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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 May 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Standing Orders (Private Business)



Standing Order 1, line 46, at end insert--


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Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Rural-Urban Policy Co-ordination

1. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What recent reviews she has undertaken of the co-ordination of Government policy on rural and urban policy. [159095]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): As chair of the ministerial rural affairs group, I have been closely involved with the preparation and implementation of the rural White Paper. Urban policy is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, but we work closely together.

Mr. Hughes: The past few months have revealed considerable Government failings in co-ordinating rural policy. However, will the Minister, in her pivotal role, urgently examine urban policy with her colleagues? Will she try to ensure that, in future, instead of providing different sorts of funding, for which people apply by different means and at different times, there will be one commonly accessible one-stop shop so that people know what is available and can make bids? Local councils could then implement co-ordinated urban policy in their areas.

Marjorie Mowlam: Policies on, for example, drugs and rough sleeping were already co-ordinated across Departments. There is joined-up government on many policies. Urban and rural areas experience problems with health, education and jobs.

We have recently worked closely with local authorities and providers on neighbourhood regeneration schemes. Whatever the policy proposals, the same people are often involved in implementing them. Neighbourhood regeneration is the beginning of joining up government locally to avoid a cluster of policy announcements that people have to implement.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): As a start to policy co-ordination, should not we co-ordinate rural areas with each other so that they receive the same benefits? I am thinking of the effect of foot and mouth disease on tourism and the fact that some rural areas are not listed to receive rate benefits and other provisions. If the map was properly drawn, areas such as north-east Derbyshire might be able to get in on the act.

Marjorie Mowlam: As my hon. Friend knows, we have invested £6 million in advertising tourism, and we hope that tourists will return to urban and rural areas throughout the country. He mentioned rate benefits for shops, pubs, garages and small businesses in villages. They were drawn up according to specific criteria, which will be reviewed. I am sure that his point will be noted.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): In the wake of foot and mouth disease, which has hit rural areas so hard in recent weeks, does the Minister accept that one of the

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co-ordination challenges is ensuring that people in urban areas realise that rural areas are open for visitors? Will she join me in welcoming the news that from Friday, access to Snowdon is likely to be reopened? She will shortly have more time at her disposal, and I invite her to visit and enjoy Snowdon, as we invite thousands of people from all parts of these islands.

Marjorie Mowlam: I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. I shall come with the rest of my team, and we shall have an enjoyable day out.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we have been doing as much as we can to increase tourism and encourage people to visit rural areas. Ministers have visited different places, and we have spent an additional £6 million advertising the fact that rural areas are open. Approximately 91 per cent. of tourist attractions and almost as many participatory attractions are open. I hope that the message will go out from the House today that rural and urban areas are open for business and that people can go and enjoy the facilities there. We have allocated an extra £4 million to speed up the opening of footpaths and assist local authorities with that. I hope that a full return to business will happen soon.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): If it is the right hon. Lady's valedictory appearance at Cabinet Office questions, I wish her well on behalf of the Opposition.

The Minister knows that the need for co-ordinating rural policy has never been more acute than in the past two and a half months since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Will she tell the House whether the rural affairs group, which she mentioned earlier, has met during that period? If so, has it considered the proposal, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has made for six weeks, for the introduction of an interest-free loan to support businesses that are hard hit by foot and mouth?

Marjorie Mowlam: I do not know whether this is my last Question Time. The hon. Gentleman obviously knows more than I do about that, but I thank him for his comments.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the rural affairs group continues to work on the co-ordination of rural policy. We are working hard on aspects of the rural White Paper and we have rural proofing in place. Under the ministerial code, we do not have to announce whether the group has met, but I can say, as its Chair, that I have enjoyed a number of discussions with my ministerial colleagues and that we will continue to ensure that policies--particularly the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned--are given full consideration.

Mr. Lansley: If the right hon. Lady cannot, or will not, tell the House how many times the group has met, will she at least explain how the Cabinet Office has discharged its responsibility for the co-ordination of policy? Where was the co-ordination of policy in the Cabinet Office when the Minister for the Environment was saying the opposite of what the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was saying on safe areas; when the Minister of the Environment was announcing a public inquiry and the Prime Minister was saying the opposite; or when the

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Prime Minister's official spokesman announced a change in the policy on slaughtering, and the Minister of Agriculture did not even seem to know about it? Has the Cabinet Office abdicated its responsibility to try to get co-ordinated decisions in the management of this crisis?

Marjorie Mowlam: I withdraw my generous offer of consideration of the policy that the hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier, only because it occurred to me that I have no idea how much it would cost. I would hate to make any indication that such a commitment would be given without some idea of the finance involved.

In relation to co-ordination in the rural affairs group and the Cabinet Office, we co-ordinate on rural proofing, on the rural White Paper, and across Departments. When the foot and mouth crisis started, the Prime Minister decided that it was big enough for a taskforce to be created, chaired by the Minister of Agriculture, because the main problem was in areas covered by his Ministry. However, all the Ministers in the rural affairs group, as well as other people particularly relevant to foot and mouth disease, were represented round the table, and co-ordination took place in regular morning meetings. In a difficult situation such as the foot and mouth crisis, what is appreciated from the Opposition is support rather than vacuous criticism.

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