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Mr. David Nicholson: All the measures that my right hon. Friend has spoken about so far give the lie to all those who rather sniffily said that there would be no flesh on or money devoted to the White Paper on rural areas.

On the specific powers of parish councils, could he be more positive about the ability of those parishes that raise extra money for a special parish constable to employ that person in their area, such as Exmoor in my constituency, instead of him being hived off to Bristol? Secondly, on planning powers, and going back to our discussion about garages and village shops, will parishes have the power to stop garages opening up as a shop as well, which would then compete with and possibly have a destructive effect on the village shop, as recently happened at Wheddon Cross in my constituency?

Mr. Gummer: The second part of my hon. Friend's question does not relate so much to the village garage, but to chains of garages which are increasingly seeking to offer retail provisions as well as to sell petrol. I am watching that pattern carefully. I do not think, however, that it is a matter for parish councils.

Mr. Vaz: Oh!

Mr. Gummer: It is about time the hon. Gentleman came clean with the House. He appears to be going round the country giving comfort to various large retailers by saying that, if there were a Labour Government, there would be no problems about restrictions on out-of-town shopping centres. That is widely reported, and it does not appear to be as widely denied. That is interesting.

Mr. Vaz: Wait and see.

Mr. Gummer: I do not have to wait, because those circumstances will not arise. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall not change my views after the election, when I shall continue to be in a position to make sure that such developments do not happen.

As for the other question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), the contract for the parish constable will be a local one. A parish constable is different from a special constable, who is at the beck and call of the chief constable. In my area, that special constable often finds himself policing the Ipswich Town football match at Portman road rather than patrolling the small village that he had hoped to look after.

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That local contract will enable someone to opt for the real village policing that we are particularly keen to support. The envisaged arrangements make it possible for that to happen.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: I must get on--

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Just for half a minute.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Gummer: I rather think that you, Madam Speaker, would wish me to draw my remarks to a conclusion soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett Bowman) and I are as one on the issues. I want to make progress, because the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras has spent a lot of time asking me to get on because I have said some rather uncomfortable things about him, which I notice he has not so far denied.

There are some real problems about parish councils, because at the moment they cannot easily be formed.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): Whose fault is that?

Mr. Gummer: Many people would like to have a parish, but the system is arcane and out of date. Although there are already 10,000 parishes in England, of which 8,000 have parish councils, there are areas without parishes where local feelings strongly favour the creation of a parish council to reflect the clear local identity and sense of community. That is natural where a community is well established and settled. The hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) might listen to what I intend to do to help to make that possible.

Demographic changes over the decades mean that some existing parishes no longer properly reflect the shape of the local community or local identities. Such areas want not a new parish but a different, specific area to be included in that parish. We therefore want a flexible system to deal with parish reviews.

Under the current system, even the smallest amendment to a parish area requires the full weight of the Local Government Commission's consideration. Here I might find common cause with the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, because that commission is perhaps not always the organisation to which so small a matter should be referred. We have included provisions in the Bill to make it much easier to react to local demand for new parishes and alterations to existing ones.

The Bill enables district councils to review parish arrangements and to recommend new parishes or parish boundary changes directly to the Secretary of State. In addition, electors will be able to start a process leading to a new parish for an unparished area by means of a public petition. We must, of course, be sure that such a petition represents broad measure of support for a new parish. Under the terms of the Bill, as long as a petition is signed by 250 people, or 10 per cent. of the electors for the proposed parish, whichever is the greater, that will set the ball rolling.

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There is also provision in the Bill to enable me to direct the Local Government Commission to conduct a review of parishing arrangements only. At present, I cannot do that, and such a review has to be part of a much bigger exercise. We shall shortly issue draft guidance for consultation to explain what the basis for a new parish should be.

The measures in the Bill will mean that it will be far easier to respond to local opinion where there is demand for a new parish or changes to existing arrangements. The Bill enables us to direct help to the very parts of the rural world where help is most needed.

In the preparation of the rural White Paper, which has been widely welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, we consulted widely. Since its publication, an enormous number of meetings have taken place all over the United Kingdom to discuss those issues, with the result that we now know even more about people's concerns. I recently published the first anniversary report to set out what we had done to fulfil our promises in the rural White Paper. Part of that report refers to the Bill.

The Bill makes sure that we can help the rural post office, village shop, garage or local pub. It enables us to give parish councils greater powers, and makes sure that those who are dependent on the life and the livelihood of country sports will not find themselves rated. It ensures that parish councils can be set up because people want them, and not after an enormously complicated and arcane process. Above all, it is designed to ensure that the parish council plays a much more important role in British society than it has until now.

I believe in subsidiarity--[Hon. Members: "Oh."]--but I notice that most people think that subsidiarity is all right when it means taking power from people on a superior rung of the system, but they are not terribly good at pushing the power down to people on lower rungs. I notice that district councils are keen to take county council or Government powers, but less eager to hand them on to school governors, hospital trusts or, indeed, parish councils. The Bill is designed to ensure that parish councils play a more important role in our lives. That is right, and I commend the Bill to the House.

4.31 pm

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): The Bill covers mainly local government and rating in rural areas, as the Secretary of State has been at infinite pains to point out. It was introduced to put right things that are wrong in rural areas, and there are certainly many things that need to be put right. Over the past 17 years, little attention has been paid to the problems faced by people living in rural areas. Many of those problems have got much worse, some are getting worse and some are a direct result of Government policies.

Just look at the record. Crime has more than doubled in rural areas. Unemployment has risen more sharply in rural areas than elsewhere. Homelessness has doubled in rural England and rural Wales; in rural Scotland, it has trebled--yet still the Government stop councils building houses. Deregulation has deprived hundreds of villages of any bus service at all. Village schools have disappeared because the Government forced local education

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authorities to get rid of surplus places. Small local hospitals and cottage hospitals have been swept away and village shops have closed.

The Local Government and Rating Bill is a belated recognition that those things have gone wrong. It has been described by some as a confession of failure, because it highlights the Government's failures. If the Bill is a confession, it is a signed confession. It carries the names of the guilty on the back page: the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Transport, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Wales have all had to sign the confession. For some curious reason, however, this Bill dealing with rural areas does not carry the name of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It has been suggested by one of my less pleasant hon. Friends that another confession of failure on his part would probably be the final straw.

If the Secretary of State does not like my calling his Bill a confession of failure, it might be more pleasing to his ecclesiastical habit of mind if I were to call it a deathbed conversion. The Government have been in power for 910 weeks and now, with a maximum of 26 weeks to go before the election, they have seen the light, recognised the harm that they are doing to our green and pleasant land and, belatedly, started to put things right.

The Bill is both a confession of failure and a deathbed conversion, but I believe that it is intended to be something different--an attempted plea bargain by the Government. They hope that, if they plead guilty and promise to start making restitution, voters in rural areas will not punish them at the general election. Apparently, the Conservatives intend to fight the next election on the slogan "Better late than never".

This belated Bill will not save the Tory party from the consequences of action and inaction, which have left rural communities in their present state. The Bill provides much too little, far too late. It does not relate to many of the problems that afflict local communities. Its proposals will not be enough to solve the problems to which it relates, and it will force local people to pay for most of the improvements that it intends to make.

In the Bill, the Government are not making restitution for what has gone wrong. The Bill proposes to change the law so that the victims of the Government's rural policies will be permitted to spend their own money, to put right the things that the Government have got wrong. The Government are telling local communities, "If you have a problem, put it on the parish rate."

For 17 years, the Conservatives have said that market forces can solve everything and have claimed to be the low-taxation party, but in the Bill they acknowledge that market forces cannot meet all the needs of rural communities, and propose instead a new local tax that local people must pay for putting things right in their area. It is the Government's 23rd new tax since the previous general election.

The Bill provides that, through parish councils, local people can, at their own expense, promote crime prevention and local transport services. We favour the idea of local communities being able to take such initiatives, but we need to consider the scale of what is proposed against the scale of the problems.

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A tidal wave of crime has engulfed many rural areas in the past few years. Places where local people were proud to be able to leave doors unlocked, or even open, are increasingly besieged by thieves. Villages are robbed and burgled. Organised gangs knock off huge truckloads of livestock, chicken's eggs, or--as will happen in a month or two--Christmas trees.

In rural areas, the increases in crime are enormous. In Gloucestershire, crime has more than trebled, with violent crime up by 260 per cent.

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