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Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition, the working families tax credit has helped people in rural areas. There is a problem of low pay in such areas, but if the Labour Government are removed and a Conservative Government arrive, my God, it will affect the low paid and the unemployed in rural areas, and many now in employment will be unemployed.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will the Minister address a specific issue affecting livestock producersthe disposal of fallen stock? Livestock producers in my constituency face a difficulty in that only one organisation tendered to dispose of fallen stock under the Government's fallen stock schemethe Isle of Wight Foxhounds. As I am sure he is aware, that group is likely to have far less income after 19 February and it will therefore be unable to continue to cross-subsidise the disposal of fallen stock. No other organisation is willing to dispose of fallen stock on the Isle of Wight. What reassurance can the right hon. Gentleman give farmers in my constituency on that important matter?
Alun Michael: We are aware of the specific fallen stock issue on the Isle of Wight and we are addressing it. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), might have more to say when he winds up the debate.
Mr. Gray : The Minister is enjoying himself at the Dispatch Box. Before he moves on from the minimum wage, will he tell us whether he would abolish the agricultural wages boards, as we propose under the James report?
Alun Michael: Certainly not. We believe that the AWBs continue to support the wages of agricultural workers, and I am sure that all of them will take note of the threat to their income that the hon. Gentleman offers.
: A year ago in one ward in my area, the lowest wage was £18,000 a year and the highest was £30,000; now, the lowest is £22,000 and the highest is £35,000. Our economy is growing, but we want to be able to plan the local economy. We are working with the local regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward,
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on a market towns initiative. Are there any plans to give further support to such initiatives, so that rural communities such as mine can have planned development?
Alun Michael: Yes, indeed, there are. Following on from the announcement made in July by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we are massively increasing the money that we put into RDAs and devolving finances to them, so that they can work with partners in their region and drill down to local areas, particularly rural areas, to support initiatives that we believe will create not only a healthy economywe already have that in rural areasbut a vibrant one.
Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): Earlier, the Minister defended Government spending as though it were a sacred cow, yet in the next few years his Government will spend £1 billion and more on culling cattle that have bovine tuberculosis. Why does he not accept that he will fail Somerset's dairy and cattle farmers in the coming years by not resolving the problem of bovine TB?
Alun Michael: We want to spend less and waste less money on unproductive measures. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will pick up on that point, which comes within his portfolio, in his winding-up speech.
I want to make one point clear for the Opposition, because it is about time they got in touch with reality. They portray people in rural areas as being not only disadvantaged but dissatisfied, yet the facts tell a different story. When we asked rural people whether they were content with services in rural areas, more than 90 per cent. said they were satisfied with their GPs, NHS dentists, opticians and pharmacists; 79 per cent. were satisfied with the quality of education provided locally; 85 per cent. were satisfied with the location of bus stops and train stations; and 85 per cent. were satisfied with the quality of child care offered. We can hardly argue with what the rural publicour customerstell us. Opposition Members seem to talk to each other. The satisfaction expressed by rural people is the result of 180 Labour MPs doing so well in representing rural and semi-rural communities, or perhaps I should say that that figure is now 181.
Let me outline some of the key steps that the Government are taking to address the issues facing farming and rural communities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outlined to the House her vision of sustainable rural communities and a fair deal for rural England when she launched the rural strategy 2004 on 21 July. Sustainable rural communities, and in particular affordable housing, are at the heart of our five-year strategy, because it has been raised with us by Labour Members who represent rural communities. I shall come to housing later.
The rural strategy encompasses all three pillars of sustainable development. First, it is about economic regeneration in rural areas. To help farm and other rural businesses be competitive and diversify, the Government are allocating an extra £2 million this year to improve business advice. We are also increasing the
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amount of money from DEFRA in the regional development agencies' finances from £46 million to £77 million next year.
Secondly, the strategy is designed to tackle rural social exclusion wherever it occurs and to provide fair access to services and opportunities for rural people. We are pushing more of our money down to the community to help communities have a place to meet, an effective representative body such as a parish council, and access to a community development worker. Thirdly, the strategy is about protecting and enhancing the natural environment. We are creating an integrated agency to address the natural environment, biodiversity and our landscape in a co-ordinated way so as to get maximum social and economic advantage from its work, as well as benefits in terms of conservation and biodiversity.
Whitehall does not always know best, so we are devolving decisions and funding closer to the peoplethe public, the customer, the community. Last October we launched a series of rural pathfinders across the country to pilot innovative ways of joining up service delivery at the local level, with local authorities taking the lead role. That counts: it matters to people. Yesterday I met representatives of the rural pathfinders from every region of England, and the enthusiasm with which they are responding to the opportunity is palpable.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that Ministers believed that Whitehall knew best in the matter of right to buy? When the Conservatives were in power they forced rural local authorities to sell their council houses. Will the Minister produce some action, rather than words, on the matter by enabling planning authorities in areas such as mine in Cornwall to constrain the amount of housing stock that goes into the second homes market by planning control?
Alun Michael: Indeed, in the planning field we are helping rural housing authorities and those who are concerned to provide housing and to make sure that it is sustainable, not just a house for the short term. I will return to the matter.
I mentioned the enthusiasm about rural pathfinders in every region of England. It is also important to note that we are carrying out a major streamlining of our funding stream, from over 100 separate streams of funding to three broad funding programmes. That will make it simpler for everybody. To test whether the new arrangements are making a difference and to promote best practice, the Government are setting up the New Countryside Agency, whose role will be to assess how much impact Government policy and action are having. It will focus particularly on disadvantage and provide a powerful independent voice for rural people, advising Government, collecting views and experience across the regions and helping us to drive up quality and delivery at the local level.
It is interesting to note some of the issues that the Opposition did not raise. It is important to get the facts about crime in rural areas straight. Crime across the United Kingdom has fallen by 30 per cent. since 1997, and that is one of the Government's biggest achievements. People in rural areas are much less likely to experience burglary and vehicle-related theft, and rural adults are much less likely to suffer from violent crime than their non-rural counterparts.
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Furthermore, fear of crime has remained considerably lower in rural areas than it is in urban areas. The British crime survey clearly shows that anxiety and worry about crime is less in rural areas compared with urban and inner-city areas, but we recognise that crime and the fear of crime continue to be a major concern for many people in rural communities. Only yesterday in the Standing Committee on the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill we agreed clause 1, which embeds environmental damage into the work of the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships. The Conservatives are so out of touch that they think that graffiti, litter and fly-tipping are urban problems that do not matter in rural communities. They are wrong.
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