Rural Poverty

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4 February 1998.

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

Photo of Mrs Diana Organ Mrs Diana Organ Labour, Forest of Dean 9:34, 4 February 1998

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to have this debate this morning. I raised the debate at the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who, like many others in the House, share an interest in this issue.

Poverty is not just concerned with money—or, rather, the lack of it—but that remains central to the issue. The most relevant definition of poverty that I could find was provided by Action with Communities in Rural Areas, which said: Poverty is going short materially, socially and emotionally. It means coping with the stress of managing on very little money. Above all, poverty takes away the tools to create the building blocks for the future. It stops people being able to take control of their own lives. It is about being unable to participate fully in society, about being isolated and excluded.

Poverty, urban or rural, is undoubtedly debilitating. It limits people in every aspect of their lives. Urban poverty is blatant. We all see it, in high-rise flats, rough sleepers in cardboard boxes, dereliction, graffiti and litter. It is acknowledged by decision makers, and is politically recognised.

However, rural poverty is hidden. It is masked in its isolation. It is scattered in small pockets of deprivation that often sit cheek by jowl with great wealth. It is obscured by the landscape. It sits uncomfortably with our national perception of the rural idyll. We visit, or even live in, the countryside, yet we do not see it. However glorious the scenery, it does not deliver employment, housing or education. However beautiful the Peak district, the Yorkshire dales or the Wye valley, one cannot eat the scenery.

The problem has gone unrecognised for many years. The previous Administration overwhelmingly ignored national research presented by organisations and academics that highlighted the true plight of the poor in this country. The Breadline report, by Mack and Lansey, in 1985, showed that 22 per cent. of the British population were in poverty or were on the margins of it.

The previous Administration ignored the evidence that Britain was becoming a two-nation state: the rich and the poor. That was exemplified in rural areas of England, where earnings were known to be below the national average. The earnings gap between rural counties and the English mean widened between 1980 and 1995. Indeed, Cloke et al identified in their study of 12 rural areas that 44 per cent. of households in rural counties received a gross annual salary of less than £8,000.

The indicators used for identifying areas of deprivation have an unfair bias towards urban areas. The census enumeration districts, used for collecting the data, are too large. They obscure the small pockets of rural deprivation that are hidden among the swathes of more wealthy rural residents.

The aggregation of the earning statistics only conceals isolated poverty by raising incomes to above the average, especially in villages and market towns. The ownership of a car, for instance, is taken as an affluence indicator, while in rural areas it is a necessity, because there is no integrated public transport. Seventy-five per cent. of all English parishes do not have a daily bus service. Many people in rural areas sacrifice much to keep the car on the road.

Children living in high-rise flats are a good indicator of poverty, but not in the country. Detached houses are seen as a sign of wealth, which, more often than not, is true in a town or city, but in the country, isolated detached cottages can hide behind their doors elderly couples struggling on meagre incomes.

There are other ways of mapping an area. The indicators used are not the only ones available. Other statistical information throws up a different picture of the areas of deprivation. In 1997, Oxford university mapped four rural counties—Wiltshire, Dorset, Shropshire and Oxfordshire—using local authority information on housing benefit claimants and council tax rebates. The map exposed rural deprivation that had previously been hidden.

In Gloucestershire, a bid to the single regeneration challenge fund, led by the county council in partnership with other agencies, especially Gloucestershire rural community council, proposed a project to regenerate the most deprived market towns in the county. A matrix of criteria was used to identify them, including unemployment, absence of car ownership, children in low-income households, overcrowding and general lack of amenities.

Seven market towns in the county were shown to have areas of real poverty not previously revealed by other surveys. The project showed high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, drug and alcohol abuse problems among the young, and people distanced by isolation, poor access and, most notably, inadequate transport services.

Data are only as good as the information that they examine. There should be a review of indicators. They should be able to locate small, scattered, isolated areas of poverty and sensitive to the needs of all areas, urban and rural. Hon. Members who represent rural constituencies face the problems of rural poverty in our surgeries. However, it is vital not only that we are personally aware of deprivation but that it is recognised politically and in the Government statistics that are collected and acknowledged by decision makers.

Rural communities are often tightly knit. It can be like living in a goldfish bowl. That has its advantages, but it can often lead to people hiding their poverty from their neighbours. Pride and self-esteem prevent people from revealing their desperate plight. In towns and cities where large communities face similar problems, less stigma attaches to declaring disadvantage. That is not true of villages and hamlets. The elderly in particular see shame in not being able to cope, and do not seek help. At present, we have no method of identifying such people.

There are self-help groups in urban areas, such as the Matson neighbourhood community project. It is an innovative scheme on a large council estate in Gloucester that has created a network of self-help activities ranging from advice centres to training opportunities, activities for the young and programmes to combat crime and vandalism. It is a wonderful example of a community taking control and trying to raise standards of living for everyone on the estate. That model would be difficult to replicate in a rural environment. The deprived communities in rural areas are small and scattered. It is difficult to give such communities self-help programmes. A new approach needs to be considered.

One is doubly disadvantaged when one is poor and lives in the countryside, because of the lack of good public transport. No transport means that one lives in a no-go area: no-go to advice centres, doctors, jobs or interviews.

Last week, a group of students from the Royal Forest of Dean college visited me in the House of Commons. I had invited them because they had completed a survey of transport issues concerning young people in the area. Ironically, they arrived back at Gloucester railway station only to discover that the last bus had departed and that there were no rail connections that night stopping at Lydney, the only railway station in my constituency. One lad had to beg a lift. Was it 11 pm or midnight? No, it was 6.50 pm—hardly late.

The deregulation of bus services in 1985 led to the demise of rural bus services and has given rise to absolute rural isolation. I welcome the Government's commitment to an integrated transport system and investment in public transport with the recent announcement allowing local authorities to use a hypothecated tax to help establish better public transport systems.

There are, however, other options that can be developed and extended to improve rural transport, such as dial-a-ride schemes that offer a bus service to the elderly. They are liberating for such people in remote areas but could be extended to parents at home with children, who are often unable even to get to the shops. Cornwall has piloted a scheme whereby post office vans run regular routes and are adapted to carry passengers and provide an extra service in remote areas. We must re-think and take initiatives to implement innovative options to increase the mobility of all in rural areas.

For many people, isolation means real deprivation. However, access is about not only mobility but information and services. If people cannot access information, how can they know what is available, or that they are receiving the services and benefits to which they are entitled? The move taken by many local authorities to open one-stop shops offering a range of advice on local authority issues has been successful, but they are often absent in rural areas. Advice centres spring up ad hoc from the voluntary sector but they can be disjointed and their services inconsistent if they cover large areas. They often lack a co-ordinated focus.

Rural areas must have equality of provision of services with urban areas. They should not be discriminated against just because such provision is more difficult or expensive. We must ensure that resources from central Government recognise the cost of providing rural services.

In 1996–97 in shire counties, local authorities were expected to spend £417 on social service provision for each elderly person. The national average was £485. The amount spent in inner-city London boroughs was double: £878. Such disparity must not be sustained. It is recognised that virtually all rural services inevitably cost more because of the dispersed population and lack of economies of scale. The money provided by central Government has not reflected that. Rural communities are asking not for special treatment but for equity of provision.

To solve the problems of rural poverty, we must have what the rural community councils call the three-legged stool approach, which tackles all aspects of rural poverty. The three legs are economic, social and environmental regeneration. This Government have been the first not only to acknowledge social exclusion nationally but to tackle it. They have set up a social exclusion unit. To be truly successful nationally, it must have a rural dimension.

The Labour Government have put in place new policies that will help to lift people out of poverty. The welfare-to-work programme, with the minimum wage, will start to address the regeneration of rural areas and provide real job opportunities at a decent wage. Too often, rural employment is seasonal and low wage. The decision that there will be regional deviations from the minimum wage will help, but the welfare-to-work programme must recognise the added cost of providing for a scattered, isolated clientele and the difficulties of travelling to work and to training venues. Many training programmes will have to be individually delivered, so economies of scale will not come into play.

Imaginative schemes already exist to help to overcome such difficulties. The jump start programme has been successfully piloted in the Cotswolds. It employs a transport broker to co-ordinate information and encourage car sharing but also manages a fleet of mopeds available at minimum cost to young people so that they can attend interviews and training. Forty per cent. of new deal applicants needed help with transport in rural areas such as the Cotswolds. The scheme should be duplicated as good practice in all rural new deal initiatives.

The Government are putting into place regional development agencies that will have a strategic regional remit to ensure economic regeneration across the whole of regions. They must have the three-legged stool approach. Sustainable economic regeneration is possible only if social and community regeneration goes hand in hand with economic development. The previous Administration created a cycle of decline in rural communities. Their relaxation of planning led to great influxes of commuters invading small villages, which radically altered the make-up of communities.

Wealthy commuters often looked for their services elsewhere. They shopped and worked in the towns, and used urban post offices close to where they worked. The viability of local village shops was undermined. Post offices were closed. Services such as garages and other shops vital to a living, breathing community diminished. That is devastating for the less well-off in the community. The shops that remained open often had prices up to 15 per cent. higher to cope with increased overheads and take advantage of the tourist trade.

The lack of services is shown by the fact that 42 per cent. of parishes have no permanent shop; 43 per cent. have no post office; 49 per cent. have no school; and 83 per cent. have no general practitioner based in the parish. I welcome the dial-a-nurse initiative in the health White Paper; it will be useful for rural areas to have some contact with such nurses.

There is much debate about projected housing provision in rural areas. Rural villages and market towns need to grow to continue to be sustainable, so that services such as garages, schools and post offices can be maintained.

We must not preserve an Arcadia in aspic. We must have thriving rural communities that grow and change according to the needs of all their inhabitants. Small communities should be allowed to assess their own housing needs, so that affordable, sensitive, social and private-sector developments can be well incorporated in those communities.

Photo of Ms Tess Kingham Ms Tess Kingham Labour, Gloucester

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the praise that she has heaped on the neighbourhood community project at Matson in my constituency. Does she agree that the problem of affordable housing pushes young people in particular from rural into urban areas to find homes and work? That is a drain on the resources of urban areas such as Gloucester, because young people have to be provided with night shelters.

Gloucester has been allocated money as one of the 16 local authority areas under the rough sleepers initiative. Many people come to Gloucester from my hon. Friend's constituency and from other parts of the Cotswolds to find work and homes. Does she agree that it is in the interests of urban as well as rural areas to ensure that people have affordable housing and jobs, so that they can stay in their own rural communities?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Homelessness exists in rural as well as in urban areas. Young people often leave their villages and end up homeless on the streets of our towns and cities. There is not enough social housing in our villages to keep our young people in their communities, so villages lose the next generation and cease to grow organically.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

Is the hon. Lady aware that statistics show that homelessness in the countryside is now increasing at a higher rate than in the city?

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

It is true that homelessness in rural areas is increasing, but many local authorities in rural areas do not even carry out an audit of homelessness in their area. Two thirds of local authorities in rural areas did not bother to submit statistics on homelessness: they do not realise the extent of the problem.

We should adopt the Belgian model, whereby each village carries out a voluntary assessment of its need for social and public housing. That is then incorporated into the statutory system, and is part of the planning process at district and regional level. Locally, we have gone a long way towards that with our village appraisals, but those voluntary assessments should be fed into the statutory process.

Once the independent Food Safety Agency has been established, it may be possible to reform the Ministry of Agriculture. I want a Department of rural affairs, so that there would be a rural advocate at the heart of Government. That would, for the first time, give rural communities a powerful voice at the centre of decision making, and would ensure that sustainable policies were developed for the countryside.

Not only must we deal with the problems that we have inherited from the previous Administration, who chose to ignore rural poverty: we face a time of change, with the reform of the common agricultural policy and the adoption of Agenda 2000. All parties agree that the common agricultural policy should be transformed into an integrated rural policy. National and European resources should be provided for rural regeneration.

On 1 May 1997, 170 new Labour Members were returned to the House from rural and semi-rural constituencies, because the previous Administration failed to address the problems in rural areas, and because they had created a two-nation state in our countryside. The Labour Government will stop the decay, and will create a new cycle of renewal for the forgotten and unrecognised poor.

Photo of Mr Cynog Dafis Mr Cynog Dafis Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady about the need to reform the common agricultural policy. It would be wrong for her to end her speech without referring to the present crisis in the countryside that threatens to undermine any future efforts to establish a new rural viability.

I have a letter from a trader in my constituency, who is trying to build up his business so that his son can be included. He tells me that the basis of rural life is in question because of the agricultural crisis. He begs me to bring his letter to the attention of the House and the Government, and to make the point that the problem must be treated as the grave crisis it is. Does she agree with that, and will she press her colleagues on the Government Front Bench to take action in the near future?

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

It is true that some farmers face a crisis. Not all farmers are poor, and we must discriminate between those who have a substantial income and are doing very well and those who are poor. Farming underpins the rural economy up and down the chain. Farmers need help, which is why we need to reform the common agricultural policy and to put the resources into a wider, integrated rural policy.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Liberal Democrat, Torridge and West Devon

What is unique about the present agricultural crisis is that it has an impact on all sectors: sheep, milk, cattle, corn—the lot. That is what makes it so severe. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Ceredigion: I hope that the hon. Lady will bring this matter to the attention of her Front-Bench colleagues, because it is so important.

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

Farmers, particularly in less-favoured areas, are having an extremely difficult time; that is why, on 22 December, the Government provided an extra £82 million-worth of aid for those farmers. We have recognised their plight, and we are tackling the problem.

The Labour Government will provide new opportunities for rural areas to help poor farmers and the many other rural poor, who have been ignored until now.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 9:57, 4 February 1998

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on bringing this topic to the fore in our debates. I was interested in her extended, philosophical definition of poverty. I do not wish to criticise the way in which she presented her case, but, if I may say so, it was a little short on detailed, constructive proposals. The two most interesting suggestions were drawn out after interventions.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) raised the issue of the neglect of the agricultural scene. An enormous cash flow of taxpayers' money right across the Community is being misapplied. It is a most interesting concept. Were the common agricultural policy to be properly reformed, some of the money could be devoted to an agricultural revival.

Surely it should be diverted into—Conservative Members are perhaps no longer allowed to use the word "subsidy", but I am not frightened of it—subsidising the revival of organic farming. If true organic farming were re-implanted in the countryside, there would be an enormous increase in employment opportunities in all rural areas. That is surely better than building up mountains of unwanted produce, or repetitiously funding sectors that have already been greatly enriched by that process.

In relating rural poverty to the abuses of the common agricultural policy, the hon. Lady has blazed a trail in our debates that will flavour many of our questions in the weeks to come.

I referred to the hon. Member for Ceredigion, and I was glad to see a member of his party in the Chamber. I am a little disappointed that so few of my hon. Friends have attended.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is an exception.

I am particularly surprised that no one from the Scottish National party has attended. There is a good case to be made for the way in which the problem of rural poverty is handled in Scotland. The community atmosphere, to which the hon. Lady rightly drew attention, is much more vital and alive in the highlands of Scotland than it is in the south. I can give examples of the many detailed provisions.

The post bus sometimes picks up children from their homes and takes them to school. My son lives in the very far north, and was supplied with baby food by the gritting lorries that were clearing the roads, because nothing else could get through. Mutual dependence of that kind within a community is one of the key solutions to poverty—not just poverty in the financial sense, which the hon. Lady rightly described as only one component of poverty in general. I am talking about the feeling of belonging, and the ability of people to help one another when the need arises.

Let me return to the subject of Scotland, and to a point related to the intervention of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham). The impact of the council tax in Scotland has led to a scandalous practice: landlords and proprietors are removing the roofs from their crofts and cottages, or at any rate allowing them to deteriorate to such an extent that they are no longer liable for the tax.

If the properties were refurbished—which would cost much less than building new dwelling units—they would be of very little value, and there would be scope for fulfilling many of the requirements for affordable housing. The same thing was happening in the 19th century. It is amazing to see the Scottish countryside returning to a condition that was prevalent in the early part of this century.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean gave statistics relating to parishes, but did not mention the Church. In Scotland, priests and ministers play a marked and welcome role. The churches are all open, and the part they play in the community is very different from the part that, alas, they seem to play in parts of the south. Churches in the south are often locked, and priests and curates sometimes have a rather idiosyncratic view of their role in the community—but I do not wish to criticise them.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean spoke interestingly and discursively, and the House's time has been well spent.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree 10:02, 4 February 1998

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on raising such an important matter. She dealt ably with the depressing statistics relating to life in the countryside, and rightly pointed out that those of us with rural constituencies hear such stories every day.

The loss of services in country districts has a disproportionate effect in comparison with the loss of services in towns. It is a particular problem for the less well-off. The better-off can drive to the nearest town or city to take advantage of services, but a third of country householders do not have cars, and those who have them but are not well off will find it very difficult to maintain them. If their cars break down, it is not a simple question of telephoning the AA or the RAC. The cars may be off the road for several weeks.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea

I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so early in the speech. 1 hope that he and his hon. Friends who represent rural constituencies will exert pressure on their right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is rumoured to be considering raising the price of petrol by as much as 20p a gallon—or is it 20p a litre? In any event, he is apparently going to raise it by a draconian amount, and that will have a tremendous impact on people in rural areas. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean rightly said, in rural areas a car is not a status symbol or a sign of wealth and privilege; it is an essential accessory.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

Like other rural Members, I am aware that the price of petrol is an integral ingredient of the domestic budget in many households.

A notable aspect of rural deprivation is the closure of country schools, which has continued apace for several decades. Parents are increasingly having to travel to different towns and villages to take their children to primary and secondary schools. That has had a number of consequences, for parents and for society as a whole. County councils are increasingly strapped for cash, and are examining their budgets minutely to see what savings can be made. In my county of Essex, the council has been trying to save money on home-to-school transport, which is an essential service for people living in villages and country areas.

The principle of home-to-school transport, which was laid down as long ago as the mid-1940s, is that a child who lives two and a half miles or more from a primary school, or three miles from a secondary school, is entitled to free transport. That is a geographer's delight. Those in county hall can examine maps, measure distances and devise alternative routes in an attempt to save money.

Let me give an example from my constituency in north Essex. The village of Silver End is some miles from the town of Witham, and for many years the children have travelled on a bus provided by the county. An astute official at county hall ascertained that it was possible to travel from Silver End to Witham by a back route, the distance being fractionally less than three miles. It involved negotiating a dark footpath between high hedges, and open fields, overhanging woods and deep ditches.

I am not exaggerating. The county sub-committee inspected the new route, which was intended to save costs. Its members managed to cross the ploughed field, which, fortunately, was dry at that time of year; but, as they approached the six-foot ditch, two of the older members decided that they had seen enough, and concluded that free school transport should continue—although one of the more economically minded members said, "When I was a boy, we took delight in jumping ditches." Parents living in villages greatly fear the loss of free school transport.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

Liberal-controlled Devon county council is now thinking of getting rid of free transport to many schools, particularly denominational schools. Catholic schools in my constituency have been told that the children cannot have free transport. Does the hon. Gentleman applaud or deplore that?

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I must confess that I am not aware of the intricacies of Devon affairs. Others may be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question more fully than I. I would prefer to steer the debate as far away as possible from party politics.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

One of the problems is that, in rural areas particularly, the age of the coaches puts children at risk. In my constituency, a number of vehicles have been tested and have then had to be taken off the road immediately. I am pleased to hear that the Government intend to improve seat belt safety. Vehicles need to be checked repeatedly to ensure that children are not put at risk.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. Rural school transport is threatened as a result of local government economies, but the problem is wider than that. The principles of free school transport were devised in, I believe, 1944—

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree

I do not wish to be ungracious, but I have been generous in giving way, and I now want to finish my speech.

That world was different from the one in which we now live. At that time, most children lived in households with probably two parents. One would almost certainly have worked locally, and the mother would probably have been at home and able to take the children to school. The lanes along which they walked were almost free from traffic, crime was much lower, and fear of crime was a notion that had not been devised. When the measurements were set, conditions were a world away from what they are now.

I am concerned about the burdens being placed on poor families by the withdrawal of free school transport. A parent who takes a child to and from secondary school four times a day has a round trip of almost 12 miles. That is about 60 miles a week. The whole day is dominated by taking the child to and from school in dangerous circumstances. Part of the journey will be undertaken in the dark, and the mother—it is usually the mother—will return home alone or with a young child during dangerous times of the day.

Country roads are not the peaceful havens that they once were. They are frequently used as rat runs by people on the way to work, and the hazards are especially great at the time of day between darkness and light when a pedestrian caught between oncoming cars can be dazzled by their headlights. Parents will have to face such hazards if free school transport is withdrawn.

On Friday, I attended the House for a debate on a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) about a reduction in road usage. That aim will hardly be helped if we force parents to use their cars to take children to and from school as a consequence of saving small sums by denying them school transport.

I have concentrated on one aspect of rural life, but it is an important aspect. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean presented a broad view of the many problems that face people in rural areas. Some relate to the closure of community hospitals, the pressures on rural library service, the failure to build affordable houses in villages, and the decimation of jobs in agriculture. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) for mentioning schemes that may stimulate employment in agriculture.

This is an important debate, and it is disappointing that more hon. Members are not here. I hope that we can make progress, with all-party support, to assist those in country areas, so that they become part of living, working communities.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that this debate, although important, is short. Many hon. Members wish to speak, and I appeal for brief contributions.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:13, 4 February 1998

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on securing this important debate, and on her speech, which I endorse. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) on his speech. I agree with his comments about organic agriculture.

The debate has more than just a hint of deja vu, because, before I was elected to the House last year, I was in rural community development work for 15 years in England and Cornwall. I worked to promote rural social housing, community transport, credit unions, community facilities, village surveys and economic development. I was born and brought up in deepest rural Cornwall as one of a large family. Although I did not appreciate it at the time, I experienced rural poverty.

Why do we need to emphasise rural poverty rather than urban poverty? Are they the same? They are not, although for some people poverty is the important matter. However, opportunities in rural areas are restricted, and are often accompanied by a lack of confidence within rural populations. A sense of being grateful and not demanding is part of the rural demeanour. We keep coming back to the subject. Why do we have to repeat that, behind the chocolate box images and the picture postcards, lie the manifold problems of low wages, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor services, poor access to facilities that suburban and urban communities often take for granted?

People in rural areas rightly feel that they must constantly ask others to look behind the scenes, because the deprivation is almost invisible. The same does not apply in urban areas. In some ways, it would be an achievement for rural areas if urban communities felt that they needed to redress the balance by mounting a campaign to draw attention to urban poverty.

Some rural areas are currently competing with some of the most deprived urban areas to be the poorest in the land. The Conservative party seeks to wear the superficial disguise of self-appointed guardians of the countryside and rural areas. Not only are Conservative Members largely absent for the debate, but their party had a remarkable record in government of presiding over a period of rapidly increasing rural poverty. Not surprisingly, one area which experienced that is Cornwall. It easily occupies bottom place in the GB earnings table, and in recent years the gap has tended to widen.

Male earnings in Cornwall were 16 per cent. below the GB average in 1981, but 23 per cent. below that average by last year. Not only are earnings low, but there are fewer incomes because of high unemployment and inactivity. Unemployment, especially in west Cornwall, is generally at least double the rate in the south-west, of which Cornwall is supposed to be a part.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Liberal Democrat, Hereford

I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate, although I watched it on television and listened to the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ).

My hon. Friend is speaking about Cornwall. Is he aware that it is a pilot area for the Government's new deal project? Are the people of Cornwall worried about the compulsion element of the new deal, which means that people are told to take up training or education or lose benefit? In deeply rural areas such as Cornwall and my constituency, there are no such options, and people will be penalised by losing benefit.

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

As my hon. Friend says, Cornwall is a pilot area, and we shall give the scheme a fair wind. I share his concern about compulsion.

Although per capita GDP in Cornwall is 71 per cent. of the UK average, it is lower than the level anywhere in England except for the Isle of Wight. It was never protected by the Conservative Government from rampant and inappropriate housing developments throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Under the Conservatives, Cornwall was one of the fastest growing areas in the UK, although that merely contributed to its economic problems. In terms of a comparison with urban poverty, both Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have GDPs per head that are significantly lower than traditionally deprived areas such as Merseyside, with which Cornwall is often compared.

Cornwall's GDP is among the lowest in Europe, and is on a par with the poorest parts of Greece and Spain. However, that is not always how Cornwall is perceived. Many such rural areas have to overcome assumptions that have been generated by the images about the place. The Cornish people become quaint appendages to the landscape, and people talk about discovering the place almost as if it had never existed until their arrival. In reality, the Cornish live in ghettos and what are often described as windswept council house reservations, not in pretty cottages in the cove.

We shall always have to return to these matters, not only because of poverty among rural people but because of a poverty of understanding of what it is like to be poor and living in a rural area. Behind those images there are even deeper problems, such as the high cost of living in rural areas. Cornwall has the highest water and electricity charges in the country, and the biggest mismatch between earnings and house prices. Hundreds of Cornish council homes have been sold off and not replaced, but some better properties have been bought as second and holiday homes, and lost to the local community.

As if Cornwall had not experienced enough, it also lost a further 1,500 jobs in 1997, including the largest factory in my constituency. Most of Cornwall's farm holdings now fail to generate enough income to support even one person, and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy and bovine tuberculosis crises are affecting Cornwall more severely than most other agricultural regions. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) knows, Cornwall is bracing itself for the possible closure of Europe's last remaining tin mine after 2,000 years of proud history.

Mr. Öpik:

Does my hon. Friend agree that the closure of factories—indeed a factory in my constituency, Machynlleth Design in Machynlleth, is in the same position—has a far more devastating effect in the countryside. where the geographical mobility of the work force is impaired due simply to their circumstances?

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problems of grabbing new work opportunities are extremely restricted by the fact that one has ties to the local community, and the opportunities for further employment are simply not there in many rural areas.

What have the so-called new guardians of the countryside on the Conservative Benches done to help over the past 18 years? They have sold off council houses, and given second homes a 50 per cent. council tax rebate. They have given Cornwall the highest water and electricity bills and privatised aspects of our health service, including the dental service and sight tests. They have reduced funding for essential local authority services and failed to heed the case, not for special treatment, but for a fair deal for places such as Cornwall and many other rural areas. They have given our livestock farmers the BSE problem, and they have placed Cornwall in perpetual recession. I have to concede, however, that they did give us the cones hotline.

If the Conservatives were behaving as the guardians of rural areas and the countryside, 1 do not know whose countryside they were guarding. It certainly was not the countryside of the poor. It was therefore no wonder that, in the Celtic regions and countries of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, the Conservatives were completely wiped out.

In all those years, at least the Tories did not abolish the great invention of the last Liberal in this House by the name of George, Lloyd George: the creation of the Development Commission, now the Rural Development Commission, which is widely accepted as one outstanding Government agency that has worked. It has been widely acclaimed for its contribution to the understanding of rural poverty and to actions to reduce it.

That is why there is strong opposition to the Government's decision to draw their resources largely into what will be urban-biased regional development agencies. RDAs, by the way, will be about not unifying communities of interest in the English regions, but replacing the bland uniformity of a centralised state with the bland uniformity of regions, which I believe do not exist. RDAs will be based on administrative convenience.

As defined from above, RDAs will contain, in regions such as the so-called south-west, more internal conflict than shared agendas and will therefore hold the seeds of their own destruction. As they will be about focusing on bringing up the average for the region as a whole, RDAs will prove largely irrelevant for remoter rural areas.

Photo of Ms Candy Atherton Ms Candy Atherton Labour, Falmouth and Camborne

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that what Cornwall needs is a devastating voice in Europe to make our case on rural poverty and to attack the problems? If we have a strong development agency that is well staffed, equipped and supported by Government, are we not going to be in a stronger position than we would be with an agency purely for Cornwall?

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

The hon. Lady raises an important point, with which I strongly disagree, because Cornwall's voice will be lost in this so-called regional development agency.

The political reality that the Government must face up to is that rural poverty has now been proven to be a serious problem which, away from the prosperous suburbs, is set to get worse. Action needs to be taken. I and my colleagues strongly recommend that rural poverty should receive proper recognition in Government policies and programmes; that the proposed social exclusion unit should have a clear rural dimension; that official indicators of poverty must show a greater account of rural circumstances; that the problems of providing services in scattered rural areas are properly recognised in a rural sparsity factor in all local government departments; and that the extra cost of meeting rural housing needs is acknowledged by the Government and the Housing Corporation.

I also support the proposal of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean for a department of rural affairs. The problems that are being experienced by our farmers, especially livestock farmers, should be recognised as a crisis, and not part of long-term restructuring problems in agriculture.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire 10:25, 4 February 1998

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) not only on securing the debate, but on covering it so thoroughly in her opening speech—so thoroughly, in fact, that I can throw away about two thirds of what I intended to say.

For about six years, I have represented a rural part of Lancashire. I am aware that, in this part of the world, there is a mind fix that Lancashire is full of cotton mills, with docks at one end and Blackpool tower at the other. In fact, it is largely a rural shire. On a small map, my constituency appears to be sandwiched between Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Preston, but if people live in it—as I have done for 30 years—they realise that it is a huge area of tiny hamlets, larger villages and lousy transport systems.

I want to talk about the problems faced by people who live in that area, and who depend on other people to get about. In particular, I want to concentrate on the plight of many elderly people. A main factor in rural poverty—not just financial, but psychological poverty—is isolation.

When the Conservative Government deregulated bus services in Britain, they dealt many people in the rural population a severe blow. Before deregulation, bus services were skeletal, but they did exist, making it just about possible for people on low incomes to commute to shops, schools, hospitals, leisure facilities or, perhaps most important, work.

After deregulation, many, if not most, of those rural bus services vanished completely, and those that remained became much more expensive. The burden of keeping any of those arteries open was put on local authorities: in my case, Lancashire county council, which struggled valiantly—I was on the relevant committee during that period—to keep some subsidised bus routes running. However, precisely as it was trying to do that, the Conservative Government were busy squeezing the council's budgets harder and harder and making it more and more impossible for it to keep the routes running.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) has said, people became totally dependent on private cars, making multiple journeys every day, and on taxis—rural taxis are something else—which the poorest people in the community cannot afford. They do not have cars, and they cannot afford taxis.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the diversion from public to private transport is exacerbating rural poverty? People who most need to get to their perhaps poorly paid jobs are having to depend on cars, which they can ill afford.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

That is true. Elderly people in particular, who are unable to walk easily, cannot get even to what facilities there are in rural communities. It is an important point, which the Government have to address.

My local council, under both Tory and Labour control, has a wonderful record of building sheltered accommodation in small rural communities, so that elderly people, when they retire, can stay in the communities where they have lived and worked all their life, but the collapse of the rural transport system has effectively isolated many of those people, many of them retired farm workers on pitiful pensions, who cannot afford to run cars. I know more than a few who, as a result, have moved from the communities and tiny villages where they have lived all their lives to market towns such as Ormskirk, simply to escape the isolation of those rural communities. They then find themselves isolated in an urban community, but at least the clinic and their general practitioner are around the corner.

Photo of Dan Norris Dan Norris Labour, Wansdyke

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although some people cannot afford cars, they often have to run one because it is essential to do so, even though it can be to the detriment of other aspects of their lives because they then have less to spend on clothing or food? In some ways, the tax system is also prejudiced against those people. They can afford to tax their cars for only six months at a time, but that method costs £15 more a year than taxing it for the full 12 months in one go. Perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer could consider that matter, as life for some people in rural communities would be difficult, if not impossible, without a car.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. When one sees some of the cars that are miraculously kept on the road in rural areas, one has to wonder about their safety. However, it is true that many people make incredible sacrifices simply to keep themselves mobile.

As village shops, sub-post offices and even rural pubs began to close in my area, it became clear that people who live in rural areas and who are poor pay more for everything, from groceries to furnishings, than those who are not poor. They pay more because they cannot get to the supermarket in the town. Just as important, their choice is cruelly circumscribed when compared to that available to people on the same income who happen to live in even a modest-sized town.

My constituency is served, and used to be well served, by two cross-country rail lines with 10 rural stations. One might think that that was a good network but, during the Tory years, it was steadily run down. The services became less frequent—dramatically so in some cases. It was decided that many of the services would omit every other station or miss out two stations, thus making them less useful. The unreliability of the rail service has come to have serious consequences for workers. People who have jobs in Wigan, Southport, Preston or Liverpool find that their service is late perhaps three times a week, and they are sacked. That happens regularly.

Two stations in my constituency are wholly inaccessible to anyone who is not fully fit. Burscough Bridge station, for example, has a platform so low that an elderly person could not get onto the train.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour/Co-operative, Stroud

When the jobseeker's allowance was introduced by the previous Administration, it highlighted the problem caused by the lack of public transport. People in Gloucestershire who had to sign on in person found it very difficult to do so, because they had trouble getting to a particular place at a particular time. The county council's public transport unit had some heart-rending calls from people who had to sign on at 10 am on Wednesday but who were told that the first bus was on Thursday. How were they supposed to sign on? That is the sort of problem facing people in rural areas.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

That is absolutely true. To add insult to injury, the person going to sign on could be paying £3 out of his dole just to get to the office to be able to sign on. Virtually everything that the previous Government did in the past few years hit the rural poor harder than it hit anyone else. I would like to think that they did not quite understand what they were doing. In my view, it was a serious social crime for an effective, if sparse, public transport system to have been sabotaged by the previous Government in recent decades. Fundamentally, the Government did not believe in or understand public transport.

In my area, it is two Labour authorities—Lancashire county council and West Lancashire district council—which have struggled to patch up the mess, with an expanding system of dial-a-ride and community car schemes and some subsidised bus services. Although I admire those services and the work that goes into them, and they are useful, it is a hotch-potch of a system. It certainly cannot cover the area satisfactorily, and does not replace the full public transport system that we had.

I do not want to talk only about the problems facing the elderly in rural communities. The lack of public transport is also a problem for schoolchildren. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean has already dealt with that point, so I will not go over it again.

Teenagers who do not come from well-to-do families and who do not have the money to hire taxis or own cars have difficulty getting into town for even basic leisure facilities. This is leading, certainly in my area, to the problems that we usually associate with teenagers on urban estates. In one case, a community that comprises only 40 people has still managed to manufacture its own little gang.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley Labour, The Wrekin

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the first victims of the shortage of local government finance is all too often the youth service? Does he further agree that, in many county areas, we desperately need a proper comprehensive review of the standard spending assessment system, so that we can deliver essential services to people in rural communities, not least to the young people on whom we depend for our future?

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

We do indeed need a comprehensive review of the SSA system with that in mind. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, all the indicators of poverty need revision, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), will have something to say about that.

We said at the time that the right-to-buy housing policy introduced by the Conservatives would have a catastrophic effect in rural areas, and it did. By the time that the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), woke up to that fact, it was too late—the council properties in rural areas had all gone. Most of them were attractive properties; some were extended, and were then sold on to second owners.

The integration of the transport system, which the Government are proposing and on which they are consulting, is absolutely crucial, but we must not forget that we are talking about two countrysides. The first is populated by affluent people, often off-comers and people who escaped, in my case from Merseyside. Sometimes, these people managed to dodge the planning system and build a nice house, or had the money to buy one.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

Does the hon. Gentleman think that an integrated transport policy should include an increase of 20p on a gallon of petrol?

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

Personally, I think that the tax on petrol is probably where it should be. I should prefer the car tax to be removed and put on petrol, but a lot of thought is going into how we can protect people in rural areas who need cars from an increase in the price of petrol. So far, every suggested solution, such as special registration, is too easy to dodge and fiddle. I do not know what the answer is.

As I was saying, there is the countryside of the affluent but, alongside that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, there is the countryside where people are living in the direst poverty. The contrast between the two is just as stark as it is in the cities.

I always compare poverty in rural areas with the gulag archipelago—poverty is scattered throughout the communities, and, because hundreds of people are not clustered together, it is not noticed. However, when one canvasses in rural areas, as we do all the time, it is noticeable. Every 10th or 15th house suffers poverty as dire as one might find on estates in Manchester or anywhere else.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean on one point. She said that we must ensure equity of provision of services for the countryside. I do not think that that is ever going to be possible. We could never provide for the rural areas all the facilities that are available to people in large concentrations in the urban areas. People in reasonably well-off households swap that inconvenience for the great benefits of clean air, quiet, a pleasant landscape and so on. They do a deal.

My concern is that the poor households often enjoy neither the benefits of rural life, because they are cramped by isolation and poverty, nor any of the conveniences of urban life which, at least from time to time, make the urban poor's life worth living. Rural poverty is a serious problem, to which there are no easy answers—its solution requires a holistic approach across every Government Department.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes 10:39, 4 February 1998

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) spoke for 15 minutes and time is short, I hope that hon. Members will understand if I do not give way or comment on the speeches that have been made—or even the excellent choice of debate of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ).

As a social worker and former youth leader, and during the nine years that I represented Liverpool, Wavertree, I dealt with grinding poverty and widespread social deprivation. Those problems—represented by decaying tower blocks, graffiti and boarded-up shops—are often viewed as belonging exclusively to the inner city. However, there are many similar problems in the constituency that I now represent, which is 301 miles away in rural south Devon. Certainly there are no tower blocks in the area's idyllic setting, but single mothers, the handicapped and those unable to find work face the same problems as their counterparts in the city.

The principal difference between poverty in the inner cities and in the rural communities is a matter not so much of intensity as of concentration. In many inner-city streets, the majority of people have no job, poor housing and are dependent on benefits. In rural areas, poverty may not be so concentrated, and the beauty of the landscape may mask the problems, but the problems exist none the less.

In cities, a variety of employers offer a diversity of opportunities for people with different skills, whereas, in the countryside, employment is principally agriculture-related. There are many threats to the rural way of life and standard of living, but none is more acute than the crisis in British farming. The proposed enlargement of the European Union to include the agriculturally dependent economies of central Europe will inevitably reduce EU support to British farmers, and the UK will probably be flooded with cheap imported food, which will put further pressures on British agriculture.

The Government's attitude to the rural economy seems at best unsympathetic, and at worst indifferent. That view is illustrated by the recent rate support grant settlements, in which rural England is disadvantaged in comparison with urban areas.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

I shall not give way.

The Government's attitude can perhaps be explained by the fact that the majority of their support comes from predominantly urban areas. [Interruption.] Their support also comes from a few rural areas.

Photo of Anthony Steen Anthony Steen Conservative, Totnes

I accept that a few Conservative Members are missing today.

Farmers are at the epicentre of everything that happens in the countryside; they are the custodians of the landscape, the major employers, contractors and customers for rural businesses. Without agriculture, the countryside does not work. We must consider the Government's policy on agriculture against that background, and the wider goal of reducing poverty in rural England.

Although the Government have offered farmers £85 million compensation from European funds, they have taken away £129 million in cuts to the much-needed over-30-months scheme, in extra charges for cattle passports and in payments for the Meat Hygiene Service. They have refused to use the underspend on sheep premium and set-aside to aid the lowland beef producer, the dairy farmer or the hill farmer, who are all being squeezed by the strength of the pound.

Those policies are having a detrimental effect on agriculture, which is why so many farmers have been driven to protest outside Parliament and elsewhere—I have joined them on the docks and ports. Farmers do not ask for Government or European handouts; they want the proverbial level playing field and adequate Government support to enable British agriculture to overcome its current difficulties.

The effect of the Government's lack of interest is serious enough in relation to agriculture, but it goes much wider than that. If a farmer goes bankrupt, the effect on the rural community will be dramatic. It is important that clearing banks are mindful of the difficulties that farmers from all sectors face, and that they provide them with sufficient support to weather the current situation.

Dozens of farmers in my constituency have been forced to lay off temporary milkers or cancel contracts with local builders. The builders are then forced to lay off staff, who in turn spend less on fuel and at the village shop.

In south Devon, tourism plays a major role in the local economy. Indeed, many farmers can make both ends meet only by offering bed and breakfast—if they did not, they would not survive. Farming is not about bed and breakfast, however. If the farming community can no longer afford to look after the fields, the hedgerows and the trees, there will be no bed and breakfast, as there will be much less to attract tourists. Without farmers, tourism could go into serious decline, and another major source of rural employment would dry up.

Many people think that poverty is an inner-city phenomenon; they do not believe that it can exist among green fields and countryside. If people are prisoners in their council houses because they cannot afford private transport and public transport is infrequent and expensive, they are locked into a situation every bit as bad as that facing people in the inner city. It makes little difference whether one is in Toxteth or Lee Moor when one is suffering from loneliness, depression and poor housing.

Throughout the world, when people cannot find work—or when available employment does not pay—they flock to the towns from the countryside. In many developing countries, that has resulted in massive overpopulation in the cities and a neglect of the land. Global institutions are constantly trying to persuade people to move back to the countryside, to repopulate rural areas and work in agriculture. In Europe, the migration to the cities mainly stopped after the war. In Britain, farmers have traditionally preserved the countryside, where they have created employment and sustained and improved the rural way of life.

People living in the countryside are now at a watershed. It is up to the Government to prevent a new underclass of the rural poor drifting into the cities and causing untold problems for the authorities, in housing and employment; they must prevent the rapid decline of the countryside through lack of investment and people. A modest commitment now will ensure the survival of British agriculture and the vitality of the rural economy.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle 10:46, 4 February 1998

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for his contribution. I shall attempt to keep my comments as brief as possible, as there was an agreement on the duration of speeches. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on choosing this important subject for debate, which is of great concern to many people, especially in the countryside.

Conservative Members recognise the importance of what the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, but, like other Labour Members, she should look not just to the past, but to the future. She should try to find solutions and consider whether the Government's proposals for the countryside would improve the situation that she so eloquently described.

The previous Conservative Government introduced a number of measures to help the countryside—unfortunately, I do not have time to list them now.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

I really cannot, with all due respect.

The most important measure introduced by the Conservative Government was the introduction of discretionary rate relief for rural shops and businesses, including pubs, which are still very much at the heart of village life. Other measures included the Agricultural Tenancies Act 1995, which simplified the legal framework for rented land.

In the couple of minutes left to me, I want to stress our concern about the Government's proposal to create regional development agencies. Obviously, Labour Members whole-heartedly support the proposal, but the Opposition fundamentally disagree with it—we especially deplore the abolition of the Rural Development Commission, to which the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) referred. The fact that the commission's chairman resigned solely because he believed that the abolition of that body and the establishment of RDAs was a threat to the countryside says everything about the Government's proposal.

If Labour Members are not concerned about the abolition of the Rural Development Commission, they ought to consider the solutions that the Government are proposing for the countryside. The Government have said that the social exclusion unit should have a rural strand to its work, but, at the moment, the unit is concentrating almost exclusively on urban areas. They have said that official indicators of deprivation and resource allocation systems such as the index of local conditions should be improved to take more account of rural conditions. I could list many such points that favour the countryside—but they will all go when the commission is abolished. Regional development agencies cannot provide the same functions.

Cornwall and Devon have been mentioned in the debate. We talk about the south-west as a region. One would think that the south-west was an identifiable region more than most, yet there is immense rivalry between Devon and Cornwall, and perceived distinct and definite needs. A single regional development agency for both counties will not be able to provide for their needs. It will lead to conflict between one urban area and another, and between urban areas and the countryside. That is not the answer for the countryside.

I wish that I had more time to make more points, but I want to be fair to the Minister.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 10:50, 4 February 1998

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) on raising this important issue. The subject should concern us all. I was pleased to hear the range of views expressed, especially by my hon. Friends, who prove that Labour is now the party of the countryside. They bring insight and passion to their advocacy for the countryside, as well as great experience of the particular difficulties suffered by those living in rural poverty.

The Government firmly believe in opportunity, fairness and prosperity for all. That applies equally to all our citizens, whether they live in the city or the country. Rural areas, where many live and work, are a key part of the national economy. Our countryside must be a living one. We are committed to addressing its problems as much as we are those anywhere else. At the same time, we recognise the distinctive needs of all people in rural areas.

Today's debate has been particularly illustrative. We heard three speeches by Conservative Members. The first was by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who, sadly, is not in his place. He talked about farming. The second was by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), who also talked about farming, and said that Labour Members mainly come from urban areas. Anyone who had listened to today's debate would know that that is not true. If the hon. Gentleman considers who initiated the debate and who has contributed to it, he will have to admit that my hon. Friends are from rural areas, and do a good job representing them.

I was attracted to the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea about organic farming. The Government are looking very closely at that. I am a particular fan of farmers' markets. We need far more of them. I know that my colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture are considering what they can do to encourage such markets.

When we consider rural poverty, we must recognise the legacy left by the previous Administration. I am always ready to give them credit where credit is due, as Opposition Members know.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

I must have missed it. When did you do that?

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

Well, occasionally.

The legacy has had a particular impact on rural areas. Hon. Members were right to emphasise transport issues. Poverty was bequeathed to us by the previous Government. We have inherited a situation in which one in four pensioners and one in four children are in families dependent on income support. The percentage of the population with household incomes below half the average more than doubled between 1979 and 1994–5. The number of children living in households with below average income increased from 1 million in 1979 to 2.6 million—before housing costs are taken into account.

Distribution of employment is also important. One in five households with adults of working age are without work. That is a terrible waste of one of our most important resources. We are determined to tackle this legacy by helping young people, lone parents, long-term unemployed people and sick and disabled people—where that is appropriate—back into work, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas. We have set up the social exclusion unit specifically to co-ordinate activity in that area across government.

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

I do not want to give way, because I have a very short time in which to respond to the debate.

Inaccessibility and sparsity play a major part in exacerbating problems of the rural poor, such as unemployment and lack of services. Many rural areas are poorly served by major transport routes—a problem in attracting and retaining businesses and services. Many rural settlements are scattered and remote, making the provision of services more difficult and expensive. The scattered nature of rural communities can add to a sense of isolation, especially among the poorest members of society.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean said, it is a sad fact that much of the deprivation in rural areas goes unnoticed. We need to challenge the perception that rural areas are universally prosperous. Relatively wealthy rural areas can mask small pockets of deprivation—in some cases, just one or two families or a few poor elderly people. Problems of unemployment and lack of services in rural areas lead to younger people moving away, resulting in a larger percentage of elderly people in some rural communities compared with non-rural areas. Many such older people are alone and living on the margins of poverty.

In recognition of the hidden nature of rural poverty, work has been commissioned from a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge to review potential indicators of rural disadvantage, which can be helpful in the development of rural policy. One idea that the team has come up with is that key indicators are bundled together to identify specific aspects of rural poverty and deprivation. We shall be considering how its findings can be used when the final report is available. We want to tackle the issue of deprivation indicators so that they reveal more of what is going on in our rural communities.

Many of the initiatives that we are developing are being specifically tailored to meet the needs of rural areas. Welfare to work is an essential element of our integrated approach. Our new deal for young unemployed people emphasises high-quality options, all including education or training designed to reach accredited qualifications. The new deal for 18 to 24-year-olds began in 12 pathfinder areas in Britain on 5 January, and will be introduced nationally in April. The pathfinder areas have been selected to reflect a range of social and economic areas, including rural areas.

We intend to design and deliver the new deal in a way that is sensitive to rural circumstances, the needs of rural businesses and communities and unemployed young people living in rural areas. I thank the Rural Development Commission and local authorities that have made an important contribution to the debate and enhanced our understanding of how we can deliver the new deal in rural areas.

Low pay continues to be a particular problem in rural areas. A central plank of our plans to alleviate poverty is the introduction of the national minimum wage. It will aim to make work worth while for people who are stuck on benefits. The United Kingdom is the only modern industrialised country without some form of minimum-wage-fixing machinery. The minimum wage will provide a statutory level below which pay should not fall, and help to remove the worst excesses of low pay and exploitation of those at work. It will be a single national rate, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean pointed out, will be of particular assistance in some rural areas.

Regional rates raise a number of serious difficulties, such as effects at the boundaries of regions, and where those boundaries are. Regional concerns were taken into account during the independent Low Pay Commission's regional visits. The commission is consulting widely with employers, employees and other interested organisations and individuals, and will make its recommendations to the Government by May 1998.

In the short time left to me, I want to say something about rural transport. As I have said, many of the problems of rural areas are exacerbated by inaccessibility and remoteness. Many people in rural areas are unable to drive, either because they cannot afford to do so or because of age or disability. They are likely to find their access to services and employment opportunities severely limited as a result. Better public transport services are vital, so that people can have real choice over how they travel, and need not be so dependent on the private car.

The rural dimension of transport and accessibility issues is being addressed in our continuing review of transport policy. The Government are considering the action necessary to deliver integrated transport systems to meet the differing needs of all parts of the country.

The Tory legacy has been especially damaging in that respect—the deregulation of buses and the total disappearance of services in many rural areas, as well as the decimation of rail services. We must tackle those issues if we are to tackle rural poverty through its causes, and that will give people access to services and the ability to travel to and from work.