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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for giving us the opportunity to have the debate on the state of the economy in the rural areas of the United Kingdom. I am sure that she would say that she has been rewarded with a wonderful cross-section of contributions.

We have gone from considering the community spirit to sparsity funding. We have talked about the arts, the support that local communities give, opportunities and the practical problems of gangmasters. As someone involved with Concordia, which helps to bring people in, I appreciate that particular contribution. We have talked about the huge changes taking place, police reforms, sparsity funding, tourism and young entrepreneurs. We have also had an interesting contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about the very rural and the remoteness of some areas of the countryside, and from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who challenged those of us who live and work there; we also covered the importance of rural housing and of transport generally. It has been a worthwhile debate and I congratulate the noble Baroness.

The state of the rural economy varies from place to place and from activity to activity. In many places tourism is good at providing a living for those who work in hotels, restaurants and visitors' attractions, and on farms. Sadly, however, there are areas suffering from the counter-attraction of cheap air fares to the Mediterranean, particularly in spring and autumn. It is disheartening that it is cheaper for a family of four to fly to some European destination than it is to put enough fuel in the car to go from London to Cornwall and back. The reason for that is the lack of fuel tax on aviation fuel, compared with car transport. There is also the pollution caused and the night-time flying that afflicts several of our villages.

As other noble Lords have indicated, agricultural incomes have been at a low for a number of years. It is not easy to predict area by area or region by region what will happen under the new single farm payment system, but the recent 2005 Farm Business Survey shows that 16 per cent of farm households have an income of less than £10,000. Total income from farming is estimated to have fallen in 2005 by 11.4 per cent in real terms. If some of those who have jobs elsewhere had a fall of that degree, they would be very worried about their incomes.

By diversification farmers earn extra living and income—by renting out production units in former farm buildings, by adding value to agricultural products, by using their land for activities and by encouraging people to come and visit their farms. Many have developed, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, high-tech, specialist small businesses. Those are to be welcomed.
 
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However, in some areas village retail has contracted. The growth of supermarkets has put pressure on small grocery and other shops. Whereas in the past you were able to buy fresh meat or fresh bread from a number of villages, in some parts that is now becoming difficult. The only opportunity one gets to buy those, along with homemade cakes, pots of jam, home-grown vegetables and local, high-quality products, is usually at farmers' markets.

Larger villages have a GP's surgery, even if some only have them open on one or two days a week. They also have a number of pubs—sadly, many have closed—and some specialist shops have survived in some areas.

As my noble friend Lord Brooke reflected, in many villages the community spirit is there. That is perhaps highlighted in the contribution of the church and, if I might link it in the same way, the post office, which are centres of activity. I was pleased to hear the example of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. In our local village we managed to add a meeting room to the back of our church, which took a lot of doing, but was worth it and people supported it.

The position of postmasters and sub-postmasters and postmistresses who have tried to add groceries, vegetables and other things to their shops is fairly precarious. There are some 14,500 post offices in the United Kingdom today, and 8,000 of those are in rural areas. They belong with one or two of the other small food chain shops, which work from the arrival of newspapers in the morning before 6 until 8 or later in the evening. The reward for those efforts is limited—the income is small. But there is still competition from big business and big banking, which wish to nestle in on what they are providing.

As recently as 22 September last year, the Under-Secretary of State, Barry Gardiner, confirmed that the Government understood the social value of the post office network. He accepts that the Government must improve the lot of the most disadvantaged, who rely on post office services. Nevertheless, he confirmed that the current special payment scheme will end in 2008.

I would briefly like to highlight one of the problems with regard to the post office. There has been great pressure from the Government for people to have their payment of benefits paid through banks rather than through post offices. I can speak from personal experience, because I recently followed that path myself. There is pressure put on you at every stage. The response to my written letters confirmed that the Government would much prefer to pay into your bank. All I can do in the time allocated is to say that this is another wedge that will stop the footfall of people who used to go their post offices to claim benefits. That will have greater spin-off effects, to which the Government need to give serious consideration.

The Government are failing many people who live and work in the rural community. They are without a long-term strategy for farming and appear to be unconcerned about United Kingdom food security—the Secretary of State has stated consistently that
 
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domestic self-sufficiency is not needed or desirable. They want to drive down the cost of food, but seem unconcerned about the miles that food is transported or the pollution caused and they do not acknowledge the increased CO2 emissions, which are a consequence of that decision. My noble friend Lord Peel very sensibly raised that issue.

The Government also fail to seek derogation from—or to oppose—legislation that keeps coming from Europe. They cut back on the funding of important projects, recently and regrettably including the cut back of the UK wildlife research centres. We heard yesterday how the national park in the Lake District was to receive a below-inflation grant settlement. But chairmen of the English park authorities warned Defra last month that the spending standstill would result in an "unacceptable reduction" in the ability of the parks to meet those Government targets for sustainable development. We do not have joined-up government here.

On the positive side, though—the Minister will be glad to hear me being positive—he announced earlier this week that the bulk of the single farm payments would begin in February and be completed in March. I ask him again today, because he did not answer me yesterday: what percentage of farms will that cover? How many farms? How many farmers whose claims are yet to be dealt with will be left outside that bulk? What happens to those who are still struggling to get the RPA to respond to their letters and deal with applications? I wrote to the Minister on 12 January this year, bringing to his attention two such cases. I am sad to say I have not yet heard from him. I hope a response will come quickly.

I would also like to correct the Minister when he said the other day that our party welcomed the changes proposed to the single farm payment. He was not the Minister at the time. I urge him to look back at Hansard when we heard the Statement. He will realise that I clearly raised my concerns on the situation between English, Welsh and Scottish farmers, let alone farmers overseas.

Many people have touched on affordable housing, which is critical. I share many of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on that. But again I should like to be positive. I will turn to wider issues. I welcome the Government's U-turn in not closing 100 cottage hospitals, which are of vital importance to local communities. However, I urge the Government to think through their new proposals for primary care trusts, where there is already great pressure on GPs to provide the services they are now required to.

The Government keep producing new strategies—some welcome, some questionable—but, whatever the pressure, they pass down the delivery to local authorities. The trouble with national funding is that it often does not follow these new strategies, and the pressure on local authorities forces them to raise their council taxes. The Government need to give this some serious thought, and accept that those responsibilities they pass down must be fully funded. I too am
 
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concerned about the suggestion that the police force should amalgamate into bigger and bigger units, because very rural areas will be jeopardised.

I am a minute over my time, and I apologise. Again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. It has been an excellent debate.

1.43 pm


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