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Access to Ministers

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

7. What steps she is taking to increase the level of access to Ministers and engagement with departmental decision making for farming and rural communities. (55093)

13. What steps she is taking to increase the level of access to Ministers and engagement with departmental decision making for farming and rural communities. (55099)

Our new rural communities policy unit is building links with a wide range of organisations representing and supporting rural communities. We are also encouraging the development of a new rural and farming network enabling people from different parts of the country to advise Ministers directly on farming, food and rural issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful reply.

One of the challenges facing rural communities is the sense of isolation that results from poor access to broadband and voice calls. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that Ministers address the problem of rural communities’ feeling of apartness from government in regard to lack of access to online means of communication?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point. Those living in rural areas with no access to broadband are at a digital disadvantage, which is why the coalition Government have committed £530 million to assisting the roll-out of superfast broadband to those areas. That is particularly important to farmers, who are expected to file their forms on line, but it is also important to children, who are nowadays expected to file their homework on line.

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the most damaging characteristics of the last Government was their apparent distance from issues affecting people living in rural communities such as mine? Can she reassure my constituents that people living in the countryside will be given every opportunity to ensure that their voices are heard directly when it comes to rural policy making?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has given the Conservatives strong backing from 2009 onwards on the need to put the rural heart of the country back at the centre of government. May I encourage him, our hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) and all other Members present to persuade their constituents to engage with the new rural and farming network? It will provide an opportunity for people to have direct access to Ministers, and I hope that every Member will take advantage of that.

I welcome the Department’s effort to engage with rural communities, which is obviously important in the south-west, but is the Secretary of State aware of the growing fear that the Department is beginning to represent the interests of food producers and farmers at the expense of those of food consumers? What steps is she taking to ensure that consumers are involved in departmental decision making as well?

I do not recognise that distorted view of what the Department does. If I were to list just a few of our achievements over the last 12 months, they would point strongly to the breadth of our remit . For instance, I helped to secure agreement on biodiversity in Nagoya, the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), helped to secure the ban on illegal timber logging and ensure that the ban on commercial whaling was retained, and we will shortly produce a natural environment White Paper, the first for 20 years. That should give a strong assurance to all Members and everyone we know who cares deeply about the protection of the environment.