Rural Policies

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th July 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk 9:34 am, 16th July 1997

I am most grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to introduce the debate. I am grateful also to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), for being in her place to reply on behalf of the Government. It shows the real concern that so many hon. Members have for the future of rural areas that so many are in the Chamber this morning.

On 9 February 1996, in a joint letter to The Times, the then Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats wrote as follows: On one subject we speak with a united voice—namely in advocating the protection of our countryside in its rich personality and character. Regrettably, less than 18 months after that optimistic letter was written, that consensus is falling apart.

Only last week, more than 100,000 people came to Hyde park because they believe that the rural way of life is now at risk. They did not attack policemen, they did not burn cars and they did not shout abuse; they were restrained and good humoured. Nevertheless, their anxieties were genuine and heartfelt.

The chief executive of the British Field Sports Society explained: the countryside is waking up to the fact that this Government has an urban majority that doesn't understand or, indeed, represent rural interests. Countrymen can no longer afford to be complacent; they need to put their heads above the parapet and be counted. The urban majority must listen to the voice of the countryside before it is too late. Over a period, some of those who sought a rural way of life have felt to some extent marginalised. The issue has now come forcefully to a head, however, with a new Government who are clearly bent on institutionalising urban-based political correctness. We have a Government who are dedicated to destroying country sports, which are an integral element of country life from both social and economic points of view.

The United Kingdom is one of the most urbanised countries in Europe, and that is especially true of England. There is hardly a place in this country that would not fall within city limits if it were in the United States. Hardly a farm is more than 30 miles from a major town or city.

For many, commuting has become a way of life. Increasing accessibility has fundamentally changed the relationship between town and country.

It is forecast that the number of households in England and Wales will increase by 4.4 million by the year 2010, and many of those people will wish to settle in the countryside. Pressures on space and services are causing considerable alarm among those already living in the countryside.

There is, however, considerable potential for redeveloping existing urban areas. It is up to the new Government to decide how to implement the Environment Act 1995 in relation to the so-called brown-field sites. I hope that the Minister will give some clear signs this morning, because many in the rural areas believe that there is unacceptable pressure for new developments on green-field sites.

In 1995, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), when Secretary of State for the Environment, published a comprehensive White Paper entitled, "Rural England—A Nation committed to a Living Countryside". I applaud him again for that initiative. The White Paper began by declaring the countryside to be a national asset. It went on to outline the ingredients for sustainable development, such as meeting the economic and social needs of people who live and work in rural areas, conserving the character of the countryside while accommodating necessary change, and improving the viability of existing villages and market towns.

Yet something has clearly gone wrong. Many rural dwellers have already lost confidence in the new Government's desire and ability to protect their interests. Sadly, I believe that their fears are justified. We know that 13 million people live in the countryside or in small towns. These 13 million share exactly the same hopes, aspirations and concerns as everyone else about housing, transport, law and order, jobs, schools, health and recreational activity. But there are essential differences, because of remoteness and small scale, planning and transport differences, and the desire of many to enjoy fully the recreational opportunities of country living.

Even in rural counties such as Suffolk, the bias in service provision is manifestly towards the urban parts of the county. My right hon. and hon. Friends will confirm exactly the same situation in Labour-controlled local government throughout the country.

The Government's precise view of the future of local government is unclear. May I directly tell the Minister that the prospect of yet another tier of administration in rural areas is deeply unwelcome? The mentality of urbanisation that exists in the Labour party threatens the proper administration of our country way of life.

Regional assemblies are bound to be based in towns and cities and take powers away from parish and local councils in rural areas. The previous Government sought to enhance the powers of parish councils. Now, my constituents are in a state of limbo about the Government's plans for the administration of country areas. They are fully entitled to some clarity.

Suffolk county council, for example, while for ever reciting the "lack of resources" mantra, has given, effectively, an open cheque book commitment to an expensive park and drive scheme in the city of Ipswich. Yet, disgracefully, I cannot even get a much-needed footpath built in a rural village in my constituency, allegedly because there is no money. Similarly, lorries shatter the peace of rural villages because local authorities will not give urgent and sufficient priority to properly co-ordinated lorry management schemes, which are very much required.

Let us look at employment, which, as in the rest of the country, has been a considerable success story. One of the most disappointing features of the new Government is the way in which they are fundamentally failing to understand the increasingly fragmented nature of our economy. Apart from the agricultural sector, throughout the country there are thousands of people with offices in their homes, in rural cottages or converted barns, linked to their main offices or customers via the telephone, fax, Internet and e-mail. They may go to an office in a city only once or twice a week. Much of that activity is highly creative. It suits modern life styles. It is flexible. Some people may wish to work only part time.

We saw in the 1980s the massive job downsizing in large companies. Workplace fragmentation and the growth of outsourcing have flowered in this country. Now, bluntly, that is at risk. Having given away our employment rights when we signed up to the social chapter, we shall inevitably be at the receiving end of employment directives that will kill off this highly successful evolving process.

The European social and economic model is an employment disaster. The huge rural depopulation of France illustrates that clearly. The imposition of a minimum wage coupled with job-destroying directives will play havoc with the rural economy.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the only places in Britain where there is a minimum wage are rural areas, because the Conservative Government failed to abolish the agricultural wages councils?

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I am afraid that the hon. Lady entirely misses the point. There has been a diversity of economic activity and job creation away from the agriculture sector in rural areas precisely because there is not the sort of regulation that has destroyed employment in rural areas in countries such as France. I am astonished that she fails to understand that.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

It is always interesting when Ministers come to the Dispatch Box so badly briefed about the minimum wage. The agriculture wages council—

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

The agriculture wages board, which is an exact model of what the Government want to bring in, has a minimum wage of £2.95. It would be nice to know from the Minister whether £2.95 will be the national minimum wage.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

My hon. Friend is quite right. Perhaps the hon. Lady is not aware that there are many jobs other than farming that sustain the rural economy. Clearly, she is utterly ignorant of that fact.

Most businesses in rural areas employ fewer than 20 people. The most helpful thing that the Government could do to enable them to compete is to cut business rates, as we promised in our manifesto. Already, rate reliefs are available for village shops and post offices. They do not want to see a return to the local control of business rates by local authorities, some of which are instinctively anti-business. They do not want to be beholden to local authority officials whose ability to gold plate European health and safety legislation is legendary. Regrettably, the only policy that the Government have so far announced is the statutory right to interest, which was opposed by the overwhelming majority of small business organisations.

Rural areas need a balanced transport system. The imposition of new so-called green taxes in the latest Budget has had a particularly damaging effect on rural car users. It is to be hoped that the privatisation of our rail services will mean a more effective and balanced challenge to road hauliers. However, any sense of urgency so far is lamentably lacking. In my constituency, the A11 is a death trap and the Elveden crossroads truly life-threatening.

Valiant efforts have been made by interested parties, with considerable success, to resolve these problems co-operatively. I sought the help of the new Minister for Roads simply to bring this all together, only to be told that the whole roads programme was indefinitely under review. There appears to be nothing that is not under review. It is ludicrous that, after Labour waiting 18 years to get back into government, crucial decisions affecting our lives remain in suspended animation. People in rural areas have a right to know what transportation policies will be pursued.

On the subject of reviews, may I also tell the hon. Lady of the very real anxiety of many of my constituents following the announcement of the Secretary of State for Health that hospitals would close? In rural areas, there has been a dramatic improvement in the provision of primary health care through GP fundholding. Now we are, apparently, to have a fresh upheaval in the NHS with the creation of a new bureaucracy called locality commissioning groups.

I very much regret the closure of many smaller acute care hospitals over the years. Because we do not know what is happening, and there is a review, there is fear among GPs, nurses, doctors and patients that medium-sized acute care hospitals will close, too. In rural areas, that would be a catastrophe. Patients would have to travel miles to hospital or to receive visits from family and friends. It removes the essential linkage between local communities and their hospitals.

There is genuine concern that the West Suffolk hospital, in Bury St. Edmunds, which serves most of my constituents, will be closed, so let me spell it out clearly. If the Government decide that, to save money and further appease their urban supporters, they will concentrate acute care facilities in a very limited number of giant hospitals—if acute care health services are remorselessly centralised—there will be far more than 100,000 people protesting in the rural areas about the future of their health services.

Our farms are not theme parks to be trampled over at will by outsiders. There is a balance to be achieved. All hon. Members will applaud the efforts made by the Country Landowners Association in its Access 2000 statement issued last May. Much voluntary progress has been made. I very much hope that the Government will work constructively with local authorities, landowners and countryside users for sustainable access. We must not create some statutory right to roam, and never again should we witness the horrific activities of so-called new age travellers, who had nil respect for the countryside, its inhabitants or its wildlife.

There are many other areas of rural life that I should like to touch on. I am sure that my hon. Friends will do so if they are fortunate enough to catch your eye, Madam Speaker. The 1995 White Paper brought together the rural aspects of all Government policies for the first time. May I therefore ask the Government to commit themselves to a similar integrated approach to rural policy so that the uncertainties that I have spelt out can be dealt with?

Last week, in Hyde park, we witnessed a defining moment. The catalyst was the private Member's Bill that seeks to ban country sports, particularly fox hunting. Marchers came to Hyde park from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. The Bill makes a clear distinction, albeit a spurious one, between fishing and field sports. Somehow, it is entirely legitimate and not cruel to stick a barbed hook in a fish's mouth, play with it in the water, land it and watch it suffocate. At least, that is how some might interpret the situation.

No one disputes the fact that foxes are predators whose numbers must be controlled, but, under that private Member's Bill, it would be acceptable for vixens and their cubs to be gassed in their lairs, and for foxes to be snared only to die slowly and painfully and to be shot at with the risk of injury. All those practices may well happen, but allowing a fox to be killed instantly in the jaws of a foxhound would not be acceptable.

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

For the record, let me point out that gassing foxes is illegal in this country.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I appreciate that, but, although it is illegal, it is—regrettably—known to happen. The culling of foxes is a particular problem for farmers. If fox hunting were banned, we might just see an upsurge in such activity, which would be thoroughly undesirable.

The former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports, Richard Course, observed: When I became fully and objectively appraised of all facts, and conversant with all related arguments, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that the prosecution of the anti-hunt case would not advance "fox welfare" and consequently could not be justified. I dwell on the subject because the importance of fox hunting is essentially twofold. As the New Scientist put it on 19 April 1997, Foxhunting has helped shape the British landscape. Areas where it is common often have more hedgerow and thicket which benefit other wildlife besides the fox. These would disappear if hunting were banned. Fourteen thousand acres of woodland are owned or managed by hunts, and 95 per cent. of hunts undertake conservation work—the maintenance of bridleways, gates and so forth—while 1.4 million carcases are disposed of each year, either free of charge or at minimum cost. Hunting is an essential part of the traditional life of the countryside and has considerable economic significance.

There are 385 registered packs of hounds and 228,000 participants in registered packs and clubs. The 1997 update of the Cobham report estimated direct employment at 15,300 and direct expenditure at £176 million, with a turnover of £122 million involving 9,700 separate businesses. Five thousand pubs are patronised for hunt meets and other fixtures. The hunt is a broadly based social activity, often taking place in remote country areas: it is a way of bringing people together. Seventy per cent. of all woodland planting on English and Welsh farms is for sporting purposes.

Earlier, I tried to express the concern of rural dwellers about such matters as the rural economy, transport, health services, access and so-called green taxes. That concern, however, is merely a backdrop to the exploding sense of alienation from the urban-based, politically correct values that are clearly hallmarks of the present Government.

This is a matter of fundamental principle. No one can deny the right of anyone in our democracy to dislike fox hunting, to argue against it, to ignore it or even to find it repulsive. It is wholly different, however, when that right is translated into the punishment of those with whom such people disagree—their punishment as criminals.

How would the law be enforced when a farmer sought to cull foxes, and tried to flush them out with his dogs? Would that be a criminal activity? Where is the line to be drawn? Foxes are predators: they kill for the sheer pleasure of it. Savagely tearing the limbs off lambs and decapitating chickens, ornamental ducks or even swans has nothing to do with the need to eat. Yet we return to the same principle: should the state have the right to punish someone for his activities simply because the majority find them distasteful, and, in so doing, to have a severe impact on the economy of rural areas?

Last year, 3.3 million people went fishing and more than 700,000 shot game and wild fowl. Annual direct expenditure on country sports runs at £3.8 billion and has provided more than 60,000 full-time jobs. Indirect expenditure totals £2.4 billion and has provided 31,000 jobs. Government income runs at more than £600 million.

In our urbanised society, nature has become entirely removed from what we eat. It is a kind of carnal disembodiment. Butter and milk bear no relation to cows; eggs bear no relation to chickens; and chickens bear no relation to feathers. What is really repulsive is the way in which our new politically correct elite decides, in an inconsistent, illiberal and intolerant way, what is good for us all. Rural Britain is patronisingly viewed as some kind of Disney theme park.

When the sensitive luminaries of Islington, Hampstead and Highgate sit down to eat, the only thing that is wild about the poached salmon is the price. For them, a visit to the countryside all too often means a visit to a luxury health hydro, where they can "de-stress" after all the exhausting intellectual gymnastics of what they have decided is and is not currently politically correct.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

My hon. Friend has set out a great many facts and figures for the record, and for the edification of Labour Members. Should we not also record the fact that fewer than half a dozen Labour Back Benchers have bothered to attend the debate?

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, which is at the heart of the debate. Rural issues cannot be distinguished from the mainstream of British life; they are part of the nation. The contempt with which the Government are treating rural areas is, however, manifest in the number of Conservative Members who are present.

There is a serious point to be made, to which my hon. Friend has alluded. A substantial part of our population should be allowed to continue a way of life that is currently under threat. This is not only about hunting, but about all the activities that are linked with it: gymkhanas, horse trials and point-to-points. Those who despise the rural life will inevitably go after shooting as well. Not only would the whole rhythm of country life be affected by such moves, but trees, fences and hedgerows would soon be at risk.

Before the general election campaign, the Prime Minister declared his desire to lead one nation. He talked of the community and of social cohesion, and the electorate responded. Only weeks after the election, however, the uncertainties that had already stirred in rural Britain have been translated into real fear and anxiety. The Government's policies so far appear to be at worst hostile, and at best irrelevant, to the needs of rural Britain. I hope that the Prime Minister will not go down in history as the first Prime Minister to cause an irrevocable and damaging split between the rural and urban parts of our nation.

We have had a rocky start from this Government. I urge the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to listen carefully to the concerns of people living in the countryside in the years ahead. They are entitled to the same consideration as everyone else. They are entitled to a policy framework and services adjusted to their needs, and should not to be treated as second-class citizens.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn 9:59 am, 16th July 1997

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing the debate, although I disagree with almost everything that he said. I represent a rural constituency and I won that seat from the Conservatives in 1992. My hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) are present. They won seats from the Conservatives in the recent general election. Many Labour Members speak for rural areas. Conservative Members do not represent as much as a single tree or field in Scotland and Wales.

The Conservative party is not the only party which speaks for rural Britain. The Labour party achieved its highest-ever vote in rural areas on 1 May. We wiped out the Conservatives in rural Scotland and rural Wales. Many of my hon. Friends speak in the Chamber and run the country on behalf of rural Britain as a whole.

I hope that the debate will focus on positive points. In the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I say immediately that I welcomed much of what the previous Government did to recognise the needs of rural areas. I welcomed the proposals in the White Papers for rural Scotland, Wales and England. I welcomed the fact that "Rural England" was produced by the previous Government, and I recognise that the document "Working Countryside for Wales" was important. However, the debate should be put in the context of the Conservative Government's performance on rural issues.

I should like to draw Conservative Members" attention to the Environment Select Committee's report on rural England, which highlighted problems that the Conservative Government had caused and which they had to face in the previous Parliament. Their documents proposed a certain strategy, but the Environment Select Committee's report highlighted rural poverty, the need to sustain market towns, the removal of large tracks of woodland and the need to develop key targets to achieve improvements in rural areas, which the previous Government failed to do.

Photo of Nicholas Soames Nicholas Soames Conservative, Mid Sussex

We all share the aim of removing rural poverty, as the hon. Gentleman calls it. Does he truly think that the introduction of a minimum wage will contribute to removing rural poverty? In an interview during the general election campaign with the distinguished journalist from The Sunday Times, A. A. Gill, the present Deputy Prime Minister, with welcome candour, said that the introduction of a minimum wage was likely to increase unemployment.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I strongly support a minimum wage. During the general election campaign, many of the people who work in the rural parts of my constituency supported a minimum wage. Many of the farmers in my constituency, who are legion, lobbied me strongly when the Conservative Government tried to abolish the agricultural wages boards. Farmers and people in rural areas in my constituency recognise the need for an inclusive society in which everyone has a stake and in which people are part of the businesses in which they work.

One of the things I am most looking forward to in this Parliament is the establishment of a low pay commission, so that people in rural and urban areas can contribute to the decision on a reasonable level for the minimum wage. That will ensure an end to some elements of rural poverty in our communities.

We have had 18 years of Conservative government and 18 years of their stewardship of rural areas. The hon. Member for West Suffolk knows my constituency well and is a frequent visitor. He is aware that many rural areas have suffered dramatically under Conservative rule. Rural crime has risen. I could show the hon. Gentleman the former police stations in the rural areas of my constituency that were closed by the Conservatives. I could take him to see many of farmers and rural constituents who have suffered dramatically from rural crime. Dyfed Powys police have organised a conference next week at the Royal Welsh show to highlight the issue of rural crime. It is an important matter, and the Conservative party failed to deal with it during their stewardship of the rural community.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Mid Norfolk

Do the Government intend to reopen those police stations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

The Labour Government will put resources into policing to ensure that we reduce crime. There is a difference between removing police stations and reducing rural crime cover, and examining that issue in the light of the damage done by the previous Government. We will put resources into policing to ensure that rural as well as urban areas are covered.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

In a moment. There is a limited amount of time, and many hon. Members want to speak.

With regard to transport, 33 million bus journeys per year were lost in Wales thanks to rural bus deregulation. On housing, we have had inappropriate planning policies, many planning appeals have been allowed and council house building has been prevented, thus reducing the number of affordable homes in rural areas. Great damage has been done on a range of issues as a direct result of the Conservative Government's policies.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Bearing in mind the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already confirmed expenditure policies for the current and the next financial year, will the hon. Gentleman tell us how much extra money will be spent on rural policing over and above that which the previous Government announced?

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

The Chancellor has said that the target limits for the next two years are the same, but the priorities within them will be reviewed. A fundamental and comprehensive spending review is being undertaken, which will examine levels of spending and what has been done. We should also consider the key issue of crime prevention in rural areas to ensure that we reduce crime. The Government will improve on the previous Government's performance in many aspects of policy.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who has now left the Chamber, referred to wage levels. The Conservative Government launched an assault on the agricultural wages boards and tolerated rural low pay and rural poverty. I look forward to the establishment by the new Labour Government of a minimum wage and positive policies to tackle those issues.

The previous Government's record on education was appalling. The main concerns in my constituency during the previous Parliament were nursery vouchers and the potential for selection in schools, both of which had a dramatic effect on rural areas. If there is selection and if there is only one major school in a nearby town, many rural people will require additional transport to get their children to school. The rejection of the nursery voucher scheme in Wales was overwhelming in rural areas. The vast majority of petitions that I received from rural areas during the previous Parliament were about nursery voucher provision. The Conservative Government's education policies did great damage to my rural constituents.

People in rural areas are concerned about the removal of shops and pubs. The possible privatisation of the Post Office caused great fear in rural communities. The sell-off of woodlands and the destruction of hedgerows were part of a range of policies that the previous Government followed, and I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will address those problems.

There is also the farm crisis fiasco of BSE, which has cost billions of pounds of taxpayers' money and has destroyed many rural incomes and rural communities. It has put great pressure on the people whom some Conservative Members purport to represent.

One reason why there are 164 Conservative Members and 418 Labour Members is the previous Government's failure—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There is much shouting in the Chamber. Hon. Members should not try to shout down the hon. Gentleman because he expresses an opinion with which they do not agree.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Many of my hon. Friends are out running the country, which is why they are not here at the moment.

The BSE crisis had a tremendous impact in rural areas. I should like to see some key policies put into practice in the countryside. We must look at economic prosperity to see how the Government can encourage small and medium-sized businesses to develop.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

Time is pressing. I have given way a number of times and I must make progress so that other hon. Members may have an opportunity to speak.

I want economic renewal in rural areas. The hon. Member for West Suffolk spoke about information technology. I hope that the Government will extend information technology services and encourage them in many parts of rural Wales, especially in my area. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the important issue of developing rural communities and businesses. The Government should support a modern reappraisal of IT and put some effort and resources into it.

The Government should encourage environmentally sustainable businesses, help farmers to diversify, and encourage and develop tourism. They should use the proceeds of the windfall tax, which will shortly be on stream, to help young people in rural areas where there is high and persistent unemployment. Community projects would create employment opportunities for such young people.

The Government should concentrate on the protection and enhancement of the countryside environment and set national strategies for the protection of rural areas. That will entail considering hedgerows and the retention and planting of woodlands so that we can rebuild the rural community that was decimated by many of the Conservative Government's policies. There should be a Minister in each Department responsible for countryside matters, and the Government should help to provide low-cost housing by assisting housing associations and using some capital receipts to allow local authorities to build small developments of rented accommodation. That would allow many of my constituents to stay in the communities in which they were born and have grown up.

The current review of transport policy should enable bus services to be examined again so that they are improved in many of my rural communities. Many Conservative policies caused great damage, and there is much that the new Government need to do. Their policies will help all the people of the United Kingdom and specifically many of my rural constituents.

The Government should consider using lottery funds to help rural areas. There is much that a people's lottery can do to refurbish village halls and to provide amenities in villages and playing fields. Rather than concentrating lottery money on the major towns and projects, spending should be diversified and put into local communities. That would encourage small organisations as well as the large, well-prepared, well-briefed organisations to have access to lottery money.

There is an opportunity for people in rural areas to work with the new Government. Many of us live and work in rural areas and speak for their inhabitants. The Government have an opportunity to do much good work that will undo some of the damage caused by the Conservative Government. We shall govern for all the people of this United Kingdom. All our people have a stake in it, and we speak for rural areas as strongly as do the fox hunters, the shooters and Conservative Members.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 10:14 am, 16th July 1997

The debate takes place in the immediate aftermath of the great countryside rally in Hyde park, which I attended. The countryside is under threat from a range of influences, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) has described. Stupid bureaucrats, greedy speculators, rogue gangs and cultural and material vandalism have all placed the countryside that we all love and cherish under threat.

The rally seemed to polarise two important issues on the issue of fox hunting. One of those issues is the tension between town and country, which has been exacerbated, particularly by spiteful and malicious press coverage in, for example, The Mirror. It referred to people who live in the countryside as bumpkins, and the reports seemed to be written by a gang of reporters who have no feeling for the countryside or the cause of animal welfare, which they pretend to espouse. Presumably they went out and ate enormous plates of steak and chips after filing their reports.

The second issue that has been affected by the polarisation is animal welfare, which the single-minded obsession with fox hunting is threatening. My credentials in this field are well known and I hope that the House will allow me briefly to weary it with them. My maiden speech supported a Bill to abolish hare coursing, which was presented by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when he was in opposition, and I voted for his later Bill to protect wildlife.

When I was Minister for Trade, I drafted legislation on fur labelling which is currently being enacted by the European Union. I have participated in many such activities, including joining the picket line at Dover docks. That was probably not the best way to ingratiate oneself with the Conservative associations which I was assiduously courting at that time.

I do not hunt and I do not permit hunts to cross land that I own. Some types of hunting are cruel and sadistic. They include the practice of stopping up, which, for Labour Members who do not know about it, involves blocking a fox's earth so that, at the end of the pursuit, the fox cannot go underground, digging him out when he does go underground, and cubbing. There should be a close season on that pastime. Stag hunting is another such pastime. The right way to get rid of a stag is with a Mannlicher .273 with a telescopic sight, not tearing it to pieces in water.

Those who favour a Bill on fox hunting must be prepared to make some concessions. There is a majority feeling on the topic that cannot be ignored. If Labour Members and the Government are prepared to make illegal—and they should be illegal—the practices that I have identified, they could allow the pursuit of a fox across the countryside. That practice is deeply rooted in the pageantry of our rural history, is seated in 300 to 400 years of practice and has not only a pictorial but a sporting element attaching to it. If they can sanitise it by taking out practices that are genuinely offensive, barbarous and cruel, they would be well advised to allow it to continue.

The whole question of animal welfare has become so polarised that matters that do require attention—laboratory experiments, brutalities in stockyards, factory farming and the horrendous industrialised exploitation of animals, which takes place daily—all need to be addressed urgently by the House. There is a danger that, if Labour Members get rid of fox hunting, they will feel that they can turn their attention to other things—that they have done their duty in the animal welfare sector and can move on. This is an important subject which requires careful attention and proper analysis. There is room for a compromise along the lines that I have suggested.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean 10:20 am, 16th July 1997

I thank the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) for his contribution, and agree that that issue is dear to many people in rural areas and needs full debate and full investigation. However, it is fascinating that, in a debate on rural policies, the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea talked almost exclusively about a minority blood sport. There has not been much comment on what is at the heart of rural issues.

One of the reasons why Labour won so many rural seats in the general election in May is that we addressed the real issues in rural areas. Conservative Members have talked about people coming to the rally from Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Where is the Conservative representation in those areas? The idea that Conservative Members represent the countryside is nonsense. It is the Labour Government who represent people in rural areas, because we address the issues that concern them.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

The hon. Lady entirely misses the point. The Labour party is in government. It is now responsible for rural areas. We should like some answers on policy issues, which, so far, it is pushing out of the way. That is the whole point of this exercise.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

The point of the exercise is to show that the past 18 years of Conservative Government have decimated rural services and rural transport, have hindered access to affordable housing and have put rural areas at a disadvantage compared to urban areas.

The biggest problem in rural areas is access to jobs, to advice and to housing. Because of the 1985 bus deregulation, the Conservatives cut off at the knees any opportunity for rural areas to be able to develop a good communication and transport infrastructure. The pursuit of the market principle which the Conservatives followed relentlessly for 18 years, with the threats on the Post Office, rail privatisation, bus deregulation, the development of out-of-town shopping and inappropriate housing development, is the reason why rural areas felt increasingly marginalised, looked to Labour and said, "Yes, you have the policies that address our concerns." Added to the chaos in the agriculture sector and the total mishandling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, people lost all confidence in the Conservatives.

Problems in rural areas are often difficult to identify because people suffering social deprivation often live in small pockets, cheek by jowl with wealthy people. In my constituency, there are small pockets of deprivation in places such as Broadwell, Bream, Lydney and Cinderford, but they are cheek by jowl with affluent commuter areas such as Newent and Newnham. The problems are therefore difficult to identify.

The second problem is that, in many ways, rural areas deprivation problems are worse than those of urban deprivation because of the problem of access. That is biggest issue in rural areas. People need to get a job and to training. In the Forest of Dean constituency, there are three principal towns: Lydney, Cinderford and Coleford. People can take a bus only from Coleford to Cinderford. They cannot get one from Lydney to Cinderford, yet it is the centre of further education, skills and training. That means that people live in rural areas do not have access to the services that they require.

One thing that we must do in the transport review is to make bus services accountable to local communities so that they have a say in the frequency of service, the route and the setting of fares. The 1985 deregulation increased the poverty of rural areas almost incalculably.

The other issue is the release of capital receipts. The lack of affordable quality housing leads to distress and homelessness in rural areas. Capital receipts will allow local authorities to improve the housing stock and maintenance, and, more important, to build social housing in rural areas.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Is the hon. Lady aware that most capital receipts have been raised in relatively pleasant rural areas and that the greatest social deprivation is likely to be found in cities? Therefore, most of our carefully preserved and raised capital receipts in rural areas will be spent elsewhere in England.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

That is not true. The hon. Gentleman should consider where the capital receipts are held. I absolutely refute that. The Labour Government have clearly said that we need to consider housing need and the best value that can be delivered, so we will move funds appropriately.

Local authorities in rural areas where there is housing need to hold capital receipts.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Having sat on the Standing Committee that considered the Local Government Finance (Supplementary Credit Approvals) Bill, which releases that money for housing spending, I believe that I am right in saying that, in the hon. Lady's constituency, the proposed formula will leave it worse off than it would have been if its authority had been left to spend its own capital receipts. I believe that I am right in saying that her constituency is one of those that will suffer under the system that the Government propose to introduce.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

Forest of Dean district council holds capital receipts of about £11.4 million, and we can deploy that money in all sort of projects, involving co-operatives, maintenance and grants to projects such as Anchor "Stay Put" to increase housing stock quality.

We need access not only to affordable social housing and transport, but to new technology—information technology. We do not want rural areas to become information poor. Labour's plans for putting ports and outlets through telecottages, schools, libraries, hospitals and colleges, and for access to cable and the super-highway, will enable rural areas to end their marginalisation and to be at the centre of the information revolution in Britain. That is important because such a revolution, through the training and the access that it offers, means that it will not matter whether you live in a small rural hamlet or in the centre of the metropolis. You will be equal with one another: you will shall have equal access to training and equal opportunity.

We must develop and sustain rural areas. In the past, it has been considered that large-scale private housing developments would be a way to provide sustainable economic growth to rural areas. I totally refute that. That is not the way forward. We are left in Gloucestershire with a vestige of Tory planning. There are plans to build estates of 1,000, 1,500 and 2,000 homes in areas of Gloucestershire such as Painswick, Sedbury and Tutshill. That is wholly inappropriate to those small villages. It is not the way forward and we are fighting to ensure that those plans do not go through.

Instead, we need to build on all the opportunities that the countryside offers. There is a strong arts and crafts heritage in the Forest of Dean. Indeed, in the British economy, the money deployed from culture is greater than that from manufacturing. There are many examples of rural areas being regenerated and revitalised through the growth of small-scale arts and crafts business that grow into large ones, such as Laura Ashley, Robert Walsh in Chipping Campden and Dartington in south Devon. Lottery money should be used to encourage the arts and crafts heritage in rural areas so that we can build sustainable small and medium-sized enterprises.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

Will the hon. Lady join me in supporting the work of the Rural Development Commission? Will she oppose any moves by her Government to abolish it?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Perhaps I could help the hon. Lady. On a number of occasions, she has used the term "you". She involves the Chair when she does so. I am reluctant to call her or order, but it might help her, so early in her career, to take note of such matters.

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for my lack of politeness to the Chair.

It is important to develop sustainable small and medium-sized businesses, using all the rich opportunities of the countryside such as leisure, tourism, culture and the arts. We need sustainable economic growth. We must deal with the real needs of the countryside.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I have been listening closely to the hon. Lady's thoughtful speech. She criticised my hon. Friends for what she thought was an excessive preoccupation with country sports. I hope that she will forgive me for saying that she seems studiously to be avoiding any reference to that subject. Does she propose to vote for a ban on fox hunting? If so, did she inform her electorate of that before the election?

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean

I have avoided the subject because it is a minority activity. The real issue is policies in rural areas. The Government will deliver policies on transport, housing and economic development that will deal with all the needs of rural areas.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:32 am, 16th July 1997

I have had the great pleasure and privilege of being born and brought up in my constituency. Therefore, I speak from some experience of life in rural areas and the impact of Government policies on that, rather than from—as is all too often the case—the perspective of people who have moved there latterly from better-off backgrounds and suburban environments, and have a rather idyllic and out-of-touch view of what living in rural areas is all about.

I was surprised that the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) should imply that all the ills facing the countryside are due entirely to the policies implemented by the Labour Government over the past two months, rather than those implemented by the Conservative Government over the past 18 years.

I remember going to the Lizard area when the Cury hunt was out. The whole community came together and my mates and I chased around on our pushbikes to see what was happening, although I do not remember the hunt ever catching a fox. I do not think that whatever happens to that leisure pursuit will have a significant impact on the economies of rural areas. I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) that there are far more pressing issues facing rural areas.

Conservative Members talk about leisure pursuits, but there should have been more support from the previous Government to improve facilities in rural areas. For example, they should have recognised—in the teeth of prejudice—the need for improved skateboarding facilities. Too often, we think about the leisure needs of the privileged, but the less well-off also have leisure needs. Providing those facilities would contribute considerably to the economies of rural area—

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The right hon. Gentleman represents the rural area of Kensington and Chelsea. He appears to be opposed to skateboarding in rural areas. It is an important issue. We want to tackle crime in rural areas, and providing leisure facilities for young people is important to that. Indeed, it is far more important than the wholly unimportant issue of fox hunting.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I will not give way. There have been many interventions from Conservative Members, and the Minister is waiting to reply to the debate.

Cornwall is an example of how the previous Government affected the economy of a rural area. Over the past 18 years, it has been at the bottom of the earnings league. It has one of the highest levels of unemployment among rural areas. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean accurately and rightly pointed out, the environment has been under great threat from the let-rip attitude of previous Tory environment Ministers, who have allowed rural areas to be over-developed with speculative housing and out-of-town supermarkets, despite the strong objections of local authorities.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

The Conservative Government's White Paper predicated that 4.4 million more houses would be needed by the year 2016. Where does the hon. Gentleman think those houses will be built? Does he want to deny people who want to move out of the cities the opportunity to live in rural areas? That would be the consequence of no further development in rural areas.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The fundamental flaw in the Conservative Government's policy was that they based their estimates of future population growth on past levels. That is spurious and I object strongly to that approach to planning needs.

Cornwall is a good example of population growth. It has grown faster than anywhere other than the county of Buckinghamshire, which has the new town of Milton Keynes. That growth has not been integrated with economic policies; instead, there has been a massive increase in unemployment. Growth and economic policies have not gone hand in hand. If the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is concerned about accommodating people in rural areas, what about the local people who have made homeless by Tory policies?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I share my hon. Friend's analysis of the behaviour of a Tory Government run by a suburban party.

It is very difficult for me to listen to the comments of some Members because, tomorrow, we will discuss capping provisions that will have disastrous effects on rural services in my own county of Somerset. I hope that some of the hon. Members who have spoken so eloquently on rural services in today's debate will support the counties of Somerset and Oxfordshire in tomorrow's debate on the issue.

On the matter of planning and housebuilding—

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am sure that the matter mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will be debated fully tomorrow. Because of my deep experience of the pains and pleasures of living in rural areas, I have a great deal to say—as I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate—on the matters that we are debating. However, I am aware also that I must leave time for the Minister's reply.

The past 18 years of Tory Government policy have led to an increase in homelessness in rural areas. The housing market is often called an open housing market, but it is a private housing market. In Cornwall, we have one of the nation's biggest mismatches between earnings levels and house prices. Opportunities for local people to get on to the first rung of the housing ladder are very few and far between, and those trying to obtain a council house in a remote rural area cannot get one.

In the private rented sector, the tourist industry has taken precedence. Rural areas therefore face enormous pressures, making it incredibly difficult for local people to find accommodation.

Building speculative, executive homes in rural areas does not answer the housing needs of local people. Those needs were also not met by the Tory Government's legislation, which allowed council tax reductions of 50 per cent. for second-home owners in rural areas. Such measures simply further encouraged the iniquitous trend towards second-home ownership, which—hand in hand with homelessness and a shortage of affordable housing—has greatly increased in many of the villages in my constituency.

Although many rural issues must be addressed, I specifically ask the Minister to tell us whether an integrated rural policy will be developed involving all Departments, including the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health—because many cottage hospitals are under threat—and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

We must also recognise the important role of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission. It was rather rich for my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) to question the Government's commitment to the Rural Development Commission. They have withdrawn funds from the commission and spent some of its core budget on the frivolous activities of rural challenge. I hope that the Minister will address the issue of integrated policies.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Conservative, South Suffolk 10:42 am, 16th July 1997

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate. Judging by the level of interest shown by hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, we could use a full day's debate on the subject every week for some time to come. I pay tribute to him on his speech, in which he made many important points. He is a resolute champion of rural interests in Suffolk.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) expressed views for which he is well known. I have no doubt that other hon. Friends, if they could have spoken in the debate, would have dealt in some detail with the points that he raised. I hope that they will have an opportunity to do so in a future debate.

I regret to say that I felt that the speeches by Labour Members demonstrated the nature of the problem. There may be many Labour Members in this Parliament, but there are very few with an understanding of the countryside. Judging by the attendance for today's debate, very few Labour Members have even an interest in the countryside.

Among the very important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk were the irrelevance of an additional tier of government for rural areas; the bias of many county councils—certainly it is true of Suffolk county council—against rural areas and in favour of urban areas, where Labour party support has traditionally been concentrated; neglect of—

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Conservative, South Suffolk

No. I am sorry, but I do not have time to give way.

Other points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk were the neglect of important rural assets, such as footpaths, and the impact of the minimum wage on the rural economy. I note that the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) did not say at what level the minimum wage which he so enthusiastically supported should be set.

On field sports, I reiterate my robust opposition to any legislation that aims to outlaw traditional country sports. In that context, will the Minister be able to tell us whether the fact that so many Labour Members support such legislation is connected to the £1 million donation to the Labour party from the International Fund for Animal Welfare? In the previous Parliament, in early-day motion 726, that organisation was described by Sir David Steel as a private company … which is simply an animal rights lobbying organisation fleecing money from the public and enriching its operators". Will the hon. Lady tell us whether the Labour party solicited that donation? In view of the Labour party's proclaimed commitment to opening up details about party funding, will she tell us—I am sure that she will not wish to dodge the question—whether the International Fund for Animal Welfare approached Labour, if Labour did not approach the fund?

Given the size of the donation, one must assume that the Labour party made detailed inquiries about the nature of the fund's activities. Will the Minister therefore tell us on what basis the Labour party judged that fund to be a suitable organisation from which to accept money? What discussions were held between Labour and the fund on the issue of field sports? If she cannot answer those questions in her reply, will she write to me and place a copy of her reply in the Library?

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk mentioned the White Paper on rural England, which was published—to widespread acclaim—in 1995. A progress report, "Rural England 1996", assessed the achievements of the 12 months following publication of the White Paper. At the conclusion of "Rural England 1996", there was a commitment to making subsequent progress reports in 1997 and thereafter. Will the Minister confirm that the Government intend to honour that commitment? Will she confirm also that future progress reports will contain the same helpful check list, listing every individual commitment, which was originally made in the 1995 White Paper and occupied the last four pages of "Rural England 1996"?

My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk also mentioned access—a crucial issue for many people living in the countryside. Will the Minister now tell the House what is meant by the Labour party's manifesto commitment, which refers to greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside but adds: We will not, however, permit any abuse of a right to greater access"? Does that commitment mean that there will be legislation to introduce a statutory right to roam? If it does not mean that, what does it mean?

Does the Minister understand that the uncertainty—indeed, the threat—about the Government's intentions does nothing to encourage further progress on voluntary agreements with landowners, which have secured such an enormous increase in the amount of open countryside to which the public now enjoy access?

My final comments deal with the all-important matter of resources. In the 2 July Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his smash-and-grab raid on pension funds by abolishing the advance corporation tax credit. Even now, two weeks later, the full impact of that smash-and-grab raid has not yet been fully understood. The consequences of the Chancellor's raid are devastating for rural areas and for the local authorities that are responsible for those areas. Norfolk county council, for example, now faces an annual shortfall of £5 million a year in its pension fund, which is more than 1 per cent. of its total budget. In Lincolnshire, the equivalent figure is £2.45 million; and, in Somerset, it is £2.1 million a year.

The shortfalls have already started to accumulate—the change was made effective two weeks ago—and they need to be made good very urgently. If local authorities are to act responsibly in the interests of their employees and future pensioners, they cannot allow their pension funds to fall into substantial deficit. Therefore, local authorities' contributions to those pensions funds must rise.

There are three options to meet the cost of those higher contributions. The first is that services can be cut; the second is that council tax can sharply rise; and the third is that the Government will raise the revenue support grant. There are no other options. Will the hon. Lady tell the House today which of the choices the Government propose to adopt? If she cannot tell us, will she at least say when she thinks the Government will announce which option they have chosen?

To put a little flesh on the argument, in Norfolk more than 200 teachers may now face the sack, making a total mockery of the Government's election promises about class sizes. As the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Colman) warned the Chancellor before the Budget, no increase of the sort required by the abolition of ACT could be afforded by local authorities without their having to make further cuts in services to their local residents. Millions of anxious people in the countryside will be hanging on the Minister's words this morning. They are wondering whether the Chancellor's smash-and-grab raid will cut services in their areas. Their uncertainty and anxiety should be ended at the earliest possible date.

I greatly regret that there is no time to pursue the other important issues raised in the debate. The Minister may not be able to respond to all the points raised by me and my colleagues, but I hope that she will deal with as many as she can. In passing, I remind her that I am still waiting for a letter from her on related issues that I raised in a debate on 10 June.

The importance of rural issues has been reflected in today's attendance and in the quality of the speeches, especially those of my colleagues. In the afterglow of their election victory, the Government may think that a majority derived from urban constituencies gives them the right to ride arrogantly and contemptuously over country dwellers and their concerns, but last week more than 100,000 people issued a powerful warning to the Government in Hyde park. This week, my hon. Friends have repeated that warning to the House. The Government ignore that warning at their peril. The Minister now has a chance to show that the Government will at least start governing in the interests of all the people in this country, including those who enjoy and live and work in the countryside.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 10:51 am, 16th July 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on his success in securing this debate, but he and some of his colleagues have missed the opportunity to deal with some of the real issues facing people who live in rural areas.

It is interesting to find that, in the general election, the hon. Member for West Suffolk suffered a 13 per cent. swing to Labour in his rural area. His majority is now only 1,800. When people had the chance to express their views about the previous Government's 18 years in office, there was a huge swing against the hon. Gentleman and the Conservatives—that is the real view of the people of rural Britain, not that expressed by the people in Hyde park last week.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

No, I have fewer than 10 minutes. Plenty of Conservative Members—well, all 11 who managed to stay for the entire debate, which is not a startling turnout—have had the opportunity to speak.

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), who accused me of not being briefed, left the Chamber for some of the debate and then returned, misquoted the levels of the minimum wage recently agreed by the agricultural wages board. For his information, they now stand at £4.20 an hour for ordinary labourers and £3.06 an hour for casual workers.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

It is indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to ask your advice on how I should proceed. I left the Chamber to check the figures, and I find that I did mislead the House. The minimum wage for an 18-year-old is £2.60 an hour, not £2.95, and for a 16-year-old it is £1.84.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Out of interest, the hon. Gentleman's majority is now 77. There was a 15 per cent. swing against him, which again shows the views of rural voters on the previous Government's 18 years in office.

Conservative Members have presented a caricature of the urban-rural debate. I understand that people have very powerful feelings about fox hunting and some issues which may be coming before the House in private Members' Bills, but this debate should rightly have been about the issues raised by, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) in his excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) and, indeed, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George).

They spoke about the problems that rural people face every day—the problems of transport, access to schools, hospitals and housing, especially for young people who face having to leave the places in which they were born because they cannot afford to live there. They are the issues that affect the everyday lives of people in our rural communities. It is a great pity that Conservative Members could not spend very much time even thinking about them because they were so obsessed with issues such as hunting, which the House will be debating.

Conservative Members made great play of last week's Hyde park rally. We were all privileged to hear the speech of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who told the rally that what he sees as the threat to hunting is a vicious onslaught on a treasured tradition of rural life. Where were Conservative Members—in fact, where were the members of the public who were in Hyde park last week?—when the right hon. Gentleman decimated the coal industry and destroyed 55,000 jobs in rural areas? The Conservative Members were in the Lobbies voting for it, so we shall take no lectures on hypocrisy from them.

In the time left to me, I should like to ask Conservative Members to take this opportunity to condemn—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There is a great deal of noise from Opposition Members, which is unfair when a Minister is replying to the debate.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Will Conservative Members take this opportunity to condemn the threats received by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster)? A snare was recently sent to him in the post. He received a letter saying that the writer would like to throw your entrails to the dogs. Another said: You will not live to see the end of your Bill". A third said: You and your family ought to find bolt holes"—[Laughter.] Death threats may be funny to Conservative Members, but they do not reflect well on the people who send them. I would expect the party of law and order—it still prides itself on that title despite its record in office—to condemn such assaults on free speech.

Will Conservative Members also condemn some speakers at the Hyde park rally who threatened to burn forests and poison water supplies and who stated that that rally would be the last peaceful one? These are not the activities of people to whom we should listen seriously. Conservatives Members need to realise that the majority of people in the countryside are anti-hunting. We must also remember that hunting is not a town-country issue—it is a moral issue, which is why there will be a free vote for Labour Members, should the Bill be debated.

In the very limited time I have left, I shall point out that the Government believe in opportunity, fairness and prosperity for all. That applies equally to urban and rural areas.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

No. I have only two minutes left—be real.

In our manifesto, we gave a number of pledges on rural matters. We pledged to recognise the special needs of rural areas and communities, not to allow public and transport services in rural areas to deteriorate, to give greater protection to wildlife, and to give greater freedom to people to explore the open countryside. It has already been said from the Dispatch Box that the principle of access is not negotiable, but we are aiming for an extremely wide-ranging consultation with all the parties involved on the question of access to the countryside. The consultation paper will be issued before the end of the year. We want to hear everybody's views so that we can come up with workable legislation that will be supported as widely as possible.

The Conservatives brought us BSE, transport deregulation and the poll tax, which decimated the incomes of many rural people. They have no representation in Scotland and Wales. Their concern about fox hunting and many issues that people in rural Britain feel are irrelevant sits pretty ill. If they want to get back on to the Government Benches within a reasonable time, they must modernise. They need to realise that they have to represent the real interests, views and life styles of all people in Britain if they are to have a chance of regaining the trust of the electorate.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that the Minister had a limited amount of time, but two pieces of information were given to the House during the exchanges. The first is about the minimum wage. The Library has just given me the figure, which is £1.84 for 16-year-olds. The hon. Lady—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has already commented about that. It is not a matter for the Chair. Any facts and figures given by hon. Members are given in good faith. It is not a matter for the Chair, and the hon. Gentleman cannot put the record straight on a point of order.