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16 Oct 2002 : Column 396—continued

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Does the Minister accept that country people feel that they are losing their roots and tradition, and that they do not have enough impact on national affairs? When people in Lincolnshire are asked where they live, they say not that they live in West Lindsey or the east midlands but that they live in Lincolnshire. Why do the Government intend to proceed with a proposal that will abolish 1,000 years of English history? It will remove a golden thread running through people's lives. Before the Minister says that there will be a vote on the matter, I remind him that people in rural in Lincolnshire will be outvoted by

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people in the big cities of Nottingham and Derby. Will he give those rural people some sort of veto? Why is he trying to abolish what they hold most dear?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman makes a rather delphic utterance. If he is referring to regional government, I can tell him that, since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly, rural interests and the rural economy in Wales have been more extensively debated in the Assembly, and especially in its Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. The Assembly has increased the level of interest and debate, and has also delivered a better standard of debate.

Jim Knight: The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said that people look to their county, district, borough and city councils, but he did not mention parish councils. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that parish councils are especially important in rural areas, and that this Government are acting to improve parish councils' powers and responsibilities?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I shall turn to the role of parish councils later in my speech. This Government are the first to focus on developing the role of parish councils, but Opposition Members have never understood that and, in government, they have never tried to do it.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I—and I am sure many other hon. Members—have received letters from parish councillors who, after years of loyal service to their communities, have resigned in disgust at the new regulations placed on them by the Government. How many such letters has the Minister received?

Alun Michael: The number is very small indeed, but I have received many letters from parish councillors around the country welcoming the way in which the Government are strengthening the role of parish councils. We have given those councils grants so that they have money to spend on matters such as transport and the development of parish plans. That allows parish councils to develop their role and to look after their communities' interests. A few Conservative parish councillors have stood down, and some people have been misled by incorrect information being circulated by a member of the Conservative party. The Government are working with parish councils, local government and the people who represent rural communities across the country.

Mrs. Browning: Why did the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 remove the right of parish councillors to nominate governors to local village schools?

Alun Michael: I am not going to develop education policy. I am talking about the role of parish councils and how the Government are enabling them to take the lead in their communities so that they can develop answers to local problems.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury had quite a bit to say about farming. There are genuine, serious and deep-seated problems in that sector, which have been developing for years. Under this Government, those

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problems are being tackled comprehensively for the first time. It is widely recognised that the Curry commission on the future of farming and food has given the answer to the problems faced by the farming industry. We are putting in #1.7 billion through the England rural development programme. Help is being provided on a variety of matters, including diversification and marketing. A direct comparison can be made: this Government are making available #240 million a year, compared with the #56 million a year made available between 1993 and 1999.

It is vital, however, that we secure effective reform of the CAP, and drive modernisation in the farming industry. Reform is needed to make our agriculture more competitive and more sustainable, and to ensure that our rural economies can flourish despite the challenges ahead.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: The Minister mentioned the Curry report. Many would agree that it was very sensible. Sir Donald Curry said that the farming industry would need #400 million a year, but the Government have offered #200 million in two years' time.

Alun Michael: No, that is a misinterpretation. The figure for the third year of the spending review alone is #200 million, and #500 million is the overall figure.

The Government are working with the farming industry to deliver on the Curry report. The Opposition may say now that that is common sense, but no previous Government have adopted such a comprehensive approach. It was a courageous step to take.

The food and farming sector makes an economic contribution, but farming also has a role to play in the countryside in respect of the landscape. We all value our landscape, but farmers, given that they manage some 77 per cent. of UK land, make a significant contribution to protecting the rural environment.

Pete Wishart: Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Scotland, who described farmers as subsidy junkies?

Alun Michael: Many farmers accept that there is a serious point to be made about the extent to which farming has become dependent on subsidy instead of becoming competitive and effective. I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs meet farmers all the time, and we have detected a remarkable shift in attitude. The shift took place in part during the foot and mouth outbreak, when people realised how vulnerable the industry was. Many matters were brought to a head at that time. We need to move away from a culture of subsidy in the farming industry, and towards a culture that assists the industry to be competitive. In addition, the agri-environment schemes are designed to pay for things that provide a public good.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) : Will the Minister explain how the British dairy industry can be 30 per cent. more efficient than the dairy industry on the continent, yet can be underpriced continually by that industry? Supermarkets can buy milk from France and

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Ireland, for instance, at prices lower than those charged by our dairy industry. Are there not both institutional and fiscal reasons for that? Do not the Government need to do more work on the euro and commodity prices to ensure that our farmers are truly competitive? Is not it wrong for the Minister to blame farmers for not being able to face the market, when the Government are closing the gates to that market?

Alun Michael: There have been problems for many years in the milk industry—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is a supply and demand problem.

Alun Michael: Indeed. One difficulty is that co-operatives in continental countries are far stronger than those in this country. A point stressed by the Curry report, and one that I strongly applaud, is the need to strengthen the co-operative culture so that farmers can take a greater part of the shelf price, which goes back to the primary producers. We strongly support that element of the Curry report—recognising the need to strengthen the requirements on competition.

Countryside stewardship and environmentally sensitive areas, the two main agri-environment schemes, are delivering more than #100 million a year to maintain and enhance the rural environment. The schemes have 26,000 agreement holders and cover about 1 million hectares—almost 10 per cent. of agricultural land. I emphasise that we need to make use of the money that is being invested in agriculture to reform farming and to give it a sustainable future. The problems will not be solved overnight, but we are working on them with the industry.

The picture painted by the Conservatives is a travesty. A few days ago, the Prime Minister pointed out that our commitment to a future for farming means that more money is going into that industry than into all other industries put together. The industry is important; it is vital for our countryside, but we must put it in balance. The motion refers to the wider rural economy and rural communities—the real rural agenda. People in rural areas want the same things as people in urban areas: jobs, access to services, a good standard of schools and education, health services, transport, affordable housing and a secure future. They have the same aspirations as people in urban areas, but sometimes there is a different set of problems in respect of the delivery of those services.

In urban areas, it is often possible to target problems by measuring them at ward level, but it is difficult to do that in rural areas. Communities are dispersed and so are their problems. People who need help are often dispersed throughout largely prosperous areas.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Before the Minister moves away from farming, will he explain the implication of the extremely interesting statement that he has just made? Is he saying that the Government will reverse their policy on breaking up Milk Marque?

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