I beg to move,
That this House
recognises that the livelihood of millions of British people depends on the rural economy;
notes that British agriculture is in the throes of its worst recession since the 1930s;
regrets the burden of regulation imposed on farms and other rural businesses;
expresses concern about the lack of affordable housing and the strain on public services in rural areas;
and calls upon the Government to acknowledge the gravity of the crisis in the countryside and to address effectively and urgently the problems faced by rural communities.
Britain today is an overwhelmingly urban and suburban society. What I found most striking about last month's countryside march was the fact that those who took part identified themselves as a minority in society whose interests were being ignored by those in positions of power. The reasons for that are straightforward. Our farmers and growers are struggling with the worst recession to hit their industry since the 1930s. Red tape and regulation are holding back efforts to develop new enterprises within agriculture or in the wider rural economy. Too often, police officers are not seen on patrol in the village streets but glimpsed occasionally behind the wheel of a passing patrol car. There are severe pressures on transport services and affordable housing, and rural post offices and rural magistrates courts continue to close. All that carries a human cost. The rural stress information network, which is an independent charity, reports that calls to its helpline are now running at twice the rate of two years ago before the foot and mouth epidemic began.
I admit that the mood in the countryside is not solely due to disillusionment with the present Government. There is also disaffection with the political process and with politicians of all parties. That more general feeling of mistrust found expression in the mass abstention from voting in last year's general election, about which every one of us, from whichever side of the House we come, ought to be concerned. However, it is accurate to say that there is an especially strong sense of grievance against the present Government. It was not a politician but the chairman of another charity, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, Mr. Wallis, who last month wrote to the Prime Minister about the views of farmers. His statement sums up the much wider public perception in our rural communities. He wrote:
XYour Government is, at best, not bothered, at worst hostile to the interests of a strong GB farming industry. It is felt that trust between the farming community and DEFRA is mutually at an all time low."
The Government started with an enormous fund of good will in rural as well as in urban areas. Part of the reason for this change, which requires some explanation, is the behaviour and language of Ministers. When someone as senior as the Deputy Prime Minister talks in the most scathing terms of
Xthe contorted faces of the Countryside Alliance" he causes real hurt and resentment among the hundreds of thousands of decent men and women who have supported successive peaceful marches and demonstrations. When the Minister for Rural Affairs said that he thought that those who marched last month were a little confused, it spoke volumes about the Government's unwillingness to listen. I genuinely wish that many more Labour Members had come to London on
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the contrast in the behaviour of Ministers then and now. That shows that the confidence that people in the countryside have in the Government has been sapped in the past few years.
Would the hon. Gentleman blame some of us for not attending the march given the tactics of some of its supporters? A supporter attached to my garden gate a poster advertising the march and took pictures of it, which I assumed would be used in some propaganda. That did not endear me to their cause.
The illicit poster on the hon. Gentleman's gate has obviously been preying on his mind for some weeks, and I am glad that he has had the opportunity to get it off his chest. I do not for a moment defend such action, but he has overlooked the fact that more than 400,000 of our fellow citizens were prepared to give up a Sunday and travel long distances into London if necessary to make their views known. It would have helped not only the Government—I am not usually in the business of trying to help the Government—but the cause of democracy and a sense of reconnection between public and politicians had more than a handful of members and supporters of the Government been present to listen.
Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who were on the march were conscious of the fact that, even though the Government have argued that this issue is a matter for the House and not for them, as they are merely in charge of the process, the marchers, wherever they came from and whatever principled ground they held, were against the Government of the day and those in power?
I think my hon. Friend has summed up views expressed by a great many people that day.
The trouble with the Government's approach to rural policy is the same as the trouble with their approach on so many other fronts. All too often, we have seen a gap between what was promised and what has in practice been delivered. The Government—admirably—committed themselves to rural-proofing their policies; yet 12 months after the Government entered into that commitment, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, a Government-appointed chairman of a Government body, reported
Xmost Departments have done the minimum necessary to introduce rural proofing".
XI am not convinced that policy makers generally are giving sufficient thought to the impact on the countryside and the people who live there when they develop policies".
It is not necessary to look far to discover why Mr. Cameron reached that conclusion. Let us consider the representation. Ministers are still committed to a system of regional government that will inevitably take power and influence away from rural communities. In the sort of regional assembly that Ministers envisage, with perhaps 30 elected members from across the region—30 members probably picked in accordance with some region-wide party list—the focus is bound to be on the interests of the towns and cities. Their priorities will receive the most attention.
The regional assemblies will, of course, be introduced only if voted for by the people whom they will seek to represent.
May I also draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the experience of rural development agencies? All of them, I think—in particular, one in my area—have taken a significant interest in the rural economy, in how to make it thrive, and in how to establish a dedicated representative to fulfil the necessary role.
I will go as far as this with the hon. Gentleman. Travelling around the country, I have encountered examples of budgets allocated to regional bodies being spent well; but I have also encountered numerous complaints from elected councillors and others who have said that the bureaucracy involved in trying to obtain a grant from a regional body is so complicated as to deter many grass-roots organisations, even local authorities—especially in rural areas—from making the attempt in the first place.
In the case of regional assemblies, the problem is not grants. Until midnight on Monday, we had an Assembly in Northern Ireland. My views on the Assembly are pretty anti, but all parties in the Assembly—DUP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance, Women's Coalition, you name it: there are so many parties in Northern Ireland—right over to Sinn Fein believed that agriculture in Northern Ireland would be much better served by a regional assembly than by a national Government.
There is, I think, a profound difference between the history and representative traditions of Northern Ireland and those of England. In England in particular, we have looked to counties, boroughs and cities to provide a focus for local representation.
I hoped that my hon. Friend would illustrate his concern by reference to Yorkshire and Humberside. North Yorkshire contains 14 per cent. of the population of that region. The remaining 86 per cent. are already in metropolitan areas. Therefore, the fate of two-tier government in Yorkshire and Humberside will be settled by the 86 per cent. who have no experience of it.
My right hon. Friend puts his point well. It has also been made to me by people living in rural Northumberland, who are worried about the creation of a north-east regional assembly, and by people living in rural Cheshire and Cumbria who are worried about the possibility of a north-west regional assembly. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Mr. Luff says that exactly the same fears are being expressed in his area.
We do not have natural regions in England. I do not want to contradict what was said by David Burnside, but if he is trying to impose that on England, he is talking nonsense. To go against our traditional county structure is to strike a death blow at rural England.
I believe that my hon. Friend is correct in both his historical analysis and his understanding of the likely consequences of the regional agenda becoming reality.
No. I must make some progress.
According to some estimates, tourism is now worth about #14 billion to the rural economy in England alone—that is, not counting the other nations of the United Kingdom. The foot and mouth epidemic, followed by the collapse of foreign visits after
Tourism, like many other sectors of commerce, will in future have to rely more and more on fast, good-quality electronic communication with its customers. That means access to broadband. People have made the point to me again and again, from Northumberland to Cornwall: without access to broadband, new micro-businesses in the countryside will be at a permanent disadvantage compared with their urban competitors.
There are issues related to the number of subscribers needed to make broadband economic. I know that British Telecom says that between 200 and 750 would be necessary, but according to other studies as few as 40 might constitute a viable threshold. The broadband link in Cumbria runs underneath Penrith so surely it cannot be right that businesses in that town are denied a connection altogether. Britain now has one of the lowest rates of broadband take-up anywhere in the OECD area, and our rural businesses above all stand to lose out because of the delay. I believe that Government action to tackle the problem—to increase availability of broadband and provide incentives for its provision in rural areas—would command strong cross-party support in the House.
People need somewhere to work in the countryside. They also need somewhere to live, and rural homes are becoming less affordable. According to the Countryside Agency, nearly two thirds of people living in rural areas would need to spend more than half their incomes on mortgages to buy an average home. Part of the answer certainly lies in the provision of more homes, and the great merit of the policy announced last week by my right hon. Friend David Davis is that it would provide funds to pay for perhaps as many as 13,000 new homes every year nationwide.
Clearly there would be a need for particular measures, as exist in the present legislative system whereby small estates in small village communities are subject to particular arrangements.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to develop that point. In the tiny hamlet of Thurvaston in south Derbyshire, three housing association homes were recently constructed by agreement with the local landowner. I can tell the hon. Gentleman for free that if those were made available for sale, they would rapidly disappear and not be replaced. How does he intend to address that kind of problem?
There are a number of ways in which we intend to address the problem that the hon. Gentleman has rightly identified. First, there will undoubtedly remain a strong case for having an exceptional arrangement for designated small rural communities as currently exists under the present law. Whether the limit should remain as it is under the current arrangements is a matter on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is consulting the interested bodies.
Secondly, there is the need not just to provide only accommodation to rent, but accommodation for shared ownership. That proposal has been made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden by the Rural Housing Trust, and he is discussing it with the trust and other parties.
The point that Mr. Todd has overlooked is that the chief complaint by those who have objected to the right to buy in the past has been that tenants had the right to purchase their house but that the money received by the local authority could not then be used to provide additional housing. The Opposition are now committed to a policy that will free housing associations to spend the receipts from the sale of those housing association properties on the provision of new homes. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman made a serious point that deserves a serious answer.
The trouble with the arguments put forward by Labour Members is that they are trying to conceal the fact that they remain instinctively hostile not just to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden proposed last week, but to the whole notion that tenants should be enfranchised and have the right to buy their own homes. If the Minister for Rural Affairs or the Under-Secretary is prepared to stand up and say, not just to this House but to the tenants of housing associations throughout the country, that the Labour party remains adamantly opposed to tenants being granted the right to buy, my hon. Friends and I will be glad to take that message back and campaign on it in counties and cities throughout this land.
I am glad that it was the hon. Member for South Derbyshire who intervened earlier, because I said that while part of the problem was that we needed to provide new homes, we must also make sure that the homes were in the right places. I want to refer to something that the hon. Gentleman has said in the past. The Government's top-down approach is wrong. The Deputy Prime Minister seems to be rushing to concrete over great swathes of southern England and, in the process, is planning to build large new estates in some areas that are already relatively low cost. Surely we need instead a policy that begins with a sensible analysis of local need.
The Rural Housing Trust argued in a paper earlier this year for the provision of six to eight subsidised homes in each of 8,000 small villages throughout England—roughly 50,000 more homes in total—but sited in places where there was a proven local need that the local community would accept. I do not want to embarrass the hon. Member for South Derbyshire too much but I was impressed by an exchange that he had in the Select Committee on
The hon. Member for South Derbyshire acknowledged that an over-rigid approach to planning guidance, and particularly to PPG13, was tending to focus development exclusively in so-called key settlements, with a lot of smaller communities being, in his words, Xeffectively preserved in aspic" and therefore becoming more exclusive and less sustainable over time. I hope that the Government will look seriously at their planning guidance in light of our experiences as a country and at the sort of problems that the hon. Gentleman has rightly identified.
No. The hon. Gentleman had one intervention about his front gate. I do not want a tour around his entire garden.
The rural economy is about a lot more than farming but farming still lies at its heart. Agriculture is not only important economically; farmers and growers are also custodians of a landscape that is valued by people in cities as well as villages and is a prime asset for our tourist industry.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the crisis in rural areas predates the election of the Labour Government? For instance, farm incomes were falling under the previous Conservative Government and the fuel tax escalator imposed an added burden on rural communities. Also, the one episode in particular that precipitated the crisis in the countryside would have to be the BSE disaster, over which his Government presided.
The hon. Gentleman will know that most of the subjects that we are debating today are, in Scotland, devolved to the Scottish Parliament. However, I take his point seriously. I will not quibble about statistics; the historians can argue over those. I am willing, as is my party, to learn the lessons of our period in government. We can learn where we got things right and where we got them wrong. What we ask of the present Government is that they be prepared to learn from their experiences over the past five years when they have failed to deliver on the promises that they were so keen to make to people in our rural communities.
It is true that farm incomes, employment and investment have all plunged in the last few years. It is true that no Minister—not even one as benevolent as the Minister for Rural Affairs—can simply wish away the problems caused by international commodity prices, world competition and fluctuating exchange rates. But that makes it even more important that the Government act firmly and effectively on those matters that do lie within their own power.
Britain's farmers need a fair deal from current European negotiations. The best future for farming lies in moving towards a system where farmers are free to respond to what their customers want rather than to the edicts of Government, whether in Whitehall or in Brussels. It is right also to find ways to recognise the public good that farmers and growers provide for the nation in terms of landscape and biodiversity. Some of the key elements in Commissioner Fischler's proposals—such as the ceiling on payments and the idea of putting modulation receipts into a common European pot—seem to have been designed quite deliberately to discriminate against British agriculture. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government are determined to resist such discrimination.
There are many things that the Government could do now, without the need for international negotiations, to assist British agriculture. Top of that list must be, at last, some effective action against the illegal importing of meat. We know that the Government's assessment is that that was almost certainly the cause of the foot and mouth disaster. The Government are always lecturing farmers about the importance of biosecurity. It is about time that we saw the Government taking seriously their own responsibilities for biosecurity at our ports.
If one flies from London to Dublin, as I did last month, one finds when one arrives in Ireland a terminal plastered with posters warning that meat is not to be brought in. There is a disinfectant point, clearly signed, for travellers who have visited a farm or who are otherwise considered high risk. There is a large amnesty bin in which passengers can dump their ham sandwiches or whatever else they might have brought with them. All of these measures were introduced by the Irish Government in response to the epidemic here in 2001, even though there was only one case of foot and mouth disease on the island of Ireland.
When one returns to terminal 1 at Heathrow, one finds nothing. There are no bins, posters or disinfectant points. From written answers, we know that the number of spot checks carried out at ports and airports is pitifully low and that there are still no clear lines of command between the different agencies that share responsibility for port controls.
We are now a year on from the last case of foot and mouth, and we are six months on from the Government's misnamed Xaction plan" on illegal meat imports. Their sloth and incompetence on this issue is nothing short of a disgraceful failure to carry out their public duty.
My hon. Friend has made that charge on his own account, but I should point out that when Professor Follett, who chaired the inquiry into the science of foot and mouth disease, was asked during today's Select Committee meeting what he would like to see following the Government's action plan, he replied XAction."
My right hon. Friend demonstrates that the views that we are expressing on this matter command wide support in the country. People are experiencing a mixture of bafflement and anger at the Government's failure to act on a matter that they themselves have said is important.
My hon. Friend mentions terminal 1 and flights from Ireland. Of course, a lot of the infected meat comes from Africa and the middle east, and at the Heathrow terminals that handle those flights there is no warning either.
I hope that, if nothing else, after this debate Ministers will take the steps that they promised they would take six months ago, and ensure that fairly straightforward measures such as warning posters and amnesty bins are at last delivered.
Farmers want action on food labelling, too. Often, it is far too difficult for shoppers to find out whether the food that they buy is British and meets this country's stringent standards on hygiene and animal welfare. It is more than two years since the Prime Minister promised the National Farmers Union that he would introduce new labelling guidance to ensure that foreign goods are not passed off as British simply because they have been processed here. Yet the Government that he leads blocked a Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien, which tried to give that promise the backing of law. If the Government are not prepared to look again at this issue, we will look for an opportunity to bring the matter back for further debate.
Like other businesses, farmers are struggling day by day with the cost in time and money caused by Government regulation. Too often—far too often—new rules are being brought in with scant regard to their practical impact on people who are trying to run small businesses. European legislation on nitrates and on environmental impact assessments has been gold plated in Whitehall. Burying fallen stock on-farm will be illegal from May next year, yet the Government have still given us no details on how alternative arrangements are supposed to work, or on who will pay for them. At the moment, those farmers who live within reasonable distance of a hunt can get rid of livestock carcases; however, the Government have their own plans for that source of help as well. That problem is causing particular anxiety in upland areas. The subject was raised with me by the National Farmers Union in Wales and the Farmers Union of Wales when I met their representatives.
The 20-day rule on livestock movements in England and Wales is causing enormous practical problems for farmers. I remember attending the Hexham auction market—in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson—and listening to sheep farmers. They said that they would have to choose between going to a ewe sale one week or a lamb sale the next, because it was impossible to do both.
Since the Chairman of the Select Committee referred to one thing that Sir Brian Follett said, perhaps I can refer to another. He was questioned on the 20-day movement restrictions, and referred back to the experience of restrictions on pigs. Again, he recalled outrage at the implications, said that that industry had accepted that that was the right thing to do, and rather suspected that the same view might be taken some years hence.
If the hon. Gentleman refers to Sir Brian Follett's original report and to Dr. Anderson's report, he will find two further things. First, they recognised that there were profound differences between the structure of the pig industry and of the sheep and cattle sectors. Both men drew attention to the serious practical difficulties that they acknowledged would be caused, were the 20-day rule to be maintained. They also said that the Government should carry out an urgent cost-benefit analysis of the 20-day rule. Frankly, the Government have known since before those inquiries were set up that this was one of the big issues to be determined. That we are still waiting for the Government to reach a conclusion again indicates a complete unreadiness to face up to the difficulties that country businesses are experiencing.
There may be a case for one set of restrictions on movement, but of course we have two sets, because we have different systems north and south of the border. Does my hon. Friend think that, in Scotland, it is the sheep, the farmers or the politicians who are more intelligent than their counterparts in England?
It is probably not among the sheep or the farmers where a difference in intelligence, or perhaps in judgment, exists. I have seen no hint from Ministers that farms in England or Wales are at risk of a renewed outbreak of foot and mouth disease because no border is being enforced between England and Scotland. Ministers have so far been unable to explain why a system in Scotland can exist alongside a completely different, far more stringent one south of the border.
What makes matters worse is the incompetence that the Government too often display in administering their own rules. The Rural Payments Agency could not meet its legal deadline for payments to cattle farmers, and we learned this week that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs still owes some #100 million to contractors that it employed to clean up farms infected with foot and mouth. The memory of the Government's mishandling of that epidemic still rankles with many thousands of people in our countryside. There was inadequate contingency planning, delay in calling in the Army, confusion over the contiguous cull and question marks over its legality. The experience of many people, particularly those in the areas hit hardest by the disease, was—to quote Cumbria county council's inquiry team—one of Xconfusion, disorder and delay".
How that contrasts with the vision painted in the Government's rural White Paper: a vision of
Xa living, protected and vibrant countryside . . . one where people have access to the jobs and services they require . . . a countryside that can shape its own future, with its voice heard by Government at all levels."
That was a statement with which few could disagree, and it undoubtedly commanded widespread support in all parts of this country. That there is now such disillusion and discontent is above all down to the Government's blatant and repeated failure to deliver on the promises that they so glibly made.
I am delighted that the Conservative party has at last woken up to the fact that the rural economy is an important issue. [Interruption.] It was noticeable that, in introducing the debate, the party's spokesman, Mr. Lidington, went very wide of the topics in the motion. I am glad that he quoted our purposes for the countryside—on which we are delivering—in his closing remarks. The Opposition are catching up with Labour's 180 rural and semi-rural MPs, whose pressure on their constituents' behalf since 1997 has led to the rural White Paper, to a raft of specific economic measures, to the rural service standard, and to the rural proofing of policies. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the latter, which was described as courageous by Ewen Cameron, the Government's rural advocate, from whom the hon. Gentleman quoted so selectively.
The hon. Gentleman was very selective in the way that he addressed even the issues covered in his own motion. The Government have acted to help rural businesses and the rural economy as a whole, not just farming. The hon. Gentleman referred to the recent march in London, so let me say to him what I said at that time. There was muddle at the heart of the march. The organisers were muddled. After the march, they had to produce a 10-point argument to explain why they organised a march in London. I received a small number of letters afterwards from people who took issue with the suggestion that there was a muddle at the heart of the march. Those who wrote said that they were not confused and that they knew why they had attended the march, but they all quoted different reasons for their presence. There was a muddle at the heart of the march.
After the march, the Minister made some remark to the effect that he had no idea what it was all about and that it was all a muddle. Will he explain why the No. 10 lobby briefing of the next day presented a different case? It was stated then that the Prime Minister knew precisely what the march was about, that he was extremely concerned about the issues raised and that he would do something about them. Why is the Minister singing a different tune from the Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman is a shadow spokesman on economic issues but has apparently been left out of this debate, so I understand that he needs to make his voice heard at some point. However, if he had waited a moment he would have heard me say that most of the problems listed in the motion have not appeared since 1997 but have been building up over the past 25 years. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister responded courteously to the 10 matters listed by the Countryside Alliance after the march in September. Subsequently, I responded in great detail to each of the issues. I explained where the Government stood on them, and pointed out what we were doing about them.
The Countryside Alliance knows that we take the matter seriously, because we have given it a seat at the table—a place on the Rural Affairs Forum for England. To be fair to the alliance, I must say that it has worked constructively with the Government on a series of issues, but let us have no more nonsense suggesting that there was clarity behind the march.
In his opening speech, the hon. Member for Aylesbury rightly acknowledged that any sense of grievance is aimed not only at this Government but at all politicians. The real damage to rural economies—as with urban areas—was done in the 18 years of damage and neglect under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. [Interruption.] Of course Opposition Members do not like to hear that: throughout those 18 years, they tried to blame the previous Labour Government. Even 17 years into the Conservative Government's rule, they were still looking to the previous Administration. They will therefore be reminded of their faults and of the evils of the Conservative Administration.
The Labour party was the first political party to devote a national conference to rural issues, which all the interested parties attended. The National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, voluntary organisations and the Countryside Alliance, as well as representatives of local government, animal welfare organisations and business, were there because they were able to debate with Labour MPs and Ministers the issues that affect rural economies.
Does the Minister accept that country people feel that they are losing their roots and tradition, and that they do not have enough impact on national affairs? When people in Lincolnshire are asked where they live, they say not that they live in West Lindsey or the east midlands but that they live in Lincolnshire. Why do the Government intend to proceed with a proposal that will abolish 1,000 years of English history? It will remove a golden thread running through people's lives. Before the Minister says that there will be a vote on the matter, I remind him that people in rural in Lincolnshire will be outvoted by people in the big cities of Nottingham and Derby. Will he give those rural people some sort of veto? Why is he trying to abolish what they hold most dear?
The hon. Gentleman makes a rather delphic utterance. If he is referring to regional government, I can tell him that, since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, rural interests and the rural economy in Wales have been more extensively debated in the Assembly, and especially in its Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. The Assembly has increased the level of interest and debate, and has also delivered a better standard of debate.
Mr. Lidington said that people look to their county, district, borough and city councils, but he did not mention parish councils. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that parish councils are especially important in rural areas, and that this Government are acting to improve parish councils' powers and responsibilities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall turn to the role of parish councils later in my speech. This Government are the first to focus on developing the role of parish councils, but Opposition Members have never understood that and, in government, they have never tried to do it.
I—and I am sure many other hon. Members—have received letters from parish councillors who, after years of loyal service to their communities, have resigned in disgust at the new regulations placed on them by the Government. How many such letters has the Minister received?
The number is very small indeed, but I have received many letters from parish councillors around the country welcoming the way in which the Government are strengthening the role of parish councils. We have given those councils grants so that they have money to spend on matters such as transport and the development of parish plans. That allows parish councils to develop their role and to look after their communities' interests. A few Conservative parish councillors have stood down, and some people have been misled by incorrect information being circulated by a member of the Conservative party. The Government are working with parish councils, local government and the people who represent rural communities across the country.
I am not going to develop education policy. I am talking about the role of parish councils and how the Government are enabling them to take the lead in their communities so that they can develop answers to local problems.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury had quite a bit to say about farming. There are genuine, serious and deep-seated problems in that sector, which have been developing for years. Under this Government, those problems are being tackled comprehensively for the first time. It is widely recognised that the Curry commission on the future of farming and food has given the answer to the problems faced by the farming industry. We are putting in #1.7 billion through the England rural development programme. Help is being provided on a variety of matters, including diversification and marketing. A direct comparison can be made: this Government are making available #240 million a year, compared with the #56 million a year made available between 1993 and 1999.
It is vital, however, that we secure effective reform of the CAP, and drive modernisation in the farming industry. Reform is needed to make our agriculture more competitive and more sustainable, and to ensure that our rural economies can flourish despite the challenges ahead.
No, that is a misinterpretation. The figure for the third year of the spending review alone is #200 million, and #500 million is the overall figure.
The Government are working with the farming industry to deliver on the Curry report. The Opposition may say now that that is common sense, but no previous Government have adopted such a comprehensive approach. It was a courageous step to take.
The food and farming sector makes an economic contribution, but farming also has a role to play in the countryside in respect of the landscape. We all value our landscape, but farmers, given that they manage some 77 per cent. of UK land, make a significant contribution to protecting the rural environment.
Many farmers accept that there is a serious point to be made about the extent to which farming has become dependent on subsidy instead of becoming competitive and effective. I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs meet farmers all the time, and we have detected a remarkable shift in attitude. The shift took place in part during the foot and mouth outbreak, when people realised how vulnerable the industry was. Many matters were brought to a head at that time. We need to move away from a culture of subsidy in the farming industry, and towards a culture that assists the industry to be competitive. In addition, the agri-environment schemes are designed to pay for things that provide a public good.
Will the Minister explain how the British dairy industry can be 30 per cent. more efficient than the dairy industry on the continent, yet can be underpriced continually by that industry? Supermarkets can buy milk from France and Ireland, for instance, at prices lower than those charged by our dairy industry. Are there not both institutional and fiscal reasons for that? Do not the Government need to do more work on the euro and commodity prices to ensure that our farmers are truly competitive? Is not it wrong for the Minister to blame farmers for not being able to face the market, when the Government are closing the gates to that market?
Indeed. One difficulty is that co-operatives in continental countries are far stronger than those in this country. A point stressed by the Curry report, and one that I strongly applaud, is the need to strengthen the co-operative culture so that farmers can take a greater part of the shelf price, which goes back to the primary producers. We strongly support that element of the Curry report—recognising the need to strengthen the requirements on competition.
Countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive areas, the two main agri-environment schemes, are delivering more than #100 million a year to maintain and enhance the rural environment. The schemes have 26,000 agreement holders and cover about 1 million hectares—almost 10 per cent. of agricultural land. I emphasise that we need to make use of the money that is being invested in agriculture to reform farming and to give it a sustainable future. The problems will not be solved overnight, but we are working on them with the industry.
The picture painted by the Conservatives is a travesty. A few days ago, the Prime Minister pointed out that our commitment to a future for farming means that more money is going into that industry than into all other industries put together. The industry is important; it is vital for our countryside, but we must put it in balance. The motion refers to the wider rural economy and rural communities—the real rural agenda. People in rural areas want the same things as people in urban areas: jobs, access to services, a good standard of schools and education, health services, transport, affordable housing and a secure future. They have the same aspirations as people in urban areas, but sometimes there is a different set of problems in respect of the delivery of those services.
In urban areas, it is often possible to target problems by measuring them at ward level, but it is difficult to do that in rural areas. Communities are dispersed and so are their problems. People who need help are often dispersed throughout largely prosperous areas.
Before the Minister moves away from farming, will he explain the implication of the extremely interesting statement that he has just made? Is he saying that the Government will reverse their policy on breaking up Milk Marque?
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that we are encouraging the development of co-operatives; that is part of the Curry agenda and we strongly support it. I appreciate that he wants to take me back in my speech, just as his Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Aylesbury, wanted to evade the terms of the Conservative motion. We want to encourage co-operatives—small businesses, new businesses and entrepreneurship—to work together to improve the standard of living of people in rural communities.
As I have just pointed out, the problems for rural communities are extremely local. We have a large number of small communities; for example, there are about 8,000 parish and town councils. They are experiencing the impact of social and economic change. It is a fact of life that many people in rural communities also have access to supermarkets. They have the choice of shopping locally or in neighbouring towns or cities. It does not help to play politics with such issues.
The long-term social trends are difficult for rural communities. They present choices for local government and local people as well as for the Government. We are trying to enable people and communities to make those choices, which is why the work of the Countryside Agency is so important. Through the finance strands that we make available, the agency offers people a chance to take decisions about their futures at the most local level.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that one almost hidden countryside industry is the care of the elderly. The local residential home may be the largest employer in many villages. Is he aware of the pressure being put on the sector because of local authority difficulties in funding care? What representations has DEFRA made in the name of joined-up government to the Deputy Prime Minister's Department about funding super-sparsity in rural areas and assisting sectors on which many people depend for part-time employment, not least to buttress agricultural incomes?
I shall develop those points in a moment. We are working with colleagues throughout the Government, especially in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to consider the needs of rural areas. Indeed, my right hon. Friend is taking a personal interest in issues such as the need for affordable housing in rural areas.
Mr. Curry makes very well the point that I was coming to: if we are to help rural economies, we have to understand them. I spent most of today with the Countryside Agency, which plays a vital role in this field. The agency rightly made the point that to maintain and extend the significant contribution that rural economies make to the UK economy—they benefit not only themselves but the wider economy—requires better engagement with those business sectors that make the most important contributions to rural economies.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to farming and I have responded because it is important. However, almost 80 per cent. of the 5.22 million employees in rural workplaces work in four broad industrial groups about which we have heard nothing: for example, distribution, hotels and restaurants. Nowadays, more people in the rural economy are employed in tourism than in farming. People work in public administration, education and health—the sector to which the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred. They work in manufacturing, banking, finance and insurance. The pattern is repeated in 65 per cent. of rural economies or 95 of the 145 rural local authority areas. We need to pay more attention to their economic footprint on rural England. Sometimes, that may not happen because such employment is also dominant in many urban districts, but it is also part of the positive and necessary engagement with farming.
It is important, for example, that in some of our most beautiful landscapes—our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—we also engage with the local economy and community, so that they can truly be test-beds for sustainable development and that they do not turn into landscape museums.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not only in respect of housing that the planning system is desperately in need of reform. In the countryside, we have the capacity to regenerate rural areas because there are many vacant or under-used buildings—usually farm buildings. I am sure that my experience is shared by many hon. Members: there is often great conflict between those who want to develop such buildings and those who want to pickle them in aspic—to use the words of my hon. Friend Mr. Todd. We have to make people understand that if they want the countryside to live we must develop those buildings. I hope that changes to the planning system will allow that to happen.
My hon. Friend is right. I am pleased about the interest shown by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, who deals with housing. He will attend the next meeting of the Rural Affairs Forum to debate the issue with representatives and colleagues. At the forum's last meeting, one of his officials was present to hear the views of people across the board, to ensure that those views are fed into the processes. There is no magic wand; what one person wants to do may have an impact on neighbours. The planning processes have to be followed with balance and care, but my hon. Friend is right to point up their importance.
We need to examine the potential for growth in rural communities. I have stressed the importance of the horse industry and have met its representatives on several occasions recently.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury referred to access to broadband. That, too, is important and I met BT for discussions about it earlier this month. However, it is essential to be precise about what we want it to do. Broadband is not a magic wand that will suddenly do away with problems in rural areas; it offers potential but it must be used with precision and planning.
My right hon. Friend briefly touched on the horse sector, and I saw one or two other hon. Members nod their agreement about its importance. That sector is clearly growing in my constituency, but, once again, it would be facilitated by a careful examination of the planning regime that applies to the development of not only the more serious horse enterprises, but those that provide more rough and ready leisure pursuits.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we are working with the industry to identify what is needed to help it to expand.
The point that I am making strongly is that the Government are listening. We recognise that there are issues that need tackling to achieve our vision, which was so eloquently quoted by the hon. Member for Aylesbury, of a living, working, protected and vibrant countryside, but we are taking action and we have made considerable progress. We are committed to engaging and working with people in the countryside to develop solutions.
Before the Minister moves on from equestrian activities, may I tell him that a farrier came to see me at my advice session on Saturday because he was concerned, not surprisingly, about the impact of a possible ban on hunting? Nevertheless, I put it to him that the probable disappearance of hunting is likely to be associated with an expansion in equestrian activity when the stigma of it being linked to hunting is removed. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I shall not expand on that topic during this debate, as I am sure that we will discuss it in the near future.
The Government are trying to govern for all the country. The rural economy is a part of the national picture. Effective national policies benefit everyone, irrespective of whether they live in rural or urban areas. Our economic policy has led to the United Kingdom having the lowest inflation rate in Europe and the lowest in this country for 30 years. That benefits the rural economy. We have the lowest long-term interest rates and mortgage rates for homeowners for 40 years. Unemployment in Britain is lower than at any time for 25 years. Some 1.5 million more jobs have been created, and long-term youth unemployment—once 350,000—is now just 5,000.
To those Opposition Members who wish to talk down the rural economy let me say this: unemployment is down 36 per cent. in rural areas, compared with a drop of 31 per cent. in urban areas. Rural areas have benefited massively from the drop in unemployment that the Government have achieved, and other national policies benefit rural areas, too. Putting schools and hospitals first, with the biggest ever sustained increases in public investment, help both the rural and urban economies. The adoption of the minimum wage has raised incomes in rural areas. Indeed, the benefits to low-paid people in rural areas are probably greater than to those in urban areas.
What about the Conservative party's record on school closures? Three rural schools a year have closed since 1997, and only five have closed since 2000. Between 1983 and 1997, the closure rate was 30 a year. I am not surprised that Conservative Members look embarrassed.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Such a decision would be extremely damaging, which is why Ministers have not supported it.
I want to look further at the question of essential services because people need to have access to high-quality public services no matter where they live. Let us consider affordable homes. Since 1997, the Government have doubled the funding for creating affordable homes to #1.2 billion a year, which is supporting the creation of 20,000 affordable homes every year. The Housing Corporation's rural affordable housing programme has also been doubled. We are ahead of the target set out in the rural White Paper. Restrictions on the right to buy in rural areas have helped, as has judicious use of planning powers by local authorities. We recognise that more needs to be done, but we are working in partnership with employers and public and private landlords. It is worth noting that, since 1997, 20 per cent. of social housing has been built in rural areas.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury may think that it was a clever ploy to suggest a change in the arrangements last week—he has wisely rowed back from what was said then—but the right to buy led to a loss of 91,000 homes from the social rented sector in rural areas between 1985 and 1990. That would be okay if those homes were being replaced, but it is hardly a blinding flash of inspiration to accelerate the loss. We need to ensure that affordable housing is there not just for the short term, but for the long term.
The question of choice and enabling people to have a decent start in life and being able to own their own homes is part of a wider picture, and there is no quick fix. The Rural Housing Trust, with which I have had discussions, and other organisations—charities, as well as housing associations—have a major contribution to make. It is worth making the point again that the target of 60 per cent. of new homes being built on brownfield land has been met eight years earlier than was forecast. The Opposition seem to suggest that there is some sort of threat to the greenbelt, but 30,000 hectares have been added to it since 1997.
Let us consider health and social services. By 2004, there will be 100 new primary care, one-stop or mobile units, 5,000 intermediary care beds in rural areas, and guaranteed access to primary care within 24 hours and a doctor within 48 hours. NHS Direct is now available throughout England, and it is having an even greater impact in rural areas than in urban areas.
The Minister is talking about access to doctors. Is he aware that my constituency has the fourth largest ratio of patients to GPs in the United Kingdom, that some GPs are about to retire and that those services are beginning to approach crisis point? How can he make those brave boasts about increased access to GPs when the shortage of GPs is already a growing crisis around the United Kingdom?
Has not the hon. Gentleman noticed that the Government are training more doctors and more nurses, so making available the people who will start to fill those gaps? We are trying to ensure that they can be recruited to provide the service in rural areas, as well as in urban areas. We are trying to deliver services for the whole population, not just for segments of it.
On post offices, there is a requirement to maintain the rural network. Net closures fell from 435 in 2000–01 to 210 in 2001–02 and we are working with local communities and local government to try to ensure that there is no loss from the network. As with shops, there is a challenge to local communities to choose to use facilities to ensure that they are viable and can be maintained.
We recognise the differential needs of rural and urban communities. For example, the new rural police fund has injected an extra #30 million in 2001–02 and 2002–03. The fund was based on research into the cost of providing a rural police service, rather than research into the level of crime. I can say with some pride that I commissioned the research on which that decision was taken when I was deputy Home Secretary.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way once again and draw his attention to the experience in rural south Derbyshire, where a mobile police station, manned by two officers, has been dedicated to the task of working with rural communities, specifically farmers concerned about farm crime. I do not recall that service under the Conservative Government.
My hon. Friend makes his point very well indeed.
Throughout the country, I do not find that all the problems to do with fear of crime or those to do with housing or transport have been resolved, but people are more and more frequently saying, XSomething has changed. Things are being done as a result of the Government's actions." For example, we have put #239 million over the three years of the spending period into public transport. We have 1,800 new or improved bus routes in England and 81 rural transport partnerships. We have created the formal presumption against closing rural schools, and only three schools have closed since 2001, compared to 30 between 1983 and 1997.
Will the Minister provide an assurance this evening that he will fight within the Government to ensure that the proposed changes in local government funding, which will have a direct impact on the amount of resources going to Lincolnshire and other shire counties, will not happen? Will he also fight within Government against Home Office proposals to change the way in which police authorities are funded in rural areas, to ensure that there are no cuts in Lincolnshire or other shire counties?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am bringing to the attention of colleagues across Government the needs of rural communities, and that we are discussing these matters sensibly. I must tell him, however, that anybody who has had experience of formulae, and of what happens when any formula is changed, whether in relation to local government, the police service or health—I have had experience of all three—will know the complexities involved and the unintentional outcomes when one seeks to make such changes. It is a difficult, delicate issue that does not get easier as time goes on.
I have illustrated that, in a series of areas, we have brought rural policy into the centre of government. The commitment on rural issues is reflected in central Government by the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with the specific aim of achieving thriving rural economies and communities, bringing new focus and drive to the Government's policies for rural England. The establishment of the Countryside Agency, with a budget of some #90 million a year, is helping to deliver integrated and sustainable rural policy. It delivers important programmes combining social and community interests with economic and environmental needs, such as the vital villages and market towns initiatives, and has piloted innovative schemes to ensure that rural people get the services that they need.
I have spoken for some time and have given way repeatedly to Opposition Members. I think that I need to make a little progress to allow other Members on both sides of the House to enter the debate.
We are helping local groups to make the connection between their needs and opportunities, such as that developed by my hon. Friend Peter Bradley with the local parish council—runners-up in the local parish council of the year award—in Waters Upton. Shop and pub closures have been recognised as issues with which local people need to engage. A recent pub closure led to a telling comment from the landlord, who said, XThe problem is that I have trade during the summer when we have visitors and walkers in the area, but local people are not using the pub." The challenges are therefore not only for Government but for local communities in the choices that they make.
The Government are listening to the real concerns of rural people to find solutions, and are working with people on those solutions. We have set up the Rural Affairs Forum for England, which I chair, which works with representatives of all strands of rural opinion, giving rural people a voice at the heart of government. Every region has its own rural affairs forum with representation on the national forum, and sub-groups deal with specific issues such as tourism and urban-rural linkages. Next month, in conjunction with the forum, we are holding a rural conference for the first time to discuss the interdependence between towns and countryside. Opposition Members should work with us to try to recreate linkages and understanding between urban and rural areas rather than encouraging the idea of a divide.
We are not just listening; we are committed to working in partnership to achieve our aims. For instance, the XYour Countryside, You're Welcome" campaign was designed to assist rural communities to recover this year after the impact of foot and mouth disease. We are also working with the Countryside Alliance on its XFood Fortnight". We can work with all sorts of people to improve the economy and the quality of life in rural areas. We need to reconnect rural people with urban people, however, because we need each other. We need to get rid of the talk of urban-rural divides.
As I said earlier, we appreciate and value the contribution that parish councils make to local democracy, but they can do more. We are committed to giving them a greater role in leading and invigorating their communities. The quality town and parish council scheme will give country towns and villages more scope to shape their future and make local government in the countryside more responsive to local needs. We provided #2 million to help establish a national training and support strategy for towns and parish councils. I am very pleased to hear the responses from the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils, and parish councillors up and down the country, such as those whom I met recently in the Forest of Dean and west Lancashire. We seek to work with parish councils to enhance their role. The message is getting through and it is making a difference.
There are many example of how people in rural areas can take a grip of, and improve, their future. The vital villages project and the information provided by the Countryside Agency show how we can work with the agency and local government to improve the quality of life. Major challenges face rural communities along with those of maintaining a positive quality of life and the environment that is so valued. We are taking action to address the problems that exist and many improvements can be seen, although more needs to be done. We are committed to working with all those who share the Government's vision for the countryside and will empower communities to develop local solutions.
This is an important debate, but it will be short and I fear that not many Members will be able to participate. Indeed, at one point, I thought that we would go straight from the Front-Bench speeches to the wind-ups.
I am astonished that the Tories should choose to debate the rural economy, given their record in government. It is worth recording what they did to it. They started by cutting independent agricultural research and compromised advice for their own policy. As a result of that, they presided over a series of catastrophic disasters in farming and the rural economy. They cut the number of government scientific offices and of vets. We then found ourselves with the catastrophe of BSE, which they were slow to acknowledge and to respond to. Indeed, they tried to cover it up until it was impossible to conceal the scale of the disaster that we faced.
Not only that, at a time when farmers faced the adverse effects of the exchange rate, the Tories consistently refused to pass on the full agrimonetary compensation to which farmers were entitled. The Tories consequently contributed to the depression of farm incomes.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to finish my description of this catalogue of disasters? The Tories sold off affordable housing in rural areas—we have debated that—and they now want to flog off the rest as their contribution to the viability of rural economies. They completely failed to acknowledge that their wholesale privatisation programme and the centralisation of services withdrew services and jobs from, and undermined the viability of, rural communities.
The Tories withdrew bus services under bus regulation, accelerated post office closures and withdrew health services into the city. That is the catalogue of disaster in 18 years of Tory government, and they have the cheek to come here with a bleeding-heart resolution expressing their concerns about the rural community that they destroyed.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have added to that sorry catalogue of evidence the fact that, of the massed ranks of the 166 Members in the parliamentary Conservative party, only six are in the Chamber for their debate. Fewer than 4 per cent. of their number are here, so 96 per cent. of the parliamentary Tory party should be ashamed of themselves.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point perfectly fairly. The point I make, however, is not that the Conservatives have been out of power for five years and can now make a fresh start, but that most of the damage that has been inflicted on the rural economy was inflicted by the failures, the mismanagement and misbegotten policies of the Conservative Government. It is astonishing that they should now wish to come along as knights in shining armour in a bid to say that they are the saviours of the rural community.
The hon. Gentleman paints an interesting picture, but how does it correspond with what has happened under the Ministry for Environment and Rural Development in Scotland? Under its Liberal Democrat management, average farm incomes have declined to a greater degree in Scotland than in England and Wales. In fact, ministerial time has been taken up with a Bill to ban fur farming when there are no fur farms in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman, who as the only Conservative MP in Scotland is himself an endangered species, should know that the Minister in Scotland has been acknowledged as standing up for rural communities and Scottish farmers, with whom he has a good relationship. In particular, he handled the foot and mouth crisis with considerable acuity and distinction, and rather more effectively than the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have a great deal of confidence in him. I am not alone in that. I have heard the National Farmers Union and other environment agencies in Scotland sing his praises in meetings because of his competence and commitment to fighting for the rural community.
On farm incomes, I repeat that the exchange rate is the biggest single factor in the decline in farm incomes in the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman's party will not address that and it refused to provide the agrimonetary compensation to protect farm incomes. The Conservatives could have done that and, because they did not, are more responsible for the drop in farm incomes than even the Labour party.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis of how much of the farming industry has reached this point, but he cannot wash his hands of his party's responsibility in Wales and Scotland, where it has been part of a coalition and where, as it happens, it is responsible for agriculture in both countries. Does not he think it uniquely ironic that his motion states
Xthat British agriculture"— which I assume includes Wales and Scotland—
Xis in the throes of its worst recession since the 1930s"?
What role has his party played in that?
I have just explained that the prime reason for the recession in agriculture is the exchange rate. That is the biggest single factor. The hon. Gentleman might not be aware that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly do not have control of the exchange rate. The Westminster Parliament and the Whitehall Government do, but they will not make a decision that will resolve the problem because the Prime Minister is too scared to face up to it.
The Conservatives have a brass neck and a cheek to come up with the motion, which sticks in the throat. Most people in beef-producing rural areas such as mine still have fixed in their minds the picture of Mr. Gummer feeding his daughter hamburgers while he assured us that there was no problem with British beef—when, in fact, there was a catastrophic problem with it. They will not forget what the Tories did to our beef industry.
The Minister made a long speech, but he gave no clear idea of the results delivered by a Labour Government to turn the situation around. Labour continued to run down the number of scientific officers and vets when it came to power. That is only now being reversed, but the number has not climbed back to where it needs to be. The Government mismanaged the foot and mouth epidemic and refused to hold a public health inquiry. All they did was introduce draconian measures in the Animal Health Bill, which they tried to force it through Parliament. The other place rightly delayed it because the measures were unjustified, unnecessary and, in many cases, vindictive, and they did nothing to secure co-operation between Government and farmers to deal with the problem of epidemics.
The Secretary of State is not here. I am not complaining; I merely point it out. I criticise her most specifically on this matter. She loses few opportunities to talk about reform of the common agricultural policy, but she does so in a way that shows a complete lack of consideration of the dire state of farm incomes. We all want a reform that ensures that the continual subsidisation of production is replaced by more beneficent measures. However, the Secretary of State seems to imply—the Secretary of State for Scotland has also been accused of this—that farmers are subsidy junkies. In reality, farmers are looking for an income that bears a correlation to their costs of production.
Most farmers I talk to would be happy to live in an environment without subsidies if the price paid at the farm gate related to their costs of production. There is no correlation at the moment, and it is one reason why all major agricultural systems in the world have some form of subsidy. When the Secretary of State talks about reform, she often does not realise how concerned farmers are that all she wants to do is to cut the subsidies that they still have, in spite of the fact that their average income has dropped to about #7,000 a year. That is not a viable proposition.
I repeat that the Government have underestimated the scale of the exchange rate's impact on farm incomes and business. They have not given the full agrimonetary compensation that was available, and they have continued to dither about what we should do about the exchange rate. This party has been clear in its views, and certainly an early decision to join the euro, subject to a referendum for the British people, would do more than any other measure to restore the incomes of the farming community. In any case, whether one is for or against the euro, what is needed in every sector of the economy is a decision, rather than the Prime Minister leaving the British economy to dither and struggle year after year because he does not have the confidence or leadership to face up to the issue.
As I have mentioned, I represent a mixed agricultural community, which apart from being a prime quality beef-producing area is also a pig area, a sheep area and an arable area. However, beef has been the flagship of the north-east of Scotland, and we are still suffering under export regulations negotiated by the Government to secure the chimera of the legal lifting of the ban, whereas in reality we all know that it is pretty impossible to sell British beef abroad because we are over-regulated. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is muttering. I say to him that companies and producers that had a large export market for prime Scotch beef are unable even to consider rebuilding it, because the regulations that we have imposed on ourselves to secure the lifting of the ban make it impossible, on grounds of practicality and cost, to deliver a product at the quality and price necessary to build up such a market.
The serious point that I make to Ministers is that with BSE incidence rising in France and Ireland, although not yet to UK levels, which are falling, surely there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when an EU-wide regime will apply fairly and evenly across the whole market and a genuine single market will be re-established for beef and beef exports. An Italian beef importer, rejoicing in the name of Mrs. Francesca Piccolini, was a major importer of quality Scotch beef before the ban was imposed and says that she has scoured the world to look for a replacement product of comparable quality and has been unable to find anything as good. Yet she still cannot get back into the market because she cannot get quality at a realistic price. The Government should address that issue in the hope that, in two or three years, we can once more have a single market in beef and other meat products.
In the long speech by the Minister for Rural Affairs there were many references to initiatives, targets and White Papers, many promises and many indications of additional money here and there, but ultimately the Government will be judged on delivery. Right now, the rural economy does not see that delivery. People will judge the Government by the outcomes, and although I made it clear that the root of the problem was 18 years of mismanagement by the Conservatives, the Government have certainly not rebuilt confidence or solved the problems faced by rural areas. That is why, in spite of the lateness of the hour and the shortness of the debate, the fundamental question for the political parties is: who has the necessary vision to address the issues facing rural communities?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some of that rebuilding is very difficult because of the factors to which he adverted? Among other things, selling off care homes and privatising British Telecom, which made broadband provision much more difficult, have made it more difficult for us to climb out of the mess that we were left than if we had been given a reasonable shot.
That is a perfectly fair point; I will not take issue with it. I am saying, however, that excuses will not ultimately impress the voters. They want results; we have to deliver results. We as a party have sought to address some of the issues and to start to develop policies that we believe will begin to rebuild confidence in the economy. We have a vision of a rural economy that promotes harmony with the environment but recognises the varying and important contribution that the countryside makes to the whole economy; and, indeed, which ends the urban-rural divide, which is not constructive. We have a number of measures that would go some way towards achieving that.
I will not labour the point other than to say that it remains our view that joining the euro as soon as is practicable and subject to a referendum would help to secure a competitive market in the CAP. As long as we remain outside the euro, we shall be increasingly disadvantaged. That is an indisputable fact for agriculture whatever the relevance of the euro to other sectors of the economy. We happen to believe that the euro would benefit the whole economy.
We recognise that we need to diversify the strength of the rural economy—the income not only of agriculture but of other activities. We want to encourage and promote co-operatives, as the Government have said they recognise. We want to promote marketing initiatives that will help to secure diversification, adding value to and diversifying farm produce, boosting tourism and attracting new businesses. That requires practical measures of support—certainly in finding new investment.
No, I am anxious that others should be able to make some contribution to the debate.
One area worth exploring is whether rural communities can secure a direct stake in the resources that they provide for the whole community. I have in mind things such as the water supply, which at the moment is owned by privatised water companies that have their own shareholders and do not cut the community into the benefits. The Minister for Rural Affairs knows perfectly well that that is an issue of sharp political focus in Wales, especially north Wales, dating back 50 years or more. My argument is not that the residents of Liverpool, Birmingham or Manchester should not benefit from Welsh water, but that the Welsh people should receive some benefit in direct revenue accruing from that. We should consider community ownership or a community share, certainly for new developments. The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, now Lord Ashdown, long argued that a mutual stake in such services had much to commend it.
We have the proposed expansion of renewable energy sources, such as wind farms and others. I recently witnessed with Mr. Thomas and the all-party parliamentary group on renewable and sustainable energy the encouragement of the German authorities in order to ensure that communities secured an ownership in wind turbines. That had two benefits. First, it meant that the community could see an income flow rather than just an outside business developing and exploiting their resource. Secondly, with indicative planning, it helped to remove people's fear that wind turbines would be spread all over the landscape without any regard to bird migration, scenic beauty, scientific interest or, indeed, over-development. If rural communities are to be exploited in order to provide resources for the wider community, I strongly commend to the Government a sensitive planning regime and the opportunity for revenue to accrue directly to the community. I want the Government to consider whether there are ways of exploring that.
Mr. Lidington made mention of broadband, as did the Minister. Whenever the issue is raised with the Government, the standard ministerial reply is that they have had discussions with BT. With the greatest respect, I must tell the Minister that people are looking for a little more than that. They want some commitment to ensure that broadband will be available.
The problem is potentially rather more severe than the hon. Member for Aylesbury set out. Lack of broadband access will not only stifle the development or attraction of new businesses in rural areas but threaten the continuing survival of those already located there. If they cannot access broadband, many will have to move to a place where they can. I suggest that the matter requires more than Ministers having conversations with BT. There should be a Government policy to try to ensure the drawing down of broadband to rural communities and the delivery of the service in the long run.
Rural proofing has been mentioned as something that the Government talk about, but to be honest it does not test very well. Indeed, the Countryside Agency is not that impressed. There are a number of problems. The costs of providing services in rural areas tend to be higher and the funding of local authorities and other public agencies does not fully take account of that.
A specific issue that has had an impact in my constituency is small rural schools. They are an important part of the fabric of the rural community, but if the rebuilding or modernisation of those schools is a serious issue and the Government's response is, in essence, that the only way to fund the work is through PFI, there is a problem. To be frank, rural schools are of no interest to private developers, so PFI could lead to the forced closure of rural schools, to be replaced by larger schools covering a wider area.
It is not happening in Scotland—well, it is in some parts of Scotland, but not where Liberal Democrats are in charge, because we consult local people and we have clearly stated that we will not close schools against the wishes of the local people. The one school in my constituency that has closed since Labour came to power, a school in the Moray council area, was closed by a Labour chairman of education and the closure was sanctioned by a Labour Minister, against the expressed wishes of the local community.
Further issues relating to services in rural areas include the provision of further education, training within rural communities, and outreach clinics. As for the Post Office, it is somewhat ironic that the Government decided to force the transfer of benefit payments from post offices to banks and credit transfers to cut the costs of the former Department of Social Security, now the Department for Work and Pensions, but now have to find an almost exactly similar sum to support post office services. It makes one wonder whether they would have done better to leave well enough alone. Finally, advice centres in rural areas are difficult to fund and often face closure, leaving people having to travel to advice centres in towns up to 50 miles away.
Another important and much debated issue is that of affordable housing in rural communities. Local authorities and housing associations clearly need freedom to invest in housing, and planning guidelines must be revised. In addition, I suggest ending the second home council tax rebate and using the revenue to allow local authorities and others to fund new housing development to meet the requirement for affordable housing. It is interesting that the Tories are so keen to sell off the remaining housing association stock at a discount: it is Mickey Mouse economics to believe that one can continue to sell at a discount and the money will not run out. I wonder whether the Conservatives would be so enthusiastic if the same rule applied to privately rented accommodation in rural areas. If such properties were sold off at a discount to tenants, it would make a huge contribution to the welfare of rural communities. I suspect that such a policy would not be greeted with warm support from the Conservatives, but I think it a better policy than theirs.
As I am happy to acknowledge, there is strong political competition for rural votes. Many constituencies in rural areas are marginal, with some having only recently become so. Some Labour Members have been astonished to find themselves representing rural constituencies, and on occasion their astonishment shows. A lot of Conservatives are no longer in Parliament because they no longer represent rural areas, whereas there is a swelling rank of Liberal Democrats who have built up their strength: more than half our constituencies are rural. Major factors in our success have been the discredited policies of the Tory Government and rural people's lack of conviction about Labour's competence and understanding of rural issues.
I suggest that the complexion of the House of Commons after the next general election will to a substantial extent be determined by how the parties tackle rural issues. We Liberal Democrats are determined to be out in front in that respect—indeed, we already are. At our party conference in Brighton, we adopted as a blueprint for policy development our radical XRural Futures" paper, which bears reading.
While the Tories, by their own admission, have no policies, and Labour continues to send a discordant message, we, the Liberal Democrats, are determined to establish our party as the natural party of the countryside.
That is not strictly a point of order for the Chair. The time given to Front-Bench speeches is entirely a matter for Front Bench speakers.
Having listened to that exchange, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall either reduce the number of points that I make or speak faster—in reality, a bit of both.
I intend to speak about the rural economy and public services in rural areas. Many measures are used to establish how well an economy is going and to prove a point one way or the other. In my judgment, one of the best measures has always been that of how many people are in work. If the economy is going well, people have jobs. When it is not, unfortunately people do not have jobs. I represent one of the largest rural constituencies in England. Since Labour came to power, we have enjoyed a 41 per cent. fall in unemployment. That has taken the unemployment level down to 3 per cent. We are very pleased about that, of course.
The Opposition, in moving the motion, are commenting on the state of the rural economy. In the constituency of Mr. Lidington, unemployment has fallen by 49 per cent. since Labour came to power. In the constituency of Mr. Hayes, it has fallen by 32 per cent. In the constituency of Mr. Gray, it has fallen by 42 per cent. It has fallen by 29 per cent. in the constituency of Mr. Sayeed and by 43 per cent. in the constituency of David Maclean. In the constituency of Mr. Beggs it has fallen by 29 per cent. Whatever problems there are—and no one could deny that there are problems—things have become better since Labour came to power.
The motion refers to difficulties in agriculture that are real and ongoing. The hon. Member for Aylesbury fairly said in his opening remarks that they cannot all be put at the feet of the present or any other Government. But rural economies, like all economies, are dynamic. They must adapt and change to respond to different circumstances. I am pleased that in my constituency many of those involved in agriculture have diversified, modernised and considered other ways to run a business in their locality, and have since been successful.
Reference has been made to the Curry report, XThe Future of Farming", which, broadly speaking, has received a good welcome throughout the House. There has been some talk about the funding that will come on board. However, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that many funding streams are already available for those in the rural sector. Only the other month, I was at Moore's farm, one of the largest farms in the south part of the Isle of Axholme in my constituency, opening its new plant and modernised equipment, which had in part been paid for through grant aid given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I know that that support was well received.
Councils can make a difference through their support. North Lincolnshire council, which serves the south part of my constituency, was successful in obtaining single regeneration budget funding—under SRB6. As a suggestion, which came in part from the local National Farmers Union, the council decided to put some of that money into the rural area represented by it to help people in agriculture who needed to diversify into other parts of business. That, plus the rate relief on rural businesses that the Government introduced, has made a real difference.
I make that point for two reasons. First, it is a success story in a rural area. Secondly, the same NFU made the same offer to the neighbouring council, which also had SRB money. That is a Tory council, North Lincolnshire being Labour. The Tory council refused the offer. Yet the Tories talk about problems in the rural economy. The money was available, the possibility was there, and the NFU was making the offer, but West Lindsey council said no. I say that because Mr. Leigh made a short intervention earlier. He is no longer in his place, but I know that he will welcome the fact that unemployment has fallen by 35 per cent. in his constituency since Labour came to power.
It was helpful for many rural areas when the Government came to reassess the regional map to ascertain where we could tap into European funding. We broke down the areas that could be eligible. I represent Goole, which is not a rural area, but which has great deprivation problems. It could never get on to the map because it was surrounded by affluence. However, breaking down areas into council ward level allowed that to happen for the first time for Goole, and the marshlands, which are all the villages round it. They became eligible for assisted aid from Europe, which was welcome.
Mention has been made of regional development agencies. Mr. Curry referred to the metropolitan areas of Yorkshire and Humberside. He, too, has left the Chamber. No doubt he will welcome the fact that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 49 per cent. since Labour came to power.
The right hon. Gentleman said that North Yorkshire was the only metropolitan area in Yorkshire and Humberside. I do not think that people in the East Riding of Yorkshire consider themselves metropolitan at all but they have managed to get significant funding through the regional development agency. They have also managed, through a local inquiry, to ensure that 200 acres of former agricultural land has been converted for industrial use to exploit the natural advantages of the area. The American company, Guardian, is building a large glass factory there that will employ hundreds of people, so I look forward to the 3 per cent. unemployment rate in my constituency falling still further. That will be an achievement due in part to what the Government have done.
Another successful scheme is the market towns initiative in Brigg. I am pleased that the Countryside Agency chose Brigg marketplace to advertise the market towns initiative in one of the excellent little newspapers that it sends us all from time to time. The picture showed my constituency office but the article did not state where it was, so I was a little disappointed at that, but in general terms it was nice to see Brigg being advertised in that way.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Government often promote the market towns initiative as providing #1 million per market town? In reality, the maximum is #300,000, and it is dependent on an awful lot of matched funding coming in from various sources. A couple of towns in my constituency have been granted market town initiative status, and I am glad of that, but the promotion gave the impression that they would get #1 million of public money. The reality is far from that.
I am grateful for that intervention. I never thought that my town would get #1 million, and I have never heard that before. If there is such a misapprehension, I am sure that the Minister would want to pick it up. I stress that the initiative in my constituency was never advertised as providing #1 million for the town. Nevertheless, it was good news. There is much to be done in the rural economy, but people sometimes try to pretend that it is all wrong, when there are good things as well.
I shall comment briefly on public services. I served as a county councillor for seven years and as leader of North Lincolnshire council for two years before coming to the House. There has always been the challenge of delivering public services in sparsely populated areas—for example, small schools service delivery. One of the things that we considered and eventually introduced in North Lincolnshire was the concept of local links out in villages—the idea that not just council services, but services provided by the jobcentre, colleges and other organisations can be based in one building, with a range of such bases across the villages, so that instead of always having to go to urban centres for help and support, people could get that out in the countryside. Those initiatives are now commonplace across our area and have proved to be enormously popular and successful.
North Lincolnshire council was a Labour council, and still is. It obviously was while I was leader. At the time when we proposed the local links scheme, the Conservatives on the council voted against it. They opposed it. They voted to keep all the council services in Scunthorpe, the major town of the area, and did not want anything to do with local links at all. We must ask ourselves who is talking about getting services into the countryside—the Labour party or the Conservative party?
On rural schools, so many classrooms have been built in my constituency since 1997 that I could bore the House endlessly with them. Let me tell the House about Alkborough, a lovely village. When we came to power, the school in Alkborough still had an outside toilet. Not only did we get rid of that very quickly, but we built two new classrooms in order to meet the class size pledge. When I went to the opening of those, there was a new foundation stone showing the year 2000, next to the one for the original building, which was from 1870-something. The head teacher at the time, Austin Holden, said, XWe have these two foundation stones with 130 years between them, and no Government spent any money between those two dates, until this Government came along."
I am sure that that is the case. I hope to have a new school at Rawcliffe and another at South Ferriby.
There is much more that I could say about public services, but I am aware of the time and I know that others want to come in, so I shall give the final word in my little contribution to a local farmer, the chairman of one of the branches of my National Farmers Union. We were out together the other night in a joint enterprise to keep the British brewing industry going, and he said to me, XYou know, Ian, I am not really all that bothered about politics". All hon. Members know that that is the lead-in to a constituent saying that he does not support them. He said, XI am not really bothered about politics, but when I was old enough to vote, I mentioned it to my granddad, who said, 'You are a farmer, son, so what you do is vote Conservative and pray that the Labour party wins.'"
Having watched the performance in the Chamber tonight, all the prayers and hopes must go to the Conservative party, because on this performance, the Conservatives do not have a prayer.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Cawsey, especially as he has enlightened me somewhat about the market towns initiative. Hexham was a Labour target seat and the Labour party announced before the election that we would have #1 million as part of the initiative. On making inquiries, just as Matthew Green did, we discovered that the amount put in was significantly less than #1 million. None the less, for target seats the stated amount was #1 million, and I still have the press release in my files to prove it.
It is right and proper for me to declare an interest as a consultant to the Countryside Alliance. I am proud to be a consultant to that organisation, which brought 407,791 people into London in the biggest demonstration ever seen in this city. Let me tell the Minister for Rural Affairs that there was certainly no muddle at the heart of the march. Presumably, he did not march, but I and many other colleagues did so and I can say that there was no such muddle. The muddle lies at the heart of DEFRA. It is fascinating that the Minister should describe his Ministry as one of focus and drive when I would regard it as wonderful if I could obtain answers to letters that I sent to Ministers many months ago. Let us forget the focus and drive, and have some answers to letters dealing with the problems that farmers have raised with me and other colleagues. The Ministry has a vastly long way to go before it can be called a Ministry of focus and drive.
The Minister's muddle was shown by the way in which he dealt with the role of the farming economy in the countryside. There is a continual misunderstanding about the fact that only half a million people are directly employed in agriculture and that its importance is small in terms of GDP. To see how the farming industry underpins the rural economy, however, we must consider what happened when foot and mouth struck in my constituency and Northumberland as a whole, in Cumbria and Devon and also in the seat of my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan. When foot and mouth struck, the whole rural economy came to a standstill, but it was not the precautions that brought other businesses either near or completely to bankruptcy. When the countryside is closed, the tourism industry and other businesses suffer hugely. The strength and importance of the farming economy in the countryside is underlined by those dreadful tragedies.
The Minister talked about farming incomes falling under the Conservatives, but he was completely wrong. In 1995, the income of British agriculture was #6 billion, but in 2000, the last year for which I have figures, it fell to #1.8 billion. That is a huge fall during the life of this Government.
Farm incomes in my constituency, which contains many upland farms, are under #5,000 a year. They are even lower in Scotland, where the Liberal Democrats are in coalition government, and I think in Wales, where there is also such coalition. The subsidy provided to an upland farmer in Cumberland will now be about #30,000 a year. The bleak logic is that it would be better for the taxpayer and possibly the farmer to strike a deal so the stock is slaughtered and they take half the subsidy each. They would be better off, but the uplands would suffer from not being farmed.
In a constructive spirit, I ask the Minister to consider a particular issue concerning farming and the rural economy: the confusion that now exists because of the plethora of different organisations that are involved in the countryside. There are pockets of money, but such organisations have different and often conflicting requirements. The plethora of organisations drives farmers to confusion, especially in upland locations that are sensitive environmental areas. That is incredibly confusing on top of all the regulations and other burdens that the Government have imposed on the farming community.
In the short time that remains, I want to consider the reform of the common agricultural policy. The Government have let farming down on that. I appreciate that Ministers are busy, but the reform is important. Ministers are happy to shuttle around the capitals of Europe to pursue matters that are interesting or important to the Government, but they make little effort to set about meaningful reform of the disastrous CAP.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recall that when the Conservative party was in power, nobody in Europe listened to it? It was ignored on BSE, yet when the Labour Government held the European presidency, the Commission adopted our policy on CAP reform. We are making progress. I admit that it is slow, but at least our voice is heard in Europe, unlike that of the Conservative party.
A party can only be judged on results. The Government's results on reforming the CAP have so far been lamentable. Most of the reforms agreed in the medium-term review are potentially damaging to, for example, livestock farming. Proper reform, which Sir Donald Curry specified, is right. I hoped that the Government would pursue the recommendation of Sir Donald, who is a constituent of mine. However, they did not do that with any force.
Since the Government have been in power, they have gone to Brussels, banged the table and returned with less than they had. Every time they go to Brussels, they return with a disadvantage to British farming. Only yesterday, the Meat and Livestock Commission produced a report showing that the agreed proposals in the medium-term review of the CAP would mean a reduction of 17 million in this country's sheep flock and substantial reductions in our beef herd. That has been agreed.
It is no good Ministers coming to the House and claiming that they are fighting and batting for the British farmer: the British farmer simply does not believe it. A quick resolution of the CAP's future is vital. Every day, farmers must make decisions in a capital-intensive business about whether to buy more land or more machinery—whether to expand to survive or diversify. Yet their future remains unknown.
Will young men and women who want to go into farming do so if they do not know where their future lies? The Government must understand that farming is the bedrock of the rural economy and rural society. If farming does not emerge from the current depression, the future for the rural areas of this country is grim.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate, and I thank Conservative Front-Bench Members for giving us such a useful platform.
Contrary to popular opinion, I represent a constituency that is partly urban and partly rural. I live in a small village outside the town and I love country sports, especially fishing and shooting. I was pleased to be recently appointed adviser to the Minister for Sport and the Minister for Rural Affairs on fishing and shooting. I shall speak later about the tremendous contribution of those important sports to the rural economy. However, another subject, to which other hon. Members have referred, needs further examination: the spurious town and country divide.
Many of the activities and tactics of the Countryside Alliance are objectionable, not least the lies and smears that it spreads about the Labour party's intentions for fishing and shooting and the failure of its stewards at the latest march and that held a few years ago to prevent the British National party from distributing racist, fascist and prejudiced literature. Not a single Conservative Member or Countryside Alliance steward prevented the attendance of the British National party at the so-called march for the countryside.
I will not give way. I have only three or four minutes to speak.
Most objectionable of all is the entirely false premise that we have some kind of apartheid Britain: one country that is urban, another that is rural. MORI recently polled a substantial sample of people, both from urban and rural environments. What were the top six issues in rural Britain? No. 1 was transport—well, are we surprised at that? No. 2 was protection of the environment. No. 3 was conservation of wildlife. No. 4 was the need to improve our infrastructure and our road system. No. 5 was crime. No. 6 was unemployment. The fact remains that the issues that affect rural Britain affect this country as a whole, and the spurious divide between town and country has to be challenged.
A tremendous contribution has been made by shooting not only to the rural economy but to the country as a whole. I would like to pay tribute to the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, which has certainly helped me and was kind enough to invite my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and me to address a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Blackpool. Incidentally, that conference was not disrupted by the provisional wing of the Countryside Alliance, due to the arrest of Janet George and other prominent Countryside Alliance activists by the Lancashire constabulary, to whom we should pay tribute for upholding law and order in Blackpool and elsewhere. Sadly, I believe that those people have now been released.
In the United Kingdom, 26,300 full-time jobs are directly dependent on shooting. Another 13,450 are indirectly dependent on it. That is many more than the 700 jobs that relate directly to hunting, as identified in the Burns report, and very different from the 60,000 jobs that were supposed to be under threat if hunting were banned. Those were more lies and smears put about by the Countryside Alliance.
No, I will not.
I also want to pay tribute to the shooters' acknowledgment of the contribution that the Labour party has already made to enhancing and developing their sport. I quote from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation's document:
XBASC warmly welcomes the . . . commitment made by the Labour party in its General Election Manifesto 2001, which states an unequivocal support for the sport of shooting".
I thank the association for that truthful acknowledgement of my party's true intentions when it comes to shooting.
On angling, nothing gave me greater pleasure than to read last week in the angling press the whines and whinges of the foxhunters saying that there were not enough anglers on the Countryside Alliance march. Too right, there were not enough anglers! If every angler I know, having caught a prize specimen fish, had to throw it to a pack of hounds to have it ripped to pieces, and smear its blood on their forehead in the barbaric way in which foxhunters used to do, there is no way that they would ever fish again. Three million anglers in this country will not be conned, either by the Tory party or by the Countryside Alliance.
In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: XMore! More!"] You can have 20 more minutes of this! In conclusion, we are facing the threat of global terrorism. We live in a world that is interdependent. We are one people, one nation, one world. The idea that the pathetic divisions that the Conservative party and their allies in the Countryside Alliance—let us never forget that 82 per cent. of those on the march were going to vote Conservative—are trying to portray are entirely false. Never mind town and country—whatever happened to one-nation Conservatism?
I certainly give Mr. Salter full marks for volume, although he perhaps ought to be reminded that the president of the Countryside Alliance is a Labour peer and its chief executive is a member of the Labour party. I therefore regard his attacks on that organisation as, at best, intemperate.
The countryside is in crisis. The desperate plight of the countryside is both tangible and deeply felt. On
Some people have tried to dismiss that event as an aberration. I know that the Minister for Rural Affairs is an honourable and generous man. I had hoped that he would come to the House today and refute his remark that the march was an incoherent muddle, but he did not do so. I am disappointed, because I thought better of him. However, perhaps he will dissociate himself from the following statement:
XIn broad terms the countryside is prosperous, contented and reasonably well-served."
That was the Prime Minister's analysis in 2000. If he said that today he surely would be ashamed of himself. If he went to the countryside and said it, he would not receive a happy reception.
The countryside is in crisis at every level: economic, environmental and social. I make no apologies for saying that agriculture is at the centre of that crisis. Farm incomes have plummeted. Incomes are at their lowest level since the 1930s. To put it another way, incomes are just 61 per cent. of their 1995 levels. How does that compare with the other countries of Europe? In the Netherlands the figure is 84 per cent., and it is more than 100 per cent. in 10 EU countries.
The crisis in Britain's countryside cannot be excused as part of some global phenomenon. Farm gate prices prove the point. We have the lowest prices for eggs in the EU bar Belgium, and the lowest prices for milk, butter and pig meat bar none. At the same time, input costs are rising. Figures from the House of Commons Library suggest that in the United Kingdom they are rising by about 0.6 per cent. a year, whereas in the rest of Europe they are falling by about 1.2 per cent.
That is a disaster for the rural economy, and it affects not just farmers. The point that many Labour Members do not seem to grasp and are not prepared to accept, although many of them take these issues seriously and have genuine concerns about the countryside, is that when farming suffers, the whole rural economy suffers. There is a knock-on effect on rural businesses—rural suppliers and retail businesses. Recently, I was in the small town of Holbeach in my constituency where a clothes retailer told me that his business had plummeted since the agricultural recession. That is true of many retail businesses throughout the countryside.
The countryside is also under threat from over-development. Bulldozers have been used to destroy thousands of acres of rural Britain, with the promise of much more destruction to come. Once that has gone it will never be replaced. Unlike cities, the countryside cannot be rebuilt. If farmers are driven off the land, there will be no one to look after it.
The point about the countryside that we enjoy is that it is an environment manufactured by farmers over centuries and maintained by farmers. Just as the landscape has suffered, so have its people. Public services in rural areas have declined. I ask the Minister whether there are more post offices in rural areas now than there were in 1997, or fewer. Are there more local village shops, or fewer? Are there fewer pubs or more pubs? Are there fewer resources and services in rural communities than there were in 1997? The answer is unequivocal. All those trades and services are in decline, and that is contributing to low morale, to the feelings of despondency and neglect and to the belief among people in the countryside that the Government do not care for them.
The local government settlement that we discussed yesterday has exacerbated that problem. Time and again we have said that, when the Government deal with public services, they should take account of the particular problems of sparsity, rurality and remoteness, but they have refused to listen. I do not take anything away from the concerns of people in inner cities and the declining suburbs, but only rural Britain perceives a threat to its very existence.
At the heart of the problem is agriculture. While it is important to emphasise the need for diversification and the stimulation of other employment in rural areas, agriculture is at the core of the economic, environmental and social character of the countryside.
There are no simple solutions to these problems, but I believe that there are two competing visions for our countryside.
There are those who place undue emphasis on the interdependence of town and country, and to some extent they are of course interdependent, but that must not be used to disguise the particular needs—the particular and proper demands—of rural areas.
There are those who emphasise the use of the countryside as a resource for the population as a whole, but the countryside is not an abstraction; it is composed of real communities. No one would suggest that a policy for any large urban community should be primarily in the interests of the people who reside elsewhere.
There are those who play down the importance of agriculture to the countryside, while simultaneously telling us to reduce our dependence on agriculture. Conservatives believe that farming is the foundation of a sustainable rural economy, and there can be no sustainable countryside without viable agriculture.
There are those who misrepresent the problems of social exclusion in the countryside as problems caused by the countryside. Conservatives believe that the hidden poverty in the countryside must be addressed, and that rural deprivation is in part the result of unfair funding arrangements.
Finally, there are those who stifle the debate on rural policy by accusing dissenters of setting town against country. We heard that tonight from Mr. Salter. Conservatives recognise that in some respects town and country have different needs, which should not be swept under the carpet; but above all we believe that town and country are united in wanting the countryside to be delivered from those who seek to ruin it.
Perhaps the Minister will answer some specific questions. We have heard this evening about the need for broadband to be made more widely available, to allow economic diversity. We have heard about the inflexibility of the 20-day rule, and about its more flexible application in Scotland. That was raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry. We have heard about the need to support diversification within agriculture, allowing the dairy industry, for example, to become involved in processing by giving it tax breaks and other advantages.
Let me finally say this:
Xwas . . . exceptional . . . their peaceful presence in such numbers on the streets entitles the protesters to respect, both for their cause and for their engagement."
Those are not my words, but those of a The Guardian editorial.
It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote
Xwe are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet."
XSmile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget."
In 1998, a quarter of a million people marched for the countryside and said XListen to us", but this Government were unmoved. Last month they returned in greater numbers. The people have spoken loudly and clearly; this time, surely, the Government must listen and not forget.
I welcome Mr. Hayes to the Dispatch Box, where he is appearing for the first time with his new Front-Bench team. I am not sure that his grasp of the range of countryside issues has developed yet, but no doubt it will do so in due course.
I think it only courteous to respond to some of what has been said in the time remaining to me. Malcolm Bruce made some very fair points about regulations on beef exports. We are trying to deal with that. The regulations are changing, which we believe will encourage more people to come into the market.
The Government have committed #30 million to broadband roll-out. We have also supported local initiatives such as XAct Now" in Cornwall, which is providing broadband access in rural areas. We currently have 67 per cent. access, which is one of the highest rates in the G7 countries.
My hon. Friend Mr. Cawsey was right to point out that unemployment has fallen dramatically in rural areas. I would have thought that Opposition Front Benchers would congratulate the Government on the huge falls in unemployment in their constituencies under our policies, but surprisingly we heard not a word about that from them.
I strongly disagree with what Mr. Atkinson said about the Secretary of State. This country now has a great deal of support in Europe—which, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, contrasts with the situation under the last Government, when we were completely isolated, our opinions counted for nothing, and we had no influence over anything. Now, we have support from member states who back the kind of proposals that are in the mid-term review. The Commission's proposals have been very much influenced by the arguments from this country. We are very much at the heart of the European Union, and are driving forward the changes. There has been no agreement on the mid-term review as yet, so I am not sure to what the hon. Gentleman's comments on the Meat and Livestock Commission relate.
My hon. Friend Mr. Salter made an excellent point about those who wish to exploit a mythical divide between urban and rural areas. Most people in urban or rural areas have the same concerns and worries. We recognise those concerns and we do not seek to make false distinctions. My hon. Friend was right also to mention the importance of shooting and fishing and the fact that they are separate issues. He was right also that many who support shooting and angling do not support foxhunting. The distinctions ought to be made.
The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings said that there were serious problems in agriculture, and no one would dispute that. The hon. Member for Gordon was fair to point out that those problems did not begin with the election of this Government. The problems are deep-seated, which is precisely why the Government set up the Food and Farming Commission to address them. The commission has received #500 million and the Government have provided #1.6 billion through the England rural development programme. The money has led to the reinstatement of the sort of schemes that every Member has been talking about today, including the need to reconnect farmers with the marketplace and the need to support marketing and integration. The previous Government axed marketing and processing grants; so much for their concern about agriculture and about meeting those needs. We have reinstated those grants in relation to the rural development fund. One of the problems that we face is that our share of the European rural development fund is a pathetic 3.5 per cent. [Hon. Members: XWhose fault is that?"] I will tell hon. Members; the amount is based on the historical record over the last 18 years of what was spent in rural areas. I thank hon. Members for the invitation to make that point. That was useful.
For all the rhetoric that we have heard tonight, the Conservatives, when they were in power, could have spent more in rural areas and on a rural strategy but nothing was done. We have been paying the price since. There has been selective quoting from rural advocates, as rural agencies have highlighted important successes with rural proofing, which was introduced by the Government.
Conservative policies for the countryside were summed up in the 25 new policies and initiatives about which we heard at Bournemouth. It is a pity that we did not play XName that Policy" to see who could recite them all. In a desperate bid to find new policies, someone was sent into the depths of Central Office to a filing cabinet with a skull and cross bones and a sign saying XDanger: do not open". He pulled out a drawer and, after removing Edwina's diaries, found a file marked XRejected mad policies". The policies date back to the 1980s, and include the selling of housing association houses in rural areas. How will that help rural housing need and rural communities? How will charities, many of which finance rural housing associations, feel about the fact that the Conservatives are pledged to sell off those homes, many of which were built with donations from local landowners who donated land and money and put the houses into trust for the local communities to benefit? They will be sold off at a discount—
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House acknowledges the millions of British people dependent on the rural economy; welcomes the Government's support for the farming and food industry in meeting the enormous challenges of change; endorses the Government's commitment to rural communities as set out in the Rural White Paper; applauds the Government's wider record on public service delivery in rural areas; welcomes the #239 million allocated over three years to 2003–04 for new and improved rural transport services; further welcomes schemes in place to provide affordable housing in rural areas, including the Rural Exception and the doubling of the Housing Corporation's Rural Target; commends the efforts to retain the rural post office network and expand services; further applauds the Government's commitment to invest more than #500 million extra over three years in sustainable food and farming, including #200 million in 2005–06 to implement the core recommendations of the Curry Commission; acknowledges the establishment for the first time of a rural PSA target for increased productivity and improved access to vital public services for all rural people; and calls upon the Government to continue pursuing a strategy based on long term policies to regenerate British agriculture, improve rural services and revitalise the rural economy as a whole.