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Rural bus provision has declined steadily over the past twenty years as bus operators focus on more lucrative urban markets. Combined with this has been a move away from local service provisionthe closure of post offices, shops and garages in particularresulting in poor access to many facilities.
That underlines the Governments failure to understand the importance of access to services. It is often very difficult for people in a rural community to gain access to services. The bus service is at best sporadic, and is completely absent in many areas. When schools, post offices, pubs, village shops, police stations and dispensaries in GPs surgeries closeas many have in recent yearsit not only disfranchises the community, but makes it much harder to recover from any pressures put on it.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) also made pertinent points, especially on the issue of empty properties rate relief, which has hit a huge number of rural businesses and farms that have invested in propertyas the Government and all politicians encouraged them to do to benefit the local economyand have, with difficulty, persuaded the planners to agree, only to find that they cannot let those properties because of the recession and are stuck having to pay rates on them. I am sure that the Government did not intend the measure to hit such businesses, but that is the law of unintended consequences.
There is no list of figures or litany of all the things that the Government have done that will persuade people who live in rural communities that all is well there. People who live in those areas and understand the realities cannot be convinced by listening to a Minister trotting them out. I would have hoped that the Minister would not have followed the practice of the Prime Minister, who seems to respond to any challenge by trotting out another litany of statistics, but the fact is that the Conservativesas displayed in the debate and in our motionknow that there are real examples of difficulty. We have real knowledge of the problems of rural areas. I am proud to have been born and brought up inand now to representa rural area. That is my history and I am passionately proud of it. We have not had a single speech from a Government Back Bencher in support of their amendment, and there can be no better testament to the veracity of our motion, which I commend to the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Norris): I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for his kind welcome to my colleague and me, and especially for his kind words for our predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), which are much appreciated.
I am a new Minister, with less than a weeks experience. I can honestly say that it is a steep learning curve, but I cannot think of a better debate to start with, especially as I represent the semi-rural constituency of north-east Somerset, or Wansdyke as it is known.
In the best traditions of the House, this debate has been informative. I have heard some genuinely interesting things, some of them new to me. I have also seen the passion with which many hon. Members have spoken. I
do not necessarily agree with everything that has been said, but I recognise that passion.
Dan Norris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. It is up to hon. Members to decide whether they want to contribute to the debate and, having heard some of the contributions from the Conservatives, I can see why my hon. Friends might have been dumbfounded and stuck in their seats. I will leave it at that.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) asked about milk supplies, especially with regard to the problems with Dairy Farmers of Britain. That is a serious problem, and the Government are greatly concerned about it, especially its impact in the north-eastthe area that the hon. Gentleman represents. I do not think I can add much more to what my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured that the Government are taking this seriously. I will be involved in a series of meetings in the coming days and weeks to look specifically at the issues that have been raised. It is difficult to provide any further information at this point, because the situation is very fluid. It is hard to comment now other than to say that it is a tough challenge, but the Government will rise to it and find a way forward. I agree with those hon. Members who say that the problem has arisen is not because the organisation is a co-operative, but because of other factors.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised concerns about milk prices, which my colleagues and I share. The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know what my officials have been able to tell me so far. The Competition Commission is now consulting publicly on draft undertakings to establish an ombudsman to arbitrate in disputes between retailers and suppliers, and to investigate complaints under the new grocery supply code of practice. The deadline for those responses was 28 May. If retailers do not sign up to the undertakings, the Competition Commission will recommend to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that it take steps to establish the ombudsman instead. In that eventuality, DEFRA will be one of a number of Departments invited to comment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that. Obviously, the Government would like any assessment to be based primarily on what would be in consumers best interestswe must never forget that they are the important individuals in this matterbut we cannot comment until the issues have formally come back to Government. I cannot risk prejudicing the consultation, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Christopher Fraser) made some interesting points, and I invite him to come and see me to talk a little more about them. I certainly share some of his concerns, not least those to do with his having a very large constituency. I think he said that his constituency covered 1,200 square miles, which is very large. That is four times the size of my constituency, which is considered large in my area. I hope that he will come and see me to talk a bit further about that.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Jobcentre Plus, and a modernised service is needed to reach those who cannot get across such large geographic areas. Although I appreciate that it is sometimes difficult for older people, in particularI was moved to hear about his grandmothers situationthe truth is that telephones are often very helpful in rural communities in making first contact and in responding to the difficulties that are raised. I hope he will appreciate that, in the end, geography is a huge challenge and we cannot always cover or compensate for that difficulty. With an intelligent application of technology, we can perhaps make a significant difference, and I hope that we can talk about that when he comes to see me.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy)who I saw in her seat a moment ago, but who has now left the Chamberraised some important issues about the difficulty of accessing NHS provision in her constituency. Obviously, I share those concerns, but although the NHS is a national system its services are delivered locally. Each primary care trust has to work out carefully what is needed to meet local need. I hope that she will make a point of coming to see me, too, to discuss her local concerns. I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to do the same if they have concerns about NHS delivery in their constituencies.
I want to move on, if I may, to talk about some of the general points that were raised in todays debate. I think my hon. Friend the Minister of State was right, in his opening remarks, to point out the difficulties with average statistics. They sometimes hide significant needs. I know that from my constituency. Wansdyke had the lowest unemployment level in the UK about five years ago, yet I know that behind that prosperous headline lie real deprivation and poverty, albeit in small pockets. That is a genuinely despicable situation that one would not knowingly want or choose. I hope that people understandas I hope I do, given that I represent a semi-rural seatthat poverty, wherever it exists, is clearly a bad and difficult thing but, in some ways, rural poverty brings additional burdens because of the isolation that people also experience. Help and assistance are not always easily available as people do not have the support of neighbours or friends that they might get in an urban area.
The important thing to stress is that wherever people livein rural or urban communitiesthe problems that they face are pretty similar, despite the unique circumstances that arise in some rural communities. Most people want improved education, a better health service, affordable homes to buy and rent and a range of other important things, not least low crime figures. Although rural areas have many challenges, I do not accept that they are notably different from the rest of our society.
I want to touch on some of the key points that came up in todays debate. The first is broadband. The Government are acutely aware of the vital importance of good communications for individuals and small businesses in rural areas. After all, a greater proportion of home workers can be found in rural areas than anywhere else. That is why in the Budget we committed ourselves to a universal broadband standard of 2 MB a second, wherever reasonably possible and wherever anyone lives, by 2012. More details will be given in the Digital
Britain report, which is due out soon. I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be keen to know about that in more detail.
The Government are also mindful of new emerging technologies. We have jointly commissioned research to help to ensure that any benefits that might be forthcoming from new technology can be shared across all communities in the years ahead. That is vital. It is terribly important to the Government that the dynamism in rural communities is not lost as regards national wealth creation. It is vital that communications should be as good there as anywhere else. I hope that hon. Members will raise any questions about that with me in the future.
Secondly, the Government recognise the great importance of the post office network while also recognising the need for taxpayers to spend their money wisely and efficiently, particularly as we face the consequences of the worldwide economic downturn. That is why we are providing a subsidy to the post office network of £1.7 billion. I will say that again, as it is such a large sum: we are providing £1,700 million to secure the future of the post office network, with £150 million a year targeted at the 7,500 loss-making post offices, the vast majority of which are in rural communities. Of course, that action is in stark contrast to the proposals of the two main Opposition parties. The Conservative party would not subsidise loss-making post offices at all, but would allow them to go to the wall as it did when that party was previously in government, when some 8,000 post offices went to the wall. The Lib Dems take the line that they would not let any loss-making post offices close and would write a blank cheque. The sensible thing to do, I think, is to take the middle way and to recognise the importance of the taxpayer while also recognising the importance of rural post offices in their communities [ Interruption. ]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I ask hon. Members who have just come into the Chamber and who are conducting private conversations to show some respect for those who have participated in this debate and to allow them to hear the Ministers response?
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On the closing down of post offices, perhaps the Minister could have a word with the Minister of State, who is sitting next to him, who closed the post office in our village and many others around the country.
Thirdly, on Jobcentre Plus, the worldwide recession means that support and help for those suffering in the UK are vital. This is not a time to do nothing. That is why we are injecting £1.7 billion to ensure that people get the support they need now to weather the storm and quickly take advantage of the upturn when it comes. That is why we will not close the 25 Jobcentre Plus offices whose closure was previously announced, and there will be a moratorium on any further closures.
Access is an important issue with Jobcentre Plus, but that will mean that more than 50 per cent. of people living in rural communities will live within 5 miles of their Jobcentre Plus centre. That is important, given the fact that some rural constituencies cover very large areas, as we have heard.
The Government recognise the serious impact that the world economic downturn is having across the countryand on rural communities too, of course. I must say that there is no real evidenceI have sifted through much of the evidence in the past few daysto show that rural communities are having a more difficult time than anywhere else. If anything, they are doing slightly better in some key areas.
Many of the points raised in todays debate have been informed and informative, and I have found them interesting. However, many of the questions from the Opposition have suggested that additional funding is the answer to the problems caused by the economic downturn and being experienced in rural communities. I shall simply close by saying that, if the Opposition feel that extra resources are what is needed, it is very hard to understand how they can advocate cuts of 10 per cent. across the board and think that that will deal with the difficulties faced by people in rural communities or elsewhere in the UK.
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