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16 Oct 2002 : Column 385continued
I admit that the mood in the countryside is not solely due to disillusionment with the present Government. There is also disaffection with the political process and with politicians of all parties. That more general feeling of mistrust found expression in the mass abstention from voting in last year's general election, about which every one of us, from whichever side of the House we come, ought to be concerned. However, it is accurate to say that there is an especially strong sense of grievance against the present Government. It was not a politician but the chairman of another charity, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, Mr. Wallis, who last month wrote to the Prime Minister about the views of farmers. His statement sums up the much wider public perception in our rural communities. He wrote:
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): My hon. Friend will be aware that the Minister for the Environment attended the previous countryside march, which we thought was courageous and fair-minded.
Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the contrast in the behaviour of Ministers then and now. That shows that the confidence that people in the countryside have in the Government has been sapped in the past few years.
Jim Knight (South Dorset): Would the hon. Gentleman blame some of us for not attending the march given the tactics of some of its supporters? A supporter attached to my garden gate a poster advertising the march and took pictures of it, which I assumed would be used in some propaganda. That did not endear me to their cause.
Mr. Lidington: The illicit poster on the hon. Gentleman's gate has obviously been preying on his mind for some weeks, and I am glad that he has had the opportunity to get it off his chest. I do not for a moment defend such action, but he has overlooked the fact that more than 400,000 of our fellow citizens were prepared to give up a Sunday and travel long distances into London if necessary to make their views known. It would have helped not only the GovernmentI am not usually in the business of trying to help the Governmentbut the cause of democracy and a sense of reconnection between public and politicians had more than a handful of members and supporters of the Government been present to listen.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Is my hon. Friend aware that those of us who were on the march were conscious of the fact that, even though the Government have argued that this issue is a matter for the House and not for them, as they are merely in charge of the process, the marchers, wherever they came from and whatever principled ground they held, were against the Government of the day and those in power?
The trouble with the Government's approach to rural policy is the same as the trouble with their approach on so many other fronts. All too often, we have seen a gap between what was promised and what has in practice been delivered. The Governmentadmirablycommitted themselves to rural-proofing their policies; yet 12 months after the Government entered into that
May I also draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the experience of rural development agencies? All of them, I thinkin particular, one in my areahave taken a significant interest in the rural economy, in how to make it thrive, and in how to establish a dedicated representative to fulfil the necessary role.
Mr. Lidington: I will go as far as this with the hon. Gentleman. Travelling around the country, I have encountered examples of budgets allocated to regional bodies being spent well; but I have also encountered numerous complaints from elected councillors and others who have said that the bureaucracy involved in trying to obtain a grant from a regional body is so complicated as to deter many grass-roots organisations, even local authoritiesespecially in rural areasfrom making the attempt in the first place.
David Burnside (South Antrim): In the case of regional assemblies, the problem is not grants. Until midnight on Monday, we had an Assembly in Northern Ireland. My views on the Assembly are pretty anti, but all parties in the AssemblyDUP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance, Women's Coalition, you name it: there are so many parties in Northern Irelandright over to Sinn Fein believed that agriculture in Northern Ireland would be much better served by a regional assembly than by a national Government.
Mr. Lidington: There is, I think, a profound difference between the history and representative traditions of Northern Ireland and those of England. In England in particular, we have looked to counties, boroughs and cities to provide a focus for local representation.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I hoped that my hon. Friend would illustrate his concern by reference to Yorkshire and Humberside. North Yorkshire contains 14 per cent. of the population of that region. The remaining 86 per cent. are already in metropolitan