Examination of witnesses (Questions 80-102)
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
80. Do you have any idea of how much time will
be involved in seeing this change before shops have actually gone
out of business?
(Mr Meacher) How much more time?
81. How much more time will it take for the
impact of the changes that you have described to take place?
(Mr Meacher) That is very difficult to answer. How
long is a piece of string? This is a gradual process which is
not completing at one point, it is a momentum and it is an even
process. I would certainly hope that in the next two or three
years one is going to see a change of tempo in these areas, I
think that is reasonable.
(Mr Cleary) I think it is worth adding that there
are schemes at the moment which we are actually expanding in the
White Paper. For example, the Countryside Agency run an existing
village shop scheme which has already made a big difference to
a number of village stores. The White Paper proposes that is extended
into a new community service fund which will cover projects to
re-establish its services. The money is there from next April.
There is some money there already in the current year, the money
is being increased from next April, so benefits should start to
flow through over the next two years, as the Minister has said.
82. How many rural shops were saved by that
Countryside Agency scheme?
(Mr Cleary) There are many hundreds of grants. We
will have to write to you with the precise details but it has
already worked for many hundreds.
83. Speeding traffic: you were quite hopeful
that you were going to do something about it in the White Paper
when you came before the Committee originally. Why have you come
up with such a damp squib on speeding traffic?
(Mr Meacher) I do not think that is a fair description.
We do recognise this is a problem, quite a severe problem, over-speeding
in country lanes as well as village roads or high streets. We
are encouraging local authorities to take action, including new
local speed limits on rural roads where problems exist. What the
Road Safety Survey and the research which it has commissioned
has shown is that it is not just lowering the speed limit nationally
but an overall provision. It is finding ways to control a vehicle's
speed at hazardous points like bends or junctions where it is
likely to be far more effective in reducing casualties on rural
main roads than reducing the national speed limit. I would not
rule out lower speed limits, that may well be appropriate. Certainly
we are looking to 30 miles per hour as a limit in villages, but
at the same time the more effective way of reducing the causes
of accidents is trying to find ways of slowing cars down at difficult
points. Maybe that is road calming measures as one is coming up
to those points.
84. We know that speed cameras actually work,
why not let local authorities keep the speeding fines so that
they can put up more cameras, or more boxes actually to have cameras
(Mr Meacher) Again, DETR genuinely has sympathy for
that policy of, in effect, hypothecationto use another
ugly word. The rules, of course, have always traditionally been
that it is the Treasury which collects the revenues and then decides
85. I think the Deputy Prime Minister usually
says that is another one we have lost.
(Mr Meacher) The fact is the Deputy Prime Minister
has won so many with the Treasury on this issue and on a much
bigger scale, that I think he has got a rather good record. There
is a genuine point here.
86. It is all right, you are safe, we know you
(Mr Meacher) I think that point is known. We would
like to see greater flexibility over local authorities in terms
of, for example, fining people for speeding or for other offences,
being able to retain that money and then put it into improved
services to reduce those effects in the first place. Certainly
that is something we would favour.
87. This question of the £10,000 that parishes
can apply for to buy a car for the village, presumably to go speeding
in, is it going to work?
(Mr Meacher) I think it will. I think this proposal
of £5 million is a small sum of money but, considering just
how small these settlements are, I think it is
88. Five or 15?
(Mr Meacher) I beg your pardon, it is 15. Let me not
under-sell. It is £15 million which is designed to help parishes
in conjunction with the principal authorities, the counties and
the districts, to enable them to take initiatives, as I say improving
their high street, providing a car park, providing new facilities
for old people or young people, CAB facilities, whatever may be
appropriate. I think it cuts through the bureaucracy and it cuts
through the I am sorry, I thought you were talking about
the Parish Community Fund.
(Mr Cleary) I am sorry.
(Mr Meacher) I think this is exciting and useful.
It gives more opportunity directly to parishes and town councils
to plan their own future. I think often they feel that they have
very limited opportunities, they are dependent on the speed of
operation of their principal authority, and I think it will be
of very much value.
90. What, £10,000 for a car?
(Mr Meacher) Yes. This is the Parish Transport Fund.
(Mr Meacher) Again, I was struck in the course of
the consultation that we did have extensively in the production
of this White Paper that when I saidas I often did as a
good, loyal Ministerthat we had produced £170 million
for improving rural bus services and there were 1,800 new or enhanced
services, I had it all as a mantra regularly repeated, it was
remarkably ineffective in the sense that people felt it still
did not apply to them, it still was not sufficiently appropriate,
it was not locally determined enough and that there was specialist
provision of transport which people needed which was not met by
improved bus services. I do think improved bus services are very
important and I think they under-estimate all this. We are putting
another £239 million into improved and better bus services
over the current three years, but what we are trying to do is
to say to these people in very small settlements "you can
have up to £10,000 to decide yourselves how you want to see
better provision of transport, whether that is in car pooling,
taxi services, whether it is buying something like a minibus for
community transport, whatever it is provided you show that there
is a need for it on the basis of some kind of transport survey,
provided there is matched funding, for example through levying
a precept, and provided it fits in with existing transport provision".
92. On that point, wearing your climate change
hat, Minister, are you happy that there are environmental safeguards
in place, in other words that a parish is not going to buy up
ten old bangers at £1,000 a go and clog up the streets and
pollute the atmosphere?
(Mr Meacher) As I have said, there are conditions
on this and certainly one would be to look at what the parish
was proposing. I doubt it would have the money to buy up ten,
but even if it bought up a handful of old bangers which were old
cars, fuel inefficient and discharged noxious vapours, I certainly
think we would advise them that was not appropriate. This is not
given, as I say, unconditionally. We want to increase the discretion
and powers of parishes, but within limits.
93. So each application will be reviewed and
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
94. Do you think the Universal Bank project
to save rural post offices will work?
(Mr Meacher) I hope so. I think it stands a very good
chance. What we are proposing, as you know, is we are offering
basic bank accounts without overdraft or borrowing facilities
which will enable customers to access benefits in cash without
charge at post offices in a way that without the post office access
and the large network availability, the use of banks' basic bank
accounts, the so-called PAT14 accounts, would not work, they would
not really address the issue of financial exclusion. We certainly
are hoping that all the banks will participate if they are going
to demonstrate their responsibility to the wider community. I
think this is a very important part of improving the attractiveness
of the Post Office network. We have already put £480 million
into automating the entire Post Office network to develop universal
banking and access to Government services. I think this is the
best way forward, attracting new customers and new services.
95. You said that you hope that it will happen.
Whose responsibility is it to make it happen?
(Mr Meacher) It does span several departments. I have
attended a number of inter-departmental Cabinet sub-committees
which deal with this issue. The DTI, of course, is in the lead.
DTI has an interest because of rural post offices, but so, of
course, does the Treasury have an interest in this, as does the
Home Office. We are keeping a very close eye on this. It is being
driven forward as a major part of the Rural White Paper, it is
a central plank. It will certainly be reported on as part of the
State of the Countryside reports which are going to be undertaken
every year by the Countryside Agency. It will be looking at access
to services, the availability of services. We will be monitored
year by year and I am sure we will be criticised if we do not
achieve our objective, which is the avoidance of all avoidable
96. Would you be made aware if the DTI were
running into difficulties on this one? After all, the banks are
not known for showing social responsibility.
(Mr Meacher) That is why I do use words like "hope".
We do require co-operation from partners and these things cannot,
nor should be done entirely by Government. We are certainlyI
am not sure if I am allowed to say pressurising the banksputting
a lot of influence, to use another more neutral word, on banks
to participate. I believe that they will. I think it would act
against their reputation if they were seen to stand out on this.
97. When has that ever upset banks?
(Mr Meacher) My colleague, Chris Mullin, upset banks
recently, I seem to recall, and in my view was probably quite
right to do so, by talking about banks' responsibilities. This
is another instance of the responsibility of banks. I do not think
we can require them. It is always easy to say that governments
should require this, that or another body or persons to do such
and such, but I do not think that is the way to operate. I have
no reason to believe that the banks will not co-operate on this.
98. On that point, Minister, I do not see why
you have this confidence. There is a bank closure in my High Street
that is just going ahead now. I do not see why they would be willing,
in the way that you are outlining, to back this proposal, particularly
if you have no powers to require them to do so.
(Mr Meacher) We perhaps take a different view on this.
We have had extensive discussions with the banks. The Government
is already putting in substantial funds, I mentioned £480
million in capital costs, in terms of a further contribution.
We have said that will be determined when the business case is
approved but, of course, part of the Government's commitment to
putting further funds in is that we get an equivalent commitment
from the banks that they are going to play their part.
99. Rural proofing, do you believe in it?
(Mr Meacher) Rural proofing is an essential part of
this White Paper. We already have the Cabinet Committee on Rural
100. When did it meet?
(Mr Meacher) When does it meet?
101. I asked you when did it meet because I
understand it has only met once.
(Mr Meacher) No, that is not true. I have attended
several meetings myself. I would say I have attended at least
three or four meetings. It meets when there is a reason to meet.
It is not a body which meets regularly just for the sake of it.
That was already in place but, in addition, the Rural White Paper
is proposing that we set up national and regional rural sounding
boards. I was impressed by the sounding board which advised me
in the preparation of this White Paper, which I think did a very
good job, was very imaginative, and came up with a lot of good
ideas which are incorporated in this White Paper, and we want
that process to continue. We are also setting up a rural advocate
who will be the Chair of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron,
who will have access into Government, including into the Cabinet
Committee on Rural Affairs. The Countryside Agency is going to
have a central role here because of the State of the Countryside
Report which will set out the rural headline indicators, such
as the state of the countryside, access to services, transport
provision, all the key sensitive indicators, and look at what
progress going forward or backward has occurred in the last year.
That will be made public. The State of the Countryside Report
will certainly be discussed in the Cabinet Committee. It may well
be, I hope, discussed in the House. We are providing very full
information about the state of the countryside in a quantified
form which will enable Government to be held to account.
102. Do you see the Countryside Agency as being
much more important than the Environment Agency or English Nature
in this rural proofing?
(Mr Meacher) I think for the purposes of rural proofing
of countryside issues, the Countryside Agency is, indeed, in the
lead. Those three bodies, of course, have to work very closely
together, but for the purposes we are talking about here, yes,
I think the Countryside Agency is in the lead. It does give me
an opportunity to say I think they have performed very well in
the period since they have been set up. I think they have been
bold, I think they have been imaginative, and I think they have
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much for your evidence.
103. A special vote of thanks to the Minister.
(Mr Meacher) I shall miss you over Christmas, although
I am seeing you again.
Mrs Dunwoody: And a Happy Christmas.
Chairman: Thank you.