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At a time when we are looking to small businesses to lead us out of the recession, what impact does the
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Minister expect the Government’s decision to end transitional relief to have on firms in rural areas? That is a simple question. As I said earlier, I am very fond of the Minister, but I am not so sure that either he or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) will be able to answer it. I do not believe that the Government have a coherent plan for the rural economy. I come back to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) has just made about Norwich. It has been proved time and again that the Government do not need votes in rural areas to win elections. In my opinion, however, that should not influence the way in which they govern the country. I hope that the electorate will remind themselves of that point, come the general election.

Many rural constituencies, including my own, have suffered jobcentre and post office closures. We have had a disproportionate amount of post office closures in my constituency, which is very sad. One or two of my constituents have taken it upon themselves to restart their post offices with the support of the community, but it has been extremely difficult. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset said, the post offices should become one-stop shops and the beacon of the local community, so that the local community can survive.

My grandmother, who died just after Christmas at the age of 99, lived in my constituency. She would not have found it easy to go online to get her pension. That is an absolute, straightforward fact. She was a lovely woman, but she could not manage technology. So, when the local post office could not help her, what was she to do? That example from my own family is being echoed across the country, and it is a crying shame that, while post office closures are happening, the Government are sitting on their hands and saying, “It will work. It can work.” That is okay for people who are 18 to 21 or 25 to 30, but when people who are over 30 start wearing glasses and finding the digits difficult, these things are not so easy. People in that older age group just cannot manage, and retired people on fixed incomes are being disproportionately penalised.

How does the Minister respond to my constituents who believe that, for the past decade, this Government have presided over the erosion of rural services, the true effects of which are now being felt as a result of the recession? The recession has hit them in the face. The Commission for Rural Communities has called on the Government to expand the financial services offered by the post office network, so that rural communities do not sink into financial exclusion, but I cannot see much action being taken by the Government to deal with that issue. The Conservative party has been calling for that action for some time. As I would say anyway: bring on the election, so that we can test the arguments with the electorate and allow a Conservative Government to come in and stand up for the rural economy as this Government have not done. I am sure that the Minister will agree that, at times like these, post offices are a vital resource for people living in rural areas. Does he now see that the closure programme was woefully misguided?

One of the groups being hardest hit is pensioners. A significant proportion of my electorate are pensioners, and they are struggling because of very high fuel costs,
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for example. At least 50 per cent. of those living in my constituency have no access to the gas network and must therefore rely on heating oil, which is expensive. Every time I have spoken to a Minister, written to a Minister or put a question to a Minister across the Chamber to point out that those people have no alternative, I have been told, “It’s okay. We have a plan in place for people to have underground heating.” The Government have all these new-fangled ideas for supplying something that people just cannot get. If there is no possibility of getting a mains gas service to a house in the first place, and if people live in a terraced house in the middle of nowhere with a postage-stamp back garden, for example, it will be impossible to lay half a mile of cabling to get them an alternative energy source.

Mr. Atkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the things that annoys people in rural areas is the cheaper rate offered by the utility companies for customers on a dual fuel tariff? If only one fuel—electricity—is available in a rural area, the people who live there cannot benefit from those discounts.

Christopher Fraser: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Many of my constituents ask why they cannot get those benefits. They simply cannot get them. It might well be that the infrastructure just does not exist across the country, but this goes back to my original point that there are two classes of citizen in this country: those in urban areas who have access to services, and those in rural areas who feel hard done by because they cannot get the services they desperately need.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Holderness has the most enormous gas infrastructure, with Langeled, the world’s longest pipeline, coming into my constituency. There are gas storage sites as well as pipelines, so there cannot be a more gas-centred place in the country than Holderness, yet many of my constituents living in the villages cannot get gas into their homes. They are suffering from all the disruption, but not gaining access to the gas. For reasons that my hon. Friends have powerfully put forward in the debate, if the Government were committed to equality, they would take forward an ambitious programme to ensure that as many people as possible had access to gas.

Christopher Fraser: I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. On occasions, there is more gas in this place than we in Norfolk are able to secure! Households face a double blow: they face higher costs, while having no proper infrastructure for services. The local community is sometimes literally dying on its feet: young people cannot get jobs and business people cannot secure the loans they need, so people are moving away. It is a crying shame for a proud county such as Norfolk—proud in what it does and proud in what it wants to do—to be hampered in every which way it tries to move forward. The Government should look further into the problem.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman will have been a student of post-war politics, so he will know that about 25 years ago, the supply of gas was privatised into a commercial market. Is he now regretting that development, as a result of which companies take commercial decisions to deny or to supply, at great cost to those communities with relatively small numbers of consumers? Is that not how the market works, or have I missed something?

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Christopher Fraser: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what this debate is about. If he looked at the monitor, he would see that it is about rural communities in recession—a recession caused by the lack of attention by this Government to the infrastructure that communities such as Norfolk, and South-West Norfolk in particular, need. As such, it is the responsibility of this Government— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman sits on the Chairmen’s Panel, so he knows perfectly well how to conduct a debate. If he wants to make sedentary points, fine, but he should write to me; if he wants to intervene again, he should do so. The fact is that we are suffering from years of lack of investment by this Government, and others should not be blamed for it.

David Taylor rose—

Christopher Fraser: I am not taking another intervention from the hon. Gentleman, but I will allow him to write to me, as I first suggested. [Interruption.] No, he has had his chance; I am not giving way to him again.

Finally, I want to deal with the effect of rural crime. My constituency suffers from many farm thefts. There are opportunists coming into the area from far and wide, who think that they can easily take something from a farmyard in a rural area because they will not be detected. They think that no one will catch up with them, but why? As a large, disparate county, we have a first-class police force that is centred mostly around urban centres and does not have the capacity to get into rural areas as quickly and effectively as it would wish.

There have been many Government schemes to bring in what I would describe as alternative police officers. That is fine; I am very pleased that some towns in my constituency have benefited from such people doing their job. When it comes to crimes in rural areas, farms are already suffering because, for reasons I have already explained, they cannot manage within their budgets. When someone steals all their oil or takes a truck or other machinery, it has a disproportionately negative effect on what can be done.

This Government must understand and accept that policing requirements are quite different in rural areas from those in the centre of Norwich. On a Saturday night in the city centre, people duff each other up because they are drunk; the police can come to the rescue because they are only three or four minutes away. If someone calls a police officer to come to a farm in the middle of the fens on a Saturday night when there is an event going on in Norwich, it is awful to say it, but the police may not get there for some time.

I see that the Minister has probably just been handed some information about rural crime in my constituency. Yes, relatively speaking, it is low; but if something has been stolen from people or their property has been violated, statistics matter not. What matters is effectiveness and how long it takes to get the problem dealt with. Time after time I hear stories about what happens. If it is not as bad in Norfolk as in other parts of the country, I am awfully sorry but that does not matter for a victim of crime. What matters is the attention people are given and how their problem is dealt with. The police in Norfolk do a brilliant job in difficult circumstances, but this recession has made the position even more profound.

I leave this issue with the Minister. Will he give due consideration to all the points raised by my colleagues—dare I say it, by Opposition Members, not Government
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Members?—this evening? At this 11th hour of a Labour Administration, will he seriously consider making a gesture towards the rural economy in the light of the recession it is facing across the country? Will he deal with the problems of the recession in rural areas, as the Government have done through all sorts of initiatives in areas where seats may be marginal and they think it might make a difference? If the Government can help, I can tell the Minister that although people may not vote Labour, they will once and for all appreciate that their voice has been listened to in this Chamber—and for that I would be most grateful.

6.36 pm

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): I wish to make a short contribution to today’s timely and welcome debate. In doing so, I am wearing two hats. I wear my first hat as the MP representing Stapeley, where the farmers’ milk co-operative Dairy Farmers of Britain is based; sadly, the company went into receivership on 3 June this year. I wear my second hat as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on dairy farmers, who make up a sector of British agriculture that is very important not only to my constituency and the rural areas of Cheshire, but to the United Kingdom as a whole.

Let me deal first with Dairy Farmers of Britain. I thank the Minister for the update he gave us earlier about the circumstances in which the company finds itself. It is one of the dairy flagships of Crewe and Nantwich and it deserves as much support as possible, and I shall explain what exactly needs to happen in that regard. The fact that it has hit upon such hard times has sent shockwaves through my constituency’s agricultural community and provides no relief to the people working there. We must remember that the community affected is made up not just of farmers, but of non-agricultural staff as well.

You may be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the agricultural community in Cheshire and across the whole of the UK relies heavily on the dairy industry to remain healthy through very difficult times. The DFOB’s Stapeley headquarters employs some 40 permanent staff, plus field-based staff outside the Stapeley offices. These staff have no representative body to speak of, and a number of them have contacted me personally to express their concerns about how long they are going to hold on to their jobs and how much information they are going to receive through the process. I hope that the Minister will take that into account when he goes back to the Secretary of State and explains the position of my constituents who are suffering as a result of the current recession.

On the basis of discussions from my office, the receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, seem to be following correctly laid down procedures, but that does not necessarily help those going home on Friday who do not know whether they will still have a job to come back to on Monday, particularly when they have seen the DFOB dairies at Bridgend and Blaydon simply closed, rather than sold on as an alternative. We hope that the position will be looked at further, but that is the current state of affairs and it is extremely worrying.

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Mr. Graham Stuart: Because of the dairy in his constituency, my hon. Friend is well aware of the impact on its employees. At my last Beverley street surgery, I met a couple who, because of the recent devastating recession in the industry, are among the last remaining dairy farmers in the constituency. They are both at risk of losing a month’s milk payment, while facing the additional risk of losing their investment in the company. This is an extremely frightening time, so it would be good to hear from the Minister what support the Government might be able to provide to dairy farmers to help them through it.

Mr. Timpson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. It is true that farmers who were part of a co-operative and invested in it lost their May payments for the supply of milk that they provided, and there is also concern about their future investment. Fortunately for many farmers in the Crewe and Nantwich area, they had managed to opt out of the co-operative before the state of affairs had worsened to the extent of receivership, but nevertheless many farmers who rely on a certain level of cash to keep themselves going now find themselves with a great black hole in their finances and very little support to see them through the crisis. Some of what we have heard from the Government today is welcome, but it is still a case of shifting sands. We need more concrete answers to give farmers who find themselves in such difficulty.

If I had one word of advice for the official receivers, it would be to liaise with Members whose constituencies contain affected sites and to keep them abreast of the position so that they can support their constituents as much as possible as and when such support is required.

Let me say something about the members and ex-members of the co-operative. As I have said, in Crewe and Nantwich many left when they saw that the writing was on the wall, and they did that in order to maintain a regular income from their milk. However, their investment in the co-operative has not been returned, and they are listed simply as unsecured creditors under the Insolvency Act 1986. I ask the Minister to look at the position as a matter of urgency. We understand that talks will resume on Wednesday in an attempt to find a solution. I believe that assistance may be available from organisations such as the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, but it will be no substitute for the tens of thousands of pounds invested by farmers in DFOB. To many of them, that money represents their pension pots. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) raised the issue of pensioners earlier.

I welcome the update from the Minister. I too have liaised with the receivers this week, and I shall be meeting the president of the National Farmers Union. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State, who, although he did not have time to come to the Chamber today, has found time to meet me on Wednesday to discuss the future of DFOB.

What am I asking for on behalf of DFOB and all who have been affected by its current crisis? I simply ask the Government to take a considered and detailed view of how they can best help non-agricultural staff and farmers in my constituency, and the others who have been mentioned. What financial assistance can the Government provide to alleviate the anguish caused by
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lost investments and pensions? What assistance can the Minister provide through Jobcentre Plus for those who lose their non-agricultural jobs at such short notice? Can he ask his Cabinet colleague in the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that these hard-working people are assessed immediately for entitlements and retraining when that is required?

As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) will know all too well, having kindly visited and spoken to dairy farmers in my constituency twice in the past 12 months, between 2001 and 2006, 48 dairy farms closed in the Crewe and Nantwich area. According to the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers, whose representatives I met last week, the number of dairy farmers in England and Wales fell from 28,000 in 1995 to 11,700 this year. That is a drastic fall. More recently, despite the uplift in milk prices in 2008, the average cost of production has reached 26.93p per litre, while the average price is 24.37p. Those figures speak for themselves. We can see how desperate the situation is for dairy farmers and the industry, and why the Government should act as soon as possible.

That leads me to my final, and brief, point about the need to support British agriculture and—unsurprisingly—the need to support the British dairy industry. I asked what three things a local farmer would say to Parliament if given the chance. The answer was, “Give us a fair price, assist us with nitrate vulnerable zones by not gold-plating the legislation, and cull the badgers. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more suicides.” DEFRA knows those issues, and knows them well. It is time for DEFRA to act.

6.45 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I am grateful to have been called slightly earlier than I expected. It is a pleasure to participate in such an important debate. As others have said this evening, it is a long time since we have had the opportunity to discuss the impact of the recession on the rural economy, and I am pleased that my colleagues selected the topic for an Opposition day debate.

I think that one of the reasons why we have so little opportunity to discuss such issues in Government time is that the Government simply do not get it. That is not entirely their fault. Although there are far more Labour than Conservative Members, very few of them represent rural constituencies. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is a regular Labour champion of rural affairs, but he is a pretty lonely voice. As for local government, following last week’s election results there is not a single Labour-controlled rural shire authority. Indeed, many such authorities have no Labour representative. In a number of our constituencies, Labour representation has been all but blown away at local level: my constituency has only one Labour councillor. It is therefore not surprising that Labour representatives are not willing to put rural affairs at the top of their agenda.

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