Ministry of Rural Development

– in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 6 April 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Labour, Shrewsbury and Atcham 2:34, 6 April 2001

I am pleased to have an opportunity to set out my vision for the future of how the countryside should be governed. The debate is about proposals for a ministry of rural development, but it might better refer to a department for rural development. It is time that the post of Secretary of State was established to oversee the countryside.

For several week s on our television screens and in our newspapers, we have witnessed the carnage caused by the foot and mouth crisis. I do not criticise the conduct during the epidemic of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: I believe that he has battled tirelessly to control that dreadful disease. Nor do I blame the hard-working vets and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials on the ground who are working flat out to contain foot and mouth through the slaughter policy.

In recent years, MAFF has improved systems of control beyond all measure to ensure that we can have safe food that is traceable to an individual animal. Our systems are now some of the best in the world. I do not want to pre-empt any recommendations that might result from a public inquiry, but as a member for four years of the Select Committee on Agriculture I have witnessed the successes and failings of MAFF.

Four Whitehall Departments are trying in different ways to tackle the effects of the disease. A radically new approach is needed. We cannot achieve a properly integrated approach when rural tourism is overseen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the rural economy and jobs are promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry, the countryside is managed by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and MAFF retains overview of farming and agribusiness. In The Times this morning, I noticed an advertisement that, rightly, promotes visiting the countryside. It refers to co-ordination of Government policy and bears the logos of all four main Government Departments involved. That is symptomatic of the problems facing the mechanics of government. We need a new department for rural development that will bring together all those elements, managed by new civil servants and led by a new Secretary of State.

In the past four, difficult years, the Government have done much to heir rural areas and have shown that they genuinely care about the countryside. The rural White Paper was widely welcomed as a blueprint for the future. It sets out the minimum standards that can be expected for rural services; sets 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief for village shops, pubs and garages; and promises more affordable houses and more help for small abattoirs, backed by £1 billion of taxpayers' money. The rural development plan provides £1.6 billion over the next six years for the rural economy and environment and for rural communities.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has delivered new protection for our environment and wildlife. The Government are rapidly expanding funding for rural policing: through a combination of reorganisation and extra money, we in the Shrewsbury division have put 50 additional bobbies on the heat since 1997. The Government are backing that with record increases in funding for village schools and rural buses, and new policies to protect rural post offices and keep village schools open.

None the less, rural areas face continuing crises that have resulted in farm incomes plummeting and too many services continuing to be lost. In the past 30 years, there has been a slow and steady decrease in the number of village schools, post offices, banks, pubs and shops. Rural bus services were devastated by deregulation, and train services to villages are almost non-existent. Rural areas have been hit hard by escalating fuel costs, although the Government have now ended the fuel tax escalator and cut duties. Furthermore, recent flooding has wrecked businesses and farms: in my constituency, some businesses have been hit six times by flooding from the River Severn.

There are now greater public expectations and demands—in normal circumstances—For better access to the countryside for leisure pursuits, which creates problems for the working environment and new opportunities. Make no mistake, there are no easy solutions. No Government can wave a magic wand and sort out all the complicated issues and problems affecting our countryside.

How do other countries govern their countryside differently? The Library has uncovered the following information. Ireland has a Department of Agriculture and Forestry that deals with farming, forestry, rural development and the rural environment. France has a Department of the Countryside and Forests that co-ordinates rural issues such as planning, water management, land use and protection of the environment, and deals with public rural services and the rural economy. Austria has a federal Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which covers farming, forestry, water management, plant protection and fishing, and is committed to improving the quality of life in rural areas. Australia has a dedicated Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which includes the Bureau of Rural Sciences for Sustainable Development, the rural communities programme—covering such issues as counselling services for farming communities, grant support and rural business advice—and a rural partnership programme for economic development.

The United States Department of Agriculture even has a dedicated rural development Under-Secretary, who deals with rural utilities, housing and businesses. There are 36 state rural development councils, co-ordinated by a national rural development council.

In many countries, the rural remit is already encompassed within Departments, allowing a more co-ordinated and integrated approach. Both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have taken steps to develop an integrated rural approach—now, it is England's turn.

To take such an approach would send a strong, positive signal to the countryside that the Government place rural issues at the top of their agenda. The Prime Minister has already taken the lead by postponing local elections and adopting a hands-on approach to tackling foot and mouth disease, for which he is to be commended. However, in future, we need a Secretary of State with the tools at his disposal, so that No. 10 does not have to spend so much time criss-crossing Whitehall to get the job done.

The decision to create such a department for England would lie solely with the Prime Minister. However, I hope that the debate on a new countryside department can begin in earnest. Since my election in 1997, I have consistently argued that we need a radical, new approach. In 1998, with the cross-party support of more than 60 MPs, I tabled an early-day motion calling for the establishment of a new ministry. As a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture, I have taken every opportunity to lobby for it.

Some of my urban colleagues have suggested that a new department is not required. However, when we have a Scottish Parliament, Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and, importantly, a London Mayor and a Greater London Assembly, the minority in the rural areas of England needs a strong voice.

The Institute for Public Policy Research recently proposed sending responsibility for agriculture to the Department of Trade and Industry, with any environmental bits that were left over going to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. That would be an appalling political mistake and would send a terrible signal to rural areas that they are not deemed worthy of their own department. Right now, they need a rural champion at the Cabinet table more than ever.

What would the new department look like? The Secretary of State would be responsible for the overall direction and strategy and for representing the UK on agricultural and rural issues at the European Council of Ministers; and would co-ordinate all aspects of rural policies with other Whitehall Departments and agencies. The new department would take over the remit of the ministerial group on rural affairs from the Cabinet Office.

Some responsibilities would be transferred to the new ministry; while it would provide input for the rural policies of other Departments. The functions of the existing Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would be subsumed into the new department—including European Union agriculture policy reform; farming issues, such as diversification, fisheries, countryside matters, forestry, flood defences, farm animal welfare and genetically modified crops; and MAFF' s current agencies. Responsibility for food has already been transferred to the Department of Health under the Food Standards Agency.

The Countryside Agency, which currently pump primes projects in rural areas, would be transferred from the DETR. The new ministry would have input in the DETR's integrated transport policies. Those policies are succeeding—especially the rural bus fund—and should be expanded as a priority. There would also he input in the DETR housing policies. There would need to be close liaison with the regional development agencies and a close relationship with local authorities, including parish councils, to find local solutions.

Responsibility for tourism would be transferred from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Responsibility for rural economic policy would be transferred from the DTI, with input from the new ministry to the DTI—for example, on rural post offices and rural small business policies. Responsibility for rural employment opportunities would be transferred from the Department for Education and Employment and the new ministry would offer the DFEE input on policies for rural schools. Finally, responsibility for rural economies should be transferred from the performance and innovation unit to the new ministry.

I hope that a Minister of State in the new department of rural development would be responsible for best practice for job creation and educational opportunities using the latest technology, which can be so useful in rural areas. Obviously, the DETR would have to retain its environmental protection and policing role and a new Select Committee would need to shadow the department. I strongly urge radical reform of the common agricultural policy, so that the new department would spend less time on hands-on bureaucracy and form filling, which MAFF has to do now, and more time on strategy, planning and co-ordination.

Although agriculture and agribusiness will probably continue to employ fewer people directly in farming, there is a golden opportunity for farm diversification and the wider rural economy to expand in a sensitive way after the current crisis. We need a new rural champion at the Cabinet table, with the resources and capability to define and develop a new vision for our countryside. The Secretary of State for rural development would bring together an integrated rural policy for the economy, communities and the environment and would have the power to lobby for fundamental changes to the CAP.

We need a British countryside where young people can find good jobs in a sustainable rural economy; where pensioners have a decent standard of living; where we have the best standards in small village schools, protection for our wildlife and a reduction in pollution; where every village hall or community centre is wired up to the internet; and where small family farms can make a decent living, carving out niche markets for high-quality food products and diversifying into profitable tourism ventures that quietly open up access to the countryside, so that people can see, learn and understand what a beautiful and precious landscape we have. For the sake of our suffering farmers and rural communities, we need to take decisive action now to turn that vision into reality with a new department for rural development.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 2:47, 6 April 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) on securing this debate and on the sober and responsible manner in which he has discussed foot and mouth and the machinery of government. I pay particular tribute to what he said about the foot and mouth epidemic and about the Government's excellent record of investment in rural areas. However, our immediate objective must be to overcome this dreadful outbreak of foot and mouth disease and to return to normality—something that the whole Government are working towards, not just the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

No doubt, we will want to reflect on that experience in due course and, no doubt, that process will give rise to proposals on how things should be better organised in future. It would be most unwise of me to try to predict what recommendations may emerge, or whether they are likely to cover the machinery of government. However, whatever the departmental boundaries, there has been the closest liaison between all the Departments concerned from the earliest stage. Let me remind my hon. Friend how close that liaison has been.

From the beginning, MAFF worked in close conjunction with the DETR and the Environment Agency on all the policy and practical measures that needed to be taken to contain and eradicate foot and mouth disease. As soon as it became clear that the epidemic was major and that its impact would be felt far beyond the farming community, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was asked by the Prime Minister to establish a rural taskforce to consider the economic impacts of the outbreak. The rural taskforce, which was set up immediately and has is now had three meetings, includes Ministers from MAFF, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. Ministers and officials from other Departments, such as the Department of Social Security and the Department for Education and Employment, have also attended the taskforce as necessary. The taskforce also includes representatives from the devolved Administrations and from the main outside stakeholders.

The fact that we were able to put together a taskforce of that sort in such short order is evidence that departmental boundaries do not impede co-ordinated working between Departments, whenever those boundaries lie.

As the seriousness of the epidemic grew, the Prime Minister rightly decided that it should be co-ordinated centrally. That was immediately organised. The Prime Minister now presides over a daily multi-departmental group in the Cabinet Office emergency briefing rooms. Again, wherever the departmental boundaries were drawn. I believe that that decision would have been taken. In other words, what is important is that those concerned should work closely and co-operatively together, whatever their specific departmental responsibilities. That has happened and is continuing to happen.

Of course, there are always different points of view about how responsibility should be divided between Departments. It is rare that a Government leave untouched the departmental organisation that they inherit from their predecessor. Governments are recognised for their tendency to reorganise blocks of work between Departments. In some cases, they divide Departments to sharpen the focus on particular national policies. In other cases, they combine Departments to achieve greater synergy, as we have done with the old Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment and with the Department for Education and the Department of Employment.

There is probably no perfect model, and there is certainly no perfect model that will endure through time. As circumstances change, priorities also change. Governments must therefore constantly review how the machinery of government can best be organised to deliver the objectives that they have set themselves. Moreover, priorities can change relatively quickly, and it would be bold of me to predict whether this time next year, there will be the same departmental organisation as at present.

I know that the idea of a department of rural affairs has been suggested by a number of people. Those suggestions date from well before the foot and mouth epidemic. The possibility was already being debated in the media a year or more ago. Even then, however, there was certainly no consensus among the stakeholders about whether it would make sense. Some argued that there needed to be a creative tension between the interests of agriculture and the interests of the environment and rural development, and that this was best achieved by having separate departments. By contrast, others argued that it was wrong for a single industry such as agriculture to have its own Ministry, and that better policies would be achieved if conservation, rural development and agriculture were all dealt with in a single department. I emphasise that there has certainly been no general agreement that a department of rural affairs is the best way to proceed.

What is absolutely clear and, I believe, accepted by everyone, is that there needs to be close collaboration between those parts of government dealing with agriculture, conservation and rural development policies. I am not sure how far my hon. Friend is aware of the considerable progress that has been made over the past two or three years in ensuring that such collaboration takes place. Following the comprehensive spending review three years ago, it was deliberately decided to establish much closer joint working between the Ministry of Agriculture and the parts of the DETR dealing with rural issues. Those arrangements now involve regular meetings and round-ups between the senior officials from the two Departments and close working at ministerial level, particularly between my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The co-operation has not been limited to the two Departments. Their agencies have also been brought together, and a number of high-level meetings held involving English Nature, the Countryside Agency, the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency and the Environment Agency. The latter is of course also sponsored by both the DETR and the Ministry of Agriculture. That collaboration immensely improved the development of policy on both sides. It meant, for instance, that the DETR had a major input into the European regional development programme, with its much greater emphasis on agri-environment as opposed to production subsidies.

Some will say that it would be even better if all the officials were together in the same Department. That was the burden of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. I am aware that in Scotland, agriculture and the environment have been brought together. Clearly, there are advantages, particularly in a relatively small Administration such as the Scottish Executive, but the balance of advantage is certainly not clear-cut, especially given the much more complicated remit of the UK Government.

If we set up a department of rural affairs, would the boundaries necessarily be that much tidier than existing ones? What would be put into it apart from agriculture? Obvious candidates would be rural development, and landscape and nature conservation, but when one begins to think about those possibilities, one realises that the benefits are not necessarily so clear-cut as might first be imagined.

Rural development, for instance, is intimately related to urban development and there is a strong case for believing that they should be considered as two sides of the same coin. We cannot deal with the countryside in isolation from the towns. The development of one must affect the development of the other, and rural and urban policies must be considered together. To take but one example: if we can make our cities attractive places to live, that will lessen the pressure on the countryside. If we build more houses on brownfield sites, we will be able to build fewer on our green fields. So it does not necessarily make sense to deal with policies on development and housing in separate urban and rural boxes.

Even an issue such as wildlife is not necessarily clear-cut. We tend to think of wildlife as largely a rural issue, but in practice suburbia is becoming increasingly important as a reservoir of biodiversity. Is it really right to treat wildlife exclusively as a rural issue?

There is no doubt that water policy is of major importance, as the recent floods have shown. There is also no doubt that it is a major factor in any rural policy. Agriculture relies on it, but it can also be a major source of water pollution. However, it is not just a rural issue, and it is crucial that our policy for water should consider rural and urban needs and problems together so that we achieve a comprehensive solution.

It is because of the need for a co-ordinated approach on so many environmental policies that the DETR and MAFF both sponsor the Environment Agency. Unless one were to give the department of rural affairs the whole gamut of environmental policy, there would still have to be some form of joint sponsorship. That is another example of the difficulty in achieving perfectly tidy boundaries.

In other words, this is an open-ended debate on which there is unlikely to be total consensus. My hon. Friend used a number of interesting arguments, to which I listened with care. Some were good; others were less persuasive. I am sure that the discussion will continue and, if a department of rural affairs were ever created, new pressures would no doubt arise for a different form of organisation. The fact is that no set of departmental boundaries will satisfy everyone.

However, I reassure my hon. Friend that the issue that concerns the Government is not deciding the future shape of Departments, but devoting 100 per cent. of our energies to tackling the foot and mouth epidemic, supporting those farmers and communities most affected by it and ensuring that the energies of all Departments and agencies are focused on that overriding task.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o'clock.