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Rural Development Commission

11. Mr. Colvin: What discussions he had with the Deputy Prime Minister about the impact on farming of the abolition of the Rural Development Commission. [22312]

Dr. John Cunningham: The Rural Development Commission has not been abolished. The Regional Development Agencies Bill recently laid before the House, which provides for setting up regional development agencies, would transfer the RDC's rural regeneration functions to those bodies. I am confident that the needs of rural areas will be properly addressed under the arrangements proposed.

Mr. Colvin: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. However, will he take the opportunity to applaud the valuable work done by the Rural Development Commission, under the excellent leadership of the noble Lord Shuttleworth, in helping the diversification of farming enterprises and the rural economy generally? In the current crisis in farming, such help is required as never before, so can the right hon. Gentleman give the House a guarantee that the proposed urban-based regional development agencies will be able to fulfil those functions as well as the RDC has done?

Dr. Cunningham: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the Rural Development Commission and to Charles Shuttleworth, with whom I and my constituents have had a long and productive relationship. The Rural Development Commission did excellent work in west Cumbria in general and in my constituency in particular, and I am happy to pay tribute to it for that work and commitment.

The regional development agencies will have a true regional remit--for rural communities as well as urban areas--and at least one member of the board will be appointed specifically to address the problems of rural areas, especially rural communities.

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I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's final point. Most of the work of the Rural Development Commission was not to do with agriculture per se; it was to do with economic development in rural communities.

Mr. Beith: Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that farmers' families and farm workers' families cannot continue to live in remote rural areas such as those that he and I represent unless there are rural services? Does he acknowledge that, in the most remote rural areas, the Rural Development Commission concentrated much of its effort on rural services, village shops, village workshops, transport and postal services, and that that work must continue? There is genuine concern that, given the major urban problems in regions such as his and mine, it will take a very considerable effort to ensure that that work continues.

Dr. Cunningham: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says. He and especially his constituents have experienced, as I have, the real benefits of the successful programmes of the Rural Development Commission. The commission remains the Government's rural development agency, with a statutory duty to continue to advise the Government, and I am determined that we should continue to have not only expert advice, but expertise in the micro-economies of rural communities and rural areas, for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman has given.

Beef Imports

12. Mr. Walter: If he will make a statement on beef imports from the European Union. [22313]

Mr. Rooker: Imports of beef from other member states will continue to be permitted provided that the beef has been produced in accordance with harmonised European Community rules on the production and marketing of fresh meat and complies with United Kingdom rules that require that specified risk materials be removed before import.

Mr. Walter: In answer to an earlier question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Minister pointed out that we could make only spot checks on beef imports from the European Union. He did not quantify those checks. How many Ministry officials are involved in that procedure, how many spot checks have been made and how much material has been rejected?

Mr. Rooker: I cannot give precise answers to those detailed questions, but I shall ensure that I write to the hon. Gentleman--I hope before close of play today. We have taken measures within the Department, in advance of the Europewide ban on specified risk materials that will come into effect from 1 April, to ensure that we can--if you like--beef up our checks at the ports of entry. In that way, we shall have better surveillance of the paperwork involved and more random checks on incoming loads.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is the Minister aware that, if there is no country-of-origin marking and no efficient enforcement, checking on the paperwork will not ensure anything as the European Union has a long and hallowed tradition of cheating in its paperwork first, last and always? Will the

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Minister please ask for the immediate return of country-of-origin marking to the statute book so that people may know what they are buying?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is partly right. The beef labelling scheme will be introduced in this country from spring this year on a voluntary basis. It will become compulsory from 2000. In answer to the first part of my hon. Friend's question, random checks on beef supplies as well as on the paperwork will take place.


The Attorney-General was asked--

Fraud (Further Education and Training Funds)

29. Mr. Skinner: What discussions he has had with the Crown Prosecution Service regarding fraud in respect of Further Education Funding Council funds and training programmes. [22331]

The Attorney-General (Mr. John Morris): I meet the Director of Public Prosecutions frequently to discuss matters of mutual interest. It is not my practice to disclose the subject matter of our discussions.

Mr. Skinner: At their next meeting, will my right hon. and learned Friend urge the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate training programmes in Britain, especially with regard to 1995 and 1996 and a programme conducted by a firm called Link, which was subsequently taken over by CRT? CRT is an arm of a subsidiary controlled by Michael Milken, the American junk bond dealer. CRT is claiming the outstanding sum of £3.2 million in taxpayers' money for bogus tutoring; one tutor supposedly worked for 94 hours in 14 different locations on a single day. There are thousands of other similar claims. Milken and his company have had the cheek to tell the people of north Derbyshire that they are not allowed to speak about the matter and have served them with an injunction while claiming £3.2 million from the taxpayer. It is one of the biggest scams that occurred in the last few months of the previous Tory Government and it is time to investigate the matter properly.

The Attorney-General: I have noted my hon. Friend's remarks. It is for the police to investigate allegations of possible criminal conduct. If such evidence is found, it will be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of a prosecution. The CPS will bring a prosecution if there is sufficient evidence to sustain the realistic prospect of a conviction and if it is in the public interest. The more serious the offence, the more likely it is that prosecution will be necessary in the public interest.

Crown Prosecution Service

30. Mr. Bayley: What plans the Government have to reform the Crown Prosecution Service. [22332]

The Attorney-General: The Government remain committed to restructuring the CPS into 42 areas, but the interim advice that we have received from the Glidewell

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review team is that that cannot take effect until 1 December 1998 at the earliest. I now expect to receive the full report in March.

Mr. Bayley: Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House what steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to prepare for the implementation of the Narey proposals to ensure that offenders appear in court to face the consequences of their wrongdoing more quickly?

The Attorney-General: There are a number of fast-tracking initiatives around the country involving young offenders, in which the CPS plays a key role. The White Paper on reforming the youth justice system gives examples of two schemes in Middlesbrough and north Hampshire. The north Hampshire scheme has reduced the average time between charge and first appearance from 69 to 44 days, and the average time between charge and sentence has been brought down from 133 to 89 days. That is an encouraging development, which shows what can be achieved by co-operation between agencies. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with that.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: We look forward to Sir Iain Glidewell's report. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman asked him to carry out his study into the Crown Prosecution Service, including the important matter of relations between the CPS and the police, he found it necessary to use some rather strangulated wording to ask Sir Iain to

Can the Attorney-General assure the House that Sir Iain will be able to look at the picture in the round and see what is happening in the police, which I am sure they would welcome, as well as in the CPS? We could then be sure that the CPS and the police work closely together, so that what is done in the CPS is known right back to the constable on the beat or the officer on the case, and vice versa.

The Attorney-General: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. We want to ensure the maximum co-operation between the CPS and the police. He and I will recall that, at the start of the CPS, there were always differences of view on who was responsible for this failure or that failure. We have moved to create 42 areas of the CPS which are coterminous with the police areas. A former inspector of constabulary is a member of the Glidewell team, and will be deeply aware of the need to ensure maximum co-operation between the two agencies.

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