I should be delighted to comment on them. In fact, I wanted to make a short speech, but I cannot resist all those invitations to comment, and my speech will probably be equivalent to the last address to the Soviet presidium, which went on for three days and four nights.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to comment on the closure of post offices. Although the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall did not repeat the calumny this morning, the Liberal Democrats have been as guilty as the Conservatives of talking people, especially pensioners, into a blind panic about the future of post offices, despite the fact that, time and again, in statements to the House, debates, written answers and all the voluminous policy documents that the Government are criticised for publishing, the Government have stated their commitment to the future of the sub-post office network, including that in rural communities—a commitment simply not matched when the Conservatives were in office.
Some 3,000 post offices were closed when the Conservative party was in office, and the rest were threatened by the privatisation that many Conservative Members promoted when in government. We do not need to take lectures from Conservative Members about the state of the Post Office or its future. The encouraging thing about the future of rural post offices is not that the Government are handing them a rescue package and saying that they will support an otherwise declining landmark in rural communities, but that the Government are challenging them and saying that one of the reasons why they are in decline is that they are not able to offer the range and quality of services that people would otherwise expect of them.
The Government are saying that they will support post offices through a difficult transition so that they can re-enfranchise and re-empower the village communities to which they are so important. Opposition politicians who scramble around the countryside, spreading doom and gloom about the future of post offices, do not help that confidence-building process.
The hon. Member for Ashford made much of the electronic portal. I am not surprised that it is not discussed much in the village pubs of rural Britain. I imagine that it is discussed as often as the rate at which Conservative and Labour Members ask questions. However, it would be foolhardy to deny its importance, and I shall return to the issue in a moment. It is such as shame that the hon. Gentleman is not now here to listen to the debate in which he featured at such length, but Conservative Members never have listened to the voices of rural Britain or to their own constituents. That is precisely why there are 180-odd Labour Members in rural and semi-rural constituencies. That is more than the number of Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members whose constituencies are rural or semi-rural; it constitutes 40 per cent. of the parliamentary Labour party—and it is an unprecedentedly large parliamentary Labour party.
That is one reason why the rural White Paper is not only important, but well informed by active Labour Members consulting and working with their rural communities. The Government need not make that much of an apology for the long delay in the rural White Paper's publication. I would have liked to have seen it sooner, precisely so that we could have implemented many of the measures that it features sooner. I have no quarrel with Liberal Democrats who say that, but the response that I have heard most often from the groups, organisations and local communities to which we should be paying attention is that the rural White Paper was long awaited, long overdue, but worth waiting for.
The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has invited me to review the Conservative party's record in office, and I shall do so briefly but, I hope, tellingly. The rural White Paper has had to address the countryside not as the Conservative party would like to imagine it is, was or will be, but how it left it after 18 years of criminal damage. Between 1991 and 1996, one in three people living in rural Britain were touched at one time or another by poverty. Many people have a chocolate-box image of rural Britain, but many people there live in heavily disguised poverty. It is heavily disguised because it does not have the graphic, black and white, Sunday magazine texture; it is not tenement-type poverty. Rural poverty is difficult to find; it occurs cheek by jowl with wealth and privilege in places such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Shropshire—my own county.
Shropshire's share of gross domestic product is 68 per cent. of the national average contribution. A couple of years ago, Shropshire women enjoyed an average wage of £239 a week, whereas the national average—not the top figure—was £310. Those are telling statistics after 18 years under the previous Government. The Conservative party still foolishly believes itself to be the party of the countryside.
In 1991, it was estimated that 40 per cent. of people living in rural communities could not afford to buy their own homes, not least because the previous Government's planning and housing policies accelerated a process of gentrification and geriatrification of rural communities that priced the next generation of rural dwellers out of the market and out of their communities. It was estimated in 1990 that in the next six years, 80,000 new units of social housing were required to replace the 91,000 that had been sold. In that period, as few as 17,700 were built.
I lament the leaving of the hon. Member for Ashford, not least because of the key issue of rural transport. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall and, in a serious and thoughtful contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner), talked about the three quarters of rural parishes that were left without a daily bus service after the deregulation of bus companies. Of course, back in 1996, the hon. Member for Ashford said that bus deregulation had not proceeded far enough. If he still holds that view, that is another mighty reason why people living in rural communities would think not once or twice, but probably three times when considering how to vote at the next election.
In my own county, 86 per cent. of parishes have no access to a daily bus service. If people in the countryside do not have access to transport, they have access to very little at all. They do not have access to goods, opportunities and services that people living in towns take for granted.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk referred eloquently to schools. Under the previous Government, 450 village schools closed between 1982 and 1987. That policy did not just deprive children of educational opportunities: it loaded on to education authorities the additional burden and cost of providing transport to other schools, and it took the heart out of village communities. According to the Rural Development Commission, 50 per cent. of villages were calculated as having no school and 90 per cent. no nursery. We have already discussed the 3,000 post office closures; 43 per cent. of villages were left without a post office and 42 per cent. without a shop.
For all the protestations of Conservative Members and for all their criticisms of the Labour party in government, we should not forget that one of the key causes of the collapse of confidence in British agriculture was the BSE crisis over which they presided. The hon. Member for Ashford was wrong to talk about an escalating rate of bankruptcies in farming and horticultural companies. The statistics tell a different story. Between 1994 and 1996—the last two full years of the previous Government—971 horticultural and agricultural businesses went bankrupt. In the first two years of this Government—from 1997 to 1999—there were 652 bankruptcies. Let us not forget, either, that in the 10 years up to 1997, no fewer than 14 per cent.—60,000 people—of those working in agriculture lost their jobs.
It may be attractive for the Conservative party to play party politics with these serious structural issues for agriculture and other sectors of the community, but to pretend that all the problems have arisen since 1 May 1997 is not credible. It is foolish, because people who lived through the difficulties know that the problems arose a long time ago and that the previous Government neglected them.
There is privilege and poverty in the countryside. To a large extent, the rural White Paper should be judged on how it tackles social exclusion, as the Government have pledged to do. Even discounting the promises in the White Paper, Labour has a pretty respectable record on that. For example, the minimum wage, which the Conservative party opposed, and the working families tax credit, which it also opposed and which is scheduled for abolition should it ever take office some time this century, have arguably done more good for rural than for urban communities.
I explained earlier that the people at the very bottom of the economic ladder tend to be women in part-time, seasonal or temporary employment. Their wages have traditionally been the lowest of any sector in the British work force. Such people in the countryside have been exploited for centuries, but they have received the greatest benefit from the minimum wage and the working families tax credit.
Other national policy outcomes, such as the establishment of NHS Direct, have also had a disproportionate benefit for people in rural communities. The further people are from the source of health care—local GP surgeries and hospitals—the more useful NHS Direct is. People increasingly depend on it.
The £170 million provided for rural transport is recognition of the fact that lack of access to private or public transport means that people have no access to schools, job training, employment, friends and family or even to shopping and entertainment. Transport is a key issue and that £170 million has already created or extended 2,000 bus routes. The money has been broadly welcomed in rural Britain, not least in my constituency, which had the benefit of the very first grant.
The Wrekin Rider bus service, which was established two years ago, already has 32 routes in my constituency. I have travelled on the service's small buses and people—many of them elderly women—have told me that, before the initiative was taken, they were entirely trapped in their village communities where there were often no facilities, shops or services. They depended on the good will of friends and neighbours to take them into town to do their shopping and to access services.
We have also provided the support for the schools to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk referred. The Tories closed 30 schools a year up to 1997, but last year only two village schools were closed. Investment has been made in capital projects and in repairs to village schools. For example, basic improvements and modernisations have been made to ensure that children do not have to go to outside privies to relieve themselves Such schemes had been neglected for many years.
I have also referred to the rescue plan for post offices and to rate rebate relief for shops. Some £30 million has been provided for rural policing and I have been hard put to get a commitment from the Conservative party's spokesmen on that point. In addition, £1.6 billion provides real hope to farmers under the English rural development plan.
We have a steady record of achievement. Progress might not be as fast as Opposition Members—or, indeed, I—would like, but that record is recognised in rural constituencies. Although Opposition Members might not like it, the polling that I have seen over the lifetime of this Parliament has shown Labour further ahead in rural and semi-rural seats than nationally. That was just as much the case during the fuel crisis, when our poll ratings dipped alarmingly for us and our constituents, as it was in less troubled times One of the reasons for that is that for decades the Conservatives have taken for granted—the speech of the hon. Member for Ashford reflected this—the support of rural communities, which they neglected and ultimately betrayed.
When I visited villages in my constituency after the election, I was invariably told that I was the first Member of Parliament whom people had seen there for up to 40 years. Touch wood the village of Roden in my constituency will shortly have a new playground, which is much needed by the children who live there. [Interruption.] I did not hear what was said, but no doubt Conservative Members were scoffing because a playground for Roden does not appear to them to be terribly important in the scheme of things. It may not be important for them, but it is important for the people who live there. One builds the future of rural communities village by village and initiative by initiative, with all levels of government working together with local communities. I am not claiming a quality or virtue that other Members of Parliament do not have when I say that it was only because I went to the village of Roden and talked to people on their doorsteps and in their front rooms that I learned about their problems and needs. That enabled us to involve the parish council, the unitary authority and a charitable trust in forming a partnership to fund, design and construct the playground. Indeed, the villagers were consulted on the design before we installed it this year. The previous Government neglected such bread-and-butter issues for decades.
I am proud of the work of the rural group of Labour MPs which, Conservative Members may be interested to know, has 97 members. I am also proud of our contribution to the development of the rural White Paper. We called on the Government to focus on five key issues. The first was the use of joined-up policies. The second was the importance of access to services, which is a matter not simply of providing transport so that people can leave villages to get to the services, but of bringing the services to the villages. The third was the key issue of equity and adequacy of public service provision. The fourth was the importance of rural governance and the fifth was the importance of quality-of-life issues.
It is crucial to understand the importance of strategic planning as a key to the sustainability of rural communities. The White Paper addresses that, but it does not go far enough.