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Mr. Jack: I am grateful to the Minister for giving me this opportunity. Perhaps between now and the close of the debate he will ask his officials to look at the underspend on the sheep annual premium, which possibly amounts to some £200 million. Will he also confirm that if he wishes to apply to the Treasury, he has, with its agreement, the ability within his budget to redirect the money to cover the £60 million shortfall on HLCAs?

Dr. Cunningham: Nevertheless it is true, although the right hon. Gentleman refuses to acknowledge it, that the previous Government made provision for one year and one year only. They made no on-going provision for this expenditure. That is the reality.

Members of the shadow Cabinet have chosen this topic for debate on the forlorn ground that somehow they think it sensible as an area on which to attack the Government. They claim that they represent the countryside and the people who live there. Sadly for them, that is no longer--if it ever was--the case. They misrepresented the countryside. That is true. They misrepresented the countryside so badly that, on 1 May this year, the people in the countryside drove out the Tories in very large numbers and gave huge support to Labour candidates, so much so that Labour Members of Parliament not only represent more rural constituencies than Conservatives these days but represent more rural constituencies than Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put together. If there is any true voice in the countryside at the present time, it is the Labour voice that is speaking up for rural areas.

In Scotland, in rural areas or urban areas, the Tories have no voice in the House. It is the same in Wales. They have been rejected comprehensively by the Scottish and Welsh people, who have supported Labour, by and large, for a generation. I have represented one of the most rural constituencies in England for 27 years. Labour is the real party representing the countryside. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were driven out because of their incompetence over 18 years in failing effectively to serve rural communities.

Let us have a brief resume of the record. Bus deregulation has left rural communities trapped and isolated. That was one of the Conservative Government's brilliant ideas. There was the threat to privatise the Post Office in rural areas and cities, which, fortunately, was headed off by the Post Office workers. There was also a threat to rural railways and housing association homes. The Conservative Government even wanted to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales until they were defeated on that, too, by a combination of the National Farmers Union and the Transport and General Workers Union.

The Conservative Government left high, persistent, levels of unemployment, low incomes and rural deprivation. All that before we even come to their record

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on agriculture or fishing. They were isolated in Europe, devoid of credibility and support where it mattered in European Councils. Common agricultural policy reform was not even on the agenda when they left office. The fishing industry and fish conservation was left in a shambles. In addition, they failed to act on the sale of fishing quota, which went on under their Administration.

Mr. Jack: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cunningham: Not for the moment.

BSE gave rise to a catalogue of indecision and ineptitude, which is taking billions of pounds to rectify, and resulted in a global ban on British beef. The shambles in which the Conservative Government left the British beef industry cost the British taxpayer £1.33 billion last year and will cost more than £2 billion more in the next two to three years, yet the right hon. Gentleman dares to say that the Conservative party speaks for the countryside.

There were disastrous failures in food hygiene and a loss of confidence in food safety and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Conservative Government also had an abysmal record on support for organic farming, the worst in the EU. After 18 years of Conservative government only 0.3 per cent. of our farming is organic.

Labour was elected because of its real commitment to all the British people, including those in the countryside, and to rural issues. We recognise the needs of all those who live and work in rural areas, not just those who wear blue Barbour jackets and green wellies and ride around in Range Rovers, which is the epitome of the forlorn, bedraggled and minor Tory voice left in the British countryside.

Mr. Jack: Is that the best that the right hon. Gentleman can do when it comes to dealing with those on the lowest incomes, such as the hill farmers? [Interruption.] That is the real substance of the debate and the right hon. Gentleman had better get to it. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. The only voice that I should hear is that of the Minister.

Dr. Cunningham: The right hon. Gentleman made a long speech and has already made two interventions. I shall get to the substance of the matter quickly--a lot more quickly than he did.

We recognise the special needs of those who live and work in rural areas and we shall ensure greater protection for wildlife, as well as people, in our rural areas. We recognise that the countryside requires careful stewardship, enabling the needs of people who live and work in rural areas to be met in a sustainable fashion. The previous Administration failed in that regard too.

We support reform of the CAP in order to reduce the burden that it imposes on taxpayers and consumers and to free resources to support the rural economy and enhance the environment. In addition, yes, we will give people greater freedom to explore their countryside. There is no doubt about our commitment to that.

The Government believe that the countryside is a vital national resource and a key part of the economy.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Cunningham: No, not for the moment.

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If the countryside is to be protected and enhanced, we must recognise that its purpose and identity are as important as that of towns and cities. The countryside is the workplace or home for many, as well as a place of recreation for many others. It is also the habitat for much of our wildlife. It is essential that we all strive towards sustainable use of the countryside for this and future generations.

When the right hon. Gentleman said, as he did more than once, that country sports are under threat, he was, again, completely misleading the House. There is no threat to angling or shooting in the countryside. As has already been demonstrated, there is overwhelming support in the House and in the countryside for the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster).

The Government have set out their commitment to opportunity, fairness and prosperity for all, whether they live in cities or rural areas. At the same time, they recognise the distinctive needs of people in rural communities. The Government intend to make rural areas a better place in which to live and work. That is the background against which policy will be formulated. Now I shall address some specific policies.

A healthy rural economy is central to the Government's integrated approach to rural issues. It is important for many reasons--to support our economic growth, for conservation and to combat social exclusion and poverty. Wages are still low and unemployment is still too high everywhere as a result of the Conservative Government's approach, and there are pockets of deprivation in the countryside with high unemployment, often because of the scattered nature of rural communities, the narrow economic base and the shortage of employment and training opportunities.

The Government intend to tackle all those issues in order to help create the conditions necessary to allow rural enterprise to flourish and to develop a diverse and vibrant rural economy.

Our countryside is defined by agriculture which, in turn, is largely shaped by the current system of support. That is why reform of the CAP is a major priority for the Government. To that end, we will work hard and constructively with the European Commission and our European partners, in all the EU institutions, unlike the previous Government, who were such an abysmal failure in Europe that they had no friends and no support for anything that they wanted to do.

The Commission's Agenda 2000 proposals are a welcome step towards that reform and are of major significance for rural policy. The package is not as radical as I would have wished and as the Government would have liked and there are elements in it, such as the proposal to retain milk quotas, which are disappointing. Nevertheless, it is important to have proposals on the agenda and we shall work with our colleagues in the Council and the Commission who want to progress them.

The proposals for rural agri-environment policy are also welcome. In particular, it makes sense to create integrated rural development measures which will apply throughout the Community. That offers the prospect of closer integration between environmental and rural development measures and the availability of a wider range of targeted measures outside those areas qualifying for special help. In those special areas we shall work to ensure that the UK receives a fair share of funding.

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In future, the intention is that eligible rural areas will benefit from objective 1 status, in a similar way to now. Objective 5b, which has benefited a wide range of rural areas, will be phased out, but fragile rural areas will be eligible, along with others, for aid from a new objective 2 proposal. We will work to ensure that the rural parts of those new objective 2 areas receive an appropriate share of the support available.

In the longer term, further reform of the CAP will be necessary, not least as part of the next round of agriculture negotiations in the World Trade Organisation, which is due to start at the beginning of the new century. It is our intention to secure the phasing out of production-linked support. That would yield consumer benefits and substantial budgetary savings, some of which could be used to support targeted schemes to help rural development, rural economies and the rural environment.

We heard much from the right hon. Gentleman about expenditure proposals, but he did not put a price on what he had to say. That is quite a change for a former Treasury Minister who, when in government, used to stand at the Dispatch Box and demand to know the cost of every Opposition proposal. He did not do any costings of his proposal, so I took the precaution of doing some for him.

The right hon. Gentleman misled the House about green pound compensation. I said that £980 million was available under that general heading, but only half of it could come direct from Brussels; the other half would have to come from the United Kingdom. Thanks to the negotiations carried out by the previous Administration, of that Brussels half, 71 per cent. would have to come from the British taxpayer. So the first part of the bill for the right hon. Gentleman's motion is £340 million of extra public expenditure.

The right hon. Gentleman complained about the changes to the over-30-months scheme. If we went back to the status quo, as he seemed to suggest, that would cost another £40 million minimum. He did not put a price on his demands on hill livestock compensatory allowances, but he mentioned a figure of £60 million, so we will add that to the total. That takes us to £440 million of additional public expenditure, which is the cost of the right hon. Gentleman's amendment. Where does he propose that should come from? Tax increases? Does he want it to be taken from other budget headings, such as health, education or training? He made no suggestion about that, because he knows that the whole proposal is so fraudulent as to be laughable. That is the cost of his menu without prices: with prices it is in excess of £400 million.


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