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16 Oct 2002 : Column 420—continued

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Salter: No, I will not.

I also want to pay tribute to the shooters' acknowledgment of the contribution that the Labour party has already made to enhancing and developing their sport. I quote from the British Association for Shooting and Conservation's document:

I thank the association for that truthful acknowledgement of my party's true intentions when it comes to shooting.

On angling, nothing gave me greater pleasure than to read last week in the angling press the whines and whinges of the foxhunters saying that there were not enough anglers on the Countryside Alliance march. Too right, there were not enough anglers! If every angler I know, having caught a prize specimen fish, had to throw it to a pack of hounds to have it ripped to pieces, and smear its blood on their forehead in the barbaric way in which foxhunters used to do, there is no way that they would ever fish again. Three million anglers in this country will not be conned, either by the Tory party or by the Countryside Alliance.

In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: XMore! More!"] You can have 20 more minutes of this! In conclusion, we are facing the threat of global terrorism. We live in a world that is interdependent. We are one people, one nation, one world. The idea that the pathetic divisions that the Conservative party and their allies in the Countryside Alliance—let us never forget that 82 per cent. of those on the march were going to vote Conservative—are trying to portray are entirely false. Never mind town and country—whatever happened to one-nation Conservatism?

9.43 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I certainly give the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) full marks for volume, although he perhaps ought to be reminded that the president of the Countryside Alliance is a Labour peer and its chief executive is a member of the Labour party. I therefore regard his attacks on that organisation as, at best, intemperate.

The countryside is in crisis. The desperate plight of the countryside is both tangible and deeply felt. On 22 September, people from every part of the country descended on the streets of London. The crowd was good-natured, but as their numbers multiplied it became apparent that something extraordinary was taking place: the biggest demonstration in Britain's post-war history. Perhaps more extraordinary still was the reason for this gathering of 400,000 people. It was not for some fashionable, liberal cause, but rather a cry from the heart for this nation's greatest treasure: the countryside.

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Some people have tried to dismiss that event as an aberration. I know that the Minister for Rural Affairs is an honourable and generous man. I had hoped that he would come to the House today and refute his remark that the march was an incoherent muddle, but he did not do so. I am disappointed, because I thought better of him. However, perhaps he will dissociate himself from the following statement:

That was the Prime Minister's analysis in 2000. If he said that today he surely would be ashamed of himself. If he went to the countryside and said it, he would not receive a happy reception.

The countryside is in crisis at every level: economic, environmental and social. I make no apologies for saying that agriculture is at the centre of that crisis. Farm incomes have plummeted. Incomes are at their lowest level since the 1930s. To put it another way, incomes are just 61 per cent. of their 1995 levels. How does that compare with the other countries of Europe? In the Netherlands the figure is 84 per cent., and it is more than 100 per cent. in 10 EU countries.

The crisis in Britain's countryside cannot be excused as part of some global phenomenon. Farm gate prices prove the point. We have the lowest prices for eggs in the EU bar Belgium, and the lowest prices for milk, butter and pig meat bar none. At the same time, input costs are rising. Figures from the House of Commons Library suggest that in the United Kingdom they are rising by about 0.6 per cent. a year, whereas in the rest of Europe they are falling by about 1.2 per cent.

That is a disaster for the rural economy, and it affects not just farmers. The point that many Labour Members do not seem to grasp and are not prepared to accept, although many of them take these issues seriously and have genuine concerns about the countryside, is that when farming suffers, the whole rural economy suffers. There is a knock-on effect on rural businesses—rural suppliers and retail businesses. Recently, I was in the small town of Holbeach in my constituency where a clothes retailer told me that his business had plummeted since the agricultural recession. That is true of many retail businesses throughout the countryside.

The countryside is also under threat from over-development. Bulldozers have been used to destroy thousands of acres of rural Britain, with the promise of much more destruction to come. Once that has gone it will never be replaced. Unlike cities, the countryside cannot be rebuilt. If farmers are driven off the land, there will be no one to look after it.

Jim Knight : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I cannot give way, because time is short, and the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) cut into the Minister's time. If the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) writes to me, I will be more than happy to give him an appropriate reply or a short lecture.

The point about the countryside that we enjoy is that it is an environment manufactured by farmers over centuries and maintained by farmers. Just as the landscape has suffered, so have its people. Public services in rural areas have declined. I ask the Minister whether

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there are more post offices in rural areas now than there were in 1997, or fewer. Are there more local village shops, or fewer? Are there fewer pubs or more pubs? Are there fewer resources and services in rural communities than there were in 1997? The answer is unequivocal. All those trades and services are in decline, and that is contributing to low morale, to the feelings of despondency and neglect and to the belief among people in the countryside that the Government do not care for them.

The local government settlement that we discussed yesterday has exacerbated that problem. Time and again we have said that, when the Government deal with public services, they should take account of the particular problems of sparsity, rurality and remoteness, but they have refused to listen. I do not take anything away from the concerns of people in inner cities and the declining suburbs, but only rural Britain perceives a threat to its very existence.

At the heart of the problem is agriculture. While it is important to emphasise the need for diversification and the stimulation of other employment in rural areas, agriculture is at the core of the economic, environmental and social character of the countryside.

There are no simple solutions to these problems, but I believe that there are two competing visions for our countryside.

There are those who place undue emphasis on the interdependence of town and country, and to some extent they are of course interdependent, but that must not be used to disguise the particular needs—the particular and proper demands—of rural areas.

There are those who emphasise the use of the countryside as a resource for the population as a whole, but the countryside is not an abstraction; it is composed of real communities. No one would suggest that a policy for any large urban community should be primarily in the interests of the people who reside elsewhere.

There are those who play down the importance of agriculture to the countryside, while simultaneously telling us to reduce our dependence on agriculture. Conservatives believe that farming is the foundation of a sustainable rural economy, and there can be no sustainable countryside without viable agriculture.

There are those who misrepresent the problems of social exclusion in the countryside as problems caused by the countryside. Conservatives believe that the hidden poverty in the countryside must be addressed, and that rural deprivation is in part the result of unfair funding arrangements.

Finally, there are those who stifle the debate on rural policy by accusing dissenters of setting town against country. We heard that tonight from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). Conservatives recognise that in some respects town and country have different needs, which should not be swept under the carpet; but above all we believe that town and country are united in wanting the countryside to be delivered from those who seek to ruin it.

Perhaps the Minister will answer some specific questions. We have heard this evening about the need for broadband to be made more widely available, to allow economic diversity. We have heard about the inflexibility of the 20-day rule, and about its more flexible application in Scotland. That was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon

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(Mr. Curry). We have heard about the need to support diversification within agriculture, allowing the dairy industry, for example, to become involved in processing by giving it tax breaks and other advantages.

Let me finally say this:

for the countryside march, that is—

Those are not my words, but those of a The Guardian editorial.

It was G.K. Chesterton who wrote

He wrote

In 1998, a quarter of a million people marched for the countryside and said XListen to us", but this Government were unmoved. Last month they returned in greater numbers. The people have spoken loudly and clearly; this time, surely, the Government must listen and not forget.

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