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Rural Economy

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 24 January 2013

A £165 million package of measures from the 2011 rural economy growth review is helping rural communities. It includes support for five rural growth network pilots, which are expected to create around 3,000 jobs and 700 new businesses, and rural development funding. We are improving superfast broadband infrastructure in the remotest areas and boosting key sectors such as tourism. We are increasing export potential and unblocking barriers to growth by removing red tape.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks, particularly those relating to broadband, because improving broadband reception in rural communities will help their economy. Is he as concerned as I am about the apparent reluctance of BT to pay its full contribution to funding the roll-out of superfast broadband?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I cannot think of any measure that we are undertaking that will do more to help a whole range of economic activities in rural areas. I had a meeting with Ian Livingston, the chairman of BT Group, the week before last. We also discussed the issue in Cabinet, and the Prime Minister himself chaired a meeting on it this week. This is an absolute priority for the Government. We are determined to reach the target of 90% of premises being connected to superfast broadband, with the remainder having a standard of 2 megabits. If my hon. Friend has data on issues affecting BT, he should write to me.

17. Does the Secretary of State accept that, according to the Government’s own estimates, the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will take £250 million out of national rural economies and hit 14,000 workers in Wales? Will he listen to what people are saying outside the House about that abolition, and in particular will he listen to what is being said about it in another place, so that he understands the strong feeling that the proposal should be rejected? (139079)

I am afraid that I just disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. The board is a dinosaur relic from 1948. The rural economy is now dynamic. Those in agriculture are skilled people—cowmen are like hen’s teeth, and skilled tractor drivers are in demand—and many of them are paid well over the minimum wage, which did not exist in 1948.

11. In December, I was delighted officially to reopen the Trawden post office in my constituency, which has been modernised and has extended opening hours, thanks to investment from the Government. Will my right hon. Friend say more about what he is doing with Ministers from other Departments to support small businesses in rural areas, such as the Trawden post office? (139072)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As a previous secretary of the all-party group on sub-post offices, I wholeheartedly concur with and support what he says. Unlike the last Government, we have supported sub-post offices. There has just been an agreement on the subject with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency and the Department for Transport, and I talk regularly to my Cabinet counterparts about the benefits that rural post offices bring to the rural economy.

If the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished, about £250 million will be removed from the rural economy according to the Government’s own figures. Prime Minister Thatcher never did it; neither did John Major, and the Minister of State signed parliamentary motions against the abolition—that was before the ministerial trappings trapped him. What does the Secretary of State say to the tens of thousands of lowest-paid farm workers who may face a race to the bottom in pay and conditions because, after a four-week consultation, he knows better than them?

I am just sorry that the Labour party wants to head back to the 1940s. I see a dynamic, growing structure in our rural economy. In contrast, will the hon. Gentleman join me in celebrating the £19 million investment by Müller Dairy in a butter plant that will turn 100 million litres of milk into 45 million tonnes of butter? That will stop import substitution and bring jobs to rural areas. [Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) should preserve his melodic tones for when he is on his feet, rather than in his seat.

The coalition Government have brought a welcome fresh impetus to rural economic growth, but skills shortages are still a problem. Will the Secretary of State share with the House the benefits that the skills and knowledge framework fund of £20 million could bring?

I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend back in her seat and now released to ask pertinent questions, such as the one she just asked. She makes a key point—that we will not grow the rural economy if we do not have suitably trained and skilled young people, and the measure she mentioned is vital in developing the right taskforce for the right jobs.