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Rural Economy

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 2 July 2009

While the economic downturn affects both urban and rural areas, analysis of data from Government Departments and the regional development agencies suggests that there is no significant difference between urban and rural areas and that, if anything, there is slightly more success in urban communities.

The Minister will be aware that one sector that has been hit hard by both rising costs and falling demand is the hill sheep farming sector. That is reflected in the fact that in the highlands, for example, more and more farmers are taking their stock off the hills. That has a knock-on effect on one of the industries that could buck the economic trend, tourism, because of the work that hill farmers do to maintain and support the countryside as a whole. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that there is greater support for the hill sheep farming sector over the coming years of recession, to maintain the benefits that it brings to the wider community and the wider economy?

The upland entry scheme that we are about to introduce has been widely welcomed, and I hope that, when he sees the details, the hon. Gentleman will find some comfort in that. However, we fully understand and recognise that it is a serious issue, and we continually redouble our efforts to make sure that such matters are addressed properly.

May I add my own congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker?

It appears that the recession is already taking its toll on DEFRA, which has had its budget cut by £200 million since the pre-Budget report. Will the Minister confirm to rural communities that DEFRA’s budget is frozen for the next three years—what the Prime Minister would call a “zero per cent. rise”—which means that it will be cut in real terms?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the figures have been published and he is obviously capable of accessing and reading that information for himself.

Why does the Minister not at least have the courage to repeat what the Secretary of State admitted on “Any Questions?” last week, when he said that the DEFRA budget was “going to be less”? Rural communities are being hit hard in the recession and they want the truth about what lies ahead. Rising unemployment and debt interest mean that the Government’s own plans show spending cuts of at least 7 per cent. in every Department. Why will the Minister not be straight with rural people and admit that DEFRA is already making cuts and that, because of the Government’s mismanagement of the economy, spending will have to be cut even more?

I am not going to take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about this. Let us be clear: if the Conservatives were in the government now, they would be cutting the figures immediately. We are looking very carefully at efficiency, because it is very important that we deliver value for money. We must make sure that what we do is not just good quality, but cost-effective and bears in mind the council tax payer and taxpayers.