HC Deb 14 June 2000 vol 351 cc926-8
3. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

If she will make a statement on her role in co-ordinating Government policies on rural affairs. [124264]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam)

I chair the ministerial rural affairs group, which co-ordinates Government policy on rural issues. I have no direct responsibility for any specific area of rural policy, but my Committee co-ordinates the work of other Departments to ensure that the policy is fully implemented.

Miss McIntosh

Following the Prime Minister's famous speech to the Women's Institute, in which he did not once refer to farming or the countryside, will the Minister instigate a review of Government policies on the countryside, those who live there and rural affairs in general? What future can the Government offer to those who live in the country? What will happen about the high cost of petrol and the crisis in farming? What future is possible for village shops and rural post offices?

Marjorie Mowlam

Many of the topics covered in the Prime Minister's speech inevitably affect rural areas. There are no separate policies for rural and urban areas: all our policies, including the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, are for urban and rural areas. I therefore deny the hon. Lady's point. She asked for more work to be done on rural areas. A rural White Paper is being drawn up and is being consulted on. It will shortly be published, along with the urban White Paper.

I find it difficult to take lessons from Opposition Members on dealing with rural areas, considering what we inherited. When we came to government, 30 small schools in rural areas closed every year and only one in four parishes had any transport at all. Since then, we have put in £40 million so that small schools can stay open. We have put more than £100 million into improving rural transport, and 1,800 new rural routes have been created since we came into government. We are also ensuring that the new deal offers alternative training and employment. I can therefore guarantee that what the hon. Lady has asked for is already happening and is much more than what we inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the scale of the task that confronts the Government in regenerating rural communities? Is she aware that, under the Conservatives, between 1982 and 1997, 450 village schools closed, and that our record in government is the closure of six schools since 1997? Is she aware that the deregulation of buses led to 86 per cent. of my parishes in Shropshire being deprived of a daily bus service? Is she aware that privatisation of the railways led to the deletion of the Shrewsbury-Telford to London intercity service in 1992? Is she aware that nine cottage hospitals closed in Shropshire and that 18 rural—

Madam Speaker

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman applied for an Adjournment debate on this subject. It is for that reason that I gave him an opportunity to ask one question. I think that he has done rather well and I must ask for a response now.

Marjorie Mowlam

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he is doing with his Back-Bench committee on rural affairs. Its members have brought a number of specific best practices from their constituencies that we as a Government have considered. I hope that they will see many of the results that they are looking for in the rural White Paper. We are making an effort to join up Government Department's initiatives to make a real difference in rural communities.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Minister deal with specific questions in relation to organic food production? Can she give an undertaking on behalf of her group that, across government, there will be positive action to deal with the potential contamination of organic crops by genetically modified crops? Can she give an undertaking that she will tackle the trade imbalance? She will be aware that three quarters of the organic food available to consumers in this country is imported. Can she give an undertaking that that situation will be addressed and that specific targets will be included in the rural White Paper?

Marjorie Mowlam

The comments made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment yesterday were a straightforward, clear statement of the nature of the risk and how it operates. I fully concur with those comments.

As for organic farming, we inherited a difficult situation. It is all very well for Opposition Members to say what we should be doing. It would have been much easier if we had inherited a better based policy. In 1998, only £1 million was available to help farmers become organic. Last year, we put £11 million in. We are looking in the rural development plan to spend £140 million over the next seven years to help the transformation to organic farming. So an effort is being made to help farmers who want to join the organic farming scheme. We are clearly working towards an increase in organic farming.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that what is important—

Madam Speaker

Order. This is Question Time. I insist that Ministers as well as Members make it a brisk exchange. That is really what it is all about.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Everyone in rural areas and elsewhere will have welcomed the Government's decision to ask the performance and innovation unit to have a look at the future of the Post Office. Is my right hon. Friend yet in a position to tell the House when the report is likely to appear?

Marjorie Mowlam

I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific date, but I can assure him that, alongside what my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness has done, we will look carefully at the PIU report. In view of previous reports, I hope that some constructive suggestions and lateral thinking will come out of it to help post offices. We are determined to do all that we can in addition to the 50 per cent. rate relief that we already offer and all the other efforts that we are making, including extra money for e-commerce and financial services, to ensure that post offices stay open in rural areas.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that in some areas, especially hill areas, there is a real rural crisis? Subsistence farmers have negative incomes and many small businesses have suffered the knock-on effects. Can she confirm that, in her role as co-ordinator of Government policy, she will co-operate with Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales to produce an integrated policy to tackle those problems?

Marjorie Mowlam

As I said, we are more than willing to work alongside Ministers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman realises that it is a two-way street.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Does the Minister realise that the role of sub-post offices in rural areas is vital, that 383 of them have closed in the past financial year and that, as chairman of the Rural Affairs Group, she has a classic opportunity to bang heads together in the Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, of Trade and Industry and of Social Security? Will she therefore pledge today that the rural White Paper will include a commitment to maintain the network of rural sub-post offices?

Marjorie Mowlam

I pledge today that we will work as hard as we are doing—not, as the hon. Gentleman's party suggested, to privatise post offices, but to support them. We have already given them 50 per cent. rate relief. We are committed to protecting the rural network, even though, as I readily acknowledge, some sub-post offices have closed. We regret every one that closes because that limits the possibilities for rural communities. My hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness has made it clear that we are committed to ensuring a future for the post offices and, at the moment, we are providing access to financial services, e-commerce and Government services. We are investing a lot to ensure that the Post Office network is viable in future.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

When my right hon. Friend looks into rural affairs, will she ensure that the truth is told about how many jobs may be lost if hunting is banned?

Marjorie Mowlam

The Burns report did exactly that. The facts are there; we hope that hon. Members read them. There will be a free vote so that hon. Members on both sides of the House may vote the way that they want.