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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 Domer: 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

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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 able 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.

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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 l 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 he 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

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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 at 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.

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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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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 the 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 bank manager.


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