Christmas Adjournment debate

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown looks back over the year and forward to the challenges ahead, especially with regard to the loss of services in rural areas.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am delighted to be able to catch your eye in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. Christmas and new year are a good time of year to reflect on what has happened in the last year and to make resolutions for the next year.

This year has been a very mixed year for my constituents and in the few minutes I have available, I want to concentrate on the loss of services in rural areas. Indeed, the Government’s own Commission for Rural Communities estimates that about one in five people live in rural areas, of whom half live in small rural towns. It also states that between 2004 and 2007, life in rural areas compared with that in urban areas has declined. Indeed, its director for analysis, Nicola Lloyd, said:

“A decline in rural services such as post offices and shops continues to concern rural communities and this makes life even more difficult for people who are deprived who are often unable to afford to travel to reach the services and support they need.”

As my speech will show, it is very difficult for those who are vulnerable and who lack basic services and public transport, particularly elderly people, to live in rural areas.

The demographics in my constituency have been particularly sharp in relation to recent Government policy. The number of young people in the Cotswolds is declining and in that respect the Government’s spending on education is particularly worrying. We have a lot of small rural schools and when the local education authority is at the bottom of the expenditure league per pupil, it makes those schools difficult to sustain. Indeed, I think it is very unfair that a child of equivalent family, degree of vulnerability and IQ is substantially disadvantaged in terms of funding from the Government simply because of their postcode. Let me cite the recent figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Spending per pupil for children aged between three and 19 in Hackney in 2005-06, the latest year for which figures are available, was £6,740. In the Cotswolds, the figure was only £3,980. That is almost half. For that to be the case for an equivalent child just because of their postcode is not fair.

That inequity was perpetuated over the past 10 years, because whereas Hackney received a 39.8 per cent. increase over that time, the Cotswolds received only a 36.8 per cent. increase. The inequality was therefore perpetuated and in the recent Telegraph league table, published in January, Gloucestershire was cited as 16th out of 149 LEAs. In other words, it was one of the nearest to the bottom. If Gloucestershire were even brought up to the average, that would mean another £200 per pupil. As many of my primary schools have pointed out to me, that £200 would make a huge difference to how they could spend.

In Gloucestershire we are finding—the figures from the Department of Children, Schools and Families prove this—that the number of statements issued in schools has declined over the past 10 years. The number of children with special needs has increased, but more worryingly the increase has come at secondary level. In other words, people who need special assistance and who need statementing are not being picked up at an early enough stage. I have seen several cases recently where parents have tried to get their children special needs help or statementing and have had a huge difficulty in doing so. Even parents with very poor levels of income have had to go and get their own private educational and psychological reports in order to be able to prove their case. I do not think that that is acceptable.

While there are fewer children as a proportion of the population in our constituencies, at the other end of the scale there are more pensioners. One of the scandals in this country is that 1.3 million pensioners do not claim pension credit, and the total loss is £2 billion, or about £13 a week for each pensioner who does not claim. About two thirds of all eligible pensioners claim pension credit and council tax benefit, while almost 90 per cent. of those eligible claim housing benefit. The Department for Work and Pensions needs to look at the matter, as it is unacceptable in our society today that we hide these benefits away. Everyone entitled to them should draw them—that should be what happens.

I turn now to a point made by several hon. Members this morning. In this financial tsunami, as I call it, pensioners and savers are being disadvantaged by the fact that interest rates have fallen to very low levels. I do not want the Government to cite this as an Opposition expenditure pledge, but we should look at introducing special measures for pensioners. For instance, pensioner bonds could be delivered through the Post Office, thus giving pensioners a better deal and providing more work for post offices.

In the short time that I have left, I want to say something about post offices. This year, 12 of the 32 offices in my constituency have closed—a total almost unprecedented in any other constituency—and all the closures were done purely by Government diktat, according to the criteria that had been laid down.

One of the two post office on the outskirts of Cirencester turned over £500,000 in the month of January. It was highly profitable, yet both offices were still closed. Now, 19,000 people all have to get into their cars—or try to use non-existent public transport—to get to the centre of the town. The 21 villages that they live in cover 100 square miles, so the decision to close the two post offices on the outskirts of Cirencester was absolutely crazy.

On behalf of the Conservative party, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) welcomed the Government’s recent announcement on the Royal Mail. I also welcomed it, but I do not approve of some of the changes that have been made over the past couple of weeks. As I do every year, I visited the sorting office in Cirencester last week to wish my postmen a happy Christmas, but they were a relatively unhappy lot because of the reduction in the amount of overtime and the higher targets that have been set. I have no problem with those changes, which have been made in the interests of efficiency, but it is unacceptable to introduce them—and thus make people miserable— just before Christmas.

Yesterday, I heard that my Royal Mail sorting office in Wotton-under-Edge is to close. I shall meet representatives of Royal Mail tomorrow but, again, why did the decision have to be announced within a week of Christmas? It only adds to the misery of the people who will lose their jobs, and I hope that Royal Mail will do its level best to find everyone new employment in adjoining sorting offices.

I want to make a few brief remarks about railway services in my area. One piece of good news is that the capacity of the Cotswold line is to be doubled, something for which I have campaigned successfully with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). However, although a better economic case can be made for it, there will be no doubling of capacity on the line between Swindon and Kemble. As one of the most cost-effective schemes in the south-west, it would have joined the cities of Swindon, Cheltenham and Gloucester at a cost of only £38 million. Connectivity would have been much improved, and the doubling of that line must be achieved to ensure that Gloucestershire’s economic growth and prosperity are to be maintained.

I turn now to the announcement of the Government’s U-turn on doctor’s dispensary surgeries made by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope). It is extremely welcome to my constituents but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said, people should not have been put through so much anxiety for so long. A further anxiety is that the new super-surgeries will put a number of my small rural doctor’s surgeries at risk. Again, I hope that the Government will not keep elderly and vulnerable people in anticipation for too long: if there are to be changes, let us make them quickly, as there is no need to keep people in suspense for months and months.

I hope that the Government will give rural areas very careful consideration. People think that the Cotswolds are rich and rosy, and in many ways they are. It is a superb place to live, but there are 110 villages and 11 market towns in my constituency and there are pockets of vulnerable, elderly and poor people in every one. They need just as much help from their Government as anybody anywhere else in this country.

The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is not in his place. He is chairman of the all-party beer group. I am chairman of the all-party wine group. I hope that everyone will visit their local pub. I wholly endorse that wish. When they go there, I hope that they will make the right choice and have a glass of good red burgundy instead of a glass of beer, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and every hon. Member will join me in wishing that everyone drinks responsibly this Christmas.

May I at this point, Madam Deputy Speaker, wish you, Mr. Speaker, the staff of the House and my own staff, who work hard day in, day out to support me, a very merry, happy Christmas and a successful new year?

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