My Lords, employment will be boosted in all areas by national initiatives to promote economic growth. Support for apprenticeships will provide the skills that employers need, while welfare reforms will help people into work. In England, a £165 million package to stimulate rural growth includes five pilot rural growth networks and funding to transform rural business performers. Investment and action to improve rural broadband and network services will support rural economic growth and employment opportunities. I declare an interest as the owner of a farm, and therefore involved in rural businesses.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response, as far as it goes. There was no mention of rural employment in today’s Autumn Statement. The Chancellor referred to the interesting report of the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, on growth, yet the only mention of rural issues was a passing reference to European funds and to the paltry £15 million being spent on the five rural growth network pilots that the Minister mentioned. However, my question to the Minister is on those five networks. The first job created by Labour’s Future Jobs Fund was for a young farm worker in Wiltshire. Will the Minister tell me how many rural jobs the rural growth network has generated to date?
My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord a specific answer on that, but I will try to give him an answer that is of interest to the south-west of England. The South-West Skills Programme offers vocational and technical training opportunities for farmers, foresters and agrifeed businesses. The programme has provided training for a total of 9,497 trainees.
My Lords, for many years I was lucky enough to be chairman of the Rural Development Commission. One key policy that we recognised was the cost of getting to work. Today the Chancellor, by reducing, or rather holding, fuel duty, has enabled many more rural people to be able to afford to run a car. That is a key component of rural employment, and I congratulate him.
Yes, my Lords. I will give more examples of how the Autumn Statement will benefit rural growth. We will extend small business rates relief for a further 12 months from 1 April 2013, benefiting more than 500,000 small businesses. We will devolve a greater proportion of growth-related spending to local areas from April 2015. We will provide further support to businesses and motorists, which my noble friend referred to, by cancelling the fuel duty increase that was planned for 1 January 2013, and we will defer the 2013-14 increase to 1 September 2013. We will ensure that businesses—particularly small businesses—can access finance and support.
Given that 98% of rural employment is not related to farming, will the Minister outline the strategy for encouraging small businesses in our towns, villages and hamlets by increasing broadband coverage and better transport links? In addition, has he thought of the idea of business advocates for the countryside to encourage the formation of small businesses?
The noble Lord raises a very good point about broadband. I absolutely agree with him on that. The rollout of superfast broadband infrastructure is vital to boosting sustainable economic growth and creating jobs in rural areas. Online business, whether rural or urban, grow four to eight times faster than their offline counterparts. Broadband is a key government priority. We are working to deliver the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015, backed by a £530 million government investment to support rural areas.
My Lords, tourism turnover in the rural economy is nearly three times that of agriculture. Yesterday at Westminster, the Cut Tourism VAT campaign was launched, supported by the whole of the industry. Compared with our 20% rate, accommodation VAT is 10% in Italy, 8% in Spain and 7% in France and Germany. As a former Treasury Minister, does my noble friend appreciate that independent reports indicate that a cut in VAT on accommodation would boost Exchequer revenues, boost tourism and thus boost employment in the rural economy?
My noble friend has rather overpromoted me. However, in answer to his question, the Government recognise the importance of tourism to rural employment. I do not think that we can go as far as he asked, but the Rural Economy Growth Review showed that tourism is a significant contributor to the rural economy, with potential for significant further growth. Before the Autumn Statement, the Government announced a £25 million initiative to promote rural tourism and to support rural tourism businesses.
My Lords, further to that response, which is very important for the tourism industry, does the Minister agree that in view of that importance of tourism to the rural economy, his department should join with other departments in putting pressure on the Home Office to address the issue of visas to Chinese visitors, who are a vital component of inbound trade? Does he agree that that action needs to be taken urgently?
My Lords, is it not the case that in rural areas village shops provide a valuable social good for many people, especially those without motor cars? Perhaps we may hope for recognition that the supermarkets, more distant but very powerful as they are, simply cannot hope to provide that sort of service. May we hope that the Government’s policies for rural areas will reflect the special value of village shops?
Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with my noble and learned friend. We recognise the importance of rural service outlets such as village shops, post offices and pubs in sustaining strong and thriving rural communities. New community rights are being introduced that will allow local assets such as village shops to be put on the local asset register, giving communities first option to bid for them if they are under threat. In rural settlements with a population of less than 3,000 where there is only one retail outlet, it will receive rural rate relief. Consumer Focus is identifying rural issues as part of its help with the Post Office Local model. In 2012, Defra supported a number of community shops through the RDPE programme.