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12 Dec 2002 : Column 408—continued

Mr. Speaker: As always, there is a loophole in the procedures of the House. I think that I heard the shadow Leader of the House ask for a debate. As a debate was requested, the shadow Leader of the House was in order. The right side of the line is all right for me.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Northern Ireland

Question agreed to.

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12 Dec 2002 : Column 409

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

[Relevant documents: the Ninth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2001–02, on The Future of UK Agriculture in a Changing World (House of Commons Paper No. 550I), and the First Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Session 2002–03, on Pesticides: The Voluntary Initiative (HC 100).

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee: Foot and Mouth Disease 2001: Lessons to be Learned Inquiry, 23 July 2002 (Session 2001–02, HC 1144); The Royal Society Inquiry into Infectious Diseases in Livestock, 16 October 2002 (Session 2001–02, HC 1227); and Government Response to the Foot and Mouth Inquiry Reports and other matters arising, 21 November 2002 (Session 2002–03, HC 111).]

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

1.13 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move,

The overriding purpose of my Department is the pursuit of sustainable development—the balancing of economic, social and environmental concerns—but there is supposed to be an old Chinese curse that runs, XMay you live in interesting times", and the Department was certainly set up in interesting times, with the worst outbreak of foot and mouth disease that the world has ever seen still not overcome.

For the past 18 months, its officials and Ministers have been striving to create a new Department, with sustainable development at its core, which is outward-looking, open in its dealings, ready to recognise and to change where we get things wrong, and capable of forward thinking, while still dealing effectively with the day-to-day.

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The Department already has much of which it can be proud. We head the interdepartmental team that did so much to broker success in the climate change negotiations, particularly those in Bonn and Marrakesh. We maintained and reinforced the Government's reputation as a leading player in sustainable development at the world summit in Johannesburg and began to mainstream it in Government policy here at home—with, for example, the Treasury's agreement to make sustainable development a key component of the Government's approach to the recent spending review and, with the agreement of the Office of Government Commerce, to look at sustainable procurement across the Government.

Just as when pressing for rural-proofing, much of our work as a Department is of necessity bound up with the policy work and, indeed, the budgets of other Departments, so it is essential that we work effectively and co-operatively with them; and we are doing so, as, for instance, the Department of Trade and Industry's recent announcement about rural post offices showed. However, in DEFRA itself, we are working to give effect to the principles of sustainability.

So today we have published the Government's response to the Curry commission, setting out our approach to a sustainable farming and food industry and, of course, drawing to a close the final stages of the response to the disease outbreak, through the three strands of the inquiry process, to each of which the Government have now responded, with the publication of our report today and, of course, setting out some of the forward work before us.

We are the custodians of the rural White Paper, which was first published in November 2000 and set demanding standards for the improvement of services for rural England and for the rural economy. The White Paper contains some 260 commitments to action, half of which have been delivered, with the rest ongoing or on course for delivery in the future. However, I want to ensure that we are doing enough to deliver on the White Paper's main purpose: to try to transform the rural economy and rural services, so we are setting in train measures to deal with our programme of such work.

Since 1998, there has been a formal presumption against the closure of rural schools. On average, five a year are now approved for closure, compared with an average of 30 a year between 1983 and 1997. Some #450 million over three years has been committed to support the rural post office network. Some #239 million has been allocated over the three years to 2004 for rural transport services, including #70 million a year on rural buses, with some 1,800 new or improved bus routes in England. Much more remains to be done, such as providing more affordable homes in rural areas and supplying an enhanced health care service, to name but two.

Although rural communities and the rural economy are not synonymous with the welfare of farming and food, over three quarters of the United Kingdom's landmass today is given over to agricultural use, and there are clear interactions between farming and the rural economy, farming and the landscape, as well as farming and the environment. The wider environment itself encompasses a huge range of domestic and international issues, stretching from water and air

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quality in the United Kingdom to desertification and access to clean water across the globe—issues to which I shall return.

Andrew George (St. Ives): I was pleased to have the opportunity to pick up the three documents in response to the Curry commission report from the Vote Office at a quarter past 11, after the press, the National Farmers Union and other bodies had already been able to comment on them. Which of all the detailed responses in those documents would the Secretary of State say would deal with the problem that more farmers have left the industry in past year than in any year since the second world war? The structural problems of farming are resulting in large numbers of farmers leaving the industry.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman invites me to tell him in one word or a phrase what the entire content of the documents is. May I take this opportunity to say that I am sorry if he did not get the documents until 11.30? I do not know whether he checked the board, but the documents should have been sent to him and the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman earlier this morning.

Andrew George: I did not get them.

Margaret Beckett: I apologise for that. Something must have gone wrong with the delivery, but we endeavoured to ensure, having issued a written statement at 9.30, that certain key players received copies, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if the system fell down in some way.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, of course, there have been dramatic changes in the past 50 years, but everyone recognises that change in the industry now has to take place. We set out a range of measures in the documents and the back-up analysis to which he refers, and I shall say a little more about that in a moment.

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