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Rural Economy

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 7 March 2013

Stimulating economic growth is the top priority for this Government. We want to see rural areas contributing to and benefiting from that growth. A £165 million package of measures from the 2011 rural economy growth review is helping rural communities. We are improving superfast broadband infrastructure in the remotest areas and boosting key sectors such as tourism. We are increasing export potential and unlocking barriers to growth by removing red tape.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He is right that superfast broadband is one of the key drivers of growth in the rural community. York and North Yorkshire have made great progress on delivering the Government’s target of 90% coverage by 2015. However, there is a danger that the digital divide could widen for some rural communities in the other 10% of cases. Will my hon. Friend do all he can to push the case for those rural communities?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We must make sure that the advantages of high-speed broadband reach every community across the country, which is exactly what we are determined to do in time. The good news is that we are reaching an extra 100,000 households a week, so they now have the opportunity to use high-speed broadband. I think that is very good news and we will, of course, continue to roll out the programme across the country.

If the Minister is so committed to boosting rural growth, why is he taking out of the pockets of poor agricultural workers a quarter of a billion pounds by abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, which was opposed by two thirds of those in the consultation, including many farmers?

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about the consequences. I note that in the other place yesterday evening, their lordships, having carefully considered the evidence, supported the Government’s position.

Last night at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on cheese, the Minister was able to see a wide array of excellent British cheeses, which are highly regarded in the world markets. I know that the Secretary of State has done good work promoting British cheese in China. What other countries will the Department target on behalf of these excellent British products?

I think we have to do everything we can to promote excellent British products. Indeed, I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend said about cheese. I was delighted to see cheese from my own constituency on display at last night’s meeting, but I was even more delighted only last week to see cheese produced only four miles from where I live on display in Dubai at the biggest international trade fair in the world. We were promoting the interests of British business, and over 60 businesses were there. I will also be pleased to join British companies in promoting good British produce in Bangkok next week.

The Minister will be aware of a good article and the very fine speech given just this week to the Engineering Employers Federation by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Much of what he is saying would regenerate the rural economy, but he is also a passionate supporter of crowd funding and crowd sourcing, which many of us see as a regenerative tool in towns and in the rural economy. What does the Minister think of that?

I think that any tool that is effective in urban areas is likely to be effective in rural areas as well. I have repeatedly sought to make the point not only that rural areas must not miss out on economic regeneration but that they are in many ways in a position to lead, as they have a huge contribution to make. I want to ensure that every single community in this country has the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of economic growth as it develops.

The residents of 22 villages in the borough of Kettering are concerned about petrol and diesel prices, rural crime and the access to and cost of off-grid energy, as well as access to rural broadband. What representations to the relevant Government Departments has my hon. Friend made on those important issues?

This Department has a responsibility for rural proofing across government, which means that we continually have a dialogue with other Departments about all the factors that have the potential to hold back individuals, businesses and communities in rural areas. The hon. Gentleman may be assured that we constantly make the point that we must have a clear regard for the more than 80% of the landmass that is rural Britain. It comprises only 20% of the population, but it is nevertheless enormously important to the fabric of this country.

How I wish that I had a pair of the Minister’s rose-tinted spectacles. In fact, the Government’s national economic strategy is shot; rural growth is further constrained by inflation running at double the national average, higher costs of living and working; and the slow roll-out of rural broadband is leading to open warfare around the Cabinet table. How does the Minister believe that taking another quarter of a billion pounds out of the rural economy and the pockets of low-paid farm workers by scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board will jump-start the rural economy?

I spent 13 years on the Opposition Benches trying to press the case for rural areas. The then Labour Government did not listen to what was said in rural areas then, and I note that the hon. Gentleman is not listening now to the realities of what is happening in those areas and the realities of what is happening in the agricultural industry. If he did, he would take a very different position.