to do very often in this House. Therefore, I congratulate the noble Lord on laying the foundations for this debate, which is wide ranging, although it has some common themes. One of them, which he enunciated at the beginning of the debate, is that within our relatively prosperous economy there is a significant, and perhaps growing, proportion of people who are deprived in the traditional sense of the word, and who also lack access to services such as education, technology and jobs.

Much of the debate has focused on rural areas. In one sense one would expect that of this House. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for pointing out that many of the most inaccessible and isolated communities are in the centres of our cities. It is important that we treat both communities in that context.

The Government recognise that many of our communities are failing or going into retreat. Last month we published our consultation paper National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. As many noble Lords will know, that stems from the 1998 report of the Social Exclusion Unit Bringing Britain Together and the recommendations of the 18 policy action teams whose activities are designed to tackle the deep-seated problems, particularly those of the deprived communities.

One can argue about the level of deprivation between rural areas and the inner cities and between one area of the country and another. We know the symptoms. Social exclusion is a shorthand label for what happens when individuals and communities suffer from a combination of linked problems. They include unemployment, low incomes, poor housing, poor skills, high crime rates, bad health and family breakdown. Whatever their general ideology and approach over the years, governments have long had policies to try to address those problems and, by and large, they have been addressed singly and, sadly, with mixed results.

What we are trying to do that is new in this area is to tackle the interaction between these problems and to prevent them to some extent arising in the first place. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, that we have a big inheritance in terms of decay in the infrastructure and services which we have to reverse. Many noble Lords have identified these problems as being the failure of state provision, government intervention, local authorities or of the services themselves.

It is also a failure of the market and changing economic circumstances. People are left behind as a result of progress. The problems associated with inner-city areas, perimeter estates and rural areas are the same. They include disillusionment, demoralisation and the misery of people in such situations. The problems know no geographical bounds. It is therefore crucial that the strategy we adopt addresses these different areas. It is also crucial that we engage with the other players in the communities, including the voluntary and private sectors, the public agencies and, most importantly of all, with the communities themselves.

Sustainable regeneration is not primarily about what government do for people or what they and other outside agencies do to people; it is about helping people to create neighbourhoods in which they wish to continue to live, work, and play. To quote the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, again it involves the recreation of a community spirit in a new age with new kinds of jobs, communities and industries in both rural and urban areas.

The debate has revealed visions which are in part nostalgic in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and futuristic in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw. We need the merger of both. However, they both need people to identify with them and not to feel that those visions are being imposed on them.

The role of government in that respect is in part a question of the allocation of resources. The major reallocation of such resources in our system is, in a sense, through local government. The importance of such government in this area is vital. The balance of spending is determined by the priorities of national governments. In our review of local authority financing we are trying to devolve more decisions to the local authorities themselves.

One can always argue about the balance of spending and whether it totally reflects the real deprivation felt in rural and urban areas. One can argue that whatever index one uses, someone is going to feel that they have missed out.

Perhaps I may correct some of the impressions as regards recent allocations through the standard spending assessment; for example, the more sparsely inhabited areas have received average increases of 4.7 per cent and the shire counties 5.1 per cent, which are significantly above the 4.4 per cent average. Nevertheless, it is not just a question of the allocation of total resources, but of tackling the problems in relation to particular services identified in the course of this debate and beyond.

In view of the recent debates about crime and particularly rural crime, it is important not to get the recent hysteria out of proportion. It remains true that rural areas are relatively safe areas in which to live. I regret the degree of media and political opportunism which has arisen as regards particular cases in identifying the real problems of rural crime. It has grown, but it is still the case that it is less than one-third or one-half of the rate of crime in other areas of deprivation in our inner cities.

Police funding in that context was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and others. It already reflects a sparsity element in recognising the additional costs involved in policing rural areas. Decisions on future funding will be taken up in the spending review to be announced in the summer. Some of the points to which the noble Baroness referred as regards police allocation can be addressed there. The resources for rural police, and her suggestion about retained police officers on the fire service model, are currently being studied by Home Office Ministers, as are other innovations in rural policing and crime concerning mobile police stations, better communications and the possible use of ancillary facilities.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, himself raised the question of whether rural areas will be able to bid for the reducing burglary initiatives. The sum of £60 million spread over three years is available on application from any area where there is a burglary problem, including rural areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, referred to the examination of the police funding formula, including the sparsity element. As I said, the formula is currently under examination for the current spending review.

I was slightly surprised by the reference that the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, made to the chief constable—I think he said—who indicated that those believed by the police to be the perpetrators of crime could not expect the police to offer appropriate protection, either to themselves or to their property. I find that a surprising comment for a police officer to make. I should be grateful if he or other noble Lords could furnish me with particular details, which I undertake to pass on to the Home Office. I hope that it is not true—I believe it not to be true—that that is the attitude of the police.

In relation to the issue of magistrates' courts, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I take note of the noble Lord's concerns, which were reflected by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the closures of magistrates' courts and the way in which we conduct our justice system in rural areas. Formally speaking, of course, such decisions are matters for the Magistrates' Courts Committees. I shall ensure that those issues are raised with the Lord Chancellor's Department.

I move from the justice system to the slightly firmer ground—for myself—of rural and other transport. It is quite clear that good transport provision remains crucial to ensuring that people have the means to access all the other services we are concerned about, particularly in rural areas. Accessibility may simply be a function of remoteness and economic isolation.

I take many of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. We have to be realistic about transport in rural areas; for the foreseeable future a very large proportion of rural transport will continue to be conducted by private car. That does not mean that we can ignore those who are unable to drive, or cannot afford to drive, or do not want to. We need, therefore, to concentrate very much on the provision of bus and related services.

For some reason, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, referred to the White Paper before the one we published in 1998. Certainly in the intervening 20 years there was a serious decline in rural bus services and bus usage generally. Since then, this Government have gone into action and our initiatives to improve rural bus services are making a significant difference. There was another £50 million last year to provide additional services, and the first year of the rural bus subsidy grant generated 10 million extra passenger trips on more than 1,800 new or enhanced bus services. So I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that this money has not been well spent. The allocation of the money depends on the number of small locations in local authorities, and has therefore primarily been used for rural routes.

Often though, fixed bus routes are not the most appropriate solution. We need to be more imaginative than to think only of "conventional" services. Our rural bus challenge grant system aims to encourage innovative travel projects and more flexible, on-demand services—perhaps something between a bus and a taxi—and there is possibly a role for bicycles in certain circumstances. To date, we have announced more than £28 million for 104 successful innovative schemes in this programme, providing start-up money for projects such as demand-responsive and community-based services.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw is correct: it is no use relying on buses if the roads are congested and the buses cannot move, whether we are talking about inner cities or congested trunk roads. The Government are determined to give a greater priority to buses, both in the cities and in other areas where there is a problem with road space. That means a combined and integrated policy of reducing car usage, of prioritising bus lanes, of effective enforcement and of building on the experiments in which we are now engaged in relation to safety cameras for the enforcement of speed restrictions, bus lanes and detection of other traffic offences. It also means a better system of information to potential consumers, as the noble Lord rightly pointed out.

All of this will be taken up by some of the powers in the Transport Bill, which the House will shortly be debating, and in the announcement we hope to make in the summer about the 10-year transport strategy. The Bill will strengthen the powers of local authorities. We will provide another £780 million this year for local transport capital spending, which will include bus priority measures, joint ticketing arrangements and better passenger information.

So far as concerns ticketing information, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, raised the issue of competition laws and the apparent contradiction between that and an integrated transport approach. We understand that the Office of Fair Trading is proposing to bring forward a blocking exemption, as he hinted. This would exempt most joint ticketing schemes from the Competition Act. We expect the draft to be produced quite soon. The Government have also promised to bring forward amendments to the Transport Bill to deal with competitive issues as they affect the local authorities' new bus powers. Again, we shall shortly be debating that matter in this House. The noble Lord also referred to concessionary fares. Again, a number of adjustments are being made which move in his direction.

Therefore, there is a whole package of measures in relation to improving rural transport in particular and to providing a more flexible system of transport within our inner cities. Transport is often I he key to access to the other services that have been referred to in relation to health and education.

Of course, rural areas are still heavily dependent on agriculture—and agriculture is in a poor state in many parts of the country at the moment. The Prime Minister, who met farmers' leaders a few weeks ago, set out a new programme of initiatives for the support of agriculture and agricultural change. Beyond that, however, we need to look at diversification within rural areas—the small businesses, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred; and the information technology, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, referred. All of this is part of a transformation of the rural community into new services, new businesses and new technology, without abandoning the community spirit which often still exists within those areas.

Some of this requires government intervention and government help. The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, referred to the Countryside Agency and its loss of grant-making powers. That is not entirely true. Some of those powers have been transferred to the regional development agencies, but they will be for rural development purposes. Some of the grant-making facilities are still there within the Countryside Agency; for example, the scheme for the support of small shops.

I move as rapidly as I can to the issue of banking services and the post office network within rural areas in particular, which probably provoked this debate in the first place. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, referred to his ambition to be both a lay preacher and a local Midland Bank manager. It is quite clear that he would have made an excellent lay preacher; I reserve judgment as to whether he would have made a great hank manager.

Lord Selsdon

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I like to feel that the pressure that we, on all sides of the House, could put on the banks would be considerable if it came from Leicester. In order to be the chief general manager of the Midland Bank, it was always deemed that one had to be, first of all, the manager of the Leicester branch.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Farrington and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, are present, I am not going to disagree with that.

It is clear that in terms of both quality of life and economic viability, the financial sector is very important. We have made it clear to the banks that we expect them to play their part in eliminating financial exclusion, which is an important part of social exclusion. They need to develop appropriate products and delivery channels to ensure that they reach people in deprived communities. That does not necessarily mean that we can expect the reopening of all the banks that have closed over the past half-decade or so in both inner cities and rural areas. There is no single solution; diversity and choice are important.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that we are encouraging the main banks to develop accounts with no overdraft facilities and no frills—bank accounts which are appropriate for the kind of people who at present do not have bank accounts but whose failure to have access to financial facilities is not only an enormous financial loss to themselves but a social cost to the community as a whole. I am pleased to say that some of the banks are committed to this concept. We need to ensure that they all are. To respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, we are not going to compel the banks to issue bank accounts to people to whom they would not otherwise issue them, but we are encouraging them to have a broader view of their role, which eventually must be profitable and commercial to them as well.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Is he able to comment on the article in yesterday's Independent on the establishment of a social bank for the 2 million people who do not have a bank account if the banks are not to be forced to provide banking services? If he is not able to comment, I quite understand.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness ha .s the advantage of me in having read the Independent yesterday. I am aware of general provisions in relation to social banking, some of which relate to what I am about to mention in relation to the Post Office.

Before we leave banking as such, there is a problem if banks do not seize this opportunity to play a more social role in these communities. There is a problem for them, and their image has seriously suffered. The other week I was accused of calling for a boycott of the banks when in the very same breath I had denied that I was calling for a boycott of a major bank. But that is the way it goes. What I was concerned about is the banks' boycott of customers. Indirectly, they are effectively boycotting some of the rural area customers who have relatively simple banking requirements. We have to change.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to new financial arrangements for the Post Office being part of the Link arrangements and to the Post Office's role there. It would be disingenuous to pretend that the Post Office is not also under serious pressure. It has lost 10 per cent of its network over the past decade. But we are committed to the maintenance of a nation-wide network of post offices. The role the Post Office can play may well change as a result of arrangements it is making with the banks. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, was deeply sceptical about the Horizon project, but in the immediate period it is technologically quite important—the automation of all post offices by 2001. To date, a quarter of them have been converted. As the noble Lord said, a significant amount of money is going into the Horizon project. That will be an efficient delivery mechanism, but it needs to be sufficiently flexible to move into the next stage of modernisation, including taking advantage of the ADSL operations, which even in rural areas will probably be commercially viable for BT.

In immediate terms, customers of certain banks—the Alliance and Leicester, again, the Giro Bank, the Co-op Bank and Lloyds TSB—already have access to banking services at post offices. We now have an extension to Barclays customers and Co-op Bank customers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Once the Horizon programme is fully implemented, those agency agreements could enable the Post Office to play a major role effectively as a social bank but in co-operation with the banking community as a whole.

The right reverend Prelates, the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, and others criticised the decisions in relation to the payment of benefits. We are committed to the migration of all benefit payments to secure electronic means by 2005. That has been made clear by my colleagues. However, we have also given—my noble friend Lord Sainsbury mentioned this yesterday—an assurance that those claimants who wish to continue to collect their benefits in cash at post offices will continue to be able do so. We will therefore see a Post Office providing both traditional banking services and locking itself into Internet-based services. One can envisage a situation where post offices develop beyond that, much on the lines envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw—either for banks or village halls or village shops—and where they form the basis in this Internet society of other information services for rural communities, or act as bases for larger retail outlets—the relationship between village shops and Sainsbury was referred to—as a way of delivering services, both physical and electronic, to the inhabitants of our more remote communities. Post offices seem to be well placed to play a major role in those developments, as do village shops and other village-based outlets.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked whether we would trigger the clauses in the Postal Services Bill relating to subsidy. We are currently awaiting a report from the Performance and Innovation Unit on the future of post office networks. While we put the enabling power in the Bill, we will need to assess the situation in the future. The major revenue stream from the Benefits Agency will not cease to operate through post offices before 2003. In that sense we can take a reasonably medium-term approach to future potential subsidies.

Many other areas were referred to. The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, referred to libraries. I accept some of what he said, but I also recognise that library services, particularly in some of the smaller libraries, need to develop and modernise. There was a fair degree of concentration on the health service. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, was to the forefront in referring to the need to develop the health service. We have established primary care trusts and primary care groups. We have established health action zones, which now cover 50 per cent of the population of England—some 13 million people—who live in deprived areas. The noble Lord referred to NHS Direct. I appreciate that there are differing views on that. I nevertheless appreciated the noble Lord's comments. We are talking here about a 24 hours a day, seven days a week service which already covers 65 per cent of the population of England. It represents a major increase in accessibility to NHS services and one which should benefit many of the more deprived people who do not have a continuing relationship with their GP, particularly in inner-city areas but also in some rural areas where there is not a convenient GP surgery.

There are substantial problems of investment, staff planning and motivation, to which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred. Many of those can be dealt with within the substantially increased allocation to the health service which the Chancellor announced in the Budget Statement. That will include the development of walk-in centres located in areas of which, one hopes, the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, would approve, and well as some others. We will look at the way in which we use staff, including, for example, the prescribing powers of nurses and other paramedics. It will also involve mobile delivery services and the engagement of local pharmacies with GPs in order to provide a very direct and accessible service, particularly on estates and in rural areas.

I have rushed my speech and I have still managed to take up 26 minutes, which shows what a wide-ranging debate it has been. I hope that on other issues I may write to noble Lords, in some cases after consulting colleagues on their areas of responsibility. It has been a worthwhile and timely debate. I reject the deeply pessimistic note that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, struck at one point in his address. In order for us to address the problems of rural areas and rural poverty, and of inner-city areas and inner-city poverty and isolation, we need a combination of government action and of facilitating self-help in those areas. That involves both local and national leadership. It involves a degree of joined-up government. It involves co-operation between the private, voluntary and public sectors. It involves a serious degree of engagement of all public and private service providers in those areas. It involves reasonable access to essential community services.

How we define "reasonable" and how we define "essential" has probably not been completely addressed in the course of the debate. But we all know broadly what we are talking about and we all know that a significant percentage of our population currently suffers, and probably suffers more than it would have done in relative terms, and in some cases in absolute terms, from lack of access to those services, from isolation and from cumulative deprivation. Our neighbourhood renewal strategy must address those problems; and, together, we must address the prevalent trend in some of those areas; namely, of both public and private services in retreat—which means, in consequence, that those neighbourhoods are in retreat.

As I hope noble Lords will appreciate, the Government have made an energetic start. We do not believe that we have yet tackled all of the problems as effectively as we need to. We are building on that in terms of the allocation of resources and joining up activity, and in terms of the priorities of government. It is only a start. People in deprived communities striving to make a better life for themselves deserve more from us, and the Government are committed to ensuring that that happens.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has done as well as any Minister could have done in replying to so diverse a debate. I thank the Minister on behalf of the other 14 contributors for all that he has said, and for the fact that, in so far as he has failed to answer any specific questions, his Private Secretary will be busy making sure that there are letters for him to sign.

The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, who is no longer in his place, said that the debate had been one long whinge. That is precisely what it has not been. I have been restored by the extent to which local initiatives of one kind or another, referred to on all sides of the House, hold out more hope than otherwise might be the case for many of the deprived areas.

In his spirited comment, the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, suggested that there was a particular interest on these Benches in the issues raised. He is right. But I believe that it is shared by Members on all sides of the House who are deeply concerned with problems of deprivation, whether mainly in the countryside, which we have principally discussed today, or in towns, cities and urban areas in general.

We shall return to these matters in due course but, meanwhile, in thanking all those who have taken part in the debate, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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