HL Deb 30 April 2002 vol 634 cc658-80

7.56 p.m.

Lord Patten

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their definition of "rural" when used in respect of public policy.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am glad to have the opportunity to ask the Question, which needs urgent answering. I am especially glad that it will be answered by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is always so straightforward and obliging. As someone who used to have to deal with Clause 4 and now has to deal with the countryside, cruel and unnatural punishments seem to have dogged him.

By their own admission, the Government do not know what they mean when they use the term "rural"—unless the Minister can suddenly tell us tonight for the first time. That is no unfair pre-local council election political assertion. As recently as 18th January, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, told me in a Written Answer that: The Government have no single definition of a rural area"'.—[Official Report, 18/1/02; col. WA 184.] I questioned him further and he was good enough to tell me in a further Answer on 5th February that not only do the Government have no agreed definition of what they mean by rural, they have no target date by which to achieve such a definition.

So it is clear that the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister, who was once so publicly concerned about rural matters, now needs to bang together the heads of the relevant Secretaries of State so that they—and, more importantly, we—know what they mean when they announce a so-called new rural policy. Otherwise, country people—and urban people who cherish the countryside, of whom there are far more—will become even more confused and alienated than they are at present.

That failure to define "rural" allows what I think of as stealth announcements. For example, it may be claimed that extra help is being given to the constituency of Hereford—apparently a rural place—when all the money may in fact go to the City of Hereford rather than the surrounding countryside. It may not be spent in the rural hinterland, where the few people around do not seem to carry the weight of urban people. Because, by their own admission, the Government do not know what they are talking about, statistics can be produced and manipulated at will.

The Office for National Statistics should show a lead. I choose my words carefully, but it should be ashamed of itself for not having produced a definition—or, indeed, a set of complementary definitions, if they think that is needed—that the Government must observe. With respect, I may also say that the rural advocate, Mr Ewen Cameron, has been a little muted on the matter so far. In government, national and local, there is definitional chaos. Local government, DEFRA and the DTLR all have different definitions of "rural". Effectively, that means a dial-a-definition situation, in which people can produce figures for what is rural at will. Considering the whole range of definitions used in local and national government, I am told that figures for those allegedly living in rural areas may vary from 4 million to 14 million—a difference of 10 million people.

But surely, some of your Lordships might argue, has all this not been sorted out? Was there not a rural White Paper? Yes, there was. But White Papers are not worth the glossy paper they are printed on without subsequent action. The Government have asked their own countryside quango, the Countryside Agency, to monitor progress directly from the White Paper and to check on what is known as the "rural proofing of policy making". That is defined as the, process by which the potential impact of policy and decision making in rural areas is evaluated". The chairman of the Countryside Agency, that same rural advocate Mr Cameron, says in his excellent foreword to his first report, published this month, which has received little attention so far—I hope that it will get the attention it deserves—that: I have seen little sign of a fundamental shift in departmental policies. Some important parts of Government, like those dealing with social exclusion, largely overlook rural needs". That is wrong.

In putting this kind of failure right, surely, some of your Lordships might think, there must be some leadership. We should look automatically to the department that is specifically for rural affairs in the shape of the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to show other Whitehall departments how to "rural proof' their policies so that the minority living in the countryside are taken into account.

Hard though it is to believe, DEFRA fails on both fronts. First of all, it seems to have no clear, universal definition of rural to inform and underpin the "rural affairs" part of its title. Another glossy document, entitled Working for the Essentials of Life, recently published by DEFRA, has landed on my desk. There is a foreword by the Secretary of State and a vision statement. Beware of Secretaries of State having visions. I think that that is always a golden rule. That document nowhere defines what is "rural", until one reaches page 21 where there is the enlightening assertion that, rural England is a place where people live". Well, my Lords, now we know.

The fair-minded might say, "Don't be fussy about definitions. Let's get on with the job. Let them get on with the job of 'rural proofing'. Don't muck about with statistics. You know that 'rural proofing' is the answer". This is a phrase which is never far from the lips of people in the four ale bar or on the Archers. I must tell the House that of the 11 departments monitored by the Countryside Agency as to their progress on rural proofing on six clearly-defined criteria—I am not making this up; one could not make it up—the worst performer is, yes, noble Lords have guessed it, DEFRA. It fails in four out of the six criteria. The table on pages 26 and 27 in the Countryside Agency report published in April, this month, spell it out: (Q) rural proofing embedded in policymaking? (A) No. (Q) proofing checklist provided? (A) No. (Q) rural targets and monitoring established? (A) No. (Q) rural awareness enhanced through staff training? (A) No. This amazing litany of failure—and it is exactly that—is brought into sharp focus when we read that the Lord Chancellor's Department does 50 per cent better than DEFRA, having fulfilled four out of the six criteria already.

I ask the Minister this question. Is it now the Labour Government's assessment that rural people no longer actually matter now that there has been some peace and quiet in the countryside, particularly as it appears to be quiescent? On the first point, one has only to look at an article in the excellent coverage provided by the Financial Times in the run up to the Budget entitled, "Rural Needs Fall Far Down Urban Pecking Order". It asserted: Experts agreed that the countryside was not the Government's priority. Keeping the rural vote did not really matter to its electoral fortunes, said Bob Worcester. Chairman of MORI, the polling organisation". Just so—the rural vote does not matter to the Government's political fortunes at all. I think that the countryside is increasingly once again being viewed as an unimportant and sidelined part of the other nation.

The only thing that is likely to make the Government change their views and listen to the countryside is a consistent demonstration that the countryside insists on being listened to, as once it did with the countryside march of some years back. That had an effect. It led to immediate panic in No. 10. Rural summits without number were called. Then we had a rural White Paper. But as countryside protests seemed to subside, so government interest in rural matters seemed to subside, with the Prime Minister allowing his lead department to ignore his own White Paper's conclusions, as we have just seen. If I was in another place and not in your Lordships' demure Chamber I would be suggesting that the Secretary of State should be considering her position. But I would not dream of doing that in your Lordships' House.

I believe that there is also a feeling in government circles that because the Countryside Alliance has become quiet and that it is over a barrel over the "Middle Way", it can safely be ignored. I hope that this is not the case, and that the Countryside Alliance is not sleeping but just resting.

In conclusion, we all heard last week how the noble Lord, Lord Rooker—who I knew for so many years in another place and greatly respect his work here—was at the tail end of a deplorable leak. He had advice from his civil servants not to mention certain things in the Police Reform Bill. I regret to have to inform the House that I have not had any leak of the briefing provided for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, so I can only speculate. I can speculate that in that briefing there are a number of similar passages. For example, "The Minister may care to avoid giving the impression that Lord Birt is doing any blue skies thinking on how to define rural". That may be a bit of a fantasy on my behalf. Much more likely is a briefing note that says, "At all costs, the Minister may wish to avoid giving any definition of rural or any pledge as to when one might be forthcoming". I hope that in what the Minister has to say I shall be proved wrong.

8.6 p.m.

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, how we live our lives is shaped by where we live our lives. But wherever that may be, people want the same basic things—jobs, homes, good public services, a safe and attractive environment and a society offering opportunity for all. North or south, rural or urban, all parts of our country, though different, affect and are affected by each other. That was the opening sentiment of the Government's rural White Paper. It was published at the same time as the urban White Paper. That was not an accident.

The Government have recognised since they were first elected that both the rural and the urban in our country need to thrive. In many ways that explains why someone who is essentially an urban creature feels that we should have a voice in this debate.

It is a fascinating question that the noble Lord, Lord Patten has posed. He might have said "God made the country and man made the town", to which I would respond by saying that both need to prosper, the sublime and the prosaic. On the other hand, he might have said, as Oscar Wilde did, Anybody can be good in the country". I do not agree. The noise and fury with which the voice of the countryside has made itself heard in recent years makes me realise that the harmonious and peaceful idyll is as much a caricature of the countryside as portraying London's streets as deadly, dangerous and full of sin. I think that I would rather take my chances in deepest Tufnell Park than with the local hunt.

I have often heard Members on the other side of the House accusing the Government of lacking sympathy and commitment to the countryside. I refute that contention. I believe that the Government's record speaks of care, thought and commitment and that DEFRA Ministers bring that to bear on rural matters.

Although the definition of rural may be hotly disputed there can be no doubt about the acute challenges that face these communities today. I believe that the focus should be on action rather than semantics. The creation of DEFRA, with an explicit mission to mainstream rural affairs in policy making, and the appointment of my honourable friend Alun Michael as Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were important signals that the Government recognised some of the specific challenges. They are determined to look at the future of our rural economies beyond the narrow consideration of farming.

It was a bold move by the Government in the rural White Paper to commit themselves to "rural proofing" in policy-making. In that report, rural proofing is described as, the systematic assessment of the rural dimension of all government policies as they are developed and implemented—nationally, regionally and locally". The fact that the Government invited the Countryside Agency to monitor progress showed that they wanted an independent assessment. The rural-proofing report, to which the noble Lord referred, gives that detailed breakdown. It is a mixed report. There has been some useful progress, but there is still a long way to go. There have been some victories, such as the spread of Sure Start to rural communities, but the report pointed to the need to speed up rural proofing and put a stronger focus on outcomes.

This first year has been dominated by the need to deal with the impact of foot and mouth disease. I hope that we can look forward to greater and faster progress in the next report. I shall take the opportunity to urge the Minister to ensure that there are clear rules, targets and priorities in the spending review, with encouragement for the rural proofing of policies across government.

The Rural Affairs Forum is an important mechanism for getting messages about the countryside into the heart of government. It implements the Government's commitment in the rural White Paper to establish a national sounding-board, so that Ministers can have regular and direct contact with the main rural groups, through which they will know what is going on and what people in the countryside think. I examined the membership of the forum and found that it included many organisations, including the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Country Land and Business Association, the British Horse Society, the National Farmers Union, the Co-operative Union, Action with Communities in Rural England, Churches Together in England, the Women's Institute, the National Youth Agency and eight regional rural affairs forums. It is a mechanism for taking rural issues to the heart of government.

It is important to recognise that the future of our rural areas does not lie only in the hands of the Government. I shall declare an interest, arising from my long association with the co-operative movement. I am aware of its enduring commitment to the economic well-being of Britain's rural communities. In the past 100 years, Co-op Farmcare has evolved into the UK's largest commercial farmer, managing over 85,000 acres of farmland in England and Scotland. Following the Curry report, the Cooperative Group has committed itself to promoting solutions based on co-operation and self-help. It has appointed people dedicated to strengthening farmers" cooperatives in Cumbria and is committed to supporting the proposal to create an English collaborative board. That is an example to everyone who wants to solve the problems facing the countryside.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to participate in the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for initiating it. It is an important issue. What is the Government's definition of "rural" in respect of public policy?

I declare an interest as a trustee of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, having spent almost all of my career in agriculture. I shall not concentrate so much on farming, but in Wales, agriculture—livestock farming, in particular—is pulled three ways . There is the common agricultural policy of the European Union, the operation of DEFRA and the agriculture functions of the Welsh Assembly. There is also the impact of Objective 1, 2 and 3 funding in the EU's plans to develop rural areas.

In the past five years, there has been a 40 per cent drop in the price of primary farm products. That is almost entirely due to exchange rate inequality and the exploitation of monopolies by the supermarkets. I am sure that, had we joined the euro, much of that price inequality could have been solved rapidly. In the case of the supermarkets, it is essential that we legislate to make it illegal to buy farm produce at less than the cost of production. It is illegal in the United States, and it should be illegal here. The Government should go ahead and claim all the available agrimoney; it would be worth £51 million to the dairy industry alone.

I shall discuss the key factors of rurality, and I shall try out some definitions on the Minister. I also want to be objective and suggest some measures. It is easy to play politics with the subject, but I want to get to the nub of it. There are formulae for calculating rurality. That is certainly the case in Germany and Australia, to give but two examples. How do we get adequate resources for rural areas? They are frequently underresourced. Needs-based efforts are not really in gear. The present formula is inadequate—especially in its reflection of population sparseness—for government policy-making in health, education, transport and housing.

There is a significant difference between rurality in England and the extreme examples of rurality to be found in Scotland and Wales. The Barnett formula assists with but does not adequately cover the genuine needs of our rural communities. Noble Lords may think that parts of England are rural—Herefordshire,which borders on where I live, was mentioned—but they bear no comparison with central Wales or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, with devolution in place, I should not talk about this, but noble Lords will know that Wales depends on a Welsh block grant that is calculated on a needs-based formula. If the needs are more generously funded, the Welsh block grant is greater, and we benefit. That assessment is often made throughout England, as well as in Scotland and Wales.

I shall use the area that I come from as a case study in rurality. Powys is vast and runs from the English border to Cardigan Bay and from the edge of Snowdonia to the valleys of South Wales. It is longer than the distance from London to Bristol; it is the equivalent of the distance from Hammersmith flyover to the Severn Bridge. It is 132 miles long, but it has only 125,000 people in it. My former constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire alone is 87 miles by 45 miles and has 54,000 people in it. There are only 23 people per square kilometre. That is one measure of rurality that we ought to consider. Where we have a sparse population, we have a problem. Some 96 per cent of the land is in less favoured areas. In 1995, the gross domestic product was only 76 per cent of the European Union average; it is now less than that.

Areas of extreme rurality in the north west of England, in Northumberland—which I know well from working there—the south west of England, Scotland and Wales are mountainous, on the periphery of population centres, are sparsely populated and have practically no public transport. It often takes five hours or so to get from London, even to the area where I live. Such areas are heavily dependent on agriculture. For example, in Powys, 14 per cent of people gain their living directly from agriculture, and, in all, 20 per cent are dependent on it. That is more like Ireland than parts of England. The land is poor, and economic activity and output are low. A high proportion of the population—30 per cent—is self-employed. Wage levels are low, and the low level of household income is demonstrated by the low gross domestic product. There is rural poverty and isolation. There is an exodus of young people and a preponderance—up to 25 per cent of the population—of old people in the community. The demands on services are enormous.

How do the Government take account of all that in, for example, providing funding for local authorities? How much weight do they give to each factor I have mentioned compared with urban areas? Is the formula that is sometimes used in compensating rural authorities fair? In my experience, I think not.

There is social exclusion in many rural area of Great Britain. For example, in the county of Powys, where I live, there is no Marks & Spencer, no British Home Stores, no Dixon's, no Sainsbury's, no Tesco and no district general hospital. Between 1945 to 1990 in my previous constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire alone, 25 primary schools and three coal mines were closed. We have lost 60 per cent of our rail system; we have lost control of our ambulance and police services; we have lost four hospitals; we have lost control of our fire service; and our health authority has been abolished. Indeed, we have lost our probation service; we have lost our county courts; and we have recently lost another six magistrates' courts.

What measures are the Government applying in such situations? We have seen a severe weakness and I am trying to be objective in the debate. The decisions to make cuts and to reorganise are made far away from the people who are affected by them. Bureaucrats—I do not entirely blame politicians—in particular in high-rise offices are frequently ignorant of the impact of their decisions. They look at the map and cross out the only centres of economic activity in rural areas with the stroke of a pen.

In my time we have had to create our own upside. We have saved all our community hospitals but we have had to face battles royal to do so. We have saved many village schools. We have gone on protest marches to county council headquarters far away. We have saved the branches of many of the big four banks by going in busloads to the directors and haranguing them in their offices in the urban areas. We have saved manufacturing factories and lost some too. Through pure local effort, we have created in my constituency Brecon Jazz Festival which is attended every year by 50,000 people. Hay literary festival was created by local effort and we have launched three other festivals, too.

We have had to do that almost entirely alone. Rural areas need help. How will the Government positively help areas such as ours? Presently the average farmer earns £4,000 per annum, a sum less than the national minimum wage. Surely that quantifies rurality in an acute way What will the Minister do to provide a winning formula to overcome such deprivation?

In the early part of the new Labour Administration, we heard much about joined-up government. But, surely, all of those factors need to be joined together and integrated to produce a rurality factor which should be applied to ensure that the rural areas get fair play.

Finally, can the Minister explain the index of multiple deprivation in the rural context and where it applies" With the help of Oxford University, we have conducted some research in our area to bring together all the factors I have mentioned. When can a more level playing field be created and attained in rural areas—for example, by joining the euro, the single most important issue—to provide a fair price for farm produce and a real formula which compensates the rural areas in their hour of need? At present the youngsters are leaving in busloads.

8.24 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for having raised this interesting Question. I suspect that he has posed more questions than he has supplied answers and we shall look forward with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has to say.

I must start by declaring an interest as the owner of land in the North of England. In times past, the divisions between urban and rural were more clearly defined. Since the Industrial Revolution there has arisen a great blur between the two, although large areas of the country are clearly rural and it is to be hoped that they will always remain so.

One of the major changes which I suspect accounts for many of the conflicts and misunderstandings that arise between town and country is that here, unlike in France and many other European countries, many urban dwellers no longer live in the country and have ties there. Our food comes off the supermarket shelves and I fear that shoppers have little concept of how it is produced.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will have endless statistics to determine the word "rural" and that they will revolve around housing densities, population numbers and so forth. But I have given a degree of thought to my noble friend's Question and I suspect that one of the simplest and, in England at any rate, one of the most accurate definitions of "rural" is land over which hunting takes place.I recommend that definition to the Minister. The definition would seem to fit tidily into government policy because if their objective is to remove any distinction between the rural and urban—to many of us living in the countryside that appears to be the Government's only clear policy on these matters—the abolition of hunting would be the simplest way of achieving that.

Without wanting to take a cynical view and without wanting to pre-empt the outcome of Mr Alun Michael's consultation process over the future of hunting, one possible outcome could be that all low-ground hunts—in other words, those invollving horses—could be outlawed, thus allowing the hill packs of England and Wales to continue under what I suspect would be some very spurious distinction.

However, on the face of it and under my definition, that would leave the hills remaining rural and the Government with a problem. The Government have pre-empted that and ensured that the final vestige of rural is removed by introducing the right to roam. On that point—and it is a serious point—it is already becoming clear from the consultation on the regulations of the CROW Bill how difficult it will be for the access authorities to make the Bill work effectively. I hope that the Minister makes note of what I am saying because many organisations which are having to deal with his officials on this matter and the Countryside Agency are finding it extremely difficult to make any sense of it at all.

There is a serious side to all this and those of us who live and work in the countryside see the Government's primary intention as being to turn rural areas into the playground of urban Britain. I fully acknowledge that those who are privileged to own land and to live in the country have many responsibilities. I include myself in that category. I believe it is incumbent on landowners and farmers to look after the land and the environment and to accommodate those who want to enjoy what the countryside has to offer. However, many are on the verge of collapse—sadly, many have already collapsed and with them have been lost many countryside skills. The combination of additional pressures and lack of income opportunities will be fatal for the countryside.What is needed is a strategy—a strategy for the future of rural Britain—and to date that has not been forthcoming.

I also acknowledge that the support which farmers receive through the CAP and through grants must be justified. The Minister knows my views on that and I believe that we should be considering fundamental rethinking of the way in which such subsidies and grants are applied.

In my view, however, what the Government certainly fail to understand is that if the countryside is expected to provide opportunities for others to enjoy it, then the views, the aspirations and, indeed, the traditions of those who live and invest there must be respected, even if they are alien to some. Mere concern is not enough. The missing ingredient is understanding.

It is no good producing endless glossy consultations and reports from the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, and others, in particular when so few of those recommendations are actually implemented. What about the report from Sir Don Curry; there is some good stuff in there? So far we have heard nothing from the Government as regards whether they are going to implement a small part of it, a large part or the whole of the report. There was nothing in the Budget for rural Britain and, as my noble friend Lord Patten has already pointed out, the Countryside Agency, through Ewen Cameron—I believe that he calls himself the "countryside czar"—has been highly critical of the Government through the rural proofing objective or yardstick.

Everyone knows that rural communities receive less from government spending compared with metropolitan areas. Indeed, the latter receive an average of something like 20 per cent more under the standard spending assessment per capita than do the former. Council taxes are higher in rural areas, but those areas often receive poorer services. Rural housing, transport, education, police and health have all been short-changed. Without a proper infrastructure, investments and jobs will not reach their full potential. I do not say that the Government have done nothing. I acknowledge what has been done, but there is so much more to do. As I have already said, above all, we want to see a strategy.

The consequences of the foot and mouth outbreak have demonstrated only too well the unsustainability of the British countryside and the balance between its economy, its community and the environment. These fundamental issues need to be addressed. My noble friend has posed an interesting Question. The answer is not clear cut, but what I can say with certainty is that feelings are running high in rural Britain.

I shall finish with one little story, a true account which simply revolves around a conversation I had not so long ago with an elderly and very well respected Dales farmer. I asked him, "What do you think has been the greatest change that has occurred in your part of rural England over the past five or six years?". He thought about it for a moment, then he turned to me and said, "In the old days, Ministers and civil servants were batting for the farmers and for the rural communities. Now they appear to be against us".

8.33 p.m.

Lord Mancroft

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to participate in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Patten. I was intrigued to hear how he would address this issue and to find out exactly what way concerning him. I shall start by declaring my interest as a board member of the Countryside Alliance. I can assure my noble friend and the House that the Countryside Alliance is not sleeping or resting; it is working very hard indeed. The officials in DEFRA would have noticed that last Friday when one or two of us arrived in person to deliver our letters in response to Mr Alun Michael—or should I say, one or two thousand of us came along. I suspect that we shall be coming along again and again and again.

In doing my homework for this evening, I turned to one of the many publications put out by the Minister's department to search for guidance. The new department includes "Rural Affairs" in its title, which I think must be a first. Among the noble Lord's departmental colleagues, it is the unfortunate Mr Alun Michael who has to shoulder the burden that makes up the role of Minister for Rural Affairs. He really does pick them, doesn't he? From Leader of the Welsh Assembly to Minister for hunting. I suppose that could be seen as leaping out of the frying pan and into the fire. I suspect that Mr Michael will go hill walking in Afghanistan in the Summer Recess for a little R&R.

It is obvious, therefore, that the Government attach some importance to the concept of rural Britain, but I have to say that it is not clear exactly what. I have never been a great fan of government publications. No doubt they have a role, but surely it is only to demonstrate that the department in question does in fact exist. Beyond that, they do not appear to serve much practical purpose. My noble friend Lord Patten mentioned the wonderful document entitled "Working for the Essentials of Life". Chapter 2 is entitled: Food and Farming: a sustainable future". Facing that title page is a large photograph by which it states: Helping farmers to meet the needs of consumers". In that short sentence may lie the nub of tonight's Question. Do the Government see their role as that of producing a countryside that suits the Government and the urban electorate, or is that role one of enabling those who live and work in the countryside, and who are largely responsible for how it has developed up until now, to continue to manage and develop it in the way they think best, in the way that their instincts lead them? Indeed, are those two very different positions mutually exclusive or can they be developed side by side?

There is virtually nothing in this bland document with which anyone could disagree. That is not a criticism; all corporate publications are bland. At the same time, however, it gives little clue as to the Government's political philosophy about the countryside. Although this is not strictly relevant to tonight's debate, it might help if some of the photographs in the document were captioned. The one at the bottom of page 18, which I would ask noble Lords to look at, is either a picture of some of those repulsive maggots that coarse anglers use as bait or it is a delicious mushroom risotto. I am not sure exactly what it is, but I do think that it is quite important to make such details clear. We would not want anyone to make a mistake.

Chapter 3 concerns rural communities and carries the motto, "Improving rural areas for everyone". Again, the central issue surfaces. Is it possible to improve, develop or manage the countryside for the benefit of everyone, or must some interests be compromised for the benefit of others?

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a simple example: the right to roam. It is a marvellous thing to have opened up so much previously unvisited countryside for people to explore and enjoy. I think that it is a wonderful idea. However, I am clear that the right to roam is going to make life a great deal more difficult for many farmers and land managers. I am equally clear that it is going to be an absolute disaster for ground nesting birds in some places. I therefore conclude that in this case, rural policy has meant a policy that the Government have imposed on the countryside because, for unrelated reasons which may or may not be bad, it suited the Government rather than a policy that was designed for the benefit of the countryside or was requested by those who make up the rural population.

The new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs arose from the ashes of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, following the debacle of foot and mouth disease. I do not want to go over the foot and mouth outbreak again tonight, but I use the word "débâcle" because the manner in which MAFF was perceived to have handled that crisis was a major contributory factor in the demise of that department and the subsequent birth of DEFRA. Trust in MAFF collapsed as far as the fanning community was concerned.

It is important to understand the dynamics of the situation. Farming is at the heart of the rural community because farming is at the heart of the countryside. That is not to minimise the significance of other business activities taking place in the countryside, such as tourism and other new businesses that sit well within the countryside and may do so considerably more in the future. Rather it is to state again that, regardless of anything else, it is farming and farmers that have shaped our countryside, that have conserved our wildlife and have nurtured biodiversity.

At this point I wish to point out one exception. I am sorry to see that the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, is no longer in her place. As a Master of Hounds some 15 years ago, next door to my kennels was a very large estate owned by the Co-operative Society, of which the noble Baroness spoke so fondly. I know that she is closely involved with the society. Needless to say, the hounds were not welcome on that estate. However, the hounds did not want to go there. Every hedge had been ripped out, the covers were unmanaged and there were no foxes to be found. In fact, there were no animals on the entire estate. From that point of view, I believe that the Co-op should be absolutely ashamed of the way it manages its land.

Despite the Co-op, and because of farming's central role in the rural community, rural policy, whatever else it does, must first and foremost be designed for the needs of farming and farmers above all else—and I am not a farmer. Every other concern and pressure must come second. I do not say that farming itself should not occasionally make compromises and sacrifices to accommodate the needs of others—of course it must—but second to farming should be the needs of others within the rural community. Then and only then should policies seek to address the needs of those many people and groups of people who have an interest in the countryside but are not of the countryside.

The more one thinks about it the more the logic of this approach becomes clear. The very reason that so many individuals and groups have an interest in and put pressure on the countryside is because of the way it is and the way it has become. It is therefore essential and must be the priority to maintain and develop that asset in a way that maintains that interest and pressure that are measures of the countryside's success. As soon as policy is focused on artificially creating those circumstances that exist naturally now, most of which have been created by the evolution of fanning practices, the whole edifice will come tumbling down and the countryside as we know it will increasingly be put at risk.

The single biggest threat at present is confidence. Foot and mouth disease resulted in the rural community suffering an enormous loss of faith in government. It does not matter whose fault it is, what matters is that that loss of trust is still there. DEFRA desperately needs to restore that faith and to earn once again the trust of the whole rural community, which has at its heart the farming community. Looking through the glossy publication I referred to, I can see that there is a huge amount of work planned and that the department has set itself some very demanding goals. I wish the department and its Ministers well in reaching those goals. I suspect most of your Lordships do also.

As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has said more than once in the House, hunting is by no means the most important issue on the agenda. I am sure the whole House would agree with that. It would therefore seem to be a strange way of going about restoring trust and building a strong relationship between this new department and the farming community to waste quite so much time on an issue that, although of obsessive interest to Members of another place, is not even on the agenda of country people but could well prevent the department from fulfilling any of the serious tasks it has set itself.

This is because the rural community believes that the consultation process announced by Mr Michael in another place and by the Minister in this House is a sham and that the outcome has already been decided. Unless Ministers can find some way of giving assurances that this is not the case—and the best assurance would obviously be to ensure that that process and its conclusion is open and transparent—that mistrust will simply grow. The Government have already commissioned an inquiry into hunting and that inquiry found that there was no case for a ban. If the Government now, after some secret and silent consultation, come up with a new reason for a ban, they will simply not be believed because that is not believable: it is not credible.

The problem of trust is not academic and it is important. If the rural community does not trust the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the work of that department will prove absolutely impossible to achieve. No amount of glossy brochures will save it and the department will have failed before it has even started. For DEFRA it is as serious as that. It is a rather round about way of saying that rural policy must be centred on farming, which is itself at the centre of the countryside, not policy designed by central government as a consequence of outside pressures and then imposed on an unwilling rural community, which will become increasingly angry and will not accept it.

8.44 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we on these Benches feel that the debate is very timely and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has introduced it today. It would be in DEFRA's own interests to define "rural" for three reasons. First, on all sides of the House and in all sections of the country people have agreed that CAP reform is urgent and needed, and the Government have stated that they support it strongly. CAP reform would see money moving from commodity support into rural development. I hope that, over time, a large chunk of money will begin to move as modulation takes effect, but if we do not know exactly what "rural" means it is very hard to see how rural development can take place in the way needed.

Under the Rural Development Commission some years ago there were rural development areas, which were a fairly blunt instrument for dispensing needed money. They succeeded somewhat given the fact that they had to cover broad geographical areas and do their best within them. The rural development areas became rural priority areas, which are still a blunt instrument for deciding where rural development is needed.

Let me give your Lordships an example of the kind of measurement that has been used over the years in these areas which may make it clear why it is very blunt. To measure pockets of poverty, one of the questions that is asked is: does every household have a car? In rural areas, nearly every household does have a car—I see the Minister raising his eyebrows—but it may be a very old, dilapidated car which is expensive to maintain on the road. So asking whether or not every household has a car is almost irrelevant as a measure of poverty. Much work needs to be done to make the information more sophisticated. I know that measurements have come down to ward level, but even that is not sophisticated enough because there can be quite wealthy wards with difficult pockets of poverty within them.

The second reason why DEFRA needs to address the rural question, referred to today and on several previous occasions in your Lordships' House, is rural proofing. This is failing. Ewen Cameron, who has been mentioned several times today as the countryside advocate, has commented that it is not succeeding.

He commented particularly on the magistrates' courts closures—I declare an interest as a Somerset county councilor—proposed in Minehead, Wells and Frome. My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury has mentioned court closures in other contexts in your Lordships' House. Losing those three courts in a county the size of Somerset will mean people having to travel an awfully long way to court. Frankly, I do not believe that if rural proofing was really taking place we would be seeing those closures.

The third reason was touched on eloquently by my noble friend Lord Livsey of Talgarth—that is, the fair public funding of services. There is grave concern about the lack of progress by the DTLR in constructing a new formula for allocating grants to local authorities. A new system will have to be constructed, tested and consulted on over the summer. That is a very tight timetable. Unless DEFRA takes a hand and encourages the DTLR to get on with it, the needs of rural England will be glossed over yet again.

The Government have failed to evaluate the extra costs of providing services in rural areas within England. But exercises have been undertaken to adapt the formula with respect to the sparsity factor in Scotland and Wales. Could not a similar assessment take place in England?

Noble Lords have referred to different ways of defining "rural". It goes without saying that in this country we accept that "rural" usually goes with "countryside". Noble Lords have interchanged the two words frequently today. But "countryside" is perhaps more evocative of landscape. We have a number of specific classifications—national parks, AONBs, ESAs and SSSIs. These are easy to spot rural areas where the environment and biodiversity are a key factor. In fact, they are often the only place where some species can live. Perhaps that makes them easier to define.

Rural areas could be defined by economy. It is particularly notable that in rural areas 90 per cent of small firms have 10 employees or fewer. Indeed, 99 per cent of firms in rural areas have fewer than 50 employees. That makes a clearly defined interest group. The Government have failed to take the issue of broadband access for those small firms seriously enough or soon enough. If they did so, it would help.

Rural areas show another big inequality in social terms. Housing stock by tenure is 13 per cent social housing in rural areas and 23 per cent in urban areas. At a time when demographic change is having a great impact on rural areas, that is the most urgent of the issues that the Government have failed to address. In many villages in southern England there is no affordable housing for any first-time buyer.

My final example is the lack of higher education establishments. A rural area might be defined as an area that has no such establishments. In the South West, that includes Somerset and Cornwall. The Joseph Rowntree study, Pathways to Social Inclusion and Exclusion, which deals with rural Scotland, highlights the fact that, as young people have no such institution in their area to go to, they move away and then find it extremely difficult to move back.

DEFR A may have struggled with a definition and therefore has not brought one before us, or perhaps it has made no attempt to define rural areas any further than it has done in its documents so far. It is essential that the department comes up with a definition, or at least consults on one so that we can have some input. In Working for the Essentials oflife, Secretary of State Margaret Beckett refers to, flourishing rural economies and communities, where everyone has fair access to services and the opportunity to contribule fully to national life". I do not believe that that is helpful. It generalises and glosses over. We need clear definitions. For sound financial and social reasons, we need them now.

8.53 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, no less a paper than the Guardian last year published a market survey. It found that the richest areas and occupations other than agriculture and manufacturing have gained financially under new Labour. It noted that household income in Surrey was 88 per cent higher than in Cornwall and 80 per cent above the figure in Tyne and Wear. Deloitte & Touche published an analysis showing that the income for a typical 500-acre family-run farm fell from £80,000 to £2,500 in the five years to October 2001.

There have been debates, Statements, Oral Questions and Written Questions galore in this House about the rural scene, and particularly about farming, as the Minister knows only too well. There can be no doubt that rural affairs are—or should be—an important part of the Government's agenda. They have held the reins of power for almost exactly five years. When they took over, farm incomes were a reasonable reward for long hours, outdoors, in all weathers, using high-cost equipment. When they took over, tourism was healthy, vibrant and expanding. Traditional businesses were busy and in many areas new industries were setting up offices, often in converted farm buildings. A great proportion—I think that the figure is about one-third—of small businesses are now based in rural areas.

However, farm incomes now for all but the few moguls and the small number of specialist producers are derisory. The tourism industry is still reeling from the effects of the delayed reaction to the discovery of foot and mouth. A consortium of small businesses is set to challenge the Government in the courts to recover —7 billion.

The Government have responded in typical new Labour style. The Haskins report was produced, was acclaimed and was never heard of again. The Curry report has been published against a very tight deadline, has been Welcomed—rapturously by the Secretary of State and fulsomely by the Prime Minister—and has been moved from the front burner to the back burner to, I think, the warming plate.

We have had all these reports, all this talk and all these fine words about the importance of rural affairs, including the production of the rural White Paper, yet in five years of rural decline, the Government have not attempted a working definition of "rural" to be used by all departments and agencies.

I am willing to start the ball rolling. I suggest that the definition must be measurable, must be usable in targets, in statistics and in the courts, must include sparsity and should be relatively easily understood. It should be refined by the sorts of minds that have proved themselves capable of taking information and working practices from one area of human endeavour and applying it successfully to another. I have in mind an organisation such as the Silsoe Research Institute.

A working definition of "rural" may well be found in a conjunction of densities of population, of housing and of A roads, trunk routes and motorways—or, as others have said, where hunting takes place. Currently, the Government take as their baseline a population under 10,000. I believe that that figure is too high. Perhaps the Minister will clarify it for us and say whether the Government will define "very rural".

I have already touched on some aspects of the rural decline. Any definition must be clearly relevant to a way of life that the Government say that they value, but which they seem bent on destroying by negative action or by direct inaction. Negative action comprises the sort of bureaucratic diktats guaranteed to discourage what they purport to support. For instance, we debated the new code of conduct for local councils during Questions this afternoon. The limit at which hospitality and gifts have to be reported has been set at £25, compared with £1,000 in this House. The declaration of interests covers every member of the family, even unto the third generation, as well as the in-laws and partners. That is ridiculous.

Negative action is exemplified by behaviour such as accepting responsibility for stewardship schemes, extolling their value and relevance and then keeping them so short of funds that more applicants are rejected than are accepted. Negative action is to be found in the decision to "save" £300 million to £400 million per annum by taking away from sub-post offices the processing of benefit books and the use of Giro cheques. That saving alone is equivalent to the cost of running another place for at least 18 months.

Who loses out the most? The proposal will cost the poor dearly. With nothing to offer the banks—they will have to shell out £180 million for getting involved—the poor will be wide open to bank charges, credit manipulation and, if the Tax Credits Bill is not amended, the loss of benefit should they happen to lose their bank account.

Finally, negative action is the gracious permission (granted to the organisers of agricultural shows just starting and of events) to include livestock, followed by the laying down of rules that render such activities nearly impossible, while at the same time allowing open access to the countryside, where walkers can walk over farmland and have direct contact with livestock. That is nonsense.

Direct inaction is where the Government have one of their consultations, followed by a paper, followed by a Bill which results in an Act that ignores a central issue. I instance here the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2001 and its lack of provision for farmers and land managers to charge for the provision of some services that are essential to the maintenance of areas open to access—I refer to litter collection, loos, stiles and signposts, to name but a few—and the Government's refusal to allow parish councils to set up parking areas and charge for their use. Those of us who live in the country and come to the town to visit know very well that we pay parking fees when we come. Why on earth is it different for rural areas? My noble friend Lord Mancroft also specifically dealt with the threat to our wildlife and our ground-nesting birds.

When I think of direct inaction, I think of magistrates' courts, which have already been referred to by my two colleagues on the Liberal Benches. The answer to a Written Question to the Minister which I tabled on 16th April listed 94 magistrates' courts closures in the past five years. Of those, 44 were at least 10 miles from the nearest alternative court. Should the Government demand increased efficiency from their servants and then acquiesce as they comply at the expense of some of the least advantaged of our society? Poor people have to spend a proportionately greater part of their income to attend a more distant court.

Direct inaction dictates that the Government ignore the problems of affordable housing in their planning reviews. In areas where brownfield or in-fill land is scarce, could they not decree that some small plots—under 2.5 acres, for example—be used solely for affordable starter and retirement homes? Unless and until the Government take this sort of action, young people will continue to move to the towns. It is possible to work in town and live in a village, but if neither job nor home is available, the countryside must be abandoned. The whole awful downward spiral will continue, and no longer will young families be part of our rural villages.

Finally, and worst of all, the combination of negative action and direct inaction leads to hidden poverty. Many view villages as wealthy, and indeed some of them are. Wealthy incomers buy up country properties, renovate them and move in. However, they continue to work in the city, shop in the city, socialise with their friends in the city and educate their children in the city. Back "home", however, the shop closes, the pub becomes a mere dwelling and the bus timetable is cut.

I doubt that the Government truly understand what makes rural life tick. I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Patten for highlighting the need for a proper definition of the word "rural" and for drawing attention to the needs of those living in rural Britain. Rural Britain continues to wait—not for more consultation, but for action. Action would help to restore confidence. Our countryside needs action, and it needs it now.

9.3 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, in the tradition of the House, I shall thank the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for initiating this debate. Like other noble Lords, he has anticipated that he will not receive a straight answer to his question, as the issue is somewhat more complicated than many noble Lords have suggested. Indeed, there has been a slight contradiction between those who have demanded a single and clear definition of what is rural and what is not, and those who have said that the problems of rural areas are many and varied and we have to tackle them in different ways.

There is a huge difference between different areas that are manifestly rural. Although I hesitate to stray into Wales—as the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, indicated, it is somewhat beyond my competence and, to some extent, that of the House—I shall do so. Rural Powys, as described by the noble Lord, is dramatically different from a village in Berkshire. Nevertheless, both are unmistakably rural. Although both have problems of social exclusion, they are very different sorts of problems. One set of problems is the result of huge pressure on services and the over-heating caused by supplying a workforce to London, Reading and Oxford, whereas the other is due effectively to depopulation, as the noble Lord described. However, they are both rural. So we need some distinctiveness in how we describe different rural areas. I shall return to that subject in a moment.

As always when the House discusses rural matters, a large number of other issues have been raised. I shall address some of them, but not others. First, however, I should like to say—once and for all, although I somehow doubt it—that the canard about the Government not caring about the countryside and those who live in it, which has been repeated again today, is completely wrong. We recognise that much more needs to be done; that some of the changes in the past 20-odd years, let alone the past five, have been detrimental to some rural areas; and that we therefore need a fresh start in rural policy, which was signalled in the rural White Paper and given—I was going to say "concrete"—effect by the creation of DEFRA and the responsibilities across the rural agenda for which my ministry now has responsibility.

Lord Patten

My Lords, in asserting that the Government do care, would the Minister like to say why—as Mr Ewen Cameron, the rural advocate or countryside czar, has pointed out—the Government's own Social Exclusion Unit has no action programme of any substance in relation to the countryside and rural areas? Is that the mark of a government who care?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is not a question of the Social Exclusion Unit not having a policy for social exclusion in rural areas—it does have such a policy—but of whether its overall policy has been effectively rural proofed in the terms described when we established the rural proofing process in the rural affairs White Paper. We have given the Countryside Agency a clear responsibility to engage in an independent view.

Mr Cameron is doing his job, which we appointed him to do less than two years ago, which entails examining every aspect of government policy to determine whether it is sufficiently rural proofed. Surely, in 18 months., he will find many spheres in which that is not sufficiently the case. Rural proofing, however, is a process that is now embedded in that monitoring process. It needs to be increasingly embedded within mainstream policy right across all departments including—I regret to say—aspects of my own. We are therefore working hard to deliver what is required for proper rural proofing. It is right that the countryside advocate should point out where there are deficiencies. I hope that he continues to do that. But I also hope and believe that those areas of deficiency will diminish.

There are areas I shall not comment on. I shall not be provoked into discussing hunting tonight. We may have the odd opportunity to discuss that in the future. I shall not be dragged too far by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, into discussing the Welsh constitutional settlement or Welsh local government reorganisation. Nor shall I discuss the role of the Countryside Alliance, as I was tempted to do by the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Mancroft. As we shall no doubt have to return to it, I shall not discuss the assessment of the effectiveness of the control of foot and mouth. There will be many occasions on which we shall return to that despite the blocking of the Animal Health Bill. I record once again that I regret that and that we may live to regret it.

I shall not discuss in any detail the economics of farming. We again shall have other possibilities to discuss that more generally. It is an important part of the whole of the rural area but the Government's commitment to the broad strategy outlined in the Curry commission's report is well known. We are pursuing that and we have already announced a large number of initiatives in that respect. As regards its spending dimension, however, we have always made clear that that will become clear after the spending review is completed this summer.

I make one other comment in relation to farming in response to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. He says that the future of the countryside depends on our putting farming first, the rest of the rural economy second and the rest of the population third. However, that is the wrong way round. If farming and the countryside as a whole do not produce the food and the products which the rest of the population wish to buy and eat, and if it does not open its doors to tourists and others who come to do business and spend money in the countryside, we shall indeed experience an economic collapse in part of our countryside. The idea that the countryside and the town should be separate in their decisions and should not relate to each other has perhaps aggravated some of the problems within the countryside today. That is exactly what the Curry commission is addressing—the need for there to be a total approach to the food chain, for farmers to be closer to consumers and for consumers to understand better and get closer to primary producers and growers. It is exactly that integrated approach which is needed and not a separation of what goes on in the countryside from that which goes on elsewhere.

A number of noble Lords made good points. My noble friend Lady Thornton was right to underline not only the importance of rural proofing but also the establishment of the rural forum by my right honourable friend Alun Michael, who is bringing together a significant number of rural and countryside interests to inform the overall approach of departments to policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, rightly made the point that often there are pockets of difficulty and deprivation within rural areas which need to be addressed. Other noble Lords made important points in relation to deprivation, isolation and the lack of services within rural areas. All of those points are addressed in a strategy arising from the rural White Paper which we shall follow through.

However, the Question relates to definition. Definition is always difficult. A single definition is particularly difficult. The primary definition at the moment, which was originally drawn up by the former Rural Development Commission and is now adopted by the Countryside Agency, takes local government structures as the basic structures. That is partly because many services and the allocation of resources have to be carried out through local government. Its current form identifies 145 rural, local and unitary authorities as rural. One would think that that is straightforward but it excludes a number of areas.

There are problems of substantial significance at the edges of that definition. It excludes obviously the main conurbations but also towns at the centre of rural areas such as Cambridge or Exeter. The question of exactly where the delineation runs is important. For example, Carlisle district is not rural under the definition, despite containing a significant rural hinterland, as the bulk of the population is found in an urban area and the bulk of the district is urban. However, the population density of the district as a whole., at 99 persons per square kilometre, is almost exactly the same as Mid-Suffolk. In Mid-Suffolk, however, the largest urban area, Stowmarket, has only 13,000 people. Nevertheless, on a density basis, the two would be treated the same. On an urban/rural definition, they fall either side of the divide.

In north Somerset, the unitary authority is classified by the Countryside Agency as urban. The population is 499 persons per square kilometre. That compares with Arun in Sussex which is 50 per cent bigger in density but is classified as rural. There are these difficulties. The difficulty also prevails when one moves down to use a single definition for differentiating between wards on the Countryside Agency approach.

There is also the question of the use of the definition. For different services and policies, different definitions are appropriate. For various transport reasons, we use distance and isolation. However, most transport routes go from a town into the country or between towns. Therefore, one would involve quite large towns in the definition of a rural bus or rail route. Therefore for different policies, different criteria are probably necessary.

However, we recognise what underlies the question: that we need a more co-ordinated and consistent approach to the categorisation. That is why DEFRA, DTLR, the Countryside Agency and the Office for National Statistics are now working together for a better set of definitions of "urban" and "rural" areas. In the short term, we are using the widely available definition developed by the Countryside Agency to which I have referred. That will be amended somewhat by a classification which is about to be recommended by a study which was commissioned by the DTLR. In its present draft it is almost 40 pages long. It will alter slightly the definition used by the Countryside Agency.

We need a more fundamental change of approach. An interdepartmental group of officials—DEFRA, DTLR, ONS, and so on—is working together to develop a new classification over the next 18 months. The aim is to develop a simple classification which is based more on land use, settlement pattern and the economic activity of very small areas; it would be significantly below ward level. The mechanism would be developed to build these up into a classification for larger areas. We would then have the basis for producing rural statistics by identification of these smaller areas, or aggregation of those smaller areas, which could be used for policy for local government, Whitehall and the devolved administrations.

If we are to address the real needs of the rural areas, we do not need a simplistic single definition. We need an approach to rural areas such as we are now developing so that we can identify problems of deprivation, isolation and lack of particular services at very low levels of disaggregation. We shall then have not simply one definition of "rural"—we may still have an overarching local authority definition—but a suite of definitions upon which we can draw as appropriate but as understood for various different purposes.

I realise that that is not a sufficient and complete reply to the noble Lord, Lord Patten. However, it is an indication of the way in which we need to move for policy purposes.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify one point. Two noble Lords mentioned courthouses and post offices. Is the Minister's department taking a lead in bringing this profile to the attention of other departments? At present, those bodies are getting lost.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the issue of courthouses and access to justice generally is the subject of intense discussions between my department and the Lord Chancellor's Department.

On the decisions of Consignia, that is somewhat at arm's length from government. Nevertheless, an overall rural policy issue is involved with the continued closure of a number of rural and urban post offices. Together with the DTLR and DTI, we are engaged with the Post Office in looking at that process. As with other areas of the provision of services and the economic effects of broader policies on the countryside, my department is responsible for hassling other departments and agencies, ensuring that they take the rural dimension very seriously indeed, and in particular the social implications in rural areas for some of those changes.