The proposals tabled by the Government would mean the
closure of 2,500 post offices across the UK. So far, it
is not clear what the impact will be in Northern Ireland,
but fears have been voiced that around 100 of the 540
outlets could close.
In many rural areas, and particularly in Northern Ireland,
sub-post offices are part of the social fabric of the
local community, and their demise would have serious consequences.
Despite the onward march of technology, not everyone has
a bank account or access to e-mail and the internet.
Post offices still provide a valuable service in paying
out pensions, selling stamps, and enabling customers to
access bank accounts and pay bills. And following the
recent Pricing in Proportion initiative, they are increasingly
being called upon to advise what postage letters or parcels
In many small towns and suburban districts, the post
office is the hub of the local community. Their existence
attracts business to the area, to the benefit of neighbouring
While the Government is under an obligation to review
the service on a value-for-money basis, the bottom line
must not be the only criterion applied. Cognisance must
be paid to the particular needs of local communities.
The era of a post office in every hamlet is over, but
a comprehensive network is still required, both by individuals
and firms. The Federation of Small Businesses says 88%
of its members send mail daily, and need to have a post
The Government must not make the mistake of reacting
in panic to this year's projected loss of £200m,
double the figure for last year. Officials must establish
whether this is a one-off increase in the deficit or part
of an upward spiral.
Ministers need to remember that a public service such
as a post office cannot be expected to be 100% cost-effective.
While losses can, and should, be curbed, a subsidy will
always be required.
Small post offices can also play their part in reducing
the burden on the taxpayer, by enhancing the range of
services they provide and by opening for longer hours.
The growing trend of post offices being located in supermarkets
should be encouraged, as this reduces overheads, produces
business and increases security.
During the consultation period it is imperative that
local communities make their views known to the Government.
The message must be that a one-size-fits-all approach
will not work, particularly in Northern Ireland.
THE chairman of a Vale pensioners group has criticised
Gordon Brown's pre-budget report claiming it does nothing
to help the elderly.
Fred Kaler from the Evesham and District Pensioners Association
responded to the Chancellor of the Exchequer's latest
statement by saying 'not enough is being done for those
most in need' and labelling some of the policies 'a disgrace'.
In last week's report Mr Brown said he would increase
the state pension by 3.6 per cent next April, in line
with inflation. This means the pension credit minimum
guarantee will rise by £5-a-week for single people
aged 60 and over, and by £7.65 for couples.
But, according to Mr Kaler, this good news is tempered
by hefty council tax bills and a rise in the price of
other costs such as food and fuel, which continue to leave
many pensioners living below the poverty line. 'Mr Brown
has tried to make it sound like a positive situation but
he has offered nothing with any immediate benefit for
today's older people. There are more and more pensioners
living below the poverty line and countless more struggling
to make the cost of council tax and other essential bills.
'By the time anything changes then millions of the current
elderly population will have died. It is a disgrace.'
He added: 'It is particularly bad for some women who
don't get their full pensions because they work full-time
and if anything happens to their husband then they suffer
financially as well.'
Speaking about the help elderly get with the cost of
winter fuel bills Mr Kaler said: 'A lot of pensioners
are grateful for it but if they had decent pensions in
the first place it wouldn't be needed. I doubt many people
will be feeling any benefits at present.'
The winter fuel payment currently stands at £200
with those over aged 80 granted an extra £100. But
the Chancellor resisted calls from groups such as Energywatch,
Save the Children and the Citizens Advice Bureau to extend
the payment to groups such as lone parents and the disabled.
Pensioners group Age Concern were also concerned by Mr
Brown's speech. They believe the elderly are still not
getting the help they need to live comfortably.
The charity's director general Gordon Lishman said: 'The
absence of real support to help older people cope with
rising energy costs means more and more older people will
be left struggling to pay their bills this winter.
'The winter fuel payment was a welcome initiative for
older people but it has not increased in line with energy
prices and now only covers about a fifth of an average
Mervyn Kohler, at Help the Aged added: 'Gordon Brown
has offered nothing to pensioners on low fixed incomes
struggling with staggering fuel bills and remorselessly
growing council taxes.
'While the Chancellor painted a picture of a prosperous
UK economy the reality is that pensioners are facing their
harshest winter for years. Pensioner poverty is an issue
the Government would prefer to tackle with words.
Dozens of good schools are to be converted into city
academies despite Government claims that the initiative
is aimed at failing schools. Tony Blair visiting City
of London Academy in Bermondsey, London Only six of the
67 schools earmarked by the Department for Education and
Skills to be re-launched as 'independent' academies, backed
by sponsors, are in special measures the Ofsted
category that follows a failed report.
A significant number of the schools that the Government
will spend millions of pounds converting over the next
few years are actually good or excellent, being widely
praised by inspectors and very popular with parents.
Four are city technology colleges, set up and given extra
funding by the last Tory government and among the best
state schools in the country. The majority of the remainder
are 'improving' schools that, according to Ofsted, have
turned the corner and are on the up.
Critics said last night that huge amounts of money were
being wasted to repackage good schools in an attempt to
ensure the success of the
£5 billion policy that Tony Blair hopes will be
his education legacy.
The 46 academies that have opened so far have cost about
£25 million to £30 million each, although
the dearest, the Business Academy, Bexley, in Kent, cost
more than £50 million. Steve Sinnott, the general
secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: 'The
Government has been mis-selling this policy from the start.
'It has consistently claimed that it was replacing failing
schools with academies. This has not been true overall
in the past and this list shows it is not true in the
Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association
of Head Teachers, said: 'We have definitely been told
that new academies will be targeted at schools with serious
problems. While we would not deny that having lots of
new buildings is a good thing, there is evidence that
planting an academy in a group of schools can have the
effect of creaming off the best pupils to the disadvantage
of other institutions.'
The academies programme has been lauded by the Prime
Minister as the solution to 'years of school failure'
and successive education secretaries have reiterated that
it will transform failing schools.
Launching the initiative in 2000, the then education
secretary David Blunkett said that it was 'a radical approach
to break the cycle of failing schools in inner cities'.
This year, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said:
'Academies work and are wanted. Nobody could say the same
about the failing schools they replaced.'
However, an analysis of the latest round of 68 schools
that will close or merge to be replaced by academies has
found that only six are failing. A further six in the
'implementation' and 'feasibility' stages are deemed by
Ofsted to require significant improvement. The majority,
however, are improving, good or even excellent.
One such is Leigh City Technology College, in Kent, where
92 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSEs this summer.
Frank Green, the chief executive, said that becoming an
academy would bring extra investment.
'When we talk to parents about converting to an academy,
they ask, 'Why are we doing this?' ' he said. 'We explained
that it would bring additional capital. The quid pro quo
is that we help weaker and failing schools overcome some
of the difficulties that we faced.'
Steve Allen, the headmaster of Woodway School, a popular
secondary in Coventry, said that the main reason for becoming
an academy was the chance to move from a 1960s building
with a 40-year shelf-life to a new £30 million school.
This month, Mr Blair announced that he had doubled to
400 the target for academies by 2010, although no new
time limit was set.
An independent evaluation into the programme, published
by PricewaterhouseCoopers in July, delivered a mixed verdict
on its success so far. On balance, improvements in results
at academies were better than at other comparable schools
in England, 'although the absolute differences are generally
small'. A spokesman at the Department for Education insisted
that academies were set up to raise standards by either
'replacing failing schools or opening new schools'.
He said: 'Academies are based in deprived areas with
a history of poor educational performance. They operate
as part of the local family of schools, sharing their
facilities and expertise with the wider community and
contributing to raising standards across the whole area.'
Plans for the most radical overhaul of Britain's buses
since Margaret Thatcher privatised services in 1986 were
given a broad welcome by transport groups, and even partial
support by opposition parties, today.
Under proposals from the transport secretary, Douglas
Alexander, local authorities will regain a say in frequencies,
timetables and fares, powers they lost when buses were
removed from local authority control 20 years ago.
The proposals - partly modelled on London, where Ken
Livingstone, the elected mayor, was given contractual
authority over buses six years ago - are aimed at ending
the 'free-for-all' which has developed in some cities
between operators flooding popular routes with buses at
the expense of social provision.
Mr Alexander, unveiling the proposals which he hinted
at during Labour's Manchester conference, said: 'To many
people buses are a lifeline, giving them access to jobs
and shops and allowing them to stay in touch with family
and friends. 'But since deregulation some areas have seen
a free-for-all, with the needs of passengers being neglected.
'In some areas - where local authorities and bus operators
work in partnership for the benefit of passengers - the
number of people using buses has gone up.
'But in too many areas passengers are simply not getting
the services they expect, and, as a result, passenger
numbers have declined.
'By sharing best practice and giving local authorities
and operators the tools they need to work effectively
together, all passengers, regardless of where they live,
should start to enjoy the benefits of top quality bus
The Liberal Democrats welcomed the proposals, while even
the Tories acknowledged that their own privatisation 'was
not working well'.
The broad-brush plan, entitled Putting Passengers First,
would, 'in the right circumstances', allow local authorities
to introduce their own local schemes, as well as permitting
charities and community groups to provide services.
It proposes greater partnership working between local
authorities and operators, making it easier for local
authorities to have a say in bus frequency, timetables
However, local authorities would also be accountable
for bus performances, overseen by traffic commissioners.
Over two-thirds of all public transport trips are made
by bus. The government has put in place free local bus
travel for older and disabled people within their local
The measures will be consulted on before forming part
of a road transport bill next year.
Transport 2000, the sustainable transport lobby group,
gave the proposals the thumbs-up, but warned that more
funding would make an even bigger difference to services.
Stephen Joseph, the group's director, said: 'We will
also want to see more action to put the passenger at the
centre of bus policy.
'While we welcome stronger powers for the traffic commissioners
on punctuality, other passenger concerns like driver training,
information, personal security and bus design are mentioned
but no action is proposed.
'We'd like to see a properly resourced regulator to tackle
these issues. In particular, the government needs to go
further to deal with the anti-passenger approach of the
Office of Fair Trading which makes it very difficult for
operators to agree regular interval timetables or common
Louise Ellman, a Labour member of the Commons transport
select committee, welcomed the statement.
Mrs Ellman, MP for Liverpool Riverside, said: 'They have
grasped the nettle. It is untenable for the cost of running
buses to go up while passenger numbers have been going
down because buses have become unreliable and unattractive.
That is why people are deserting them.
Bus Users UK, the passengers' pressure group, said that
it was glad that the government had recognised the value
of good partnership between local authorities and the
bus operators but warned that greater local authority
involvement would not necessarily cure all problems.
Stephen Morris, its external affairs officer, said: 'We
broadly welcome the proposals...
'However, not all local authorities have a good track
record in providing bus services, either before or after
deregulation, so we should not see greater local authority
involvement as a panacea.'
The Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, Alistair
Carmichael, said: 'Bus deregulation was a bad Tory idea
which Labour has yet to do anything about. Fares have
increased and bus use outside of London has been in decline.
'The move to allow councils to regulate local services
is long overdue. It will be some time yet before passengers
see any real improvements.
'We should not return to the situation pre-1986, but
ensure that local communities are given some control over
their bus services and that the taxpayer gets value for
The shadow transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said:
'We accept that in some areas the current system is not
'The kind of bus wars we've seen in places like Manchester
just serve to undermine confidence in the bus industry.
'These proposals will be a big disappointment to people
who expected more substantial changes and I'm not convinced
that the right way forward is to give politicians more
power to tinker with our bus system.'
Professor John Whitelegg, deputy chairman of the Local
Government Association's transport and regeneration board,
said: 'These proposals are a victory for common sense.
The only way we can get more passengers on the buses is
to give local people more say over services where they
'English councils outside London have been hamstrung
by a system that has not allowed them to respond to local
'There is clear public support for giving local people
more say over bus services. Councils want to change services
people use for the better and create places where they
The Government today published a review of bus services,
in advance of preparing a new Road Transport Bill in 2007.
Amongst its proposals is the strengthening of powers
for local authorities over the specification of bus services,
though it is proposed to leave things alone in the many
places where bus services are working well.
However BUS USERS UK believes that finding effective
ways to enable bus services to avoid being embroiled in
traffic congestion should be a higher priority than changing
the regulatory framework. Where buses have effective,
properly-enforced priority measures, they can be made
more reliable and quicker and provide a real, effective
alternative to the car, especially on key urban corridors.
Buses can then begin to provide a real solution to the
problems of increasing traffic congestion and environmental
BUS USERS UK chairman Gavin Booth said: 'Tram systems
are successful because they have their own 'track'. There
are ways to give buses similar benefits and we would like
to see Government showing its commitment to reducing car
dependency by addressing these issues rather than just
tinkering with the regulatory framework.'
Whilst the Government's review doesn't address such fundamental
issues BUS USERS UK broadly welcomed today's proposals
for the future of bus services.
BUS USERS UK is concerned though that the new proposals
give local authorities greater powers to specify bus services
in their area and to issue exclusive contracts to bus
operators to run those services. 'In practice the only
areas where we expect to see such powers being taken up
are those where local authorities have already failed
to engage effectively with bus operator, and where political
considerations are likely to take precedence over the
actual needs of the travelling public', warned Mr Booth.
BUS USERS UK has always found that bus services can be
made to work well where local authorities and bus companies
work well together in partnership, with a common goal
to improve things for bus users. This benefits the community
as a whole, as attractive bus services can have a major
effect in encouraging car owners to use the bus too, reducing
problems of congestion and environmental pollution, as
well as improving mobility for those without cars.
Also welcomed by bus users are proposals that would mean
bus companies will have to report their performance standards
to the industry's regulators, the Traffic Commissioners.
However BUS USERS UK is aware that the Traffic Commissioners,
the authorities who license buses, taxis and lorries,
are already under-resourced and will need improved resources
if they are to take greater role in monitoring bus reliability
and punctuality standards.
The Department for Transport has today published its
long-awaited review of bus services, in preparation for
a new Road Transport Bill next year.
In essence the review proposes strengthening local agreements
between local authorities and bus operators, such that
local authorities can specify minimum frequencies, timings
and even maximum fares within voluntary agreements, and
reducing the threshold for the enabling of Quality Contracts
to make it easier for local authorities to introduce a
franchising regime tore place the existing deregulated
environment in their areas. These could beamed to apply
particularly in connection with road pricing schemes,
for which the Government wants to see pilot schemes within
four to five years.
BUS USERS UK is a non-statutory body established as the
National Federation of Bus Users in 1985 to give bus passengers
a voice in the liberalisation and privatisation of bus
services outside London.
Its aims are:
-To strengthen the voice of bus users in the discussion
of public transport issues
-To increase the influence of bus passengers on local
and national decisions affecting bus services
-To develop good communication between bus companies
and their passengers
Its membership comprises mainly bus passengers, although
its work has been recognised by the industry such that
it also has representation in most major bus companies
(outside London) and local authorities.
It is a partner in the Bus Appeals Body, set up to help
passengers where legitimate complaints about bus services
have not been resolved satisfactorily, and organises Bus
Users Surgeries in town centres throughout Britain to
enable bus passengers to voice their concerns directly
to bus company managers.
Why have the police declined so badly in effectiveness,
in recent years? Short answer: politicisation, i.e. their
conversion from a politically-neutral public service into
an instrument of political agendas. The most obvious case
of this is political correctness, which has made them
spend more time coddling criminals than catching them.
The other obvious case is their relentless 'hardening'
into an authoritarian instrument of state power, with
new powers to snoop and arrest, and fewer traditional
constraints. The EU, of course, is getting into the act,
hard on the European Arrest Warrant, which will enable
Britons to be arrested on British soil for things that
are not illegal in Britain. The EU would dearly like to
have its own enforcement arm, and the Euro police are
trying hard to become it.
The European Commission is set to boost the powers of
the EU police office - EUROPOL - suggesting that the criminal
intelligence body becomes a proper EU institution, financed
by the union and partially controlled by MEPs.
The commission proposal - to be adopted on Wednesday
(20 December) and seen by EUobserver - aims to strengthen
Europol's legal basis, simplify the decision-making involving
its activities and improve its powers in a bid to 'address
the new challenges' such as terrorism. Europol - based
in the Hague, Netherlands - was created in 1995 on the
basis of a convention - a type of intergovernmental agreement
- between member states to overlook law enforcement in
the areas such as drug trafficking, counterfeiting of
euro notes, money-laundering, human trafficking and terrorism.
Under the commission's proposal, its mandate should extend
to criminality 'which is not strictly related to organised
The EU executive argues that the move will 'ease support
provided by Europol to member states in relation to cross-border
criminal investigations where involvement of organised
crime is not demonstrated from the start.'
The new legislation will also enable Europol to assist
member states organising 'major international event with
a public order policing impact' such as sports events.
After the change of its legal basis, the criminal intelligence
body will be accountable not only to the ministers of
justice and home affairs but also to the European Parliament,
with MEPs have already called for such an arrangement.
According to some insiders, the commission's proposal
has been preceded by several discussions among national
experts who broadly favour the shift. Member states have
also agreed to put aside Euros 334 million for Europol
Its annual budget for 2007 is close to 68 million with
406 employees - who under the new rules would become proper