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7.49 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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    and believes the Government's inclusive and strategic approach to planning, housing, transport, countryside protection, welfare and economic policies will achieve more sustainable and equitable patterns of both urban and rural development; recognises that this Government is planning for economic success and that there is an opportunity to use growth to create better and more sustainable communities and improve the quality of life; welcomes the Government's move away from the previous 'predict and provide' approach to housing provision and the introduction of a 'plan, monitor and manage' policy; supports the Government's target of building 60 per cent. of all new housing on previously developed land; and welcomes the Government's determination to ensure that the whole country shares in the benefits of economic recovery."

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on his new appointment to the Opposition Front Bench. That said, the hon. Gentleman may feel a little apprehensive knowing that he is the fourth shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in less than three years.

May I also say how disappointed I am that the hon. Gentleman has declined to open tonight's debate, despite the trail on the "Today" programme, which indicated that this was to be his great opening event? In case it is suggested that that was, perhaps, due to the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister is not opening the debate, let me say that it was made clear last week that I would be doing so. It was also made clear that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) would be opening for the Opposition. Clearly, he is not available and it is interesting that his successor has not chosen to open the debate.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells is too modest. Perhaps he is aware that he is inadequately briefed on a difficult subject; or perhaps he has been too busy with his business interests. No doubt the Leader of the Opposition--who I understand worked closely with him when they were at McKinsey's--was well aware of the extensive business interests of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells when he made the appointment, not least his association with Asda and the US giant Wal-Mart.

I hear that the hon. Gentleman announced this afternoon that he is giving up his directorship and consultancy post with Asda. I welcome that, although I question whether it is right that he should retain a major shareholding in Wal-Mart which, as the House knows, has substantial interests in the retail sector and planning issues, which are highly relevant to the subject of this debate.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I assume that the Minister will shortly come to the substance of the debate and move on from these dreary and pathetic issues. Is he aware that the major shareholding to which he referred is 0 per cent?

Mr. Raynsford: I am pleased to hear that. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us about his shareholding--

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During my time in the House, if Ministers, or anyone else, say something that is denied, they usually substantiate it or apologise and withdraw. The Minister should do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is entirely a matter for the Minister.

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) had not leapt up intemperately,

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I was about to say that I was pleased to hear that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells had done so. I was acting on the basis of the "Register of Members' Interests", which was prepared on 1 December 1999 and which declared under "Registrable shareholdings" a holding by the hon. Gentleman in Wal-Mart. If the hon. Gentleman has disposed of his shares since then, I am pleased to hear it, but I hope that he will accept that I spoke in good faith on the basis of the latest available information in that register.

The House should pay attention to such matters. I think that we would also welcome an indication of the hon Gentleman's intentions for his other directorships--in companies such as French plc, Maybeat Ltd., Knutsford, and the wonderfully named Nocktwice. This is an important issue, which is not only of concern to the House. As The Times said today, the hon. Gentleman's business connections would be

Mr. Baldry: We are all genuinely pleased to see the Minister back in much better health. However, my constituents will not understand this knockabout. Concerns on the Crow report are such that parish churches in certain villages are the only buildings that are large enough to hold the public meetings to complain about the report--such a thing has not happened for a long time. As part of the consultation process under the draft regional planning guidance, I invite the Minister to visit Oxfordshire to hear at first hand the concerns of the people who live there about the impact of the new planning guidance on our county.

Mr. Raynsford: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. As he will know, we are considering carefully the recommendations of both the Serplan report and the Crow panel and we will make our decisions clear in the near future. Until we do so, it is not appropriate for us to participate in any public debate. However, we will be happy to debate the issue fully subsequently. Also, it is a matter of concern in the House and throughout the country that our decisions on matters as important as this should be taken impartially and solely from the point of view of the public interest. There should be no question of any other interest influencing our decisions.

I gather that, when the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells was at Asda, he used to--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I trust that the Minister will agree that it is time to move on. He is supposed to be speaking to the amendment and I trust that he will do just that.

Mr. Raynsford: I will come immediately to the point in hand. I was simply observing the absence of the shadow Secretary of State from the Dispatch Box when the Conservative party announced on the "Today" programme this morning that this would be his first test--a test that he has spectacularly failed.

Whoever dreamt up the title of tonight's debate, "The Two Britains", could have done with some help. Presumably, the right hon. Member for Wokingham decided to use this echo of Disraeli. I will miss him at the Dispatch Box, but I suppose that it is not surprising that,

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unsure of his future in a turbulent and demoralised Conservative Party, the right hon. Gentleman should be desperately hankering after past glories in turning to Disraeli for inspiration. Whoever chose the title, he clearly did not spend much time reading Disraeli. Had he done so, he could hardly have failed to recognise Disraeli's powerful message and how different that was from the simplistic, badly researched and unconvincing case put across by the official Opposition this evening--a pale sad shadow of the Conservative party, which was a party of government.

The two nations of which Disraeli spoke:

were not dwellers in different regions--north and south. They lived in close proximity to each other in almost every corner of Victorian Britain. They were, of course, the rich and the poor. The shocking division between rich and poor that Disraeli chronicled remains all too visible.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It sounds as though the Minister is describing the difference between old and new Labour.

Mr. Raynsford: I was describing the difference between the glorious days of the Conservative party in the time of Disraeli and its sad, pale shadow today.

That was the division that Disraeli described. It was not between north and south, but between rich and poor. Those divisions got much wider under the 18 years of Conservative Government, despite their--[Interruption.] Let us look at the previous Government's record on employment region by region between 1979 and 1995. Employment in the north was down 10.6 per cent.; in the north-west, 11.4 per cent.; in Yorkshire and Humberside, 5.8 per cent.; in London, 11 per cent.; and, in the west midlands, 9.7 per cent.

There is more. Under the Tories, the top 10th of the population got almost two thirds better off, while the bottom 10th became 17 per cent. worse off. In 1994, the gap between the highest and lowest paid worker was higher than at any time since records began in 1886, just five years after Disraeli's death. That was the Conservative Government's record on dividing the nation, and that is the legacy which the Government have inherited.

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