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There is a changed pattern of employment in rural areas. The number of people employed in agriculture in the field has declined enormously. Most people engaged in rural employment and occupations now work in pack houses. The crops are harvested mechanically—their processing and marketing actually provide the new employment.

There are changed demographics. We all know about the rise of commuting, the gentrification of rural villages and the second holiday home. Indeed, the

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noble Lord, Lord Burnett, in talking about rural housing gave the impression that we could perhaps have a whole debate on rural housing itself, which is a complex issue. The whole business of finding rural housing at a reasonable price and securing it for indigenous people is complex and not easy.

In addition, of course, affluence has meant that people have different ways of spending their leisure time. The decline of the rural pub is perhaps only partially due to Chancellors taxing beer; it is more likely due to the fact that people have other things to do with their leisure time. They do not necessarily want to spend their evenings in the village pub; there may be other things on which they wish to spend their time.

I hesitate to mention this point because it might sound party political—I hope noble Lords appreciate that I am not approaching this debate from a party political point of view—but one of the difficulties the Government have had in their relationship with rural areas is that the new Labour project failed to engage with rural England. It is one of the items on the agenda that was never fulfilled and it has been damaging to rural England and agriculture.

In particular, in rural communities the Labour Party effectively has no locus; there are very few Labour Party activists and the NUAW—which, when I was young, was a power in the land, along with the NFU—has more or less disappeared, subsumed by the Transport and General Workers Union, now part of Unite. There is no longer that sense whereby the Labour Party feels that it has a political locus in the countryside. That has given the impression on occasions that rural communities perhaps do not matter as much as they might do. I hesitate to make that point because I do not want to destroy the consensus I might be building, but it is a valid observation on one of the difficulties that we have had recently.

All parties need to make a conscious effort to listen to and act on the concerns of the rural population. I think we would all agree with that. The appointment of Dr Stuart Burgess has been a positive development and, as rural advocate, he has used the commission’s resources to evidence the challenges that the Government face in these areas and has utilised his contacts with local authorities to maintain critical services and access to them. The current crisis is hitting rural communities particularly hard. What assessment have the Government made of the impact that the recession might have on rural communities?

The Commission for Rural Communities report into the state of the countryside noted how access to services such as banks, job centres and petrol stations, which I have mentioned before, is becoming increasingly difficult. We can all think of post offices, village shops, schools and healthcare facilities which are, in many cases, directly affected by government policies. What assessment do the Government make of the impact of policy decisions on rural services?

Finally, the InterConnect system in Lincolnshire, which I know Stuart Burgess has looked at, is being funded by the Government. It is a successful system which works in partnership with Lincolnshire County Council, and I have made clear my interest. This system ensures that there is now a transport system for

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people who do not have cars. Even people with cars sometimes cannot drive them when they get older, and they need an alternative method of getting to services. That is never going to come cheap—we have to appreciate that it is bound to be a cost on the community as a whole—but it is essential if we are not to see a proportion of our rural population with no access to the vital services they need. It is beholden on all parties and political activists to look, listen and act with rural communities in mind.

2.40 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): I, too, welcome the opportunity to debate rural affairs and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for initiating the debate and for the breadth of his opening speech, which was very helpful. It gave a very interesting insight into the challenges and changes in rural Wales which he has experienced over the years.

I was also impressed by the work that he and his colleagues have done in his local community. He seems to have been very active and very successful. If one were to draw conclusions on what could be done to help rural communities to develop in the future, they could do very much worse than to follow his example. I found some of the initiatives which he spoke about extremely interesting.

As someone who lives in Birmingham and works in London, it might be thought that I am not the best person to comment on issues concerning rurality, particularly when all other noble Lords in the Grand Committee today clearly have a great deal of experience. Birmingham is very close to Warwickshire, which is an outstanding county and one with which we enjoy very good relationships. Like many Brummies, we always spend our holidays in mid-Wales. The noble Lord talked about the lack of access to services, but it is quite remarkable that at any time of the year in Aberdyfi one can always get a copy of the Birmingham Post,which says something.

I am responding to the debate because Defra has the lead responsibility within the Government for rural issues and monitoring rural affairs, and that situation also applies to England. I know that the noble Lords, Lord Livsey and Lord Roberts, made the point that although they were mainly talking about the situation in Wales, their points are applicable to the rest of the UK. My department has very good contacts with the devolved Administrations and on a number of occasions during the year we discuss rural issues. I shall ensure that the contents of this debate are shared with colleagues, particularly those in the Welsh Assembly, so that they have an understanding of the points that we have discussed.

Clearly, because of food and farming issues, Defra has a major area of work within rural affairs, but its other area of work is to monitor and co-ordinate the work of other government departments. If I take a message from the debate, it is that noble Lords are saying that the department needs to ensure that it is making the most of that co-ordinating role. I fully accept that it is important that we take it seriously, and

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we cannot be complacent. Of course, we have to monitor progress on rural issues across government in order to meet one of our most important departmental strategic objectives.

When looking at the outcomes, it is interesting to see that, in general, fewer people live in poverty in rural areas; there are fewer victims of crime in rural areas; and proportionately more people in rural areas are employed than in urban areas. Quite remarkable statistics which I have been given show—I assume this is from polling—that of people living in the countryside, 89 per cent would prefer to continue to do so, whereas 21 per cent of those living in inner cities would prefer to continue living there. Although we have heard some very apposite comments about some of the challenges and problems of maintaining rural communities, none the less, many people see living in rural areas as an asset and very much to be desired.

The problem that we face is the dispersed nature of rural communities and the greater distances between settlements and services. I suppose that is the root cause of why service-deliverers in rural areas have considerable challenges. Each of the public services that noble Lords have mentioned faces that particular problem. I was very interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, had to say about the closure of rural services, including post offices, pubs, shops and petrol stations. I do not think that he mentioned jobcentres, but that is obviously an example of where there has been some consolidation. Then there are doctors’ surgeries and even tax offices—although I suspect that not everyone is as concerned about that as they are about the loss of other services.

I do not seek to ignore those issues or to deny them. There is no doubt that there is a tension between the drive to make public service provision more efficient, which is with us and ever present, and the issue of how you do that—by forcing collocation of services and increasing the distances that people have to travel, which has been a feature of many of our public services. Magistrates’ courts are another example. In my previous role as Minister responsible for legal aid, it was a concern raised by some groups concerned about legal aid services that it was more difficult for rural solicitors to win legal aid contracts, resulting in it being difficult sometimes for people in rural areas to gain access to legal aid services.

There are many examples of particular problems being faced, but it is not a totally bleak picture. Although the number of banks and building societies in rural areas has decreased by 2.6 per cent in 2007-08, the number of rural people living within four kilometres of a cashpoint is increasing and now stands at 90 per cent. The number of job centres in rural areas has fallen by nearly 20 per cent, but the number of rural supermarkets, dentists and pubs—interestingly enough, in view of what the noble Lord said—has increased over that period. Those are statistics from the State of the Countryside report from the Commission for Rural Communities, so I think they are pretty authoritative.

To come on to post offices, the number of rural post offices declined in that year by a smaller percentage than the number of urban ones. The number of rural

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people within four kilometres of GP surgeries and secondary schools has stayed roughly the same, as has the number of rural people living within two kilometres of primary schools. The percentage of rural households within 30 minutes of an hourly or better bus service has increased significantly since 1997. There are some positive signs amid the general problem that we are discussing.

The Post Office is an important issue. We are seeing investment of considerable sums of money to support restructuring and modernisation of the network. In the proposals that have nearly left your Lordships' House, or will soon be going, we are guaranteeing the integrity of the network as a whole, which is a very important component of post office services. On the point raised about access criteria and the potential discrimination against rural issues, my understanding is that the criteria that the Government designed were to allow Post Office Limited the necessary freedom to modernise service delivery. Ninety-five per cent of the total rural population throughout the UK must be within three miles of the nearest post office outlet and, to protect the population in isolated and sparsely populated areas, 95 per cent of the population of every postcode district must be within six miles of the nearest post office outlet. In drawing up implementation plans, Post Office Ltd was required to take into account any obvious geographical constraints that could prevent the spirit of the access criteria being applied. I do not think that there is evidence of discrimination against rural areas.

On transport, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, made the point that for many people, if they live in the countryside, having a car is essential. That has reduced the viability of public transport services.

Lord Burnett: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. Is he, in his point on post offices, contradicting the brief, from which I am now reading and to which I refer, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England? It states:

“The Government criteria have given specific protection to post offices in urban deprived areas, but they neglected to introduce a similar provision for rural deprived areas”.

Is that correct or incorrect?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: I do not have the information that has been published by the CPRE. I will certainly look into it and respond. My point is that, from the access criteria that the Government have laid down for Post Office Ltd, the requirements that I have read out make it clear that, in general policy, the Government have sought to protect the rural network of post offices. I am very happy to respond to the noble Lord in detail on the specific point that he raises.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: Regarding rural post offices, say that your village is in the Conwy Valley and the post office is open for two hours a week. A neighbouring village might be three miles away, but your village only has a facility for two hours’ post office services every week. Does the Minister really think that that is a satisfactory criterion?

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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Obviously, given the tremendous pressure on it, the Post Office is seeking to have an outlet that is at least open for a limited time. It is better for it to be open for a limited time than not at all. One has to be realistic. I readily acknowledge that there will be concerns about access to public services in rural areas. Equally, it has to be accepted that any solution must be imaginative. We must make the best use of our resources.

I make another point, coming back to the question of legal aid. One of the matters that we were discussing at the Ministry of Justice was the question of using video facilities so that people can have communication and probably set it up in the pub. I agree with the noble Lord about the use of the pub and other community areas. With some imagination, it is perfectly easy to set up video conferencing facilities, which can then enable people in rural areas to communicate with different public services. I do not know the details of the two-hour post office, but if it is a sign of flexibility and imagination, I am all for it. There is a balance here. It is clear that no Government could afford to provide an all-singing, all-dancing network of public services, open at all times, in each part of the rural economy. Equally, we need to make sure that, as far as possible, people have appropriate access. We need to be imaginative, just as we need to be about transport.

Of course, we have put more money into rural transport. It is fair to say that local transport authorities are responsible for ensuring that there is a network of rural transport services. It is the same with health, which is something that I know a little more about than rural areas. There is a tension in health, where the trend over 20 or 30 years has been towards a greater concentration of services. The reason for that is very clear. The evidence from health professionals is that health outcomes and clinical effectiveness are better where there is greater co-ordination and centralisation of health services. Again, the test here is being imaginative in solutions.

I think that my time is coming to an end, but I want to turn to the issue of housing. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Roberts, about the importance of housing and social housing in rural areas. I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said about an “upward cycle”, which was a very good way of putting it. If young people have access to housing in rural areas, that inevitably leads to babies and children and a demand for schools.

We have a target of 10,300 affordable homes being provided in settlements of less than 3,000 inhabitants between 2008 and 2011. In our response to the Taylor review of the rural economy and affordable housing, we made it clear that we understood that the long-term gap between supply and demand had led to an affordability problem. We referred to the need to increase the supply housing, and we also said:

“The downturn does not fundamentally affect our analysis of why the demand for housing will continue to rise”.

I am very happy to pass the noble Lord’s interesting suggestions on planning consent to the relevant government department. It is worth noting that new proposals for a planning policy statement were issued for consultation last week. I do not know whether the

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noble Lord has seen it but I should welcome his input into that. As I said, I should be very happy to ensure that the point that he raised is considered.

Obviously I cannot commit my noble friend Lady Andrews, but I shall certainly talk to her about the idea of a debate on rural housing because it seems that there would be a great deal of interest in it. I am sure she will be ever-anxious to come to your Lordships’ House to debate those matters.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and others to comment on rural poverty. I shall be happy to write to noble Lords with the information that I have but, in the one minute that I have left, I can say that our understanding is that the impacts of the current recession on rural areas are very similar to those in urban areas.

In conclusion, this has been a very interesting debate and a lot of very good ideas have been put forward. The Government are not complacent on this matter; we have put more resources into our support for rural areas. However, because this issue embraces many government departments, I shall ensure that the points raised are put to the relevant Ministers. I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, for instituting the debate and for the excellence of his contribution.

2.59 pm

Sitting suspended.

National Probation Service

Question for Short Debate

3 pm

Tabled By Lord Ramsbotham

Lord Ramsbotham: My Question is a probing one because in asking Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to reappoint a director of the National Probation Service, I am actually seeking information on how Her Majesty's Government think that any operational service can be operationally led except by a professional head. In doing so, I declare my interest in the subject as a former Chief Inspector of Prisons. During my time in office, I worked closely with Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation conducting two joint thematic reviews, one on life sentence prisoners and one on resettlement, as well as our being members of an unofficial criminal justice system group of inspectors, who took part in joint inspections of particular aspects on a mix and match basis.

In early 2000, the then Home Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Justice, informed us both that he was thinking of merging our two inspectorates in line with a study that was being conducted in the Home Office on the possible merger of the prison and probation services. Fortunately, the study found that that was not appropriate, which was not to deny that close working between them was essential. In November of that year

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the Secretary of State announced to us and to the House of Commons that he was not going to merge the inspectorates either.

Both of us had urged very strongly that merger between such different organisations with such different operational purposes was inappropriate for a whole variety of reasons. In particular, the Prison Service was responsible for the treatment and conditions of approaching 50,000 people in custody, of whom about 10,000 would come into the hands of the probation service on release for the community part of their sentences. The probation service on the other hand, which for almost 100 years had had rehabilitation at the heart of its purpose and ethos, had to care for some 250,000 offenders in the community and work very closely with that community, the courts and the police on a day-to-day basis.

Furthermore, it was at that time not a national but a county service working within specific geographic boundaries—something that changed very soon after I retired from the post when the National Probation Service was created with a reduced number of chief officers of probation remaining responsible for the management of realigned geographic areas. However, the Government’s intentions were made clear when at the same time the prison and probation services were brought together under a commissioner of corrections, while retaining their own director-general and national director respectively. Furthermore, under the first national director of probation, the ethos of the service was changed by putting punishment as its first task and relegating rehabilitation to subordinate status—to the horror and alarm of all those who knew what was required of it if offenders were to be helped to live useful and law-abiding lives in the community.

However, this situation, too, was short lived because in January 2004, following acceptance of recommendations by the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, the two were joined together into the National Offender Management Service. But, from the outset, confusion reigned; no one in either service knew whether they had been merged, were to be merged or what was to happen, because there was no consultation, even with their own directors, before the formation of NOMS was announced. I mention this because it highlights the concern which is at the heart of my question: namely, whether those responsible for the introduction of NOMS fully appreciated that those serving in operational services need to be professionally led and cannot be managed like commodities.

NOMS has had a chequered career since then, which I do not intend to rehearse. Suffice to say that it got off to a shaky start because it was designed to create an offender management system but persisted in pretending that it was one service when in fact it was an association of two with entirely different operational purposes. Now that, too, has metamorphosed into the National Offender Management Service agency, into which the prison and probation services have been subsumed. No longer is there a director-general of Her Majesty’s Prison Service or a director of the National Probation Service, but a chief executive of the agency, which has become a vast bureaucracy numbering 4,270 staff, although I must admit to being

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confused today when the chief executive of “NOMSA” was described as the director-general of the Prison Service in relation to a dispute with the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

Worryingly—and I venture to say disgracefully—there appear to be no senior probation staff in any of the executive posts at the head of the various departments of the agency. Without their presence, I wonder who is providing professional probation advice to the Secretary of State and his Ministers; to the agency chief executive, who comes from the Prison Service, as does his deputy; and to the hordes of civil servants who have no experience at all of the management of offenders on the ground. The old probation organisations, in which boards were responsible for assisting chief officers, are being superseded by trusts responsible for purchasing probation services, which is an entirely impersonal way of conducting an intensely personal requirement, because probation is all about people—staff, offenders and the public.

All this has been brought about by the Government despite strong opposition during the consultancies that first the Home Office and then the Ministry of Justice conducted. Unfortunately, no notice appears to have been taken during these consultancies of any dissenting view, in favour of pressing ahead with ministerial intention. But the fact that so many announced intentions have either failed or come to nothing should surely alert the Government to the folly of this approach.

It reminds me of the attempt by the Canadians to merge their navy, army and air force into one service during the 1960s, despite pleading and advice from many people who warned that it would weaken individual operational performance if the inevitable compromises were enforced. Within a year, common sense prevailed and the three returned to their separate tasks. Canada, too, has tried to merge its prison and probation services into one correctional service. Inevitably, as practitioners warned would happen, the position of probation has been subordinated to that of prisons, despite their totally different operational purposes, because of their higher profile.

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