Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall? I think this is the first time I have served under you in Westminster Hall. I congratulate my colleague from Derbyshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), on securing what is a very important debate, particularly in Derbyshire. She mentioned many of the things I was going to say, but I will repeat some of them.
I want to talk specifically about the provision of community transport in my constituency. Despite its name, Glossop Community Transport serves not only Glossop, but residents across my whole constituency, so people should not be taken in by the name. The organisation was started in Glossop, and it is based there, but it looks after the whole of my large, rural constituency. A few years ago, I did a week out with different voluntary organisations, including a day with Glossop Community Transport. During that day, we did a variety of tasks. We went round picking up the elderly and vulnerable. We took them to the local shops and supermarkets. I was to be seen going round with trollies of food for the elderly and helping them with their weekly shopping.
As well as enabling people to get to the shops, the dial-a-bus service provides a valuable social benefit. When I was on the bus, I saw that there is a sense of camaraderie. It is almost like a social occasion; people go out and chat with each other. We talk a lot about exclusion; this is a great way of getting people together. There was a great sense of fun on the bus. A photograph was taken of me on the bus, and a couple of old ladies at the back were pulling faces behind me and stuff like that.
Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I bet they were.
Andrew Bingham: Yes, can you believe it? However, it is a fabulous service.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): It was fear in their eyes.
Andrew Bingham: No, I do not think it was fear. Some may say it was lust, but I could not possibly comment.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Steady on.
Mr David Nuttall (in the Chair): Order.
Victoria Prentis (Banbury) (Con): At this point, I will ask my hon. Friend to allow me to intervene.
Andrew Bingham: Yes, I think I had better have a sit down—we are all getting very hot under the collar.
Victoria Prentis: The debate is going to places that community transport does not normally reach.
Andrew Bingham: I said it was a good service.
Victoria Prentis: I am grateful for the marvellous volunteers who operate from the town of Banbury. They provide a good service for those who, sadly, have to travel to hospital, particularly early in the morning, when other forms of transport are not available. Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that other parts of the community also need services that are not provided by public buses, such as young people who have finished their education and who need to travel to work? People such as young apprentices also need to be able to take some form of public transport in rural constituencies.
Andrew Bingham: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are so many potential uses for community transport, and she has remarked on just one. The door-to-door service that operates in High Peak is trusted, consistent and valued. When we took people home with their shopping, we did not just drop them off; I helped them to the door, as the drivers do every week. In addition, Glossop Community Transport does many other things, and the potential of these organisations has been highlighted. The organisation’s out-and-about club is for people who would not otherwise get out and about in the community. People are taken on day trips—the constituency is 80 or 90 miles from Blackpool, and they are taken to things such as the illuminations.
That work relies on funding from Derbyshire County Council, but it also relies heavily on volunteers. Constituents, including friends and colleagues—people such as George and Jean Wharmby and Chris Webster—give up their time to drive the buses around the constituency and beyond and to assist the passengers. In short, the funding is not just about money to make the service operate; it levers in so much more than just money, bringing together people in the community, so that they work as a community, for the community. The benefits are therefore huge.
As we know, there have been necessary reductions in public spending, and Glossop Community Transport has played its part. In February, it joined forces with Bakewell and Eyam Community Transport, which is outside my constituency, but still in Derbyshire, to make savings. I am told that, since April, the new organisation has saved about £85,000, because the pooled resource has enabled a reduction in subsidy, and a move from two separate grants of £186,000.
Amanda Solloway (Derby North) (Con): I want to come to Glossop, too; it sounds like great fun on the community transport. Derby City Council outsources its community transport to private firms. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to promote close working relationships between councils and the private sector to get the best for the taxpayer?
Andrew Bingham: Of course we do. That goes across a wide range of services. I spent 12 years as a local councillor, and there are lots of areas beyond community transport where we can work with the private sector.
I was explaining that the two community groups each had a separate grant of £186,000. They have merged and now operate on a single joint grant of £285,000, so quite a big saving has been made of about £80,000. Only last week I met Edwina Edwards of the community transport service, to talk about it and how it was operating. She and her staff, as well as the volunteers, work tirelessly to keep the service literally on the road.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash has already pointed out that Derbyshire County Council has proposed removing the grant. There was a consultation in the summer that produced more than 1,000 responses. It was proposed to make the changes from 1 April, I think, but I am told that that has been put back to 1 July; I do not think that the council knows quite what to do. I am told that it intends to seek tenders for providing a service, but to date nothing has been published and there appear to be no firm published plans—and I am told that nothing has even been presented to Derbyshire County Council’s cabinet.
There is talk of a one-year contract for the provision of a once-a-week service. There were some workshops in the summer and agreement was widespread—almost unanimous—that once a week is not sufficient. In my view, a one-year contract is also insufficient. If we want an organisation to invest in a service, that does not provide enough certainty for long enough. I ran a small business for many years, and one thing that businesses or organisations like is certainty. A year goes by in the blink of an eye, and it is not long enough.
I admit—it is clear—that we have asked local authorities to make savings; but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash, I have great concerns about the way in which DCC is doing it. It has recently removed many of what, when I was a kid, we used to call lollipop men and lollipop ladies; they probably have a title now. I understand the need for that, but, to digress a little, the lollipop lady has gone from Furness Vale school in my constituency, although it is right at the side of the A6, one of the main arterial routes into the south of Manchester. I fear that those who are looking for savings are using the wrong priorities.
As has already been said, £150,000 was paid to a public relations firm, to do a range of things including advising cabinet members on PR. The chief executive was paid off when Labour took control in 2013, at a cost of almost £250,000. People have come to my surgery about the spending of, I think, £70,000 on some public trails, because of a single complaint, without consultation or proper discussion with the Peak District national park. That has been described to me as wanton ecological vandalism. That profligacy is becoming widespread in the county council. Yet the cuts that we are debating will affect the vulnerable. I understand the need to make savings and do not shy away from it; but the proposals on community transport in Derbyshire are ham-fisted. They are a blunt instrument that may save some money but will disadvantage those who are already disadvantaged, and mean the removal of what has become a valuable and much loved service throughout my constituency.