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Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): To be fair to the Government, we should recognise the fact that in many local authorities, a lot of the lunatic anti-car policies are the brainchild of the Liberal Democrats who control so much of our countryside. Is my hon. Friend as astonished as I am that the best that they can come up with in their amendment is to urge the Government to take action to establish an advisory commission? That is typical. Is that, perhaps, why the majority in constituencies such as mine went up so much, and the Liberal vote went down? Is that why the Liberal vote went down in the seat next to Romsey, and why they lost control of my district council to the Conservatives in the middle of the election campaign? Hooray!
Mr. Yeo: In the spirit of fairness that my hon. Friend invokes, and in line with the new reasoned approach to debate, to which my hon. Friends and I are publicly committed, I willingly agree with every word that he has said.
Crime, and especially fear of crime, are big threats to the quality of life in the countryside. Last year the NFU Mutual insurance company reported a rise of more than a quarter in thefts from business premises in rural areas. The BBC's "Countryfile" reported that more than half of all farmers had been burgled. More than one in five had suffered arson. Neither the Labour nor the Liberal Democrat amendments refer to crime as part of the crisis in the countryside.
Neither amendment shows any interest in the constructive suggestions that we have made for parish constables, or for improving police accountability by encouraging police use of premises such as shops or village halls. Law enforcement is also a special concern in the areas in which the minority of travellers who are lawbreakers are to be found. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that one third of travellers interviewed had committed benefit fraud, but the Government are reluctant either to enforce existing laws or to assist in the eviction of illegally camped travellers.
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): My hon. Friend will be aware that in the rural county of Suffolk, levels of crime have risen in the past four years by 20 per cent., and that levels of crimes of violence have risen by fully 60 per cent. in the past three years. In comparison with the effects of crime in urban areas, the dramatic ripple effect of attacks on sub-post offices and village shops causes huge problems of morale, and difficulties and tensions that are unique to rural communities.
Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend, who is a notable champion of those with anxieties in the county of Suffolk, is absolutely right to raise the hideous problem of rising crime, especially violence, in our county, whose crime record is, historically, below average. That issue is raised with me more frequently than any other. The problem is the result of four years of a Labour Government in London and a Labour-Liberal Democrat administration in county hall.
I repeat the question that I asked the Secretary of State two weeks ago about planning. What influence will the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have over planning policy? Is it not extraordinary that something described as a Department for the Environment is not responsible for planning? Does the right hon. Lady understand that the decision in last year's rural White Paper to remove protection for the best and most versatile farmland reinforced the fear that the Government do not regard the survival of farming as important to Britain's future? [Interruption.] I am citing the White Paper. I realise that the Minister for Rural Affairs was absent from the Government for several years. However, he could have used the time usefully by studying their publications.
Labour's policy of destroying the green belt and bulldozing greenfield sites ignores the wishes of local communities. Ministers ride roughshod over the views and decisions of elected local councils. The regeneration of inner cities is ignored as long as developers get the go-ahead to build on greenfield sites. The Government's approach to planning is unsustainable. By the time they admit that, much irreversible damage will have been done. That is a tragedy.
Few aspects of policy divide the Government more sharply from the Opposition than the countryside does. Few communities have experienced more Government hostility than those in rural areas. Few industries experiencing serious slump have been treated with less sympathy by the Government than farming has. Few generations have seen more of Britain's green and pleasant land go under the bulldozer than the current generation. Few Governments have displayed more contempt for rural traditions than the Labour Government have. Four more years of those attitudes, policies and decisions will inflict terrible damage on our countryside. I commend the motion to the House.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
The Opposition cannot sustain the argument that they have raised the matter again because nothing has changed in those 10 sitting days. Since the earlier debate we have launched a fresh campaign to remind everyone of the need for proper biosecurity. It has been spearheaded in regions of continuing outbreak by visits from multidisciplinary teams led by my Ministers. We have taken steps to tighten the precautions by consulting stakeholders in the farming community and hauliers and others who were involved in movement on and off farms.
During the debate on 26 June, we were urged to consider afresh any steps that could assist other businesses because of the deadline and the criteria for existing schemes such as rate relief. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced the Government's response this week. We accepted the need not only for continuing schemes of support but for wider eligibility criteria, for which there were calls in the debate.
Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced concrete plans for an extended scheme of business advice for farmers who are affected by the disease but beginning to plan for their future. Today, the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Agriculture Ministers and I anticipate receiving advice from the Rural Payments Agency that the over-30-months scheme will be restarted on 23 July in Scotland, where rendering capacity will be free earliest, and a week later, on 30 July, in England and Wales. There are still some details to work out and throughput will inevitably be slow, especially in England, but it is welcome news to those who have been waiting for the resumption of the scheme.
As we tackle those issues, we continue to bear down on the disease and to focus with stakeholders on the shape of a sustainable future for agriculture in the context of a wider rural economy, which is beginning to experience the benefits of our rural development programme.
For the reasons that I have outlined, there is no valid justification for the Opposition's knee-jerk use of "neglect" to describe the Government's response. Even if no further steps had been taken in the short time since our previous debate, such criticism would be invalid as the Government have already committed some £800 million
Listening to Conservative Members, one would believe that Britain's rural areas were a paradise of prosperity until the wicked Labour Government were elected only four years ago. What about all the schools, shops, bus services and post offices that disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s? Were people in the rural communities to blame for that? Did they fail? Is that the Opposition's argument? Unless they argue that individuals and communities whose businesses failed are to blame, how do they have the gall to charge us with neglect?
Between 1983 and 1997, an average of 30 village schools closed every year, post offices closed in rural and urban areas alike, a third of all villages were left with no local shop and three parishes in four with no daily bus service; yet the hon. Member for South Suffolk says, "It's terrible that there are such poor bus services because of the high fuel taxes imposed by the Government." Who instigated the high fuel taxes? The Conservative party.
In contrast, in the past year two village schools closed and a £40 million small schools support fund was established to raise standards in schools with fewer than 200 pupils. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief has been extended to all village food shops as well as to all sole village pubs and petrol stations and new, small-scale, non-agricultural enterprises on farms. Other steps have been taken to protect post offices. There is an obligation to prevent the closure of rural post offices unless it is unavoidable. We have set out a rural development programme under the rural enterprise scheme.
Money and support are also available for agri- environmental and farm woodland schemes. Again, the hon. Member for South Suffolk suggested that not enough had been done, although the Government whom he supported and in which he briefly served took no advantage of such schemes. As for rural public transport, some 2,000 new or improved rural bus services have already been provided. The hon. Gentleman made remarks about brownfield and greenfield development. The Conservative party reduced the greenfield sites available in their last year in office, whereas, under the Labour Government, some 30,000 hectaresan area three times the size of Bristolhave been added to the green belt.
We have nothing for which to apologise to the Conservative party, and I have outlined only the record of delivery so far.