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6.46 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): We have covered a lot of ground this afternoon, from the Angus glens to the rolling countryside of East Devon. We have also covered a great deal of ground in terms of substance: serious issues have been raised by Back Benchers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton). Some require a more detailed response than there is time for at this stage of the debate, when there is little time left; in such cases, I shall respond in writing.

I must start by commenting on the maiden speeches made today. I have particular sympathy with the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) who experienced that awful moment towards the end of a debate when one waits to see whether one will be squeezed out. I pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House for making sure that he had time to speak. The hon. Gentleman succeeds Andrew Rowe, a delightful man who was a great champion of charities and the voluntary sector; he will be difficult to replace. There is a vacancy for someone who engages with the sort of issues in which Andrew Rowe took a strong interest.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) on his maiden speech, which was a passionate promotion of the pubs of Henley. He was confident, assured and entertaining—the very qualities that inspire jealousy among listeners in the Chamber. It was the sort of speech that demanded the heckling and interventions that are forbidden during a maiden speech but that will, I am sure, occur on every future occasion that he rises to speak. Incidentally, I have to point out that it is the Government's policies on the countryside—and almost everything else—that are clear, whereas it is impossible to know what the Conservative party stands for. None the less, I look forward to many meanderings and excellent speeches in future.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) whose style was wholly different. Serious and thoughtful, his comments were rooted in his own experience and knowledge of the needs of people living in a rural area with a mining background, such as the area where he was born and which he is now proud to represent. He gave a mature and worthy speech in which he showed a sense of humour combined with decency.

In another first-rate speech, the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) rightly emphasised the link between farming and tourism. I agree with the link that he made and with the need to boost tourism. I have been involved in that for some 28 years. The issue is not just one of cash but of people having a sense of vision and direction. It is also about partnership between the different bodies and levels of government that can do something to promote the issue. I am certainly happy to accept his invitation to visit his region.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made available £3.8 million for national and regional public relations and marketing in tourism—a subject he emphasised. That timely action did much to restart the domestic tourism season. We also pledged additional funding of £14.2 million. That was supplemented by another £2.1 million which was redeployed by the British Tourist Authority from previous plans. The BTA sought that amount for 2001 after full consultation with the industry. The point about needing to kick-start and promote tourism is well made but one with which the Government are already very strongly involved.

The hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) demonstrated a nice style and a sense of humour. Standards are improving in the humour stakes in this House. He seemed, however, to have some problems with travel. I can only commend to him consultation with the Minister of State, Scotland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), who is one of Labour's many rural MPs, a source of good advice and quite an entertaining companion.

Listening to the debate, it is difficult to know why the Conservatives chose the subject of the countryside as they had nothing new to say. We had hoped to hear something constructive, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was hardly churlish to criticise the opening speech of the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), given that it was a rather pathetic attempt to promote the old myth that the Conservative party is interested in the countryside.

I must point out that it is Labour that has a practical and positive engagement with the needs of rural communities and the rural economy. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may mock, but they should look at the results of the general election, at which Labour Members were again returned in force to represent rural areas. Conservative Members should consider the work undertaken by Labour Back Benchers in making constructive proposals to the Government. I look forward to engaging with many of my colleagues in promoting the Government's positive programme. The hon. Member for South Suffolk posed a string of questions on which he had

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clearly not done too much homework. The arrival of foot and mouth merited maturity and responsibility on both sides of the House. It has been disappointing to see how the Opposition have responded.

Our priority has been to eradicate foot and mouth disease—not easy, given the devastating nature of the outbreak in comparison to the previous experience in the country—then to alleviate the immediate impact on farmers and rural businesses and communities, and then to assist longer-term recovery. I am finding chairing the rural task force a most positive experience; we are dealing with difficult issues. All stakeholders have shown maturity and a willingness to engage, as they do in the stakeholders group in which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes part, and that is extremely positive.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Alun Michael: I shall follow the example of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in trying to respond to the debate. The hon. Lady has not been with us this afternoon.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the outset, we must learn the lessons of the outbreak. There is an attempt to make mischief by suggesting that the Government should respond by setting up an inquiry. We have made it clear that we want to learn the lessons and to be as open and inquiring as possible, but that we must do so in a way that enables us to move forward rather than delay learning those lessons.

It is important to look at longer-term trends and policies, to which some Members have referred. For some 20 years, rural communities have suffered a long-term decline in services. I must tell one or two Opposition Members who referred to the decline in some services in rural areas that they declined faster in the Conservative years than in any other period. The position is now the reverse: improvements in the past four years seek to make sure that small schools survive; we are putting more money into rural transport; and we are trying to make sure that shops survive in rural areas and that the Post Office engages with the need to provide services in rural areas.

Some of those things are not just about an individual service, but involve looking laterally at how to combine the needs of the community with commercial reality. I visited Waters Upton at the beginning of the week and saw just such an example: people had recognised the need for a small shop, information technology and broadband access in a rural community. They also recognised the need for mothers seeking to return to work to obtain training, and combined all those things in a project that certainly benefits from planning gain but will be advantageous for the rural community. The number of village halls has increased. The Government have therefore stopped the decline in services as far as possible, but we have much to do to create a secure and sustainable future for rural communities. The rural White Paper was published last November and we shall certainly take account of foot and mouth in its implementation; it provides a framework in which we can progress.

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I point out to Opposition Members that, in looking at recovery, we have already provided £10.4 million to extend the facilities provided by the farm business advice service, which enables farmers directly affected by foot and mouth to apply for five days of free business advice rather than the three days provided under the previous scheme. That is vital, as statistics show. A survey of businesses in the west midlands showed that 80 per cent. of those which identified themselves as being directly affected by foot and mouth had not sought help or advice, and 60 per cent. did not decide to make any change in their business or its marketing, whether it was farm- related or another rural business. That is worrying, because there is a need to adapt and change. We must help, but industries must work with us if we are to achieve those changes.

I was surprised that Opposition Members raised the issue of crime. As a Home Office Minister, I set in train research into rurality, which led to additional money going to rural police forces to tackle the problem. We are providing extra resources—an additional £15 million last year and £30 million this year—and more officers can be recruited from the ring-fenced crimefighting fund. This year, we have seen the build-up to the second round of crime and disorder reduction strategies, which provide rural communities with a voice and engagement with the police and local authority in every area of the country. If adopted positively, that will create a partnership between people living in those communities, the police and local authorities to tackle and reduce crime. That is an appropriate response to rural areas and their experience.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), who made a well informed contribution and was involved in the work leading to the White Paper, which seeks to provide a framework for delivering our aim of thriving rural communities in a protected and accessible countryside. We need to help people in rural areas to access key services, and have set in train moves that will give them that benefit. We must provide greater access to affordable new housing and support for farmers and rural business; we must make local government in the countryside more responsive; and, across government, we must engage with the needs of the countryside. The Government care about the countryside and will work with all who do to ensure that it has a sustainable and thriving future.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 188, Noes 277.

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