Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Post offices are vital to our local communities

Small businesses are the backbone of community life in all parts of Wales. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way in which Post Offices provide a valuable service to communities across Bridgend and the surrounding area.

They not only gave an important focus to life in our towns and villages but also provide a lifeline for the elderly, disabled and those in deprived areas to access their pensions, benefits and other financial transactions.

Last week, I convened a meeting with sub-postmasters in my constituency to hear directly from them the problems that they are facing in keeping their offices open. We are now in the process of formulating a joint action plan which will help us to secure the future viability of post offices in Bridgend.

The Welsh Assembly Government’s policies have been designed to safeguard and develop Post Offices as core community amenities and features. Through the Post Office Development Fund, over £4.1 million in grants have been distributed to 106 post offices – 60% in isolated urban areas and 40% in rural areas – with the primary aim being to prevent the closure of loss making post offices.

Recently announced plans to reform the business rates system in Wales will also play a part in improving the viability of local post offices. The proposals will mean Post Offices with a rateable value under £9,000 will receive 100% and those with a rateable value between £9,000 and £11,999 will receive 50% relief.

The new system will be fairer and easier to understand. Because rateable values tend to be lower in the poorer areas of Wales, the focus of the policy on smaller Post Offices will be of particular benefit to poorer areas, urban or rural.

A major concern for all sub-postmasters is the ending of the Post Office Card Account by the Westminster Government in 2010. They fully understand the need for all the possible options to be explored when spending public funds but, and I fully support them on this, a compromise has to be reached that gives the taxpayer the best deal for their money whilst at the same time taking into account the wider interests of the people who rely on the services that Post Offices provide.

Thriving communities need thriving post offices. They are businesses but they are also, essentially, public services. People can do their bit by using their nearest post office as often as possible to pick up their benefits, purchase stamps and access their high street bank accounts closer to home.

We must do all we can to ensure that locally available post office services are maintained and strengthened. By customers, sub-postmasters and elected representatives working together in partnership, I am confident that we can continue to make progress to achieve this.

(Article first published in the Bridgend & Valleys Recorder)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Tackling crime in the longer term

Last week I spent an interesting two hours in the company of the Probation Service in Bridgend.

Never an easy job, the service has to contend on occasion with the London newspapers' determination to make the criminal justice system fundamentally flawed.

Many of you will remember the Craig Sweeney case from the summer when some in the media gave the impression he was only going to serve five years in prison for child abduction and assault. In fact he was sentenced to imprisonment for life, but you wouldn't have received that impression from what you read.

Probation is certainly far harder now that it was 10 or 15 years ago, and the officers in Bridgend are a realistic and professional bunch. Of the statistics we discussed, one of them stood out more than any other - their rough estimate that about 70 per cent of offenders committed their crime as a result of drugs. This ranged from those stealing to support a heroin habit to those who became violent when drunk.

To my mind this shows the importance of making sure that, along with a robust system of dealing with these people through the court system, we also need to make sure we have the ability to treat people who are drug addicts if we really want to move them away from crime.

I also get a lot of people contacting me over youth annoyance, and until recently Wildmill was one of the areas where it was at its worst. This week I also visited the youth club on the estate and was impressed by what was being done there. Until the club opened, there was absolutely nothing for youngsters to do there. Small wonder that older residents were plagued by some of the youngsters.

Since the club opened, the amount of youth annoyance has dropped substantially. It still exists of course, but not at previous levels. Give kids a chance to do something, or better still, to broaden their horizons, to show what the world can offer, and many of them will change for the better.

Nobody seriously argues that the courts shouldn't be hard on those who commit crime. Nobody would suggest that serious or persistent offenders shouldn't be imprisoned. Certainly nobody would suggest that dangerous offenders should be allowed out of prison, and I doubt if Craig Sweeney ever will be. I worked in the system long enough to understand that some people cannot be reformed and must be taken out of society for the good of the public.

If we can divert youngsters away from crime at an early age then that is in their own interest and everybody else's. That means making sure we have enough youth clubs and facilities for young people and we do as much as possible to steer them away from drugs in the first place.

It won't end crime, but it can certainly limit it.

(Article first published in the Glamorgan Gazette)