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The fact that the only reference in the Queen's Speech to rural issues is the promise to give time for yet another vote on banning hunting is a frightening indication of the Government's priorities for their second term. Now that the electorate have given Ministers a second chance, I urge them to use it to rebuild the rural economy, to support farming in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic and to strengthen protection of the environment at home and lead the debate on the green agenda abroad. If they do those things, they will have the full support of myself and the Opposition. If they fail, they will be rightly condemned inside Parliament and outside it.
My Department's role in achieving sustainable development goes far beyond the rural environment. It covers the full range of environmental challenges, which are issues that affect the whole country. We have led the world in setting the strategy for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions. We have also legislated for greater protection for wildlife and landscapes and delivered cleaner rivers, beaches, air and drinking water. We shall continue to attempt to do that.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I have the greatest admiration for my right hon. Friend, but surely there must be some way in which we could allow one of her junior Ministers to read her text.
Margaret Beckett: I believe that that is the case. However, if it is possible for me to communicate with the House, I should prefer to do so. If my hon. Friend is telling me that she cannot hear what I am saying, that is a different matter.
My Department will work with other Departments to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of the Government's policy. It was clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that he has little to say about rural areas and not much to say about the Opposition amendment. The only two things that he had to say were, first, to imply that had the Opposition become the Government, they would have done all the things that they failed to do in the 18 years when they had the chance and, secondly, that the tragedy of foot and mouth disease is not only the most devastating thing ever to befall the British countryside but, in some way, almost the fault of the Government.
The amendment regrets the Department's new name, although it reflects the widespread recognition that the future of agriculture is as part of the food chain and that sustainable agriculture is a key element in that chain.
The amendment and the hon. Gentleman's remarks illustrate the almost unbelievably selective memory of the Opposition. He referred to the need to protect the countryside from genetically modified organisms. The only people who have so far licensed GM foods were the Conservatives when in government. He demanded a commitment to a public inquiry into foot and mouth disease. That comes oddly from a party who steadfastly refused any kind of inquiry into the BSE crisis, which was certainly one of the worst disasters to befall this country and continues to overshadow agriculture today.
When the present outbreak of foot and mouth disease is over, the Government will want an inquiry into what took place. We will want it to be thorough but speedy; we will certainly not want it to be delayed or expensive.
Just as BSE is only part of the legacy left to the Government by the Conservative party, so it is only part of the problem of the agricultural industry, let alone the wider rural community about which the hon. Member for South Suffolk said so little.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Secretary of State said that we are less committed to the countryside than we might appear and that the Government are very much committed to it. Can she explain why there was no reference of any kind whatever in the Queen's Speech to agriculture, rural problems or the countryside, apart from a commitment to a free vote on the banning of foxhunting?
Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman's timing is immaculate; I was about to come to precisely that point. The amendment claims that the Gracious Speech ignores the countryside, but its priorities are the improvement--including through legislative means--of education, health and crime, as well as of wider public services. They are just as important--perhaps even more so--in rural areas as elsewhere.
On average, between 1983 and 1997, 30 village schools closed each year. When the Conservatives left office, they left a third of all villages with no local shop. Nationwide, more than 3,000 post offices were closed and the Conservatives planned to privatise the rest. Britain spent less on rural development and green farming than any other EU country, except Spain and Greece, which were much poorer. By 1997, three parishes in four lacked a daily bus service of any kind.
In sharp contrast, let me highlight some of the things that the Government have done. We set up the BSE inquiry that the Conservatives shirked, but we also put our money where their mouth has usually been. Last year, only two village schools closed. Last September, we set up a £40 million small schools support fund to begin to raise standards in schools with fewer than 200 pupils. English shire counties received £447 million extra to raise school standards overall and to tackle repairs. We have already legislated to extend 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief to all village food shops, as well as to sole village pubs and petrol stations and to new, small-scale non-agricultural enterprises on farms. The Post Office is obliged to prevent closure of rural post offices unless it is absolutely unavoidable. We have set out a seven-year rural development programme costing £1.6 billion.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk asked me about reform of the common agricultural policy. That is not the subject of today's debate, but through modulation of the existing CAP scheme, we have again shown the direction in which we wish it to go. I refer to measures such as the rural enterprise scheme through which we can help farmers respond better to consumer requirements. We are also refocusing the support that we provide to hill farmers and have substantially increased the money available for agri-environment and farm woodland schemes. That is on top of providing short-term help in the agriculture industry as a whole.
Two thousand new or improved rural bus services have already been provided, and 30,000 hectares--an area three times the size of Bristol--have been added to the green belt. That is the record that the Conservative party seeks to deplore.
What of the future? We shall build on the rural White Paper with a programme of investment to support the improved public services that rural areas so desperately need. I shall chair the rural committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Extra resources are being made available to continue help to small schools, with the target that all rural schools should be connected to the internet by 2002. We are investing £270 million to support the post office network and to offer new services through computerised links. We are committing an extra £100 million of public and private funding over the next three years for the renewal of market towns to make them the focus for economic regeneration. Ninety such towns have already been announced, and we expect a further 30 to follow.
Three thousand affordable homes a year are on their way and a £30 million police programme should help to cut rural crime. Some £239 million over three years will be invested to boost rural bus services, supporting dial-a-ride, taxi and car-sharing schemes, with a new £15 million parish fund for community-based solutions.
The whole of England can now access NHS Direct and in the new NHS plan, up to £100 million will go on improving general practitioner services. Improvements will include new mobile units, one-stop centres and tele-links to hospitals in 100 areas covering the majority of people in the countryside.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful for the Secretary of State's visit to the Ribble valley yesterday to talk to farmers and those affected by foot and mouth in the tourism industry. She listened very carefully to what