HC Deb 12 July 2000 vol 353 cc852-4
2. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

What progress has been made in developing a cross-departmental policy for the countryside. [128645]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam)

The Prime Minister set up a new Cabinet Committee in November 1999 to co-ordinate our policies affecting rural areas, and to help to achieve a fully cross-departmental policy for the countryside. The forthcoming rural White Paper will set out how we are developing a more integrated and effective approach to the countryside.

Helen Jackson

For people in the rural areas of my constituency, life under the last Administration was one long battle, whether they were defending small schools, defending post offices or defending the smaller hill farmers. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the fact that we now have a Government who are providing support for small schools, an answer to the problems of rural post offices, and a proper countryside management structure. [Interruption.] Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whereas the present Government take the countryside seriously, the last Government simply took it for granted? [Interruption.]

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend. Let me in turn congratulate the teachers, parents and children who are making the school in her constituency such a success.

Conservative Members were barracking while my hon. Friend asked her question. They should not forget that under the last Government 30 rural schools were closed each year. We are doing all we can, with a £40 million package, to keep rural schools open, because they are an essential part of the community in rural villages. Only one in four parishes had rural transport when the Conservatives were in government. We have turned that around: we have provided 1,800 new routes, and are working hard to provide more.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Having heard all that, I wonder whether the Minister can now explain why there has been such a delay in the publication of the rural White Paper, which we expected to appear this month? Does she recall that, although the last Government produced a large number of warm words and a lot of pretty pictures in their rural White Paper, its publication coincided with a disastrous deterioration in the rural economy and in rural facilities, including the schools to which she has referred? Can she guarantee that her White Paper will not only represent joined-up government, but genuinely face the problems involved in regenerating the rural economy?

Marjorie Mowlam

One of the reasons why the White Paper has taken time is that we have genuinely worked on it across Departments, and I hope that it will result in what the hon. Gentleman and I desire: a real difference in rural communities. We are looking not just at transport, education and health, but at jobs. We want to work with the private sector on regeneration. We have already put a lot of money into that to help it to work. With the European Union, we have put more than £3.5 billion into support for farmers. We put in another 1.6 billion to get rural development plans up and running. The White Paper is delayed not through lack of trying, but because we want to ensure that it has a real impact.

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rural post offices are the hub of the local community; and will she ensure that Government Departments work together to support rural post offices, giving them a vibrant economic future?

Marjorie Mowlam

The work that has been done on protecting the future of rural post offices will be seen to do exactly what my hon. Friend wants. The performance and innovation unit report, which we are implementing and which the relevant Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry has agreed to, will make, I hope, a big difference.

Again, let us be clear. We are working to protect and to keep the post offices open. Claimants can continue to receive benefit across the counter. We are working with the Post Office to ensure that post offices are not closed. With the universal banking system, I hope that we will see a real change in the future of post offices. Ours will be a very different record from the Tories' one: when they were in office, 3,000 rural and edge-of-urban-area post offices closed.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Can the Minister confirm that the reason why the post office network is under threat is that the Department of Social Security proposes to remove a third of the income that post offices receive by cancelling the contract with the Post Office? Can she confirm that the Department of Trade and Industry has failed to put forward any measures that will replace those hundreds of millions of pounds; that the Post Office has revealed that the Horizon project will not produce extra revenues—it has written off the whole cost of that project on the ground that it will not cover even its own costs; and that the so-called universal bank will simply duplicate the Girobank, which already operates in the post offices, and will therefore not produce extra revenues?

Marjorie Mowlam

At least we are not going to privatise the post offices. The benefits are not being taken away completely. Some are being taken away because that will lead to greater efficiency and a more effective service for the people whom we are all here trying to serve, but people who want to continue to collect their benefits from the post office can continue to do so.

It is not true that the DTI has no strategy. It is working with the recommendations arising from work that it has done, and with the performance and innovation unit to get results.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we want a prosperous countryside, there will need to be more opportunities for people, particularly young people, to work in the countryside, rather than their having to go to the towns? With that in mind, is it not important that we have more small enterprises in the countryside? Does she agree that we need to change some of the planning guidance—I am talking about PPG7 and PPG13—so that those small businesses can grow and hard-pressed farmers can diversify?

Marjorie Mowlam

We are working to help farmers to diversify. Part of the job of the regional development agencies will be to do what they can. Some of the work is already taking place. For example, the £70 million extra that was given to organic farming will make a difference to farmers who want to make the change. PPG7 and PPG13 are being reviewed by another committee, which is looking at planning across the board—not just for people in rural areas, but for small and big businesses. As we try to decrease unnecessary regulation but protect people's health and safety, the aim is to make things simpler.