My Lords, this Government are committed to working for everyone in all parts of the country. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, for his review of rural proofing. Through rural proofing, we will understand and better reflect in our policies the needs of rural communities, including those on low incomes. The Government are currently revising their guidance on rural proofing, and it will be published shortly on GOV.UK.
My Lords, I very much welcome rural proofing and the work that the Minister is doing on it, but why do so many government departments fail to recognise the huge barrier of transport costs faced by families on low incomes in rural areas when they need to access public services? Whether it is young people needing to get to further education colleges or older people needing to access increasingly centralised health and social services, they are so often cut off and excluded by the costs of transport. Surely we cannot allow ourselves to stumble into a situation where you have to be well off to live in the countryside.
I entirely agree with the noble Lord that it is very important that we enhance accessibility. Sparsity and the topography of the countryside mean that there are great challenges. That is why I am particularly pleased that the community minibus fund was launched. It will enable about 300 local charities and community groups across England to receive a new minibus, which will be helpful. Clearly, there is more that we want to do. On the whole issue of transport and accessibility it is important, for instance, that under the post office transformation all post office branches will have banking facilities. There are ways in which we can assist rural communities across the piece.
My Lords, the Government are committed to reaching 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020. That includes trebling the number of apprenticeships in food and farming from 6,000 to 18,000. National parks authorities, for instance, are seeking to double the number of apprenticeships. It is important that we not only encourage apprenticeships this week but work with employers of all sizes. A new apprenticeship levy is coming into force in April this year for larger businesses. This is an enormous opportunity. Raising the skills of young people in the countryside and across the nation is a force for good.
My Lords, the Commission for Rural Communities was established in 2005 by the last Labour Administration, to promote awareness of rural needs among decision-makers across government. It produced some key reports on rural life, highlighting that those living in poverty in rural areas, often in geographical isolation, can be harder to identify and help. But the coalition Government scrapped the CRC in 2013. With the issues of agriculture, trade and food policy on Brexit, what structures are in place to ensure that the interests of rural communities are heard and acted on during the negotiations?
My Lords, I will make sure that the noble Lord receives a copy of the new, revised rural-proofing guidance. I have been working with my honourable friend Ben Gummer, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, on this. It is important that all departments across Whitehall understand the issues of rural communities. As Minister for Rural Affairs, I am on a number of ministerial task forces—connectivity and housing, to mention two—precisely to ensure that the rural voice is heard.
My Lords, given what the Minister has just said, is he concerned by the fact that in many rural and underprivileged areas libraries and leisure centres are under threat? These are the very places that offer a glimmer of light to people who lead rather dark lives in terms of entertainment and education.
My Lords, this rather takes me back to my DCMS days. One thing that very much strikes me is how vibrant so many rural communities are. Certainly in my part of Suffolk, the amount of cultural activities going on—in dance, theatre and music—is incredible. We all want to improve that and have greater accessibility to those things, but the noble Lord may be painting a rather too pessimistic picture.
My Lords, making work pay is a very seductive slogan, but is the Minister not aware that many of the families who are worst off in our country have someone working in the gig economy? What steps can the Government take to ensure that people are paid properly and earn at least a living wage?
My Lords, there is a national living wage and it is an obligation. I am very pleased that it is to rise to £7.50 per hour in April. That is precisely why we want to ensure that, with the increase in tax allowance and more coming through, people at the lower end of the income range are those who we are helping.
My Lords, rural proofing does not seem to have reached local government, where many local services have withdrawn from villages into urban centres as a consequence of the deep cuts to local government funding. What advice would the Minister provide to the Secretary of State or his fellow Minister the noble Lord, Lord Bourne, about funding for district and county councils to enable rural proofing?
My Lords, as I say, the rural-proofing guidance is to go across Whitehall and the DCLG is of course a very important government department in that respect. There are clearly considerable sums of money still going to local authorities and it is for them to decide on the division of the budget. But this predicates something rather more important: we have to have a growing economy to afford all the things we want to do. That is why this country has the fastest-growing economy in the G7, which is important because it is only when we grow our economy that we will have the resources to do many of the things which I am sure your Lordships wish to have done.
My Lords, would the Minister care to correct his assertion about the national living wage and the national minimum wage? Secondly, can he assure me that when the Government put in new free schools in areas where there is no need in terms of numbers, they will consider the needs of the rural economy? I declare my interest as a former chair of Lancashire education authority. Because of the history of Lancashire, we have the largest number of voluntary-aided schools. People have wanted diversity locally for Anglican and Catholic schools, in the main, across the county. Can be we assured that the Government will not come in from Whitehall with little knowledge and step over the needs of the local community? Some of those schools need money and investment.
My Lords, that is precisely why I suspect we are going to hear about more investment: we want to enhance the opportunity for children across the country. We have some schools that are simply not up to the standard that we want. That is why we will need to invest more and why I am a champion of rural schools—precisely because we want to ensure that there are opportunities in rural areas, as across the rest of the country. As for the living wage, I will check Hansard. The national living wage will certainly rise to £7.50 per hour in April but I will see whether I have made a mistake.