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Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Earlier this year, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I failed to catch your eye to speak in an Opposition day debate on post office closures. If I had done so, I would have drawn attention to the failure of the Post Office to appreciate the impact on frail, elderly constituents of the removal of their local post office, which for them has always been a vital lifeline, especially where there are no banks or cash points nearby. I would have described the consultation period as inadequate, the consultation process as shambolic and my intervention on behalf of my constituents as treated with disdain.
I applaud the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services for telling the House that in hindsight the Post Office did not handle the closures with sufficient sensitivity. Unfortunately, the changes that he announced in the consultation procedure will not reopen post offices in my constituency, which have, in my view, been wrongly closed.
Today, I fear that British Telecom might be emulating the Post Office with its plans to remove public pay phones throughout the country. In April, BT wrote to tell me that it proposed to remove 162 telephone boxes out of a total of 949 in my county of Dorset, including 21 in my constituency of Bournemouth, East. I assume that many Members have received similar letters relating to their areas. The proposal to remove two specific boxes in my constituency alarms me particularly, as they serve two distinct communities: Holdenhurst village and Wick village, both of which are conservation areas and located beside the River Stour, one upstream, beside which fishing and walking are popular, and the other where boating is an all-year-round activity.
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In response to my question in the House about what consultation BT is obliged to undertake before it removes public telephone boxes, the Minister referred me to the industry regulator, Ofcom. Its chief executive wrote to inform me that the local planning authority must be notified, and that notices must be prominently displayed in the boxes concerned, telling users that they have 42 days to make representations to the authority. I wrote to Bournemouth borough council, the planning authority, with my objections, and it appears that mine has been the only letter received. That is not altogether surprising, as when I asked residents in Holdenhurst village whether they knew that their only telephone box was under threat, they said that they did not and would certainly have objected if they had known.
I am informed that a number of senior members of Bournemouth council were consulted by officers in response to BT's notification, and that disappointment and concern at the impact that the loss of 42 payphones would have both from a social and safety point of view was expressed to BT. However, there has been no report to elected members and no debate in the council on the proposed removals. Indeed, I doubt very much whether most of our local councillors know that telephone boxes are to be removed from the wards that they represent. I am not encouraged by the reported comments of the cabinet member responsible for community relations, Councillor Andrew Garratt:
"we have not been asked to consult or inform local people . . . and have no obligation to do so."
"we are not involved in any consultation . . . however we, as a local authority, would like to be consulted."
I appreciate that the mobile phone revolution has led to far fewer people using public payphones and that BT cannot indefinitely maintain those that are becoming increasingly unprofitable. Nevertheless, there remain some people, including me, who do not have mobile telephones and rely on finding a public telephoneoften, regrettably, in an emergency. BT is a universal public service provider designated as such by Ofcom just one year ago. From the two examples of the proposed removals that I have givenHoldenhurst village and Wick village in my constituency, and there may be many more of equal gravityit seems to me that BT is abandoning its social responsibilities as a provider. It is also clear to me that the local authority has not given proper consideration to such proposals, which should be required by Ofcom, and may even be expected by Ofcom.
I do not know whether Ofcom monitors the consultation that BT undertakes and I am waiting for a reply to find out. In my view, consultation with senior councillors by officers is not enough. Every councillor should have been informed and given the opportunity to respond on behalf of the local residents whom they are elected to represent. It seems to me that that has not happened, so the consultation that BT is obliged to undertake is not being fulfilled in Bournemouth. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) fully supports my concerns.
I look forward to the response of the deputy Leader of the House and any assurance that he can give that BT will not be allowed to remove any public telephone
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boxes that serve distinct local communities or areas that attract visitors until such proposals have been given proper consideration by the entire local authority.
In conclusion, I believe that all of us here have been badly let down by the Post Office, a public service provider, closing branches without consultation. I do not want the same experience with BT's removal of vital public telephone boxes. The Government should not ignore what is happening, because it is with them that the buck should stop.
Mr. Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to rise to make my maiden speech and to follow the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson). I welcomed his comments about the challenges of the mobile phone industrya subject about which I have learned much in the past week. I am especially grateful to be given this opportunity to speak only 48 hours after being presented to the House. I hope that hon. Members will not see this as unseemly haste, but my constituents, like most people in Birmingham, like to get down to business, and they will appreciate that I have been given the opportunity to do the same.
I am grateful to have some conventions to honour this afternoon. They are conventions with a good cause. I can think of no better place to start my contribution to the House than with a celebration of the achievements of my predecessor and a celebration of my constituency.
Hodge Hill has been served well by Terry Davis, the now right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and Roy Jenkins over the past 50 years. They are all people who have served not only their constituency but their country with distinction. But it was the achievements of Terry Davis over the past 25 years that we celebrated at the Birmingham Council house this weekend past. To those who knew Terry and worked with him it came as no surprise to learn that the representatives of 45 countries had asked him to become their leader of the Council of Europe for the next five years. It is truly the crown of a career, as Lord Tweedsmuir once put it.
We were not surprised, because those of us who know Terry know him for his compassion, his principle and his iron-cast determination to get things done. Once upon a time, Terry Davis was the man who was known as one of the very few people in Birmingham who could get the window of a council house fixed. Over the past two and a half decades, Terry Davis went on to serve 17,000 families in Birmingham, Hodge Hill and before it Stechfordtwo for every day that he served in office. I am very proud to say that he is now not just helping the families of a constituency but helping the families of an entire continent. I know that he will serve them with the credo that he expressed in 1979 in a letter that he wrote to constituents in Stechford. He said:
"We cannot judge people by the colour of their skin. Race hatred does nothing to keep prices down, increase wages, provide more jobs or improve our living conditions. It sets worker against worker and it sets neighbour against neighbour."
Just as Terry Davis epitomised what is great about British political life, so the constituency epitomises so much about what is great in Britain. That is exactly why it is the sort of place that any party with aspirations to govern must win. Over the past three weeks, many hon. Friends were able to join me walking, and sometimes running, up and down the streets and roads of the constituency. Many were able to join me in the west of Hodge Hill on the busy Alum Rock road and Washwood Heath road bustling with vibrancy, commerce and trade. Many people joined me on the streets of Saltley. Many people joined me outside Ward End park. Many people joined me at the great LDV planta symbol of Birmingham's enduring excellence and of our enterprise in manufacturing.
Many hon. Friends were able to join me on the walk eastwards towards Hodge Hill and Stechfordtowards the Fox and Goose, where many people were able to join me for lunch in the Beaufort Diner. A few others were able to join me for a drink in the Beaufort Sports and Social Club. I was proud to tell them about the historic tradition of the northern border of Hodge Hill, along which once stood the factories that produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that defended these islands in one of its most dangerous hours, and which today power our exports with companies such as Jaguar.
Many hon. Friends joined me in Shard End and Tile Cross south of the River Cole and in Kitts Green, visiting great hubs of community life such as Shard End community centre and the Royal British Legion, where we were able for a while at least to put politics aside and talk among friends.
More important than the places that we visited together were the people whom we met togethergreat community servants such as Marj Bridle, Margaret Greenaway, Ian Ward and Margaret Byrne in Hodge Hill; Mike Nangle, the first Irish-born Lord Mayor of Birmingham city; Anita Ward and John Clancy in Hodge Hill; Ansa Ali Khan and Mohammed Idress in Washwood Heath. Together we met spiritual leaders such as Tasawar ul-Haq, Susdar Hussain and Qari Mohammed Shoid. Together we met great public servantspeople who were serving the people of Hodge Hill day in and day out. They included men such as Lee Richards, the force behind the Sure Start project which is making a difference to so many young families in Hodge Hill; and women such as Anne Cole, the power behind Saltley school, our first specialist school focused on science. These are the people I now wish to work with, with a new resolve and a new partnership to fight crime and antisocial behaviour and to bring a new prosperity and pride to Birmingham, Hodge Hill. That is why I have welcomed so much the statements made by my right hon. Friends to this House over the past few days and weeks, especially the statement made on Monday by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The plans that he announced will make a real difference to the lives of people in Birmingham, Hodge Hill. The new resources£50 million announced for police community safety wardenswill make crime fighting that much easier on the streets of Hodge Hill. New strategies to support witnesses will mean that we will
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convict those whom we catch. New plans to put the sense back into sentencing will mean that those who do wrong will be punished.
There are of course great challenges in Hodge Hill. There are great concerns about teenage gangs who make life a misery for others. Too few people in Hodge Hill have the qualifications that they deserve. Half are without qualificationsone of the highest proportions in the country. Fewer than one in 10 have the chance to go on to higher education, one of the lowest proportions in the country. Some 42 per cent. of our children are entitled to free school meals.
However, the image that one takes away from the by-election campaign in Hodge Hill is not one of challenge; it is one of promise. Like many places in Britain, Hodge Hill faces a future that is brighter than it has ever been, because the people there have never been better educated, better resourced, better equipped or better connected with the best ideas in the world wherever they might be. But that promise will not be unlocked if left only to the tender mercies of the marketplace. To unlock the promise in Birmingham, Hodge Hill will take a Government determined to work hard with the resources that we have agreed to share, and it will take people, public servants and politicians who are determined to pull together to make a difference in the best traditions of the city of Birmingham.
People have asked me about my priorities in Hodge Hill. My priorities are simpleto crack down on crime and to bring new jobs. In other words, I want to help to deliver in Hodge Hill a prosperous place, with streets that we are proud of and neighbourhoods that live in peace, not in fear. I will also redouble my determination to fight the prejudice that prevents so many people in my constituency from contributing to the progress of this country.
As I begin work, it is with two images in mind. The first is of a young mother and her child, whom I met on the second day of the campaign in a Sure Start facility. The mother was enjoying the new services and resources that have made a difference to her life and that of her child. The second image is of another mother, at a Shard End residents' meeting, who talked about the fear in which she lived and her sense that when she called for help, nobody came. So as I start work it is with the knowledge that we have made great strides in the past seven years, but that a great deal of work lies ahead. I am delighted to conclude my first contribution to the work of this House with that third imageof progress made, but great work ahead.
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