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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Does the hon. Gentleman speak with the authority of the Member in charge of the Bill?

Mr. Thomas: Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have the authority of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

To be read a Second time on Friday 27 April.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: Not moved.

Point of Order

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are honoured to see the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the Chamber. It would be helpful if he could make a statement to the House at this beleaguered time. Changes have been announced in grants to the tourism industry, and a lot of hon. Members have called for a statement. There is huge concern across the country about the tremendous problems that will face the tourism industry over the coming bank holiday weekend. We have not had a statement on foot and mouth in the House this week. Given that the Secretary of State is here--certainly for the first time I have seen him this week--is it possible for him to make a statement now?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I have had no notice to the effect that any Minister is desirous of making a statement. Those on the Government Front Bench will have heard what the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) had to say.

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Ministry of Rural Development

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

2.34 pm

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I am pleased to have an opportunity to set out my vision for the future of how the countryside should be governed. The debate is about proposals for a ministry of rural development, but it might better refer to a department for rural development. It is time that the post of Secretary of State was established to oversee the countryside.

For several weeks on our television screens and in our newspapers, we have witnessed the carnage caused by the foot and mouth crisis. I do not criticise the conduct during the epidemic of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: I believe that he has battled tirelessly to control that dreadful disease. Nor do I blame the hard-working vets and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials on the ground who are working flat out to contain foot and mouth through the slaughter policy.

In recent years, MAFF has improved systems of control beyond all measure to ensure that we can have safe food that is traceable to an individual animal. Our systems are now some of the best in the world. I do not want to pre-empt any recommendations that might result from a public inquiry, but as a member for four years of the Select Committee on Agriculture I have witnessed the successes and failings of MAFF.

Four Whitehall Departments are trying in different ways to tackle the effects of the disease. A radically new approach is needed. We cannot achieve a properly integrated approach when rural tourism is overseen by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the rural economy and jobs are promoted by the Department of Trade and Industry, the countryside is managed by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and MAFF retains overview of farming and agribusiness. In The Times this morning, I noticed an advertisement that, rightly, promotes visiting the countryside. It refers to co-ordination of Government policy and bears the logos of all four main Government Departments involved. That is symptomatic of the problems facing the mechanics of government. We need a new department for rural development that will bring together all those elements, managed by new civil servants and led by a new Secretary of State.

In the past four, difficult years, the Government have done much to help rural areas and have shown that they genuinely care about the countryside. The rural White Paper was widely welcomed as a blueprint for the future. It sets out the minimum standards that can be expected for rural services; sets 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief for village shops, pubs and garages; and promises more affordable houses and more help for small abattoirs, backed by £1 billion of taxpayers' money. The rural development plan provides £1.6 billion over the next six years for the rural economy and environment and for rural communities.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has delivered new protection for our environment and wildlife. The Government are rapidly expanding funding for rural policing: through a combination of reorganisation and extra money, we in the Shrewsbury division have put

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50 additional bobbies on the beat since 1997. The Government are backing that with record increases in funding for village schools and rural buses, and new policies to protect rural post offices and keep village schools open.

None the less, rural areas face continuing crises that have resulted in farm incomes plummeting and too many services continuing to be lost. In the past 30 years, there has been a slow and steady decrease in the number of village schools, post offices, banks, pubs and shops. Rural bus services were devastated by deregulation, and train services to villages are almost non-existent. Rural areas have been hit hard by escalating fuel costs, although the Government have now ended the fuel tax escalator and cut duties. Furthermore, recent flooding has wrecked businesses and farms: in my constituency, some businesses have been hit six times by flooding from the River Severn.

There are now greater public expectations and demands--in normal circumstances--for better access to the countryside for leisure pursuits, which creates problems for the working environment and new opportunities. Make no mistake, there are no easy solutions. No Government can wave a magic wand and sort out all the complicated issues and problems affecting our countryside.

How do other countries govern their countryside differently? The Library has uncovered the following information. Ireland has a Department of Agriculture and Forestry that deals with farming, forestry, rural development and the rural environment. France has a Department of the Countryside and Forests that co-ordinates rural issues such as planning, water management, land use and protection of the environment, and deals with public rural services and the rural economy. Austria has a federal Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which covers farming, forestry, water management, plant protection and fishing, and is committed to improving the quality of life in rural areas. Australia has a dedicated Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which includes the Bureau of Rural Sciences for Sustainable Development, the rural communities programme--covering such issues as counselling services for farming communities, grant support and rural business advice--and a rural partnership programme for economic development.

The United States Department of Agriculture even has a dedicated rural development Under-Secretary, who deals with rural utilities, housing and businesses. There are 36 state rural development councils, co-ordinated by a national rural development council.

In many countries, the rural remit is already encompassed within Departments, allowing a more co-ordinated and integrated approach. Both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have taken steps to develop an integrated rural approach--now, it is England's turn.

To take such an approach would send a strong, positive signal to the countryside that the Government place rural issues at the top of their agenda. The Prime Minister has already taken the lead by postponing local elections and adopting a hands-on approach to tackling foot and mouth disease, for which he is to be commended. However, in future, we need a Secretary of State with the tools at his disposal, so that No. 10 does not have to spend so much time criss-crossing Whitehall to get the job done.

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The decision to create such a department for England would lie solely with the Prime Minister. However, I hope that the debate on a new countryside department can begin in earnest. Since my election in 1997, I have consistently argued that we need a radical, new approach. In 1998, with the cross-party support of more than 60 MPs, I tabled an early-day motion calling for the establishment of a new ministry. As a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture, I have taken every opportunity to lobby for it.

Some of my urban colleagues have suggested that a new department is not required. However, when we have a Scottish Parliament, Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and, importantly, a London Mayor and a Greater London Assembly, the minority in the rural areas of England needs a strong voice.

The Institute for Public Policy Research recently proposed sending responsibility for agriculture to the Department of Trade and Industry, with any environmental bits that were left over going to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. That would be an appalling political mistake and would send a terrible signal to rural areas that they are not deemed worthy of their own department. Right now, they need a rural champion at the Cabinet table more than ever.

What would the new department look like? The Secretary of State would be responsible for the overall direction and strategy and for representing the UK on agricultural and rural issues at the European Council of Ministers; and would co-ordinate all aspects of rural policies with other Whitehall Departments and agencies. The new department would take over the remit of the ministerial group on rural affairs from the Cabinet Office.

Some responsibilities would be transferred to the new ministry; while it would provide input for the rural policies of other Departments. The functions of the existing Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would be subsumed into the new department--including European Union agriculture policy reform; farming issues, such as diversification, fisheries, countryside matters, forestry, flood defences, farm animal welfare and genetically modified crops; and MAFF's current agencies. Responsibility for food has already been transferred to the Department of Health under the Food Standards Agency.

The Countryside Agency, which currently pump primes projects in rural areas, would be transferred from the DETR. The new ministry would have input in the DETR's integrated transport policies. Those policies are succeeding--especially the rural bus fund--and should be expanded as a priority. There would also be input in the DETR housing policies. There would need to be close liaison with the regional development agencies and a close relationship with local authorities, including parish councils, to find local solutions.

Responsibility for tourism would be transferred from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Responsibility for rural economic policy would be transferred from the DTI, with input from the new ministry to the DTI--for example, on rural post offices and rural small business policies. Responsibility for rural employment opportunities would be transferred from the Department for Education and Employment and the new ministry would offer the DFEE input on policies for rural

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schools. Finally, responsibility for rural economies should be transferred from the performance and innovation unit to the new ministry.

I hope that a Minister of State in the new department of rural development would be responsible for best practice for job creation and educational opportunities using the latest technology, which can be so useful in rural areas. Obviously, the DETR would have to retain its environmental protection and policing role and a new Select Committee would need to shadow the department. I strongly urge radical reform of the common agricultural policy, so that the new department would spend less time on hands-on bureaucracy and form filling, which MAFF has to do now, and more time on strategy, planning and co-ordination.

Although agriculture and agribusiness will probably continue to employ fewer people directly in farming, there is a golden opportunity for farm diversification and the wider rural economy to expand in a sensitive way after the current crisis. We need a new rural champion at the Cabinet table, with the resources and capability to define and develop a new vision for our countryside. The Secretary of State for rural development would bring together an integrated rural policy for the economy, communities and the environment and would have the power to lobby for fundamental changes to the CAP.

We need a British countryside where young people can find good jobs in a sustainable rural economy; where pensioners have a decent standard of living; where we have the best standards in small village schools, protection for our wildlife and a reduction in pollution; where every village hall or community centre is wired up to the internet; and where small family farms can make a decent living, carving out niche markets for high-quality food products and diversifying into profitable tourism ventures that quietly open up access to the countryside, so that people can see, learn and understand what a beautiful and precious landscape we have. For the sake of our suffering farmers and rural communities, we need to take decisive action now to turn that vision into reality with a new department for rural development.

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