HC Deb 20 May 2004 vol 421 cc1077-8
1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

If she will make a statement on the progress her Department is making towards implementing the Haskins report. [174399]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

I intend to publish a refreshed rural strategy for England later in the spring. The strategy will include a full response to the recommendations coming out of Lord Haskins's rural delivery review. Good progress is being made with stakeholders to develop this response.

Dr. Cable

I thank the Secretary of State for the positive tone of her reply. How does she propose to reconcile the approach of Lord Haskins, which is to deal with inefficiency and overstaffing in DEFRA through decentralisation, with the approach set out in the Chancellor's Gershon process, which is to deal with overstaffing and inefficiency by centralising decision making?

Margaret Beckett

With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the impact of the Chancellor's proposals. There is no difference of view between us that the decentralisation of delivery processes would be highly desirable, and that is entirely consistent with reducing perhaps unnecessarily full core activities at the centre.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although Haskins has made many good recommendations, the true test is what is happening in rural areas? We must ensure that some of the good programmes that have been put in place by the Countryside Agency and others are allowed to continue. Does she agree that we need to ensure that that happens?

Margaret Beckett

I entirely agree that there are at least two important aspects to Lord Haskins's proposals, one of which is that we should have more effective organisation of the agencies and organisations that relate to DEFRA. The second, which is much more germane to the ordinary citizen in rural areas, is what happens to the plethora of rural funding streams; I believe that Lord Haskins identified between 70 and 100 of them. I have asked the Department to examine, as its first priority, how we can simplify this area to give better delivery of services to customers in rural areas.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

The Secretary of State talks about her rural strategy, and she will be aware that there is a plethora of organisations involved in the provision of flexible labour in agriculture and horticulture, particularly related to the work of gangmasters. What steps will she take, in the light of the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, to ensure that the Government at last appoint a Minister with the power to rationalise and make policy in this area effective?

Margaret Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Select Committee report, which was published only yesterday, deals with a good number of the Committee's thoughts on that matter. I have not had a chance to study it, although I shall of course do so. The Government are conscious that this is an extremely difficult problem, with which successive Governments have grappled without success. We hope to be more successful.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

The Secretary of State will know that, as resources are moved from the Countryside Agency to local authorities and regional development agencies, concerns remain in rural areas that the money intended for improvements to the countryside might be swallowed by other budgets and that, instead of the delivery of projects, there might be delay or even destruction in some circumstances. What assurance can she give the House that that is unlikely to happen?

Margaret Beckett

Of course I understand that anxiety, and I seem to recall that great concern was expressed when the regional development agencies were first set up. However, it will be within my hon. Friend's memory—as it is within that of most of us—that, during the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the RDAs were very helpful and supportive. Many of those anxieties have therefore not been realised. I can assure him that we shall monitor the situation carefully to ensure that the right support goes to rural areas. That will also be part of the remit of the new, slimmed-down Countryside Agency, which I am sure will be robust in its observations.

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