asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what consideration he is giving to the proposal submitted to him for a rural aid fund.
My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for industry and education is to meet the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to discuss a proposal submitted by Strathclyde regional council for the creation of a rural aid fund for Scotland.
May one hope that if such a meeting takes place the prospects are somewhat hopeful? Is the Secretary of State fully aware—I know that the district council within his constituency is one of the authorities which have supported the proposal—of the importance of such a fund, given that so many rural areas have suffered considerable deprivations over the past 10 or 20 years and will suffer further deprivation under the Transport Bill when it is enacted? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate how valuable even a modest rural aid fund would be to restore and maintain many rural communities?
I appreciate the right hon. Lady's views on this issue. I can assure her that the consultation that we shall be having with Strathclyde regional council will be genuine. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the details of the ideas put forward by the council. I appreciate that there is much concern about how we can help rural areas,. There is a vast array of powers available for helping rural areas, and large sums are directed specially to rural areas in many different ways. We must consider whether a rural aid fund would add significantly to the present powers. If so, would it be worth while to introduce such a fund?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the greatest need in a rural area is good transportation? In that context, the assistance that is to be made available as a result of the Transport Bill to encourage new developments in rural areas is much to be welcomed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful also to arrange for some focus on the passing of knowledge between those who carry out experiments in rural areas about new forms of transport which it may be possible to introduce following the Bill's enactment?
Yes. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the special arrangements that are being written into the provisions for transport in rural areas reflect clearly the high priority that the Government give to ensuring that rural areas are properly looked after. There has been a vast increase in the subsidies to the Highlands and Islands ferry service. That is only one example of many of the special aids that are given to rural areas.
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the most damaging actions to rural areas is the slashing of agricultural advisory services by 41 per cent.? If the English Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food does that, does the Secretary of State for Scotland have to pursue the same line like a puppy dog?
We are still consulting all interests concerned as to how best to change those services. However, I never expected the right hon. Gentleman to complain. The integrated development programme, which is more than half funded by the Government, is pouring vast sums into his area in every way. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would express some thanks for that.
Is my right hon. Friend not concerned that, following demands for urban and rural aid, the next demand will be for suburban aid? Is he not worried that, although many people now demand aid, the money has long since run out and we shall not be able to find any more resources with which to meet their demands?
My hon. Friend is perfectly correct, in that as long as funds are limited we must ensure that they are targeted towards the most important areas. This Government have added to the aid for urban areas, and that aid is used extensively. We have new schemes for the rural areas, including the programme for regional industrial development and the development of rural area workshops scheme, both of which have recently been introduced to give extra help to rural areas.
Does the Secretary of State realise that the people of Scotland would broadly welcome his launching the rural aid fund by handing back the £15 million that he has just taken out of the Estimates to cover the rise in rates relief, from 3p to 8p, which he engineered in order to call off the hounds who were chasing him?
I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman would like the money to be spent other than on helping the ratepayers. I should have thought that he would be pleased if the money helped ratepayers in Kilmarnock and Loudoun, as well as everywhere else.
As many successful rural schools are under threat because of the Government's education cuts, will the Secretary of State make a statement on the future of funding for rural, community-based primary schools?
Alas, the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question shows that he is, as usual, completely ill-informed. The amount of money allowed for education in Scotland is at its highest level per head ever. Indeed, the Government have raised it. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the closure of schools is a matter for the regional council in the light of its priorities. The hon. Gentleman asked indirectly about assistance for rural areas, but his area gets as much help as any.