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Rural Economy

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We now come to the debate on the rural economy. I should announce to the House that Mr. Speaker has chosen the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.42 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move,

Britain today is an overwhelmingly urban and suburban society. What I found most striking about last month's countryside march was the fact that those who took part identified themselves as a minority in society whose interests were being ignored by those in positions of power. The reasons for that are straightforward. Our farmers and growers are struggling with the worst recession to hit their industry since the 1930s. Red tape and regulation are holding back efforts to develop new enterprises within agriculture or in the wider rural economy. Too often, police officers are not seen on patrol in the village streets but glimpsed occasionally behind the wheel of a passing patrol car. There are severe pressures on transport services and affordable housing, and rural post offices and rural magistrates courts continue to close. All that carries a human cost. The rural stress information network, which is an independent charity, reports that calls to its helpline are now running at twice the rate of two years ago before the foot and mouth epidemic began.

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:

The Government started with an enormous fund of good will in rural as well as in urban areas. Part of the reason for this change, which requires some explanation, is the behaviour and language of Ministers. When someone as senior as the Deputy Prime Minister talks in the most scathing terms of

he causes real hurt and resentment among the hundreds of thousands of decent men and women who have supported successive peaceful marches and

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demonstrations. When the Minister for Rural Affairs said that he thought that those who marched last month were a little confused, it spoke volumes about the Government's unwillingness to listen. I genuinely wish that many more Labour Members had come to London on 22 September, not necessarily to agree with all or even some of what the marchers said, but to show, like some of their colleagues, a readiness to listen to the views that were expressed, often in desperate terms, by the marchers that day.

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 Government—I am not usually in the business of trying to help the Government—but 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?

Mr. Lidington: I think my hon. Friend has summed up views expressed by a great many people that day.

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 Government—admirably—committed themselves to rural-proofing their policies; yet 12 months after the Government entered into that

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commitment, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, a Government-appointed chairman of a Government body, reported

He stated:

It is not necessary to look far to discover why Mr. Cameron reached that conclusion. Let us consider the representation. Ministers are still committed to a system of regional government that will inevitably take power and influence away from rural communities. In the sort of regional assembly that Ministers envisage, with perhaps 30 elected members from across the region—30 members probably picked in accordance with some region-wide party list—the focus is bound to be on the interests of the towns and cities. Their priorities will receive the most attention.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): The regional assemblies will, of course, be introduced only if voted for by the people whom they will seek to represent.

May I also draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the experience of rural development agencies? All of them, I think—in particular, one in my area—have 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 authorities—especially in rural areas—from 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 Assembly—DUP, Ulster Unionist, Alliance, Women's Coalition, you name it: there are so many parties in Northern Ireland—right 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

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areas. Therefore, the fate of two-tier government in Yorkshire and Humberside will be settled by the 86 per cent. who have no experience of it.

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