I beg to move,
That this House recognises the serious impact that the economic downturn is having across the country; notes the specific impact of the recession on rural communities, with recent job losses affecting key rural industries; further notes with concern that levels of economic inactivity are higher in rural areas and believes that increased redundancies will fall particularly hard on small rural communities; further notes that rural communities, already suffering from the closure of key services and the Government’s failure to provide affordable rural housing, are finding it harder to cope with rising unemployment, with those out of work lacking adequate support; is concerned that the recession is exacerbated by the burden of regulation, increased payroll costs and problems accessing credit for small businesses; believes that too little say has been given to people in rural areas with decisions taken centrally; and calls on the Government to show more respect to rural communities and return power to local people.
We have called this debate because we want to draw attention to the impact that the recession is having on rural communities. In many ways, those communities are already fragile, and when faced with economic difficulties they can be left even more exposed. We also want to ensure that the economic potential of rural areas is harnessed, so that they can emerge stronger from the recession and help contribute to the UK’s recovery by driving sustainable growth.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is not here in person to put the Government’s case, particularly as only last week the Prime Minister said that he wanted to make the Executive more accountable to Parliament and the people. So much for the latest relaunch. Perhaps we should not be surprised. The word is getting around in the countryside that the Secretary of State is not really interested in the rural aspect of his brief, and today he has proved the point. In his place we have the junior Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I mean no personal disrespect, and I genuinely congratulate him on his appointment, but he is the fifth Minister of State in five years. What signal does that send to rural communities about the priority that this Government give to farming, rural people and the countryside?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the signal that the Government are conveying to the nation. What signal does it send when we look at the Labour Benches and see only one Back Bencher present in the important debate?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Despite the high quality of the one Labour Back Bencher who is present, the fact that Labour Members simply have not bothered to turn up for the debate says something about their concern for rural issues. Despite their frequent claims that several Labour Members represent rural seats, when it comes to a debate, they do not think the subject sufficiently important for them to be here.
I bring apologies from the Secretary of State. We take exception to the accusation that he is not committed to the countryside—he is. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have scheduled a debate on Thursday to discuss those matters.
Perhaps the Minister would like to intervene again and tell me whether the Secretary of State will lead that debate. We would welcome that. It will be the first agricultural debate in Government time under the Labour Government.
I was reporting not my view, but the widespread view in the countryside about the Government’s interest in rural people. I am afraid that the Secretary of State’s absence will serve only to reinforce it, and the Minister should take that message back to him.
Is not part of the problem the Government’s perception in the past 12 years of rural areas and the countryside as a theme park rather than a living, breathing economic organism? That is why, when things get hard, they have not a single answer to give.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is important to remember that rural areas are not a theme park. We cannot allow rural communities to be dormitories, where people only live, then go to work somewhere else. We must have sustainable, vibrant communities and remember the importance of farming and agriculture in those communities to manage the land. Farmers need to be allowed to get on with their businesses.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous. I agree with him about the importance of farming and farming communities. I am a little disappointed that neither the motion nor the amendment says anything about food security, which is vital for our country as well as rural communities, for example, to ensure employment and housing so that agricultural workers can live and work in those communities. Will the hon. Gentleman say something about food security for our country?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of food security. He knows that we had an Opposition day debate on it last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke at the National Farmers Union conference last year, when he led the debate about the subject and I talked about it to the NFU conference this year. Conservative Members have been drawing attention to food security—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will consider it in the debate on farming and agricultural matters on Thursday.
The economic downturn affects every community, but the impact on rural areas can all too easily be overlooked. There is a myth that rural Britain is wholly affluent, but 1.6 million people in rural areas live in poverty. One in five households in the most rural areas live in fuel poverty—double the proportion of fuel-poor households in urban areas. Around one in six people who suffer from deprivation are found in rural areas.
It would also be a mistake to believe that a slightly more rosy scenario for some sectors in farming after real difficulties in recent years means that we do not need to worry about the countryside compared with the rest of the economy. Farming may have had a slightly easier time recently, with increased incomes and strengthened exports, but there are continuing difficulties and underlying fragility. Hon. Members of all parties will know about the recent collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain, which highlights the serious problems that our dairy industry faces.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, when an employer or business goes bust in an urban area, the Government fight tooth and nail to try to show that they are doing something, but when Dairy Farmers of Britain went into administration, threatening the livelihoods of some of my dairy farmers in Lancaster and Wyre, the silence from the Department was deafening?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. There is enormous concern in the agricultural community about the collapse of the co-operative and the impact on producers, who may be unable to sell their milk to alternative sources. We look forward to hearing what the Government say about that on Thursday. It is particularly important that the banks should have regard to the continuing viability of many of the businesses affected while they make short-term arrangements to change their purchasers and that they should regard those businesses with sympathy. My hon. Friend raises an important issue about the distinction between how the Government responded to the banking collapse and the collapse in the car industry and how their stance does not seem to be as high profile when it comes to an important sector of the agricultural industry, and one that puts food on our tables.
The hon. Gentleman has just referred to the impact of the collapse of the car market on urban areas, but does he accept that it can also have an effect on the supply chain in more rural areas? One of the businesses in my constituency manufactures high-quality tools. Its business is being severely affected by the downturn in the car market, but it does not qualify for any support. Do the Government not need to ensure that the supply chain receives the same support from which larger employers in more urban areas seem to benefit?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, which is a reflection of what I want to say about the potential of rural areas to foster such businesses. She mentioned a small manufacturing business. With the right policies and support, rural areas offer huge untapped potential for such businesses. We must have regard to the fact that the countryside is home to many small manufacturing businesses, as well as farming and the more conventional rural businesses that we all tend to think of.
Although a vital industry, farming accounts for only a small part of the rural economy. As the House will have an opportunity to debate agricultural issues on Thursday, I want to focus today on the wider rural economy and the effect of the recession on it. Although rural areas have lower rates of unemployment overall, in the year to April, the average annual increase in jobseeker’s allowance claimants across rural districts was 131 per cent. Some of the steepest rises in the unemployment rate have been in sparsely populated and peripheral rural districts. The number of people chasing every unfilled vacancy in many peripheral rural districts is far higher than the average across Britain, and in the worst cases—Restormel in Cornwall and Staffordshire Moorlands, for instance—it is actually higher than in major urban unemployment blackspots.
My hon. Friend just said that farming forms a relatively small part of the rural economy, but with respect to the part of my constituency that lies in Staffordshire Moorlands, as well as the rest of the rural area of my constituency, does he acknowledge that some of us would disagree? Dairy farmers in Staffordshire are having an extremely difficult time, which is very much to do with how the legislation and regulations from the European Community and elsewhere operate against them.
I urge my hon. Friend not to misunderstand what I said about farming. I said that farming was a vital industry. It is factually correct that it accounts for only a relatively small part of the economy; nevertheless, it is a primary industry and a significant employer. It also manages the land, and it is vital that we should have a viable, successful and competitive farming industry. The Conservative party has been robust in making that case, and that applies as much to Staffordshire, as an important farming county, as it does to other parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the rise in unemployment in rural areas. He will be aware that many small rural towns have already lost staffed jobcentre offices. Does he see the loss of such offices in those communities as creating a problem in offering jobs to people in rural areas when the upturn comes?
The hon. Gentleman must have extraordinary prescience, because I was about to come to that very point. Support for jobless people in remote areas is crucial, yet nearly one fifth of rural jobcentres were closed in the past two years, when the number nationally has been increasing. I wonder whether the Minister would like to say something about that or about its impact on people in the countryside who have lost their jobs and are now seeking work.
Citizens Advice reports that the increase in debt cases among people living in rural areas in the second half of last year was more than twice the increase in urban areas, with a 20 per cent. rise in cases among people in sparsely populated rural villages. In the final quarter of last year, insolvencies and bankruptcies were higher in regions with predominantly rural populations. The Country Land and Business Association’s latest rural economy index survey has found that confidence is improving, but half of the respondents still lacked confidence in the outlook for the rural economy.
In the Secretary of State’s response to the Rural Advocate’s report on the economic potential of the rural economy, he said that there was
“no such thing as a separate ‘rural economy’”.
Of course I understand his point, and there are links between the urban and rural economies, but the danger of such remarks is that they suggest that Ministers do not appreciate the realities of rural life. The simple fact is that, in a rural area, people’s work and services are often further away from where they live. Government measures such as increasing fuel duty and the tax on 4x4 vehicles can therefore hit rural workers, particularly the low-paid, disproportionately hard. The Commission for Rural Communities has noted that fewer than half the residents in villages and hamlets live within 13 minutes of a bus stop with a service at least once an hour, compared with 95 per cent. of urban residents.
For rural small businesses and people working from home, access to the internet is crucial. We are told that the vast majority of the population can get some form of broadband, with 97.9 per cent. of households currently getting a speed of at least 1 megabyte a second. That sounds good, but the truth is that half a million households cannot obtain those speeds, and more than half of those get no acceptable level of internet connection at all, as I know from my rural constituency and I am sure many of my hon. Friends will know from theirs.
Only last week, at the South of England show, one of my constituents in the south downs area—which is less than 50 miles from London—told me that he had been paying £11,000 a year for a 2 megabyte connection to his converted farm buildings. Such costs for a poor connection, which would be cheaply available in an urban area, are undermining farm diversification and the potential for rural development. For businesses in the future, broadband speed will really matter, so the Government’s commitment to making 2 megabyte broadband available to “virtually everyone” is welcome. However, we will await Lord Carter’s final report later this week to find out what “virtually everyone” really means. There is a risk that the digital divide between cities and rural areas will grow wider still, when super-fast fibre-optic broadband is rolled out to cities and large towns, but not to rural areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise to all Opposition Members who have been waiting with bated breath for my contribution to the debate; I have been making my way here from a rural constituency. The hon. Gentleman is making some very good points, but before he goes too much further, will he proffer a definition of “rural community” and “rural people”? I genuinely think that we could work together on trying to understand that, for the benefit of everyone. Does he also agree that, in addition to a rural-urban divide, there is also a divide between rural areas in the north and the south of England?
The Commission for Rural Communities mentions two definitions of rural communities. The standard one, the DEFRA definition, relates to communities of fewer than 10,000 people. In my constituency, for example, all the villages and small towns have fewer than 10,000 people, so it amounts to a genuinely rural constituency. There is another definition, which relates to the rural nature of local authorities. The hon. Gentleman mentioned discrepancies between the north and the south, but it is possible to find rural deprivation in the rural south as well—certainly in the south-west. The discrepancies between the rural deprived and the more affluent are more important than a north-south geographical divide, in my view.
Such disparities are not only about fairness. If rural businesses are disadvantaged, we waste huge potential. Rural areas are home to a quarter of all England’s businesses, employing 5.5 million people and with a total turnover of £300 billion. There are higher rates of self-employment and new business start-ups in rural areas, and more businesses per capita than in urban areas.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I am sorry to interrupt him. He mentioned small businesses and farm diversification. Does he agree that such businesses are often critically dependent on banking finance and credit, which, at the moment, are becoming more and more difficult for them to obtain? That should be an absolute priority for the Government. There are many things over which they have no control, and many things that are going to cost money, but using their influence over, and shareholding in, the major banks would help to solve that problem.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to an important part of rural business—the tourism industry? It is our fifth biggest industry and it does well in this country in spite of, not because of, Government. Tourism has been pushed out to the RDAs, which do not provide the level of support that our businesses need. One example is the £35 million put through by DEFRA, which has not reached the farms that want to diversify into tourism during these difficult times; instead, it has gone to the regional development agencies and got sucked into the bureaucratic system, never to be seen on the front line of tourism.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of tourism as a major rural industry. It is particularly susceptible to regulation, so we should have regard to the regulatory burden on, for example, farm businesses that want to diversify into tourism. I shall come to the role of the RDAs, and particularly the question of whether that role is right for rural businesses.
May I take my hon. Friend back to what he said a few moments ago? Does he not accept that it is of the greatest importance that rural areas have access to high-speed broadband? We must not see a two-tier system in this country, with communities that are already geographically isolated now becoming digitally isolated.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. As I said, there is a danger of a growing digital divide—we already have a digital divide—and the challenge for the Government is how higher-speed broadband can be financed. We hope to hear more about that from the Government this week, including whether there is any potential to lever in substantial private finance to ensure wider access to high-speed broadband. Another crucial issue for the long-term potential of economic growth in rural areas in the digital age is having a decent broadband link, which many rural areas are simply lacking at the moment. This should be regarded as an infrastructure challenge, which must be discussed further, but no one should underestimate the huge sums of money that would be involved.
The untapped potential of rural businesses could be key to driving the recovery of the UK economy and helping to create sustainable growth for the long term. Stuart Burgess, the Rural Advocate and chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, said that
“our rural communities have much unfulfilled potential…The challenge is to extend growth and productivity across more firms, employees and communities in rural England.”
In the short term, however, we need to help rural businesses weather the downturn. As the Government have admitted,
“rural economies are heavily dependent on small and medium-sized businesses and this is one of the sectors thought to be most under threat”
from the downturn. We have thus proposed a range of positive measures to get the economy moving again that will also help businesses in rural areas.
We have called for a reduction in corporation tax rates on small companies from 22p to 20p by reducing complex reliefs and allowances. The majority of rural enterprises employ fewer than 10 people and many employ fewer than five. In order to help with payroll costs, so that rural businesses can keep staff on and employ new staff that are looking for work, we have argued for cuts of 1p for at least six months in national insurance contributions for businesses with fewer than five employees. We would give smaller businesses greater access to the £125 billion Government procurement budget by cutting red tape, advertising online all contracts worth more than £10,000 and simplifying the pre-qualification process.
We would help thousands of small rural firms by making business rate relief automatic for eligible small businesses in England, and we would reduce the burden of regulation to give businesses more freedom and greater flexibility. The problems of steep increases in the costs of loans and overdrafts for otherwise successful businesses during seasonally quiet periods is a particular challenge for tourism and other businesses prevalent in rural areas.
Of the 25 local authorities with the highest unmet demand for affordable credit, four are classified as rural and eight have significant rural populations. Our proposed £50 billion national loan guarantee scheme to get credit flowing again would also help, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) argued. As the Commission for Rural Communities has argued, businesses need more flexibility for paying VAT, so we would allow small and medium-sized enterprises to defer their VAT bills for up to six months, potentially meaning the difference between survival and failure. Those are all practical measures to help the rural economy in the current downturn.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another practical measure that the Government could take is to ensure that food is properly labelled, so that consumers can determine what is British and what is not, and, in particular, what is produced to our extremely high standards of animal welfare and what is not? That is a simple measure that the Government could take immediately to help the rural economy.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. As he will know, we have been running an “honest food” campaign with the support of the farming industry and the animal welfare organisations, arguing for compulsory country-of-origin labelling so that people know where their meat and meat products come from and we do not unfairly disadvantage our own producers. Our simple proposition is that food labelled “British” should come from animals born and bred in Britain. The campaign has widespread public support. We continue to look to the Government to act on our proposals in the European Commission and, if necessary, to introduce a scheme of their own. I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of that issue to the farming industry.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being very generous with his time in allowing as many Members as possible to intervene. Does he agree that in many parts of this country, particularly rural areas, the recession is not a new phenomenon? Many parts of rural England have been in recession for 40 years. Might not the answer to what is often predominantly market failure be fewer market solutions and more state interventions?
There has certainly been significant rural deprivation in many parts of England for some time, and I want to refer to some of the ways in which I think that it can be addressed without state intervention. Indeed, I would argue that the form of state intervention that we have experienced has been largely ineffective.
I shall make some progress, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
In the long term, we need to ensure that rural communities are vibrant and viable. That means ensuring that there is access to local services, and providing affordable housing. The present Government’s record on rural services is lamentable. Hundreds of small rural schools have closed over the past decade, despite Labour’s promise to keep them open. As the Minister knows only too well, 1,400 rural communities have lost their post offices since 2000. Two thousand local shops are closing every year, and, according to one estimate, 42 per cent. of small English towns and villages no longer have a shop of any kind.
The beer duty increase in the Budget has further damaged a fragile sector and we are seeing rural pubs closing at the rate of two a day. The average annual wage in the most rural areas is £7,000 lower than it is in the most urban areas, but the average price of a home for first-time buyers is £16,000 more. There is clearly an urgent need for affordable rural housing, but Labour’s top-down housing targets have failed to deliver. We need to reverse the trend of centralisation and end the years of thoughtless Whitehall diktat so that the needs of rural communities are respected. We will allow towns and villages to create local housing trusts to build new housing to benefit their communities. Provided that there is strong local support, those bodies will have the power to develop new homes without the burdens of the regional planning system.
Three years ago, Members on both of the House supported the Bill that became the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which requires central Government to make clear how much money they spend on local services in each area and gives councils and communities a far greater say in how that money is spent. The Government agreed that reports on public spending under the Act would include quangos, but Ministers are now backtracking on that pledge, which is unacceptable. The public want more influence over decision making, and that means more information.
It is time to go further and return real power and decision making to individuals and communities wherever possible, so that people have a genuine say in the matters that affect them locally. This Government have been obsessed with regional government, and a plethora of quangos are now ruling rural areas and disbursing funds without local accountability. We will allow councils to establish their own local enterprise partnerships to take over the economic development functions and funding of the regional development agencies. If power is devolved and decisions are taken as close as possible to the people they affect, the social value of rural services, as well as their economic value, will be appreciated. Above all, people in rural communities would be reconnected with decision making at a time when politics in Westminster has never been more remote from the people.
This Government have presided over a decade of disrespect for rural communities. They have ignored local concerns and imposed national policies regardless of their impact. It is time for a different approach. Of course rural areas deserve fair treatment, but it is not just a question of fairness. All parts of the country are suffering in the recession, and the rural economy could be a great national resource for the future. It could help to deliver jobs from growth in small businesses and new sustainable forms of working, but making that happen will require a Government who understand rural areas and are willing to listen, and a Government who respect rural communities and are ready to trust and empower them. As I am afraid the Secretary of State has demonstrated by his absence from this debate today, that leadership will not come from this tired and discredited Government.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“recognises the serious impact that the economic downturn is having across the country and the support the Government is providing to people, communities and businesses to come out stronger and build Britain’s future; notes that the Government has introduced new measures to increase financial aid for rural businesses through the Rural Development Programme for England as a response to the economic downturn; welcomes the Taylor Report’s work on making sure rural communities have affordable housing and sustainable economic opportunities; commends the work of the Homes and Communities Agency to build 10,300 rural affordable homes between 2008 and 2011; applauds the Government’s commitment to connect communities and support local businesses with a minimum guarantee of 2MB broadband for virtually everyone in the country; notes that unemployment levels in rural areas remain below those in urban areas and is committed to helping maintain high levels of employment in rural areas; expresses serious concern about the impact on rural communities of the Opposition’s promised 10 per cent. cut to the budgets of most Government departments that assist people in rural areas; and supports the Government’s commitment to continue to work with the Commission for Rural Communities, Regional Development Agencies and local communities and businesses to help people through these difficult economic times.”
First, I would like to take this opportunity to say how pleased I am to be taking up my new post at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for his words of welcome. I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). She is held in great affection by the agriculture industry, and I will have a difficult job in following her.
I greatly welcome this opportunity to focus on the challenges faced by people who live and work in rural areas.
With respect, the Minister has already said something about his predecessor, and I rise to make a simple point. I wrote to DEFRA on 1 April with a detailed request for certain pieces of information that are highly relevant to this debate. I still have not received a reply, and on behalf of my farmers, who have been having a very difficult time, I ask the Minister to make sure that I receive one as soon as possible.
I am only too pleased to apologise to the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the Department, and I will endeavour to look up his correspondence and respond at my earliest opportunity.
The rural White Paper in 2000 set out for the first time a full rural affairs agenda. DEFRA, the first Department with an explicit remit for rural affairs, was created in 2001. Having reviewed the White Paper in early 2004, we followed up with the rural strategy later that year. It was far-reaching, and aimed to build on the economic success of the majority of rural areas, while tackling those that were felt to be at either economic or social disadvantage. That strategy still underpins the Government’s approach to rural affairs; it is one of equity and fairness.
As we now know, one in five people in England live in a settlement of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants—that is about 10 million people in all. Our rural communities are home to about 1 million businesses, providing more than 5.5 million jobs. There are more businesses for every 10,000 people in rural areas than there are in urban areas.
I am grateful to the Minister for making the point about fairness and justice for all. Does he therefore think it is fair that a ghillie or shepherd who checks their sheep in a 4x4 up in the hills has to pay the same amount of punitive vehicle excise duty as someone driving a Range Rover in Chelsea?
I acknowledge the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. These are choices that individuals make. I recognise the need for 4x4s in rural areas. We try to make sure that tax arrangements are as equitable as possible, but there are inequalities all around the system.
As I have said, there are more businesses for every 10,000 people in rural areas than there are in urban areas. They have a combined turnover of more than £300 billion per year. Of course, rural England is not a single, homogenous entity; it takes many forms. Going by a wide range of social and economic indicators, rural areas are performing well; their performance is usually on a par with, or better than, urban areas, and that may surprise many. The evidence suggests that most of rural England is well connected, with strong links to nearby towns and cities and good access to local markets and job opportunities. That is why our rural areas have been performing well in both social and economic terms.
The Minister mentioned employment prospects and getting advice on employment. Does he share my concern that the Department for Work and Pensions—I know it is not his Department—has closed two jobcentres in west Norfolk? That basically breaks the link involving advisers and those in jobcentres who can give immediate input to people who are trying to find or move jobs. Such people now have to travel a great deal further to get that advice, and if someone does not have a car in a place such as Norfolk, they very often do not have a job, and vice versa.
I understand that the DWP has suspended any further closures, particularly in these difficult economic times, but I recognise that there has been a rationalisation of jobcentres and benefits agencies, the creation of Jobcentre Plus and an attempt to ensure that appropriate and necessary assistance is provided as efficiently as possible.
Economic development in a rural context needs to be based on a 21st-century understanding of businesses in rural areas—one that is not constrained by a nostalgia but that recognises the dynamism, diversity, interconnectedness and value of our rural businesses and communities. In many respects, rural communities are no different from any other; people there want not only well-paid and secure employment and somewhere decent to live, but long and healthy lives and a good education for their children. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that the impacts of the current recession on rural areas are very similar to those in urban areas. More specifically, when the comparison is made with urban areas the emerging picture in rural England is one of lower risk, higher resilience and higher recovery prospects. So it is worth pausing for a minute to examine what is really happening in rural areas.
In April 2009, 2.5 per cent. of the working-age population in rural England were claiming unemployment-related benefits, compared with a figure of 4.6 per cent. in urban areas. The labour force survey for the first quarter of 2009 showed that 18.5 per cent. of the 254,000 people made redundant in the previous three months came from rural areas—the percentage roughly corresponds to the 19.3 per cent. of the population who live in rural areas. The agriculture industry is specifically helped by the stability of demand for its produce, compared with other sectors of the economy. New tractor registrations—not a statistic that I have cited much in my political past, but one that I shall be looking at in future—which are traditionally regarded as a bell-wether of the industry’s confidence, increased by more than 6 per cent. in the first four months of 2009 compared with the same period in 2008.
On that point, is my hon. Friend aware that in detailing the litany of wonderful policies that they have rolled out today the Tory Front-Bench team fail to mention that their policy is to cut capital allowances? That would cut the number of tractor registrations and harm rural areas.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point about what was omitted from the speech made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs from the Front Bench. I also noted that some of the Conservative commitments contained heavy qualifications about whether they would be affordable, were the Opposition ever to form a Government.
Our analysis of a range of indicators associated with downturn risks, resilience and potential for recovery—that is still at an early stage—indicates that rural areas are faring well when compared with urban areas. That is not to say that there are not challenges, especially in relation to falling vacancies, earnings, house prices and negative equity, but rural areas score well against recovery indicators: they have good employment opportunities, good enterprise and business prospects, high skills and good quality of life.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Before he finishes his catalogue of what he thinks is going right in rural areas, will he address the issue of poverty, and the fact that it is higher in rural areas than in urban areas? Indeed, according to the Commission for Rural Communities, it is rising faster in rural areas.
I am not ignoring the issue of poverty in rural areas and, of course, I acknowledge that it exists. I look to the CRC for advice and I am only too happy to look at the information and research that it provides to the Department. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks of welcome, and I look forward to working with him and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs in the months ahead.
The causes of poverty in rural areas may vary from place to place. In the south-west, water poverty is a real issue, but it is not being appropriately addressed. Will the Minister undertake to look into that area to ensure that households do not spend a disproportionate amount of their income just on paying their water bills?
The hon. Lady says that water poverty is not being appropriately addressed, and I am sure that she is more familiar with the issue than I am, as she represents the south-west. I will ensure that she gets a copy of the information that the Department receives from the research that it is undertaking.
As I was saying, this is all being kept under regular review by the National Economic Council, with reports from the Commission for Rural Communities—as mentioned by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)—and the regional development agencies, as other hon. Members have mentioned. In case I am accused of being in denial, I should say that none of this says that rural areas or rural communities are immune from the effects of recession, and no one would claim that—especially me. It is easy to talk about averages, because that is what we can measure and compare, but the simple fact is that for an individual who has lost his or her job, and who fears losing a home as well, the effects are devastating.
Much of the action that the Government have been taking is intended to prevent those job losses in the first place, to put the right conditions in place for recovery, and to help prevent homes from being lost. Nevertheless, the available indicators appear to show that rural areas are holding up well so far, and in most cases have not suffered as much as urban areas. Across the UK, there have been some encouraging signs that confidence is improving, although we remain cautious. There is no reason to be complacent and it is legitimate to ask what we are doing to tackle the recession in rural areas.
I also welcome the Minister to his post. I invite him to seek out an organisation called Farm Stay UK, which helps farms to diversify into tourism. I attended its annual general meeting last year and listened to its frustration that it is not getting the necessary support from the Government. I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that the £35 million is getting lost in the regional development agencies. Perhaps the Minister could look at that to ensure that the money gets to the front line, where it is so needed.
I took note of the hon. Gentleman’s comment about rural businesses looking to diversify, especially farming, and the assistance that has been given to the RDAs. I will look into the matter and, if appropriate, I will write to him. I am not saying that that will be necessary, but I am sure that we will have a discussion in due course on the interesting point that he raises.
The Minister said that he thought that rural areas were holding up well. How does that translate into the 212 per cent. increase in male unemployment in North Dorset in the past 12 months, or does the Minister think that all those people are registering new tractors?
No, I would not for a second question the statistics that the hon. Gentleman cites about his constituency, any more than he would question mine. He has much greater familiarity with the area. I said earlier that the rural community was not homogenous, and that there were differences in many areas. I hope that that qualifies my comments about the rural community doing well. It was a qualified observation, as the hon. Gentleman will be able to read in due course.
The intention, of course, is to avoid any systematic disadvantage based on geography, but in effect the measures taken by Government more generally to stimulate the economy and to get us all out of recession are just as important to rural communities and businesses as elsewhere. Given the many similarities between rural and urban economies, we believe that that is the right approach, rather than establishing a number of separate smaller rural schemes that would only add to the costs of administration.
The Minister is trying to conflate the experience of the recession in urban and rural areas. Does he agree with me, however, that the thing that defines rural areas is the fact that people are poor and have appalling access to services? What precisely have his Government been doing since 1997 to improve transport in rural areas?
We have given a commitment that there will be no further rail closures until 2013 and we have been subsidising rural bus routes to the tune of some £400 million to try to ensure that the rural community can keep going via public transport as well as via other means.
As I said, the Government are delivering support for people and businesses in all communities. We are cutting taxes, with a cut in VAT worth more than £20 a month on average for households for the whole of 2009. A range of tax cuts and increases for tax credits and benefits introduced on 6 April are already putting money in people’s pockets.
For businesses, we are keeping lending flowing by securing billions of pounds of additional finance with legally binding agreements with banks to increase lending for business on commercial terms—£11 billion from Lloyds TSB and £16 billion from RBS. We are freeing up capital by signing £1 billion-worth of guarantees through the working capital scheme and backing bank lending to viable businesses that cannot get commercial loans with the enterprise finance guarantee. More than £400 million-worth of eligible applications from over 3,600 small businesses have been assessed and are being processed or have been granted. More than 2,500 businesses have been offered loans totalling more than £231 million. We are supporting cash flow by agreeing deferred payment of more than £2.5 billion in tax by 145,000-plus businesses since November, as well as enabling companies to spread the increases in business rates over the next three years. A business paying a rates bill on a typical property that will see a £600 rise in its rates liability in 2009-10 will be able to defer £360 of that increase to future years.
We are also providing real help to keep people in work and delivering support, as I have just described, for thousands of businesses. We are investing in the future so that the economy is well placed to benefit from the recovery. For example, we are bringing forward £3 billion-worth of capital projects and providing a £600 million fund to kick-start house building.
The Homes and Communities Agency plans to build 10,300 rural homes in three years, and that is a woefully low figure. I wish it were far higher. I urge my hon. Friend not to accept the nonsense from the Opposition, who will not properly address market failure in terms of affordable rural housing, as was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed). They then come forward with this nonsense about letting local people decide, and we on the Government Benches all know what happens then: Conservative councillors in rural areas oppose all new housing. The Opposition Front Benchers in the House say, “Let’s have affordable housing in rural areas.” What do Conservatives do on the ground? They oppose it all. It is nonsense. Let us have much more affordable housing in rural areas.
Again, my hon. Friend makes a telling point and observes the weaknesses of the Opposition’s policies. I acknowledge his suggestion that we should go further with affordable housing. That is a debate that we have been having and the Prime Minister has pushed the policy further forward than it has been for many years. Clearly, it will continue to move in that direction.
In addition, the Government have developed policies that recognise local authorities as “leaders of place”, responsible for identifying and responding to the needs of their communities. That approach is appropriate to all communities, including those in rural areas. Local area agreements are also part of that approach. At local council level—that is, in town and parish councils—new powers are available to those councils that meet certain quality standards. That will enable those local bodies to do more for their communities, and the policy has been widely welcomed by the sector.
The Minister is incredibly generous in giving way. I agree that local councils should spearhead the recovery from recessions. However, does he agree that this is not the time for the Government to push ahead with a review of local government? Does he accept that it would be a great mistake to push through unitary proposals for Norfolk, given the almost universal opposition in the county? Does he agree that district and borough councils have a very important role to play in ensuring that businesses have a chance to survive into the future?
The Government are trying to provide the best local government framework that we can. We have consulted widely, and that consultation process began when I was in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman and local councils will have their own views as to whether we have got the policy right.
I was saying that we have taken specific actions to address some of the challenges in rural areas. For example, to tackle the housing challenge in rural areas we have set the Homes and Communities Agency a target to deliver 10,300 affordable homes between 2008 and 2011 in settlements of fewer than 3,000.
As I mentioned a moment ago, and in respect of the distances involved in getting to major centres, we made a commitment that no rural railway lines would be closed before 2013. Moreover, special rural bus grants of more than £400 million form part of the more general bus services operators grants, and there is a presumption against the closure of village schools, especially primary schools. However, such decisions are very much in the hands of local authorities, which will be best placed to consider the implications.
My hon. Friend mentioned delivering 10,300 more affordable rural homes, but that will not be enough. I hope that he will meet me and other Back Benchers to pursue an increase in that number. However, he spoke about market failure in rural areas and the policy initiatives taken to combat it. Does he agree that many rural economies are kept alive by public spending? A cut of 10 per cent. across the board would do more to hurt rural communities than it would to help them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) paid me a compliment and gave me an opportunity to ask questions of the Opposition, but my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) gives me a slap and says that we are not doing enough in terms of affordable housing. I hear what Labour Back Benchers say, and I hear the silence from the Opposition Benches. This issue is not going away, as it will continue to be pressed by many honourable colleagues.
I said that rural communities are very much like any other, but there is one very important aspect that we cannot ignore: the extent to which they are engaged in land-based activities that remain vital for environmental protection and enhancement. DEFRA is putting £3.9 billion into the rural economy between 2007 and 2013 via the rural development programme for England. More than double the size of its predecessor, the RDPE will both help farmers and support other rural businesses. Around £550 million of the total sum will go to support small businesses, including farmers, and improve the quality of life for rural communities.
At a regional level, the RDAs have been delivering packages of measures tailored to the needs of the individual regions. For example, Advantage West Midlands is investing an extra £3 million to help community development finance institutions and other alternative finance providers to meet additional demand from new and existing business and social enterprises. In addition, the East of England Development Agency is running a three-year campaign, offering free business IT support and advice. I am sure that the work done through Business Link East to put together an “open for business” package for rural pubs will receive the wide support of the House.
Earlier, Opposition Members raised the question of Dairy Farmers of Britain, and asked whether the Government were doing enough to support that organisation. The appointment on 3 June of PricewaterhouseCoopers as receivers and managers of Dairy Farmers of Britain, a farmer-owned dairy co-operative with a turnover of approximately £500 million a year, was disappointing to all those interested in the dairy industry, and distressing to employees, the farmer members, dependent businesses and customers.
A written statement, laid before the House on 9 June, set out the position. Since then, more farmer members of Dairy Farmers of Britain have found alternative buyers for their milk, and while we do not yet have firm figures, we estimate that about 90 per cent. of milk by volume of the Dairy Farmers of Britain’s original farm supplies has now found a buyer. In such a short space of time, that is a tremendous achievement by the industry as a whole, and on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs I pay tribute to the hard work of the Dairy Farmers of Britain’s employees, its members council, which assisted in the process, the receiver and other dairy processors, all of whom have worked together to ensure that the impact of Dairy Farmers of Britain’s financial collapse are minimised.
The receiver stated on Friday 12 June that on their appointment 400 farmer members, from a total of about 1,800 farmer suppliers, had yet to find alternative buyers. I understand from contacts made over the weekend that the number has fallen further, and DEFRA officials will meet the receiver on 17 June to review progress.
My hon. Friend has dealt with milk; may I congratulate him on honey, too? With colony collapse disorder among honey bees, the Government have rightly increased fivefold their spending on research on honey bees, which are vital pollinators in rural areas. The Government have matched that with funding from, I think, the Wellcome Trust, so the annual research budget in the next five years will go up from £200,000 a year to £2 million a year, and I congratulate the Government on that.
On behalf of the Department, I am grateful for the appreciation expressed by my hon. Friend. If my memory serves me correctly, the number of inspectors has also increased to help the industry.
As I was saying, the farmers affected will have lost their investment in Dairy Farmers of Britain and their May milk cheques. We have worked closely with the regional development agencies, the National Farmers Union and the receiver to ensure that farmers facing cash-flow difficulties are aware of business advice and support services available through Business Link, and so have access to relevant Government schemes, such as the enterprise finance guarantee scheme and the business payment support service run by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That goes some way in rebutting the allegation made earlier that we are not doing anything for dairy farmers.
On the subject of Dairy Farmers of Britain, it is good news that most of the suppliers, particularly in north-east England, are finding new contracts, but could the Minister say anything about the future of the processing plant in Blaydon, near Newcastle? That is the only processing plant in the north-east region, and if it closes, dairy farmers in the region will face very high transport costs to move their milk to areas where it can be processed.
My apologies to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not in a position to respond to that point directly. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), may be able to do so when winding up the debate. If he is not in a position to do so, I will certainly write to the hon. Gentleman tomorrow with the latest position regarding the plant that he mentions.
The issue of broadband was raised. The Government are aware that in many rural areas there are significant barriers, in terms of access, speed, cost and quality, to broadband provision that still need to be overcome. We want to ensure that rural areas are not left behind as next generation networks and other digital platforms develop. The European economic recovery package, agreed in March, allocated €1.02 billion to the rural development programme at EU level. The UK’s share of that is approximately £12 million. Final decisions on how funding should be allocated are being taken now, and rural broadband is one of the issues being considered. In addition, Lord Stephen Carter in the other place has asked the Commission for Rural Communities to produce a report examining the impact of digital technology on rural economies, and the potential barriers.
The hon. Gentleman must realise that the Carter review’s interim report is hopelessly inadequate on providing the level of internet connection that we need. The matter is absolutely crucial to the future economy of areas such as that which I represent. If we cannot attract the high-value industries to areas where they have the chance to grow because those areas cannot make those connections, the future for our economy is bleak. He must do better; the Government must do better.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As I mentioned, Lord Carter has asked the Commission for Rural Communities to produce a report, so there will be more information coming forward. The spend from the euro budget will be determined shortly. We understand that there is an awful lot more to do and we will continue to try to do that, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will do all he can to press us, to make sure that we keep improving.
Food labelling was raised earlier in the debate; the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs responded to an intervention from one of his colleagues. We recognise the significance of food labelling. As an example of the fact that the Department is very engaged, I chaired the pigmeat taskforce last week. It was clear that progress was being made, with the sub-groups looking into the issue engaging with retailers and with animal welfare groups. There is probably consensus across the House that more can be done to support the industry.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that there is a recession in rural areas, as there is in our towns and cities, but I have been impressed by the resilience shown by rural communities and I look forward to working with and for them in the months ahead. For many years the Government have taken a considerable interest in the well-being of rural communities, and will continue to do so in a way that is effective and allows for the maximum input into the decision-making process from those who are most affected. I look forward to listening to right hon. and hon. Members during the debate.
I, too, would like to express my disappointment at the absence from the debate of the Secretary of State. That reflects rather poorly, perhaps, on the Government’s commitment to these issues. However, I would not want that to detract from my warm welcome to the Minister to his new job. I look forward to being able to nobble him on hill farm allowance, dairy farming and rural housing issues in the lift in Norman Shaw, to which I am sure he equally looks forward.
I spent—profitably, I hope—much of the recent recess calling on businesses in my constituency unannounced. I am sure they were exceptionally grateful. I spoke to 400 businesses in a dozen towns and villages around my very rural constituency, and I got a range of messages. There is a mixed picture out there. Clearly, there were some good news stories and some exceptionally bad news stories, but the modal response was something like, “Things are about where they were a year ago, but we have had to work twice as hard and think twice as hard to make sure that they stayed that way.”
Thomas Jefferson was once accused by a rival of being lucky. His response to that charge was, “It’s interesting. The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Speaking for my communities, I would say that although the downturn is a reality, there is also a strong sense of defiance and of being determined to make their own luck. The problem remains that the rural community is nevertheless in a vulnerable position, largely because of Government failure over the past three decades to support our communities.
That is reflected by the closure of 8,000 post offices under the Conservatives first and now under Labour, with the biggest impact falling upon the countryside; the reckless and irresponsible selling-off most of the rural affordable housing under the Conservatives, followed by the Labour Government’s abject failure to address the crisis that that created; the loss of community, owing to the unsustainable growth in second home ownership in many villages in rural Britain; the loss of hospital services under Labour; the increased exploitation of our farmers by the supermarkets and the processors; and the way in which decisions that affect us in rural Britain appear to be taken by Labour Ministers cloistered in Whitehall, with little or no regard for the impact of those decisions on the communities that they affect.
The Conservative motion contains nothing with which I would disagree, but it is laced with irony. I wonder who sold off all the affordable rural housing. I wonder who encouraged the unsustainable growth in second home ownership. I wonder who were the high priests of the free market fundamentalism that led to the banking collapse and the recession in the first place. Given that Members have become rather adept at contrition recently, I wonder whether anyone on the Conservative Benches might consider disarming those of us who are a tiny bit sceptical by saying sorry. There is nothing wrong with irony so long as one understands that it is irony, and as such we support the motion. We are concerned about the lack of any solutions presented within, however, and that is why we tabled an amendment in an attempt to provide some substance and to strengthen the hand of farmers and growers, who are so often forced to take poverty rates for their produce by much more powerful operators in the food market—chiefly, those on the retail side.
Following the tragic collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain, to which many Members have already referred, many stricken farmers have been exploited by buyers offering, in some cases, as little as 10p a litre—14p below the cost price—for their milk. Almost 1 billion litres of milk production capacity has been lost over the past three years, and it is immoral and counter-productive to treat dairy farmers in that way. A food market regulator would give farmers a champion who would intervene and ensure that they were not exploited.
Is it not ironic also that so many people wander down one aisle in the supermarket and buy fair trade coffee, but wander down the next aisle and buy to put in that coffee milk that was taken from an exploited local dairy farmer at below cost price? Our amendment sought to ensure fair trade for farmers and growers in Colombia and Cumbria. The loss of production capacity in many areas of British farming is a clear example, as other Members have noted, of the failure of the unfettered and unfair market.
John Maynard Keynes—
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We share the fantastic county of Cumbria, and, on the issues that he is discussing today, he is without doubt one of the best advocates in the House. That is beyond question and recognised as such in our county. Does he agree that we need to do an awful lot more in this country to ensure that supermarkets exercise a much greater duty of care towards our farmers?
I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour. My great concern is that, although we do not want to burden the industry with excessive regulation, we have very powerful players on the retailing and processing sides, but a range of relatively powerless people—farmers and growers—who by and large do the real work. They need protecting, and we need to ensure that markets are fair more than free.
Do we not also need to ensure that consumers are properly educated about what happens, and are not misled? Often, they are told that they have the opportunity to, for example, buy cabbage locally, without knowing that, although it has been cut locally, it has been sent hundreds of miles away to be wrapped in plastic and then sent back to their area. People need to be fully aware of the situation’s true carbon impact.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Honesty in presentation, packaging and labelling of foodstuffs is absolutely crucial in terms of both educating people to allow them to make choices so that we do not incur excessive and unnecessary food miles, and recognising that, in this country, we have the highest environmental and animal welfare standards in the world. Those standards cost, and it is wrong that our farmers should be at a disadvantage compared with competitors who can sometimes claim that their produce is British just because it is processed here, and sell it more cheaply.
Returning to John Maynard Keynes, if I could, I should say that he—a great Liberal, of course—was unfashionable for many years but has now been proved comprehensively right. He once said, among many other words of wisdom, that
“the market can remain illogical for longer than you can remain solvent.”
Those words ring painfully true for dairy farmers right now. They ring true for every rural community that has lost its post office; for every community that has seen its permanent population disappear due to the loss of social rented properties and excessive second-home ownership; and for every rural community that is isolated and cut off thanks to the deregulation of public transport and the subsequent loss of vital bus and rail links.
In my constituency, and in many others no doubt, too, the number of people registering for jobseeker’s allowance has risen significantly. It has tripled in the past year. We do not have many huge employers in our area; our eggs are in many baskets. I would say that that is a blessing, but some of those baskets have come crashing down, bringing heartache and hardship to decent local business people, their employees and their families. The impact of the recession has become tangible. Like many hon. Members, I am seeing in constituency surgeries a huge increase in the number of families in danger of defaulting on their mortgages or private rental agreements, an increase in demand for social rented housing and a rocketing in the number of families being squeezed into inadequate hostel accommodation. There is rising unemployment and the hours or wages of workers in employment are being cut; the downturn has begun to take effect.
Two weeks ago, a young mum came to see me in my surgery. That weekend, she had to make the choice between paying her electricity bill and feeding her family. It is against that backdrop that the scandal of MPs’ allowances has been played out; it has been juxtaposed with rising hardship, so no wonder there is such visceral anger out there, especially in impoverished rural communities. That economic hardship, coupled with the discrediting of the political class, is a toxic cocktail; I hardly need to remind hon. Members that such a cocktail brought Hitler to power in the 1930s. Shamefully, the same toxic cocktail led to the election of two Nazis to the European Parliament last week.
The answer to the crisis is not to wring our hands or chuck eggs at people, but to offer real, tangible hope. To do that, we need to give rural Britain a new deal. We need to invest in our countryside and ensure that we have communities. Let us start with housing.
The hon. Gentleman has been talking about investing in sustainable and rural communities. Northumberland county council, which covers one of the most sparse rural counties in England, is now run by the Liberal Democrats. Can the hon. Gentleman explain why it is closing all old people’s day centres there?
I am not directly familiar with the case, but I am sure that like all local authorities, Northumberland county council has to make difficult choices because of a variety of things such as the decline in return on investments and the reduction in local government funds. The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, however, as I do not know the detail of the issue; I promise to find out.
If we are to try to solve the problems faced by rural communities, we have to start with housing. According to the Government’s own Commission for Rural Communities, 100,000 young people are set to leave such areas in the next three years, principally because of a lack of affordable housing. There is therefore a desperate need to create homes that will enable those young people to stay and their communities to thrive. We must scrap the Government’s remote, counter-productive and undemocratic regional spatial strategy and instead empower local communities to build homes with community backing.
Michael Heseltine once referred to the planning and development policy of the 1980s as DADA—“decide, announce, defend, abandon”. The regional spatial strategy is clearly a recipe for more DADA. Let us give communities the power to create the homes that they need in the places where they are needed. Why not follow in the footsteps of the Liberal Democrat-controlled South Lakeland district council, which has adopted the “home on the farm” initiative? That could see hundreds of unused or underused farm buildings converted into affordable homes for local families. Homes could be built in the back yards of people who actually want them there.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his exposition of the problems that all our rural communities are facing. Does he agree that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs to co-ordinate with the rest of the Government across the whole range of policy initiatives? That could ensure, for example, that the banks that are now effectively publicly owned supported housing initiatives. In my constituency, there is a community land trust, but people hoping to buy the homes are facing difficulties because the banks are being obstructive. Does my hon. Friend feel that Ministers across all Government Departments should play their part in resolving such issues?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent and incredibly important point. Another issue in my constituency and other rural areas is how partially publicly owned banks have pulled the plug on providing mortgages for affordable homes. Tragically, in my constituency—and others too, no doubt—homes are standing empty because people are asked to come up with 30 per cent. deposits. People with such deposits would not be in the market for an affordable home. The banks need to play ball. In many respects, it seems that we have the worst of both worlds: we spend money on the banks, but we appear to have little control over how they relate to our rural economy and other parts of the economy.
The lack of affordable housing in rural areas is only half of the problem: the other half is a lack of well-paid work. The Government need to look to rural Britain as an engine room of creativity on many fronts. The former Minister with responsibility for renewable energy, the right hon. and learned Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), kindly met me and representatives of the business community in Cumbria to discuss our attempt to create a new business park for the renewable energy sector, which will create 900 jobs in south Cumbria if we are successful. The Government need to get behind such schemes across the country and to be imaginative about the ways in which we can support hydro-energy, for example, in our rural areas. We can protect our environment and create well-paid jobs through the same action.
The drain of young people from our communities is crippling rural Britain. As they leave to seek affordable homes and decent work, they leave behind them communities who desperately need them and families who are unnecessarily separated from them, and they take with them their energy and creativity—and, of course, their fertility. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who was in his place a moment or two ago, once stood on an election slogan of “Breed for Cornwall”. Joking aside, there is a great need to breed for rural Britain. My wife and I are doing our bit, but there is a limit.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and how dare he?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the real and pressing problems of rural Britain are mirrored in the problems facing urban Britain, and that the exodus of people from rural communities only exacerbates those problems in urban communities?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I look at my own constituency as a microcosm. Rising prices eject people from the Lake district and dales parts of my constituency, so they move to Kendal, then that becomes unaffordable, so they move to Milnthorpe and Flookburgh, and then even those become unaffordable, so they move even further away. The impact on housing and other parts of the economy is palpable and seriously damaging.
Let us have a renewal in agriculture, too. With farm incomes under threat as never before, and with the challenge of climate change facing every one of us, we must ensure that the new deal for the countryside has an unmistakably green tinge. We could extend carbon trading to enable large corporations to offset their carbon emissions by paying our farmers for work to extend carbon sequestration further in the countryside. In the uplands, especially, that could mean that our hill farmers finally get the rewards they deserve for their role as the stewards of our environment and our landscapes.
Let us be ambitious about fusing the environmental imperative with the fightback against recession. For example, there should be a far-reaching scheme to ensure that farmers can choose to host anaerobic digesters with Government start-up funding to enable whole communities to recycle organic waste and to create renewable energy.
Indeed, “The Archers” is doing a great job in popularising that technology. However, this country is way behind in deploying it—for example, about 70 times more anaerobic digesters exist in Germany—despite the clear engagement of the farming community and their willingness to lead the way.
On rural services, let us give a commitment that we will not see the provision of key services—especially health services—as “one size fits all”. Let us acknowledge that whatever rules apply to the provision of hospital services in urban areas, there are overriding concerns in rural areas. It cannot be right for heart and stroke services at rural hospitals such as Westmorland general hospital to be removed to places such as Lancaster, leaving patients in emergency need up to an hour and a half away from their nearest acute hospital. Neither can it be right to force cancer patients in rural areas to make daily three-hour round trips for life-saving treatment. That is why we are committed to returning acute services and to creating new cancer services at our rural hospitals. That is right not only because people in rural communities deserve the same standards of health care as those in urban communities but because the development of, for example, a new £15 million cancer treatment unit at my local hospital in Kendal, and at others, would be a significant economic driver.
Tourism is central to the economies of many rural areas. The Cumbrian tourism economy alone is worth £1.2 billion each year. This year, there are some signs, in the lakes and dales at least, that businesses in the tourism industry are faring better than expected. I suspect that the weakness of the pound and the strength of the product have helped us, but times are still challenging. Although much of tourism’s revenue goes back to the Exchequer, there is little attempt by the Government to nurture that investment. Small bed-and-breakfast establishments are forced to abide by the same regulations and rules as huge hotel chains. They are hampered by ridiculous cut-off rules on VAT, which limit their ability to grow and take custom.
The support for marketing of our tourism industry is dismal. We have a premier league tourism product in this country, but especially in England we have non-league levels of marketing funding. The Government must acknowledge the importance of our tourism industry if they are to help the rural economy fight its way out of recession.
In all of that, it is essential that local communities are in control of their own destiny. As we have seen from the loss of post offices, the decline of many communities and the cuts to rural health services, there is an overwhelming sense of anger at things being done to us without our consent. We are sometimes offered consultations, but that has become a meaningless word under this Labour Government. Never have we been more consulted and less listened to. The top-down decisions to close jobcentres in rural areas, rob our rural communities of post offices, take away rural tax offices, force through the reduction in social housing stock and remove acute hospital services have all damaged our rural communities, but we were given no say in them.
Does that not bespeak a complete failure of the principle of rural proofing, which the Government enunciated clearly a few years ago when they set up the new Department? It was supposed to ensure that every policy that flowed from the Government was examined for its effect on rural communities and amended to ensure that it was either positive or, at worst, neutral for them. In fact, we have had policy after policy that has done damage to the fabric of rural society.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I referred earlier to acute hospital services, which are probably one of the best—or rather worst—examples of that failure. We are told that we need all bells and whistles when it comes to new heart services, for example. Absolutely—I want the best possible health care available to my constituents and those of all the Members who are present. But what is the point of a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, all-bells-and-whistles heart unit to someone who is dead on arrival because it took them an hour and a half to get there? Rural proofing appears to mean absolutely nothing in practice, and that failure must come to an end.
Sometime, when the hon. Gentleman has time, I will tell him the history of Kendal general hospital.
The reality is that we cannot get consultants with the necessary skills to come to many of our small hospitals. My hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) knows that to some extent. Without the size, we will not get the skilled consultants. We can build a hospital, but we will not get people to work there.
I appreciate that in many rural areas it is more difficult to attract a certain number of applicants for positions, but at Westmorland general hospital there were consultants available and the unit was operating. It was a life-saving service, and many hundreds of people owe their lives to it. It would have continued had the trust allowed it to do so, and had the trust been accountable it would never have got away with closing it.
To give a perspective from the other end of the country, upper gastrointestinal cancer services have been transferred out of Treliske, and the surgeon now has to travel up to Derriford to undertake surgery. Although it might be necessary to centralise services, in Cornwall we are seeing the salami-slicing of services that are going up the line. Why cannot rural areas have a centre of excellence too? That is the frustration.
My hon. Friend makes a tremendous point. Surely the point is that we have put an awful lot of money into the NHS in recent years. This party supported the Government on that, but we want to get something for that money. It is galling for people in rural areas who see more money going to the NHS but then see the closure of heart units, stroke units and other services. We are paying consultants a lot of money, and we should be able to determine where they practise. That must be within the competence of the Government.
To strengthen rural communities, we should start by using the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which was mentioned earlier, to give them the right to preserve key services. We need elected local health boards, so that those who threaten to close key services such as the ones that we have been talking about can be directly held to account. We need to ensure also that the boards of the national parks that do so much good for our national environmental heritage, which are largely unaccountable to the communities that live within them, contain directly elected members.
We in Cumbria pride ourselves on being a microclimate meteorologically, politically and economically. The ability of the rural communities of Britain to be economic microclimates, and in turn to be an engine room for economic recovery, is clear. We are determined to make our own luck. The strength of our rural economy centres on the creativity and resourcefulness of our communities. I look at ways in which communities have fought back in my area, such as the Witherslack community shop, the Storth community co-op post office and the Greyhound community-run pub at Grizebeck. Those are wonderful examples of communities providing social glue and economic impetus in defiance of economic hardship. All those things, I should add, have been done despite Government policy.
So let us have a new deal for rural Britain that will ensure sustainable, vibrant communities and a countryside for everyone, young and old, irrespective of financial background, that is equipped not just to beat the recession but to be renewed and to prosper in the decades ahead.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me early in this debate. I have some regret, however, that that is as a consequence of the face that not a single Labour Back Bencher is rising to make a substantive contribution. That is symptomatic of this Government’s attitude to rural communities and the effects of the recession on them. That may be the reason why, after the European elections in the south-west of England, Labour now has no representation among the six Members of the European Parliament, and why after the elections to Dorset county council there is now not a single Labour county councillor, despite the fact that Labour still holds one parliamentary seat in the county, South Dorset—for the time being.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you and many other Members will be aware that I have a picturesque constituency that offers some of the best rural land in Britain. We have some of the best dairy farmers in the country, and each year the area offers visitors great hospitality. We have many small and medium-sized businesses that keep the economy afloat. Having a constituency of 350 square miles, with no large towns or cities, gives me the ability to speak about rural communities.
The statistics show that across the country an average of 10 per cent. of non-agricultural employees are in manufacturing, but in my constituency that figure is 17.5 per cent. according to the latest business inquiry. In fact, this morning I visited one manufacturing business there. It is an international company, and I suspect that during the day virtually all Members have sat on one of its products. It makes the springs that go in the seats of most cars manufactured in Europe, among a number of other spring-like products. The company is called William Hughes and it is in Stallbridge, a small town in my constituency.
Later this week I will be visiting another business in my constituency, a big international business that is one of the FTSE 100 companies. It is Cobham plc, which will be exhibiting at the Paris air show. It makes the fuel systems and antennae that go on most aircraft produced in the world, whether by Airbus, Boeing or a number of other manufacturers. There are a multitude of other businesses in my constituency, including a leading paint maker, a company that makes probably the majority of trolleys and cabinets found in hospitals and health centres across the country, and many companies that are involved in food manufacturing.
However, my constituency is not the industrial heartland of Britain, or one of the great metropolitan areas, as the Government see it. It is a local economy that is under unbearable strain. It is squeezed by the recession and unsupported by Government action.
I want to discuss three main subjects: unemployment as it affects my constituency and the impact on it of the closure of jobcentres; the closure of post offices and its detrimental effect, along with the absence of broadband in many areas of my constituency, when people need access to services; and the closure of rural businesses, particularly rural pubs.
I shall start with unemployment. In my constituency, the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants is up a staggering 187 per cent. in the past 12 months. Even from a low base, that is some increase. Men in North Dorset are the hardest hit, with an increase in unemployment of 211 per cent. in the past 12 months. In the first few months of this year, that figure is up some 60 per cent.
There is also a worrying trend towards people claiming for longer. In April last year, only 25 people in my constituency had been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for between six and 12 months. The figure is now 120 and growing. Compared with many constituencies, it will appear small, but the rapid increase worries me. I am also worried about those who will go into the 12 months or longer category, without access to appropriate training for the skills that today’s job market demands. We all know that those who reach that 12-month threshold without appropriate intervention risk staying economically inactive for much longer. There is a huge increase in men claiming jobseeker’s allowance and in people generally claiming jobseeker’s allowance for a long time.
Another trend worries me, and that is that the number of young adults forced into unemployment has increased by 222 per cent. I make no apology for using statistics—indeed, the Minister used them in his opening remarks.
I do not have those figures immediately to hand, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman. The percentage is relatively low—probably just over 2 per cent., but the trend and the effect of the increases on the community are worrying. All those people have lost their jobs, with little prospect of getting new ones in the short term.
My constituency has a high proportion of retired people, but it is disheartening for those of working age, particularly those who are just starting out on their working lives, to struggle to find employment. To make matters worse, in the past 18 months, despite protests from me and others in the constituency, the Government have closed two of our three jobcentres. Those in Wimborne and Shaftesbury have been closed, leaving only one in the constituency, in Blandford. It is open only two days a week, by appointment. That means that those who are unemployed cannot just walk into a jobcentre but have to get on the telephone or use the internet to make initial contact. They are then sent not to the jobcentre in Blandford, but either to Yeovil, which is 20 miles away even from the closest point in my constituency, or to Poole, which is 25 miles away from those who live in the northern part of my constituency, for the initial interview. That is disheartening for anyone who loses a job.
It is unfair that my constituents do not get the opportunity to access vital Government services. In May 2007, I told the Government that the closure of the two jobcentres would hit my constituents hard when they needed a jobcentre the most. Having to travel long distances when there is little public transport puts an intolerable burden on an increasing number of people.
An unfortunate consequence of the jobcentre closures is the withdrawal of essential assistance and advice. Local citizens advice bureaux have reported to me a ballooning number of people seeking their advice and assistance on matters that Jobcentre Plus should be tackling. It was disappointing that the Department for Work and Pensions turned down an offer from North Dorset citizens advice bureau to make its facilities available to Jobcentre Plus and host its employees free of charge.
I want next to consider communications, post offices and the broadband connection. I know that the Minister knows a little about such things. The Government insisted—perhaps it was the Minister himself who did so—on eight post office closures in my constituency. That had a huge impact on the availability of services and on rural businesses, including vital village shops. There has been a drop in the footfall and therefore in the trade in those shops because of the closure of the post office counter.
The Government have withdrawn important services—simple things, such as the renewal of car tax, access to savings accounts and obtaining passport forms—that residents in rural areas had much more difficulty in getting anyway. The Minister might say that the services are available online—they are. However, many of my constituents are older and do not have access to or struggle to use the internet. In some parts of my constituency, broadband access is woefully slower than in towns and cities. In some areas, there is no broadband connection.
Last month, South Tarrant Valley parish council contacted me with concerns about the inconsistency and deficiency of broadband coverage in the four villages for which it is responsible. According to the parish council, internet service providers have no plans to upgrade lines to the affected areas as there is insufficient commercial demand in less populated districts. The absence of high-speed broadband connections has far-reaching consequences for entrepreneurs and local businesses trying to operate in rural and semi-rural Dorset.
Promises of universal broadband access were welcomed, but there are serious concerns. The Minister said earlier that from a European Union fund the entire United Kingdom would get £12 million. That is a drop in the ocean given what is required to invest in necessary rural broadband services, which the Government claim they will deliver. Perhaps in his winding-up speech, the Minister will tell us what else the Government plan to do to ensure that all households have access to good internet connections. That affects not only access to Government services but businesses’ ability to carry on with their work from rural areas.
I have long campaigned for the post office to be more than the place where people send their mail or buy stamps. Post offices could be the hub for local people to access Government services—a one-stop shop for local government and central Government, accessible to a huge proportion of the population. As well as providing layers of government in one place, it would increase the all-important footfall that the Government claim is too low to make rural post offices sustainable.
In many villages in my constituency, the only retail business left is the village pub. In the past couple of weeks, I have received nearly 100 representations from constituents about the increased duty on alcohol and the impact on their local pubs. I am sure the House agrees that the village pub is an integral part of any rural community. Since 2005, the rural county of Dorset has lost some 36 pubs—nine in my North Dorset constituency. That has inevitably had a detrimental effect on community spirit and rural life.
The Government have penalised the millions of people—I include city dwellers in this—who enjoy a pint after work or on a Sunday afternoon. The tax regime ought to work against those who consume excessive amounts of drinks with a high alcohol content on Friday and Saturday nights, not against the beer drinker. Binge drinking is obviously a problem in our cities and large towns, although Dorset police tell me that binge drinkers cause a nuisance in some towns in my constituency as well. However, the Government appear to be intent on penalising sensible drinkers, together with the less than sensible. I cannot stress enough how important local pubs are to rural and semi-rural life, not just economically but in terms of their effects on the community. The closure of our village pubs—forced to close because people cannot afford to visit them as once they did—is painful for local communities. I urge the Government to think carefully about how attempts to deal with binge drinking will affect those important amenities.
We will discuss business rates later this evening, so I will not speak about them, other than to say that they are also a particular concern to rural businesses in my constituency.
The rural economy is not just about agriculture and tourism; it is manufacturing, as in my constituency, and often high-tech, state-of-the-art manufacturing, at the forefront of technology. If the Government are to address the recession and the effect that the economic downturn and the unemployment that is its consequence are having on ordinary people’s lives, they must be even-handed. They must focus not just on their heartland, but on the rural areas of Britain.
I apologise for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate, but I was chairing a Statutory Instrument Committee. Fortunately, however, I arrived to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) speak eloquently about the problems faced by rural communities.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who articulated the problems of large rural constituencies extremely well. I have the same problem in my constituency, which, for the record, is approximately 1,200 square miles. It contains 47 villages and five towns, with quite a disparate community spread out between Thetford forest and the fenlands. Those who live in my constituency therefore feel that the Government’s one-size-fits-all urban agenda of the past few years is just not for them. They feel that they are not listened to. However, also for the record, the results of the local elections in Norfolk last week spoke volumes about how people feel that the Conservative party in Norfolk represents and can articulate their point of view. It is a great pity that the Government have not woken up to the challenges that Norfolk faces in the current climate.
The number of JSA claimants in my constituency has increased by 92 per cent. in the Breckland area and by 82 per cent. in the King’s Lynn and West Norfolk area. They are shocking figures. We have cited various figures this evening and asked the Government to look into what is happening. However, the truth is that the evidence shows not just that local people are disheartened, but that they are losing their jobs and cannot cope. The demand in rural areas for financial services such as debt advice far outstrips supply. For someone who has lost their job and cannot cope, that is a profound thing to deal with. In a large rural area, it is difficult for someone to access the services that they might get in an urban area. The Government need to consider that very carefully. I have had dealings with the Minister over the years, and he is a reasonable man, but does he accept that that combination is particularly worrying for people living in constituencies such as mine?
For many people in South-West Norfolk who have lost their jobs or whose jobs are under threat, the internet, which colleagues have already spoken about this evening, is a vital tool for accessing banking and financial services. However, in some rural areas broadband access is still well behind that in other parts of the country—I stick my hand up and say that Norfolk is no exception. I ask the Government: what is being done to ensure that the countryside has adequate access to broadband? I am not sure that the assistance the Minister spoke about earlier is enough, either in how it is applied or how much money is being put in, to alleviate the problems in constituencies such as mine. I ask him to look at that carefully, and I would be very grateful if he came back to me about the issue in my constituency.
It is vital that those living in rural areas should feel able to live and work in an area that is equal to other areas in terms of help and access to services. For too long, Norfolk has played second fiddle to other parts of the country. For too long, constituents of mine have felt like second-class citizens. That is a great shame. For too long, Norfolk, and in particular Thetford in my constituency, has been seen by many people in the House as a problem, rather than as the opportunity that it is and always will be, because of the people of Norfolk’s dedication and their desire to get on, make a contribution and live in vibrant communities in the areas where they work. That desire has always been there and it always will be there, but the area needs a lot of help from the Government.
The current imbalance has not gone unnoticed by the Commission for Rural Communities. A recent CRC report states:
“Some rural local authorities and Job Centre Plus offices are struggling to…support their unemployed because of distances to training and support centres and the lower numbers involved.”
Does the Minister agree that those in rural areas are suffering particularly as a result of the economic crisis, and because we have an extremely poor public transport system? The problem is acute in South-West Norfolk. Bus operators have to try to work across a large, disparate county, and a lot of people obviously encounter long distances between villages and towns. When someone is on a fixed income or has no income, things are made even more difficult when they have to go so much further than their cousins, brothers, sisters or other family members who live elsewhere.
We have also seen the closure of local jobcentres. How can closing the focal point for retraining and getting back into the work force help rural communities to survive? I am afraid that that speaks volumes about the Government’s attitude towards constituents such as mine. We also have deprivation in Norfolk—social, economic and geographical. We have vast amounts of fenland, which needs not only to be policed but to be looked after in terms of the Government’s commitment. What advice would the Minister give to people in the 1,200 square miles that I represent? It is terribly important for me that I be able to return with a positive message, which I hope my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) can give me from the Opposition Front Bench, even if the Government cannot.
I have received many letters from constituents who have lost their jobs and are desperate to retrain. However, they are prevented from taking up full-time courses for up to 18 months. They live in communities that do not have services, in areas that do not have adequate public transport systems. They want desperately to get out there and get a job, but every time they take one step forward, they take two steps back. That is killing our communities and killing a lot of people’s will to get back into the work force, which we desperately need them to do if enterprise and initiative are again to be the backbone of our economic success. Does the Minister accept that many people in rural areas who have lost their jobs and who want to reskill are penalised twofold, owing to Government-imposed restrictions and the long distances to training centres, coupled with poor public transport?
I want to talk briefly about small businesses, which are an enormously important source of employment in our communities. I have already mentioned Thetford, where small businesses have been hit particularly hard. We have a first-class manufacturing base and a need for apprenticeships. We also have a need for investment in Thetford. We have growth point status, so we are getting the houses, but we need the infrastructure that goes with them and—dare I say it?—the roads infrastructure. Let us not forget that Norfolk is the only county in England without a dual carriageway linking it to a national trunk road network. Although there have been good indications from various Ministers that such a scheme will be unlocked, Norfolk has for too long been unable to play its true part in the economic success of our nation. Every time we go forward, another barrier is put in the way to prevent us from making the contribution that most, if not all, of my constituents desperately want to make, for their own well-being and for that of the nation.
We have high transport costs and—dare I say it?—high energy costs. The price of fuel in rural areas is disproportionate, because vehicle use in those areas is a necessity, not a luxury. People, such as pensioners, on fixed incomes and farmers are unable to cope. I regret to say that the Government have adopted a one-size-fits-all urban agenda, and it just does not work. In Norfolk, that agenda also applies to local government reorganisation. To suggest that what someone in the middle of Norwich needs is the same as what people in the fenlands need is a complete insult to the people in my constituency. Their aspirations might be the same, but their needs are different and they need to be treated with individual care and respect. They also need to know that someone is going to look out for them, and if this Government will not do so, the next one will.
My hon. Friend is making some fascinating points, particularly about the rural economy. He has just mentioned Norwich. To what degree does he think the Government’s failure in this recession impacts differentially between constituents in seats such as Norwich seats, and the slightly more rural seats that he is describing?
I do not want to get diverted on to by-election issues, but I will say that it is no coincidence that the accounts of Norwich city council have not been written and agreed for many years, because of the way in which they have been put together. In my constituency, where we have two Conservative councils, we have proved, year in, year out that Conservative councils in Norfolk deliver for the people because they listen to the people and develop services for the people. It will be interesting to see how the people of Norwich take up that issue in the coming weeks leading up to the by-election.
I now have more companies writing to me to say that they cannot get business loans than to say, “Thank you very much indeed. The bank has come to my rescue and I have got my loan.” That is just not happening, and companies are going under. They are good third and fourth generation owner-managed companies that have invested in their business and spent every moment of every day trying to build up the well-being of their work force and produce products that are in many cases world-beating. They are run by dedicated people who are not profligate and who do not drive big cars or go on swanky holidays.
Those people work every day of the year for the well-being of their organisation and the people they employ, but the banks are not helping them. They are pulling the rug from beneath them, and it is quite sickening to hear that bank profits are at their present levels. The fact that they are also paying such large bonuses against the will of the Government and of the people is quite extraordinary. It saddens me to think that the Government are not confronting this issue and dealing with it head on. Small businesses and enterprises in constituencies such as mine are desperate for a hand up, not a handout. This is not a question of the state coming to the rescue.
I will pass on to the Minister some of the stories of the people in my constituency, because they are doing more than their best, but they are not being paid. They are trying to re-mortgage their houses in order to put money into their businesses, but the mortgage companies are not interested. Those people are in a Catch-22 situation. They take one step forward—and then have to take two steps back. That will not get us out of the recession or help those people in the future. It is a very sad day when I have to say these things, but they are true. This saddens me and all my colleagues. I would much prefer to fly the flag for our local businesses and tell the House how good things are for them, but I am afraid that that is not the case.
At a time when we are looking to small businesses to lead us out of the recession, what impact does the Minister expect the Government’s decision to end transitional relief to have on firms in rural areas? That is a simple question. As I said earlier, I am very fond of the Minister, but I am not so sure that either he or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) will be able to answer it. I do not believe that the Government have a coherent plan for the rural economy. I come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) has just made about Norwich. It has been proved time and again that the Government do not need votes in rural areas to win elections. In my opinion, however, that should not influence the way in which they govern the country. I hope that the electorate will remind themselves of that point, come the general election.
Many rural constituencies, including my own, have suffered jobcentre and post office closures. We have had a disproportionate amount of post office closures in my constituency, which is very sad. One or two of my constituents have taken it upon themselves to restart their post offices with the support of the community, but it has been extremely difficult. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said, the post offices should become one-stop shops and the beacon of the local community, so that the local community can survive.
My grandmother, who died just after Christmas at the age of 99, lived in my constituency. She would not have found it easy to go online to get her pension. That is an absolute, straightforward fact. She was a lovely woman, but she could not manage technology. So, when the local post office could not help her, what was she to do? That example from my own family is being echoed across the country, and it is a crying shame that, while post office closures are happening, the Government are sitting on their hands and saying, “It will work. It can work.” That is okay for people who are 18 to 21 or 25 to 30, but when people who are over 30 start wearing glasses and finding the digits difficult, these things are not so easy. People in that older age group just cannot manage, and retired people on fixed incomes are being disproportionately penalised.
How does the Minister respond to my constituents who believe that, for the past decade, this Government have presided over the erosion of rural services, the true effects of which are now being felt as a result of the recession? The recession has hit them in the face. The Commission for Rural Communities has called on the Government to expand the financial services offered by the post office network, so that rural communities do not sink into financial exclusion, but I cannot see much action being taken by the Government to deal with that issue. The Conservative party has been calling for that action for some time. As I would say anyway: bring on the election, so that we can test the arguments with the electorate and allow a Conservative Government to come in and stand up for the rural economy as this Government have not done. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, at times like these, post offices are a vital resource for people living in rural areas. Does he now see that the closure programme was woefully misguided?
One of the groups being hardest hit is pensioners. A significant proportion of my electorate are pensioners, and they are struggling because of very high fuel costs, for example. At least 50 per cent. of those living in my constituency have no access to the gas network and must therefore rely on heating oil, which is expensive. Every time I have spoken to a Minister, written to a Minister or put a question to a Minister across the Chamber to point out that those people have no alternative, I have been told, “It’s okay. We have a plan in place for people to have underground heating.” The Government have all these new-fangled ideas for supplying something that people just cannot get. If there is no possibility of getting a mains gas service to a house in the first place, and if people live in a terraced house in the middle of nowhere with a postage-stamp back garden, for example, it will be impossible to lay half a mile of cabling to get them an alternative energy source.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things that annoys people in rural areas is the cheaper rate offered by the utility companies for customers on a dual fuel tariff? If only one fuel—electricity—is available in a rural area, the people who live there cannot benefit from those discounts.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Many of my constituents ask why they cannot get those benefits. They simply cannot get them. It might well be that the infrastructure just does not exist across the country, but this goes back to my original point that there are two classes of citizen in this country: those in urban areas who have access to services, and those in rural areas who feel hard done by because they cannot get the services they desperately need.
Holderness has the most enormous gas infrastructure, with Langeled, the world’s longest pipeline, coming into my constituency. There are gas storage sites as well as pipelines, so there cannot be a more gas-centred place in the country than Holderness, yet many of my constituents living in the villages cannot get gas into their homes. They are suffering from all the disruption, but not gaining access to the gas. For reasons that my hon. Friends have powerfully put forward in the debate, if the Government were committed to equality, they would take forward an ambitious programme to ensure that as many people as possible had access to gas.
I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. On occasions, there is more gas in this place than we in Norfolk are able to secure! Households face a double blow: they face higher costs, while having no proper infrastructure for services. The local community is sometimes literally dying on its feet: young people cannot get jobs and business people cannot secure the loans they need, so people are moving away. It is a crying shame for a proud county such as Norfolk—proud in what it does and proud in what it wants to do—to be hampered in every which way it tries to move forward. The Government should look further into the problem.
The hon. Gentleman will have been a student of post-war politics, so he will know that about 25 years ago, the supply of gas was privatised into a commercial market. Is he now regretting that development, as a result of which companies take commercial decisions to deny or to supply, at great cost to those communities with relatively small numbers of consumers? Is that not how the market works, or have I missed something?
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what this debate is about. If he looked at the monitor, he would see that it is about rural communities in recession—a recession caused by the lack of attention by this Government to the infrastructure that communities such as Norfolk, and South-West Norfolk in particular, need. As such, it is the responsibility of this Government—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman sits on the Chairmen’s Panel, so he knows perfectly well how to conduct a debate. If he wants to make sedentary points, fine, but he should write to me; if he wants to intervene again, he should do so. The fact is that we are suffering from years of lack of investment by this Government, and others should not be blamed for it.
I am not taking another intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but I will allow him to write to me, as I first suggested. [Interruption.] No, he has had his chance; I am not giving way to him again.
Finally, I want to deal with the effect of rural crime. My constituency suffers from many farm thefts. There are opportunists coming into the area from far and wide, who think that they can easily take something from a farmyard in a rural area because they will not be detected. They think that no one will catch up with them, but why? As a large, disparate county, we have a first-class police force that is centred mostly around urban centres and does not have the capacity to get into rural areas as quickly and effectively as it would wish.
There have been many Government schemes to bring in what I would describe as alternative police officers. That is fine; I am very pleased that some towns in my constituency have benefited from such people doing their job. When it comes to crimes in rural areas, farms are already suffering because, for reasons I have already explained, they cannot manage within their budgets. When someone steals all their oil or takes a truck or other machinery, it has a disproportionately negative effect on what can be done.
This Government must understand and accept that policing requirements are quite different in rural areas from those in the centre of Norwich. On a Saturday night in the city centre, people duff each other up because they are drunk; the police can come to the rescue because they are only three or four minutes away. If someone calls a police officer to come to a farm in the middle of the fens on a Saturday night when there is an event going on in Norwich, it is awful to say it, but the police may not get there for some time.
I see that the Minister has probably just been handed some information about rural crime in my constituency. Yes, relatively speaking, it is low; but if something has been stolen from people or their property has been violated, statistics matter not. What matters is effectiveness and how long it takes to get the problem dealt with. Time after time I hear stories about what happens. If it is not as bad in Norfolk as in other parts of the country, I am awfully sorry but that does not matter for a victim of crime. What matters is the attention people are given and how their problem is dealt with. The police in Norfolk do a brilliant job in difficult circumstances, but this recession has made the position even more profound.
I leave this issue with the Minister. Will he give due consideration to all the points raised by my colleagues—dare I say it, by Opposition Members, not Government Members?—this evening? At this 11th hour of a Labour Administration, will he seriously consider making a gesture towards the rural economy in the light of the recession it is facing across the country? Will he deal with the problems of the recession in rural areas, as the Government have done through all sorts of initiatives in areas where seats may be marginal and they think it might make a difference? If the Government can help, I can tell the Minister that although people may not vote Labour, they will once and for all appreciate that their voice has been listened to in this Chamber—and for that I would be most grateful.
I wish to make a short contribution to today’s timely and welcome debate. In doing so, I am wearing two hats. I wear my first hat as the MP representing Stapeley, where the farmers’ milk co-operative Dairy Farmers of Britain is based; sadly, the company went into receivership on 3 June this year. I wear my second hat as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on dairy farmers, who make up a sector of British agriculture that is very important not only to my constituency and the rural areas of Cheshire, but to the United Kingdom as a whole.
Let me deal first with Dairy Farmers of Britain. I thank the Minister for the update he gave us earlier about the circumstances in which the company finds itself. It is one of the dairy flagships of Crewe and Nantwich and it deserves as much support as possible, and I shall explain what exactly needs to happen in that regard. The fact that it has hit upon such hard times has sent shockwaves through my constituency’s agricultural community and provides no relief to the people working there. We must remember that the community affected is made up not just of farmers, but of non-agricultural staff as well.
You may be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the agricultural community in Cheshire and across the whole of the UK relies heavily on the dairy industry to remain healthy through very difficult times. The DFOB’s Stapeley headquarters employs some 40 permanent staff, plus field-based staff outside the Stapeley offices. These staff have no representative body to speak of, and a number of them have contacted me personally to express their concerns about how long they are going to hold on to their jobs and how much information they are going to receive through the process. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when he goes back to the Secretary of State and explains the position of my constituents who are suffering as a result of the current recession.
On the basis of discussions from my office, the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, seem to be following correctly laid down procedures, but that does not necessarily help those going home on Friday who do not know whether they will still have a job to come back to on Monday, particularly when they have seen the DFOB dairies at Bridgend and Blaydon simply closed, rather than sold on as an alternative. We hope that the position will be looked at further, but that is the current state of affairs and it is extremely worrying.
Because of the dairy in his constituency, my hon. Friend is well aware of the impact on its employees. At my last Beverley street surgery, I met a couple who, because of the recent devastating recession in the industry, are among the last remaining dairy farmers in the constituency. They are both at risk of losing a month’s milk payment, while facing the additional risk of losing their investment in the company. This is an extremely frightening time, so it would be good to hear from the Minister what support the Government might be able to provide to dairy farmers to help them through it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is true that farmers who were part of a co-operative and invested in it lost their May payments for the supply of milk that they provided, and there is also concern about their future investment. Fortunately for many farmers in the Crewe and Nantwich area, they had managed to opt out of the co-operative before the state of affairs had worsened to the extent of receivership, but nevertheless many farmers who rely on a certain level of cash to keep themselves going now find themselves with a great black hole in their finances and very little support to see them through the crisis. Some of what we have heard from the Government today is welcome, but it is still a case of shifting sands. We need more concrete answers to give farmers who find themselves in such difficulty.
If I had one word of advice for the official receivers, it would be to liaise with Members whose constituencies contain affected sites and to keep them abreast of the position so that they can support their constituents as much as possible as and when such support is required.
Let me say something about the members and ex-members of the co-operative. As I have said, in Crewe and Nantwich many left when they saw that the writing was on the wall, and they did that in order to maintain a regular income from their milk. However, their investment in the co-operative has not been returned, and they are listed simply as unsecured creditors under the Insolvency Act 1986. I ask the Minister to look at the position as a matter of urgency. We understand that talks will resume on Wednesday in an attempt to find a solution. I believe that assistance may be available from organisations such as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, but it will be no substitute for the tens of thousands of pounds invested by farmers in DFOB. To many of them, that money represents their pension pots. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) raised the issue of pensioners earlier.
I welcome the update from the Minister. I too have liaised with the receivers this week, and I shall be meeting the president of the National Farmers Union. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State, who, although he did not have time to come to the Chamber today, has found time to meet me on Wednesday to discuss the future of DFOB.
What am I asking for on behalf of DFOB and all who have been affected by its current crisis? I simply ask the Government to take a considered and detailed view of how they can best help non-agricultural staff and farmers in my constituency, and the others who have been mentioned. What financial assistance can the Government provide to alleviate the anguish caused by lost investments and pensions? What assistance can the Minister provide through Jobcentre Plus for those who lose their non-agricultural jobs at such short notice? Can he ask his Cabinet colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that these hard-working people are assessed immediately for entitlements and retraining when that is required?
As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will know all too well, having kindly visited and spoken to dairy farmers in my constituency twice in the past 12 months, between 2001 and 2006, 48 dairy farms closed in the Crewe and Nantwich area. According to the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, whose representatives I met last week, the number of dairy farmers in England and Wales fell from 28,000 in 1995 to 11,700 this year. That is a drastic fall. More recently, despite the uplift in milk prices in 2008, the average cost of production has reached 26.93p per litre, while the average price is 24.37p. Those figures speak for themselves. We can see how desperate the situation is for dairy farmers and the industry, and why the Government should act as soon as possible.
That leads me to my final, and brief, point about the need to support British agriculture and—unsurprisingly—the need to support the British dairy industry. I asked what three things a local farmer would say to Parliament if given the chance. The answer was, “Give us a fair price, assist us with nitrate vulnerable zones by not gold-plating the legislation, and cull the badgers. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more suicides.” DEFRA knows those issues, and knows them well. It is time for DEFRA to act.
I am grateful to have been called slightly earlier than I expected. It is a pleasure to participate in such an important debate. As others have said this evening, it is a long time since we have had the opportunity to discuss the impact of the recession on the rural economy, and I am pleased that my colleagues selected the topic for an Opposition day debate.
I think that one of the reasons why we have so little opportunity to discuss such issues in Government time is that the Government simply do not get it. That is not entirely their fault. Although there are far more Labour than Conservative Members, very few of them represent rural constituencies. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is a regular Labour champion of rural affairs, but he is a pretty lonely voice. As for local government, following last week’s election results there is not a single Labour-controlled rural shire authority. Indeed, many such authorities have no Labour representative. In a number of our constituencies, Labour representation has been all but blown away at local level: my constituency has only one Labour councillor. It is therefore not surprising that Labour representatives are not willing to put rural affairs at the top of their agenda.
I represent one of the most sparsely populated rural areas. I should add that I have the pleasure of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on rural services, which exists to champion, in particular, the least well-populated parts of the country, where the cost of supplying services—whether in the public or the private sector—is highest. I find it very depressing that such an important sector of the economy receives so little attention in this place. Part of the attention that it does receive, along with the focus of Government efforts to help the rural economy, is strongly driven by a perception that rural areas serve as the playground of the nation. However, although tourism is an increasingly important diversification for those who have engaged in more traditional primary activities in rural areas, it is not the be-all and end-all. It is not the only activity that Government should seek to encourage.
Many areas of active industry in the rural economy are now perceived by Government as there to provide entertainment for the masses. Forestry is an example. The second largest landowner—after Her Majesty the Queen—is the Forestry Commission, which under the current Government has been transformed from a primary producer of timber products whose purpose was to provide construction materials and other building products for the nation to, essentially, a playground. There has been an appalling failure to accept that responsibility for the nation’s forests lies with the Government. The forests owned by the Government are seen as being there purely to divert the people. That is all very well in one sense: we should be encouraging access to our forests. However, if we do so at the expense of the industry itself, in a few decades’ time we will no longer have forests. Instead, we will have scrubland areas which will not be attractive places to visit, and which will not provide the biodiversity that is at the heart of the Government’s argument for allowing forestry to regenerate naturally rather than being planted.
I think that the hon. Gentleman would generously acknowledge that in the Government’s forestry policies the national forest is an exception. That project was started in the early ’90s under a Conservative Government, and it has been tremendously successful. It covers 200 square miles and straddles three counties and two regions, and it has been very helpful to economic development, environmental restoration and sustaining the communities that lie within it, many of which are rural. The Government have supported that project over a 12-year period, as the hon. Gentleman’s party supported it at its inception.
I look forward to learning more about the national forest to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
I wish now to touch on certain Government measures that are having unintended consequences—at least I hope they are unintended—for many of the businesses that are so vital in maintaining a vibrant economy in rural areas. As other Members who represent constituencies with small towns and villages have said, many such settlements are at present experiencing the loss of some of their last public, and indeed private, services. Members have mentioned that jobcentres, pubs and shops are closing throughout the country as a direct result of the recession, but they are not closing only as a result of the recession; they are closing partly as a result of Government policy.
We face the prospect of a tobacco display ban in shops. Many of us—myself included—are not keen on encouraging smoking, but that proposal is based on poor research from international comparisons and a poor level of evidence, and its effect will be to put at risk the survival of many of the small convenience stores and corner shops which, in many villages in my constituency and elsewhere, are the only retail outlets left. Such shops rely for their footfall on the many people who go there to buy tobacco. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents predicts that some 2,500 such shops will close. If that is the case, their closure will be a direct consequence not of the recession but of a Government measure. It is intended to achieve a desirable public health aim, but it will have the unintended consequence of depriving communities of their main source of purchasing other goods, as such shops are often also the convenience store where people can buy their food.
Let me offer another modest example from my constituency. Over the past year, I have been besieged—that is not too strong a word—by operators of small bed-and-breakfasts. Many former farmers or people whose houses have spare rooms choose to diversify their income by opening their home to visitors who love the beautiful scenery of south Shropshire. Bed-and-breakfasts are now subject to the same fire regulation inspection regime that applies to much larger commercial institutions such as hotels, yet the proprietors of bed-and-breakfasts typically do not have the available capital to meet the standards that might be imposed on them by fire officers. If they cannot meet the standard imposed on them, they have no option but to close. No appeal mechanism is available to these people, who might have been operating a bed-and-breakfast for 10 or 20 years. They cannot explain that, for instance, there have been no fires and that there is limited fire risk, yet regulation imposed by central Government tells them that such steps are necessary.
I am sorry, but I will not take an intervention, as I am conscious that another Member wishes to speak, and he has been present for the entire debate.
That is just another small example of the pernicious consequences of Government direction. They believe that businesses are capable of absorbing that considerable added burden, but there is no benefit to the business in that. Consequently, the local economy can suffer.
My final example, which is very much a live issue in my constituency at present, is the scrapping of the empty property rates relief. Again, this affects people who have been encouraged to diversify their activities, such as farmers who have developed workshops out of redundant barns, or, especially in my area, people who have developed their garage premises into light industrial premises but find that there are not any light industrial users. There are now increasing numbers of empty premises. It is almost impossible to secure the granting of a change of use from the planning authorities despite the current housing crisis. As a result of the reduction in rate relief, owners must suffer significant tax on empty properties, and it would not surprise me if a number of them were to decide to make their premises uninhabitable in order to avoid the tax. That is, I think, an unintended consequence; I am sure the Government do not want properties that could be put to economic use to be pulled down, but that will, I fear, be the direct result of a Government measure.
First, may I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment to his new job? We have over the years come across each other from time to time in this House, and normally our encounters have been good-humoured, and I hope that continues. His predecessor the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) has just left the Chamber, but I want to thank her as well. She managed finally to solve one of the most complex problems arising from the single farm payment. Almost the last thing that she did was sign off that problem, and as a result a farmer in my constituency has been promised the money under the single farm payment. I suspect that the right hon. Lady will get into trouble from Europe as a consequence, but I would like to place on record my gratitude to her for doing that.
I am also grateful for the update on Dairy Farmers of Britain. The processing plant in Blaydon has closed, leaving a considerable problem for the few remaining dairy farmers in the north-east of England. Most of them have now found contracts, but there is a long-term problem: because the processing plants for milk are now so distant from the north-east, longer to transport distances milk will lead to higher costs, which will increasingly affect the viability of the few remaining dairy farmers in that region.
That brings me to the problem of the beef industry as a whole. I appreciate that we will have a debate on agriculture on Thursday, but the recession has touched this industry as much as any other, and, of course, a recession in the dairy industry also affects the amount of beef that is available for consumption. That will mean that our degree of self-sufficiency in beef will decline even further than it already has—from more than 100 per cent. in 1997 to only 80 per cent. currently. We have to import the rest, often from countries whose welfare standards are far less reliable than those of the United Kingdom.
I wish also to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made in his opening speech. The most important lesson to come out of this debate is that we must devolve power as far as possible. It is very difficult to pin down exactly what a rural community is. A rural community in my Northumberland constituency is very different from one in Suffolk or Surrey, or one in Sussex, where my hon. Friend’s constituency is. Each has its own set of problems, and each requires individual attention and local determination in order to solve them.
The housing issue provides an example of that. In rural Surrey, huge housing demand is what causes real problems, but in parts of Northumberland, particularly those rural areas which were formerly coalfield areas, local people want more properties to be built, because that makes their communities more sustainable. Such communities have declined because the coal industry left the area, and new houses and people, often coming from the towns, bring life back to them. We therefore want more properties in those areas, yet we live under the dread hand of the regional spatial strategy, which imposes things from above. For instance, in the part of Northumberland that I represent, we can build only 157 new houses over the next five years, which is ridiculous. According to the spatial strategy, we should all move into the city of Newcastle, and not live in the rural communities, which is what we want. The main lesson, therefore, is that we should devolve decision making to its lowest possible level, and deregulate and decentralise. That is how rural communities will be able to fight the recession.
May I start by properly welcoming both new Ministers to the Department? The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has a hard act to follow. The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) was in the Chamber a few minutes ago but, sadly, she has left her place. I wanted to commend her because despite the fact that, like the new Minister, she came into the Department with a self-confessed complete lack of knowledge of the issues she was facing, she applied herself willingly to a steep learning curve and in a short space of time persuaded the farming industry and the rest of the rural community that she was very much aware of their issues and very much on their side. Nevertheless, I wish the new Ministers well in their posts.
In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the Minister made a great deal of the rural development programme for England. I must say, as an aside, that his words rang truer when he moved off his script and said what he really felt, rather than what he had been told to say. When he has had a chance to travel the length and breadth of England—it is not his fault that he has not yet had the chance to do so—to talk to farmers and to rural communities, he will not find much support for the way in which the regional development agencies have operated in the rural sphere. They have contributed far more sums of more than £1 million than smaller sums of £100,000 or less, which would be much more relevant to small businesses wishing to improve their productivity, to diversify and so on.
Everywhere I am told about this, I find that the schemes devised—they are all different—by each RDA are bureaucratic and very difficult to access. At last week’s cereals event—I went the day after the Minister—I went to the RDA stand, where an official told me, with some apology, about a farmer who had just been in wanting to see whether he could apply for a grant of about £40,000 for a meat-cutting plant, only to be told that he was not eligible. That had nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of the scheme. I have no idea whether it was a good or bad scheme, but he was told that there was no scheme that suited his needs—that is laughable, because that is precisely what the rural development programme for England was designed to produce. I hope that when the Minister has had the opportunity that I mentioned, he will look again how that programme is working.
The Minister also trotted out a litany of statistics. I intervened on him on the issue of poverty, which is a huge issue in rural areas, not least because it is less obvious there than in big urban areas, where often whole blocks of flats or areas of communities all live in poverty. In rural areas, because of the lower population density, one often finds only one or two people living in poverty and they may live next door to someone who is clearly quite affluent, so this is a much more hidden form of poverty, but it is there. I hope that the Minister who winds up will address poverty issues and the spending plans of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I was astonished to find that last year DEFRA actually cut spending on “strong rural communities” by 35 per cent. The Government have also failed to mention the real-terms cut in DEFRA’s budget. It has been cut by £200 million since last autumn’s pre-Budget report, yet they have the nerve to criticise our proposals in their amendment to our motion.
A number of hon. Members rightly referred to the catastrophe of the demise of Dairy Farmers of Britain, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr. Timpson), in whose constituency it is based. Of course I welcome the measures being taken by the receivers and by other milk buyers, and I am pleased that DEFRA officials have been involved in negotiations to try to find other buyers. However, it is very important that the banks, and indeed the merchant trade, take a generous approach to those farmers who have lost a month’s milk cheque. Very few businesses in any sector of life could withstand losing one twelfth of their income unexpectedly, just like that, with no time to plan. If the Government had introduced the national loan guarantee scheme proposed by my Conservative colleagues, there would be some opportunity to assist. I am anxious to ensure that some of the smaller and more remote producers find outlets for their milk, because they are the ones who will find it hardest to survive.
I hope that Ministers will also agree that what has gone wrong at DFOB—its previous and present management both have many questions to answer—does not relate to the fact that it is, or was, a co-operative. I was pleased that in the same week, Milk Link, another co-operative, reported increased profits—that is good news. What happened at DFOB was about business management and control, rather than simply about the fact that it was a co-operative, although I have no doubt that there will be those who will try to paint this as an inevitable problem that one gets with co-operatives.
Some hon. Members mentioned a number of other agricultural issues, but I shall resist the temptation to launch into those, because we can do so at great length during Thursday’s debate. In passing, I should point out that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) trotted out almost everything he could think of on this subject; that may or may not mean that the House is relieved of the task of listening to him again on Thursday.
This evening, we have heard a wealth of experience from a number of hon. Members—sadly, it has come only from those on the Conservative Benches—who have spoken about the importance of the rural economy. They have spoken of its huge breadth, covering not only farming and the food industry, but manufacturing—traditional craft manufacturing right through to high-tech manufacturing—a lot of research, small businesses, telecommunications and so on.
A number of my Conservative colleagues have discussed specific issues. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred to the Government’s failure to understand the scale of issues in rural areas. It would be completely wrong to suggest that losing one’s job is not a crisis for any individual, but, as he said, whereas it is bad news when half a dozen jobs go when a business closes in a large urban area, when a business loses the same amount of jobs in rural area that can be a complete catastrophe for the village in which it happens. It can wipe out the employment prospects for a large proportion of the people in the area.
My hon. Friend also raised issues relating to the village pub—and not only alcohol duty, on which we have our own proposals. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) and others, he rightly referred to other issues relating to business rates. I know that a debate is taking place later on that matter, but I wish to mention something that, unusually, has been raised in my constituency. As a result of the recent rate revaluation, the business rates of someone from a village pub had rocketed up by £4,000—that is a lot of money for a small village pub. He could not understand the situation until we looked into it. He had been on a transitional process since the previous revaluation. The trouble is that the Government had designed a transitional process that had not got him to where he should have been at the previous revaluation, so he lost that relief and had to go to the new revaluation, which meant a substantial percentage increase in his rates.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk also referred to the reality on the ground of businesses trying to get loans to see them through the current crisis. He motioned rural crime, but he did not mention—so I shall do so now—that violent crime has increased by some 20 per cent. in rural areas since the recession set in. A number of hon. Members have referred to housing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs did in his opening remarks. Even Labour Members have said, in interventions, that a figure of only 10,000 planned homes in rural areas is wholly inadequate. I stress the need to address what has gone wrong. It is not, despite what the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale suggested, all the fault of the Conservative Governments who sold all the council houses. The problem was that the money raised stopped being recycled. Part of the big advantage of selling council houses was that that money would be recycled to build new social housing in those areas. It was the present Government who stopped that and confiscated the money to give to other local authorities.
We need to get rid of the ridiculous top-down planning strategy—we will abolish the regional spatial strategies—and give power to local communities to decide what low-cost housing they need and where to put it. We will also use the exception site policy, introduced by the Government of which I was proud to be a member—
The 1980s are a subject for another day, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I probably have a much better recollection of them than he has, as I presume he was doing his GCSEs at the time.
The point is that if local decision making is given to local communities, they will be much more amenable to allowing houses to be built in their communities, instead of having them imposed from the top down and being told that they must have a lot of extra houses.
Rural transport has also been mentioned several times. The Minister waxed lyrical about how much money the Government have poured into bus services, but let me quote from the Commission for Integrated Transport—the Government’s own body. It says:
“Rural bus provision has declined steadily over the past twenty years as bus operators focus on more lucrative urban markets. Combined with this has been a move away from local service provision—the closure of post offices, shops and garages in particular—resulting in poor access to many facilities”.
That underlines the Government’s failure to understand the importance of access to services. It is often very difficult for people in a rural community to gain access to services. The bus service is at best sporadic, and is completely absent in many areas. When schools, post offices, pubs, village shops, police stations and dispensaries in GPs’ surgeries close—as many have in recent years—it not only disfranchises the community, but makes it much harder to recover from any pressures put on it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) also made pertinent points, especially on the issue of empty properties rate relief, which has hit a huge number of rural businesses and farms that have invested in property—as the Government and all politicians encouraged them to do to benefit the local economy—and have, with difficulty, persuaded the planners to agree, only to find that they cannot let those properties because of the recession and are stuck having to pay rates on them. I am sure that the Government did not intend the measure to hit such businesses, but that is the law of unintended consequences.
There is no list of figures or litany of all the things that the Government have done that will persuade people who live in rural communities that all is well there. People who live in those areas and understand the realities cannot be convinced by listening to a Minister trotting them out. I would have hoped that the Minister would not have followed the practice of the Prime Minister, who seems to respond to any challenge by trotting out another litany of statistics, but the fact is that the Conservatives—as displayed in the debate and in our motion—know that there are real examples of difficulty. We have real knowledge of the problems of rural areas. I am proud to have been born and brought up in—and now to represent—a rural area. That is my history and I am passionately proud of it. We have not had a single speech from a Government Back Bencher in support of their amendment, and there can be no better testament to the veracity of our motion, which I commend to the House.
I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for his kind welcome to my colleague and me, and especially for his kind words for our predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), which are much appreciated.
I am a new Minister, with less than a week’s experience. I can honestly say that it is a steep learning curve, but I cannot think of a better debate to start with, especially as I represent the semi-rural constituency of north-east Somerset, or Wansdyke as it is known.
In the best traditions of the House, this debate has been informative. I have heard some genuinely interesting things, some of them new to me. I have also seen the passion with which many hon. Members have spoken. I do not necessarily agree with everything that has been said, but I recognise that passion.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. It is up to hon. Members to decide whether they want to contribute to the debate and, having heard some of the contributions from the Conservatives, I can see why my hon. Friends might have been dumbfounded and stuck in their seats. I will leave it at that.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) asked about milk supplies, especially with regard to the problems with Dairy Farmers of Britain. That is a serious problem, and the Government are greatly concerned about it, especially its impact in the north-east—the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. I do not think I can add much more to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that the Government are taking this seriously. I will be involved in a series of meetings in the coming days and weeks to look specifically at the issues that have been raised. It is difficult to provide any further information at this point, because the situation is very fluid. It is hard to comment now other than to say that it is a tough challenge, but the Government will rise to it and find a way forward. I agree with those hon. Members who say that the problem has arisen is not because the organisation is a co-operative, but because of other factors.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised concerns about milk prices, which my colleagues and I share. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know what my officials have been able to tell me so far. The Competition Commission is now consulting publicly on draft undertakings to establish an ombudsman to arbitrate in disputes between retailers and suppliers, and to investigate complaints under the new grocery supply code of practice. The deadline for those responses was 28 May. If retailers do not sign up to the undertakings, the Competition Commission will recommend to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it take steps to establish the ombudsman instead. In that eventuality, DEFRA will be one of a number of Departments invited to comment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that. Obviously, the Government would like any assessment to be based primarily on what would be in consumers’ best interests—we must never forget that they are the important individuals in this matter—but we cannot comment until the issues have formally come back to Government. I cannot risk prejudicing the consultation, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) made some interesting points, and I invite him to come and see me to talk a little more about them. I certainly share some of his concerns, not least those to do with his having a very large constituency. I think he said that his constituency covered 1,200 square miles, which is very large. That is four times the size of my constituency, which is considered large in my area. I hope that he will come and see me to talk a bit further about that.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Jobcentre Plus, and a modernised service is needed to reach those who cannot get across such large geographic areas. Although I appreciate that it is sometimes difficult for older people, in particular—I was moved to hear about his grandmother’s situation—the truth is that telephones are often very helpful in rural communities in making first contact and in responding to the difficulties that are raised. I hope he will appreciate that, in the end, geography is a huge challenge and we cannot always cover or compensate for that difficulty. With an intelligent application of technology, we can perhaps make a significant difference, and I hope that we can talk about that when he comes to see me.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy)—who I saw in her seat a moment ago, but who has now left the Chamber—raised some important issues about the difficulty of accessing NHS provision in her constituency. Obviously, I share those concerns, but although the NHS is a national system its services are delivered locally. Each primary care trust has to work out carefully what is needed to meet local need. I hope that she will make a point of coming to see me, too, to discuss her local concerns. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to do the same if they have concerns about NHS delivery in their constituencies.
I want to move on, if I may, to talk about some of the general points that were raised in today’s debate. I think my hon. Friend the Minister of State was right, in his opening remarks, to point out the difficulties with average statistics. They sometimes hide significant needs. I know that from my constituency. Wansdyke had the lowest unemployment level in the UK about five years ago, yet I know that behind that prosperous headline lie real deprivation and poverty, albeit in small pockets. That is a genuinely despicable situation that one would not knowingly want or choose. I hope that people understand—as I hope I do, given that I represent a semi-rural seat—that poverty, wherever it exists, is clearly a bad and difficult thing but, in some ways, rural poverty brings additional burdens because of the isolation that people also experience. Help and assistance are not always easily available as people do not have the support of neighbours or friends that they might get in an urban area.
The important thing to stress is that wherever people live—in rural or urban communities—the problems that they face are pretty similar, despite the unique circumstances that arise in some rural communities. Most people want improved education, a better health service, affordable homes to buy and rent and a range of other important things, not least low crime figures. Although rural areas have many challenges, I do not accept that they are notably different from the rest of our society.
I want to touch on some of the key points that came up in today’s debate. The first is broadband. The Government are acutely aware of the vital importance of good communications for individuals and small businesses in rural areas. After all, a greater proportion of home workers can be found in rural areas than anywhere else. That is why in the Budget we committed ourselves to a universal broadband standard of 2 MB a second, wherever reasonably possible and wherever anyone lives, by 2012. More details will be given in the “Digital Britain” report, which is due out soon. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be keen to know about that in more detail.
The Government are also mindful of new emerging technologies. We have jointly commissioned research to help to ensure that any benefits that might be forthcoming from new technology can be shared across all communities in the years ahead. That is vital. It is terribly important to the Government that the dynamism in rural communities is not lost as regards national wealth creation. It is vital that communications should be as good there as anywhere else. I hope that hon. Members will raise any questions about that with me in the future.
Secondly, the Government recognise the great importance of the post office network while also recognising the need for taxpayers to spend their money wisely and efficiently, particularly as we face the consequences of the worldwide economic downturn. That is why we are providing a subsidy to the post office network of £1.7 billion. I will say that again, as it is such a large sum: we are providing £1,700 million to secure the future of the post office network, with £150 million a year targeted at the 7,500 loss-making post offices, the vast majority of which are in rural communities. Of course, that action is in stark contrast to the proposals of the two main Opposition parties. The Conservative party would not subsidise loss-making post offices at all, but would allow them to go to the wall as it did when that party was previously in government, when some 8,000 post offices went to the wall. The Lib Dems take the line that they would not let any loss-making post offices close and would write a blank cheque. The sensible thing to do, I think, is to take the middle way and to recognise the importance of the taxpayer while also recognising the importance of rural post offices in their communities—[Interruption.]
On the closing down of post offices, perhaps the Minister could have a word with the Minister of State, who is sitting next to him, who closed the post office in our village and many others around the country.
I was very kind to give way to the hon. Gentleman, since he had only just walked into the Chamber, so I shall treat his comments with the contempt that they perhaps deserve.
Thirdly, on Jobcentre Plus, the worldwide recession means that support and help for those suffering in the UK are vital. This is not a time to do nothing. That is why we are injecting £1.7 billion to ensure that people get the support they need now to weather the storm and quickly take advantage of the upturn when it comes. That is why we will not close the 25 Jobcentre Plus offices whose closure was previously announced, and there will be a moratorium on any further closures. Access is an important issue with Jobcentre Plus, but that will mean that more than 50 per cent. of people living in rural communities will live within 5 miles of their Jobcentre Plus centre. That is important, given the fact that some rural constituencies cover very large areas, as we have heard.
The Government recognise the serious impact that the world economic downturn is having across the country—and on rural communities too, of course. I must say that there is no real evidence—I have sifted through much of the evidence in the past few days—to show that rural communities are having a more difficult time than anywhere else. If anything, they are doing slightly better in some key areas.
Many of the points raised in today’s debate have been informed and informative, and I have found them interesting. However, many of the questions from the Opposition have suggested that additional funding is the answer to the problems caused by the economic downturn and being experienced in rural communities. I shall simply close by saying that, if the Opposition feel that extra resources are what is needed, it is very hard to understand how they can advocate cuts of 10 per cent. across the board and think that that will deal with the difficulties faced by people in rural communities or elsewhere in the UK.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That this House recognises the serious impact that the economic downturn is having across the country and the support the Government is providing to people, communities and businesses to come out stronger and build Britain’s future; notes that the Government has introduced new measures to increase financial aid for rural businesses through the Rural Development Programme for England as a response to the economic downturn; welcomes the Taylor Report’s work on making sure rural communities have affordable housing and sustainable economic opportunities; commends the work of the Homes and Communities Agency to build 10,300 rural affordable homes between 2008 and 2011; applauds the Government’s commitment to connect communities and support local businesses with a minimum guarantee of 2MB broadband for virtually everyone in the country; notes that unemployment levels in rural areas remain below those in urban areas and is committed to helping maintain high levels of employment in rural areas; expresses serious concern about the impact on rural communities of the Opposition’s promised 10 per cent. cut to the budgets of most Government departments that assist people in rural areas; and supports the Government’s commitment to continue to work with the Commission for Rural Communities, Regional Development Agencies and local communities and businesses to help people through these difficult economic times.