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A noble Lord: My Lords, last week one of them did so.

Lord Luke: My Lords, I am glad that one of them has contributed.

Beef exports were mentioned by many noble Lords in the debate. They were the subject of absolute derision by the former Opposition. They derided the former government's handling of that difficult issue. They said, "Put us into power. We will soon speak to our friends in Europe and clear it up". Have they, my Lords? Is there any progress in 10 months? There is little progress. We are still in the same position as we were then.

Farmers are going through one of the worst depressions of this century. What do farmers of beef or dairy herds, sheep and others gain? They receive crumbs, talk, and some rather nasty leaked information, or speculation, on increases in petrol duty in the next Budget. That will hit those in the countryside more than anyone in the towns.

No wonder farmers are desperate. They are also furious that the Government for whom so many of them voted are dithering and ducking, and trying to sound caring at the same time.

The right to roam is supposed to have been toned down. I am not sure whether it has. I think that it is one more effort to get over this coming weekend. In answer, after her apology for the leak last Wednesday by the right honourable gentleman the Minister of State, Mr. Michael Meacher, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, twice mentioned the right to explore. What does that mean? I have read the consultation document.

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Footpaths and bridlepaths are hardly mentioned. All that has changed from the Labour Party's aggressive attacks on the rights of property owners is a short delay for what I think is cosmetic political expediency. Compulsion is the core socialist word. Socialists will always come back to it in the end. Let us beware--"Mischief thou art afoot". In the meantime, 200,000 people will be afoot on Sunday demonstrating how they feel about their lives in the country.

Hunting has been mentioned. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, described me as a bloodthirsty spectator. I am sure that in his reply the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will say that hunting is the main issue of this march. While I agree that it is the spring from which the march arose, it is not the main issue. With the little pourboires from here and there, the Government are showing all the symptoms of running scared. For once, they are not doing a very good job as regards their PR. I suggest that they make a genuine U-turn--or what was described earlier as a re-evaluation of government policy--and take the concerns of those who live and work in the countryside to heart.

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, today's short debate, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Patten, comes at a most opportune time, just prior to Sunday's countryside march. The farming community, landowners and people who live in rural areas will be coming together to express their concern about this Government's approach to rural matters. My noble friend asks the Government,

    "whether they are satisfied that their policies work to the benefit of people who live and work in the countryside".

One sometimes wonders what those policies are. During these past few months, policies have been stated and changed; consultation has been instigated; there has been review upon review--all resulting in total confusion with regard to policies for the countryside. Farmers wish only for a fair deal, and long-term policies on which to plan their business future. They cannot do that when such a degree of uncertainty exists. They wish to be allowed to get on with running their own lives, providing food for us to eat while at the same time looking after the countryside which we all enjoy today.

That countryside is a living environment. It is not a picture postcard or a museum, but a working environment for many thousands of people. The Government must accept responsibility for the confusion that has grown up in recent months and which has brought great anxiety to many farmers and people who live and work in rural areas.

The green belt was to be protected. But in three areas recently, that has not been the case, the Environment Minister overriding the wishes of local people by granting permission for new houses on three large greenfield sites. The rebuilding of our rural services is promised. But are the Government not concerned that the proposed minimum wage could hit rural areas--as would any increase in tax on petrol? Banning beef on the bone, plus the continuation of the strong pound, all add to the difficulties faced today by farmers. Those,

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plus the proposed right to roam and the threat to countryside pursuits, highlight just how out of touch this Government are at times with rural communities. If fox hunting is to be banned, jobs will be lost and whole communities will be put at risk. If hunting is banned, what will come next? Perhaps fishing; maybe shooting?

As I have implied, confusion abounds, and no more so than this week when the Government launched Access to the Open Countryside. They say it is a consultation document. But is it just that? The Environment Minister, Mr. Meacher, said in a recent interview on the "Today" programme that the Government were going to increase the right to roam as set down in the consultation paper, and added:

    "If we can achieve it by voluntary means that is by far the best way to proceed in this as in other areas, but if we cannot, then we will bring in legislation".

As my noble friend Lord Inglewood remarked at the time, that is not consultation: it is an ultimatum.

Should there be any doubt, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, in repeating the Statement in this House on 25th February, went on to say:

    "We made it quite clear in our manifesto that our policies included greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. We intend to keep to that commitment. In a sense that commitment is not open to consultation".--[Official Report, 25/2/98; col. 725.]

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord, Carter, will clarify the position.

One person's rights are another's restrictions. Many smaller farmers--I declare that I was one in the past--who work land near to urban areas know only too well of the difficulties caused by those who do not respect our property. Vandalism and damage are routine problems. Gates are left open and animals are deliberately let out without regard for their safety. Trespass is a regular occurrence, litter is dumped and barns are set on fire.

While I appreciate that many members of the Ramblers' Association do not fall into that category, not everybody who walks in the countryside observes the country code and keeps to the prescribed paths and refrains from damaging property. The Deputy Prime Minister recently said that the rural environment was safe in his hands. Can he be so sure that it will be safe in the hands of the members of the general public?

The countryside march on Sunday will bring together farmers, landowners and those who work and live in the countryside, along with many city dwellers who already enjoy country life. The march will highlight their concerns, to which many noble Lords have referred today. I hope that the Government will stop and listen, have respect for the traditions of rural life and work towards restoring confidence, which has been so badly damaged over recent months. We could not have a better person to respond to the debate than the noble Lord, Lord Carter.

3.15 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on having asked this Question today. From these Benches, I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the

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Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, says is all right by me because he is one of my clients at Champneys!

Reflecting on the subject of this short debate, I kept returning to the central question of why there is such dissatisfaction and disquiet among country dwellers. I therefore wish to dwell on that central question.

Although the drift from the country to the major cities has been going on ever since the Industrial Revolution, I believe that until quite recently most people would have regarded this country as essentially rural. However, at some point over the past quarter of a century that has ceased to be the case and we are now clearly an urban society. Country dwellers have become a distinct minority and have taken on the characteristics of a minority. They feel resentful, fearful, hurt and powerless in the face of what they perceive to be the superior force of the urban dweller. The result is that, whether real or perceived, a huge tension now exists between the country dweller and the town dweller. I wonder how this has come to pass.

I have no doubt that it is a problem of the '80s. I believe that the single most destructive force ever let loose to wreak havoc on the countryside was Thatcherism. The vast majority of the problems facing those who live and work in the country today are a direct result of the social, economic and environmental policies which the previous government pursued through the '80s. In 1979 most rural villages still had a shop, a post office, a pub, a cottage hospital nearby, a school, a police house with a local policeman and a daily bus service. Today in many parishes throughout the land those are a distant memory.

The policies of the uniform business rate, deregulation of buses, local authority capping, reform of the NHS and pressure on budgets for health, police and education, to name but a few measures, have been a disaster for the countryside. The relentless drive to measure life purely by the two-dimensional means of the balance sheet, without any regard for the social dimension, has ripped apart the community feeling that was such an essential part of rural life. I have to say, more in sadness than in anger, to those noble Lords on the Conservative Benches who supported that government: you sowed the breeze, you now reap the whirlwind.

The noble Lord's Question today asks the Government whether they are satisfied that their policies work. I suspect that, given that the vast majority of the electorate live, work and vote in urban communities, the majority of the policies which the current Government put forth in its manifesto have never been considered in the light of the needs of country dwellers.

However, I believe that there is hope, since we are in the early stages of the Parliament and the Government are reviewing many of their policies. They have a chance to frame their policies with a proper regard for the impact they will have on those who dwell in the country, who may well be a minority but are nonetheless vitally important to the fabric of our society. Above all, like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, I plead with the

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Government to take an overall and integrated approach to the formulation of policy for the countryside. Economic, environmental and social policies have to be considered together; they cannot be taken piecemeal. At the centre of that integrated approach must be a recognition of the need to preserve rural communities as communities.

One of the key issues is housing. We need to ensure that there is affordable housing for local people, particularly the young. We need to ensure that villagers are linked by an adequate transport system, bearing in mind that a high percentage of rural workers are on low wages and 20 per cent. of rural dwellers have no car. Another key issue is local democracy and participation. We need to reverse the feeling of powerlessness in rural communities following local government reorganisation and we need employment to replace the loss of traditional employment. I echo the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu: we need a central department to look after those issues, perhaps even a Minister for the Countryside. If London can have one, why not the countryside?

There are a huge range of other issues affecting the countryside, but I do not have time to go into them today. Recognising from the list of speakers that there would undoubtedly be those who would refer to the march and to hunting, I used my time to speak of the central issues. But on hunting I say this. We regard it on these Benches as a matter of personal conscience and therefore my remarks are my own and not those of my party.

I have never hunted and have no idea what it is like, but I make two points. First, the issue is not of itself the most important issue that will come before Parliament. But, taken in the light of the tension of which I spoke, it is a match that could well inflame the countryside. Secondly--an old Liberal view for which I make no apology--it is the prime duty of the state to look after the interests of the individual, even in a perceived minority. It is not good enough simply to say that we do not like something and therefore must get rid of it, particularly when, for the vast majority, it has no effect on them one way or the other.

I conclude by returning to my central theme. This Government have an opportunity genuinely to reflect on the social, economic and environmental needs of the country and frame their policies with a true regard for its wellbeing. I sincerely hope that they will do that. Above all, I urge them not to make the mistake of the last government and treat the countryside with complacent laissez-faire, but instead to develop a genuine and integrated approach.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Bowness: My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord Patten for asking this Question and I offer the congratulations of these Benches to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, on their maiden speeches.

The danger is that our attitude to the countryside is seen through the eyes of town dwellers. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us on 11th February that

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90 per cent. of the population live in urban areas. The challenge for the Government--I am not certain that they are yet rising to it--is to ensure that urban views do not prevail over the traditional lifestyles and values of the countryside. Of course I acknowledge the steps that have been taken, and referred to this afternoon, which have improved the situation. But it is important that urban and rural people live together easily so that each can--it is necessary for them to be able to--enjoy each other's habitat.

Of course, the countryside is not set in stone; it is a living, evolving entity. There is plenty of evidence to show that people in the countryside accept that. Rural tourism is but an example. My noble friend Lord Addison gave others. But it is important that that evolution is not to the detriment of the countryside itself and rural life. We need to remember that people live and work there. The countryside is not just a recreational resource for town dwellers, though it is valuable for that purpose.

I must declare, possibly uniquely among the speakers this afternoon, that I am an urban animal. I therefore understand the urban view. But I hope that I appreciate, by virtue of that, that I am not the best judge of what is right for the countryside. I have not been born to it, I have not worked in it and I live only on the edge of it. No doubt like many townspeople I have an idealised view of the countryside and it seems to me that we urban beings have a lot to learn about how we live our own lives before we start imposing our will on the countryside. Can we wonder at the fears of country people and landowners at what will happen to some of the most valuable parts of our heritage if rights to roam are imposed? My noble friend Lady Byford referred to that.

If we looked around our towns and cities this afternoon for a moment instead of the countryside, we would see graffiti in some of the most inaccessible places; open spaces in streets deposited with litter; vandalism and a lack of respect for property. I understand the worry of country people and the argument that has gone on about the development of greenfield or brownfield sites--or recycled land, as we are urged by the Deputy Prime Minister now to call it. That argument raged for some time. Happily, the case for brownfield sites seems to be succeeding. But it is not just because it is a victory for the countryside that that is welcome; it is also a victory for the towns. Far from being seen as depriving town dwellers of the opportunity to escape into the countryside, it should be seen as giving them the opportunity to stay within the towns where the facilities and employment are and where communications are good or at least better than in many rural areas.

It does not surprise me that in the debate this afternoon the question of hunting has been raised. As I said, I am an urban being. I have never hunted. I was once taken hare shooting by a friend. I confess that I aimed deliberately high. I do not fish, and many of your Lordships will say what a dull person he is, and not just in his speeches. But like many townsmen and women, and indeed those who live in the countryside, I am full

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of contradictions. I have taken my children to see the spectacle of a hunt meet on Boxing Day. I enjoy eating game and fish, but with the comfort of distance. I do not see how it gets to my plate. I do not know whether the creature died instantly or slowly. I find it difficult to contemplate tending animals in the knowledge that they are being bred for slaughter. But I buy and eat the meat and I am happy for farmers to perform that service for me. Who am I and other townsmen to sit in judgment on people who know and understand that way of life?

I understand that hunting is part of rural life. I know it is both a sport and has a purpose. Therefore, any suffering that there is is not gratuitously inflicted. And because I do not do it and I do not wholly understand it, I am not prepared to join the ranks of those who would ban it. Indeed, I use the word "gratuitously" quite carefully, because gratuitous cruelty towards animals surrounds us on a major scale, which I suspect exceeds anything in the hunting field--the wanton cruelty that any animal charity will give examples of. The abandoning of animals, be they dogs or cats, and the lack of controls on the sale of pets are a far greater blot on our civilisation than the pursuit of a fox by other animals and its subsequent death.

What is needed is a tolerance of different ways of life within our country. I cannot accept the strictures of the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who blames the previous government. The volcano we are seeing exploding this weekend has occurred as a consequence of many of the doubts that have arisen over the past few months. However, I say to your Lordships that just as we preach tolerance for different cultures and peoples within and outside our country, we should preach tolerance if there is not to be a great divide within this country. The Government must act with greater care and respect for the countryside and country people than they have perhaps hitherto done.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, like other noble Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for tabling this Question and thank him and other noble Lords for their kind words about me. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred to me as a good-natured Chief Whip. That is a classic oxymoron, if ever I heard one.

We have heard a great deal about the countryside march, which will be taking place on Sunday. Owing to a longstanding family engagement I shall not be able to take part in the march. Early on Sunday morning I shall be driving many miles and making a considerable effort to attend a pre-march function which, I understand, takes the form of breakfast at the Savoy, which is a suitably un-rural venue and not exactly redolent of penury.

We have had some excellent speeches in this debate and none better or more notable than the maiden speeches of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury and the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that we enjoyed their speeches and wish to hear from them again. There is genuine concern about the problems of

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the countryside. But they have not all suddenly come about since 1st May last year. When I listened to some of the speeches I began to think that we did not have a general election last year, but a cross between Armageddon and The Flood.

The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked me why I thought there would be so many people taking part in the march in London on Sunday. Far be it from me to speculate on the reasons and the pressures that bring people to London. But I cannot help reflecting that with the advent of a Labour Government after a long period in opposition, it brings on an urge among farmers and others to take some healthy exercise and carry banners. When Labour won the general election in October 1964 with a majority of three, it was in very difficult economic circumstances. By early 1965, after the annual price review, the farming organisations and others had organised a "fair deal" campaign and they marched down Whitehall.

I begin with two simple propositions. Opposition to field sports does not equate to opposition to the countryside, its problems and those who live and work there. In addition, country people have just the same needs and rights as those who live in urban areas to good schools, housing, transport and health care. In my own view, it is a great shame that the field sports argument has somehow become a symbol of the many and genuine concerns that exist about the countryside. We know that opinion in the countryside itself is divided about hunting.

In turning to the Question, it is fair to remind the House that it was ACRE (Action for Communities in Rural England) which described the record of the last government on countryside matters by saying,

    "Our main perception is one of neglect".

Also, as the Opposition spokesman on agriculture and countryside matters for 10 years, I am entitled to point out that in opposition we campaigned vigorously--sometimes successfully--against, for example, the deregulation of the bus industry; the neglect and closure of rural railways; the proposals to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board; and the sale of housing association homes in small villages. As we were entitled to do, we also drew attention to the mishandling of the whole sorry BSE saga. It is estimated that about 10,000 jobs were lost as a result of BSE, and most in the spring of 1996. That is a fact which puts the beef-on-the-bone debate into some sort of perspective.

In our manifesto we made the following pledges: to recognise the special needs of rural areas and communities; not to allow public and transport services in rural areas to deteriorate; to give greater protection to wildlife and to give greater freedom to people to explore the open countryside. As your Lordships know, we received massive electoral support for that manifesto.

The rural dimension is an important consideration for all government policies. Jobs, transport, housing and services in rural areas are closely linked and need considering in the round. The protection of, and access to, the countryside are equally important for the people who live there and for those who visit it. The Government's policies take full account of these needs. The article in Country Life by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made that clear.

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New jobs are being created in the countryside. In recent years the growth in employment has been slightly higher in rural areas than in urban areas. The registered unemployment in rural areas is 3.9 per cent. as opposed to 5.7 per cent. in England as a whole. We recognise that within this overall picture there are obviously particular communities suffering acutely from the effects of economic change. We point out that the new deal for the young unemployed is just as relevant to the countryside as to urban areas. Its design and delivery will be sensitive to rural circumstances, the needs of rural businesses and communities and unemployed young people living in the countryside.

We shall have the obvious support of the farming organisations in our proposals on the national minimum wage, because there has been a national minimum wage in agriculture for 50 years. Low wages remain a problem in many rural communities, particularly for those employed in agriculture and tourism. They lead to pockets of deprivation and social exclusion in the countryside which are often overlooked. The agriculture minimum wage applies only to agricultural workers, so not all workers in rural areas benefit from that underpinning. The national minimum wage will provide a floor for all employees. It will help to remove the excesses of low pay and should help to tackle deprivation.

I turn to housing. Strong feelings have been aroused by the debate about national household growth and where to build the new homes that we need. As my noble friend Lady Hayman said in her Statement on Monday, we are determined to build as many new homes as possible in urban areas and to prevent, wherever possible, urban sprawl and the loss of greenfield sites. We have set a new higher target of building 60 per cent. of new homes on previously developed land. That compares with the achievement of 42 per cent. under the previous government. Our target includes providing new housing on existing brownfield sites in the countryside.

We must remember that much of the demand for new housing in the countryside is local. We need to look closely at the housing needs of rural people. That point was extremely well made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury in his maiden speech. Rural areas need much more affordable housing. I said in opposition, and I say now, that the biggest social problem in the countryside is the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy. However, we are addressing that problem by releasing £900 million of local authority capital receipts--the money that they received from selling council housing in the past--to help to provide homes in which rural families and their children can afford to live. Specific support is provided for rural areas by the Housing Corporation's rural programme. That funds social housing in small villages. The target for this year is to provide between 1,000 and 1,500 new homes. I speak as a former trustee of the Rural Housing Trust.

Turning to education, the Government are conscious of the importance of the local school to rural communities. The policies which were designed to raise standards in all schools will also apply to rural schools. The decision to create education action zones will help schools in

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deprived and rural areas. We have allocated £477 million extra to the shire counties to help them to raise standards, and for repairs.

A great deal has been said about access to the countryside. The consultation paper on access to open countryside was published on Wednesday. Irrespective of whether people choose to make their home in urban or rural areas, the countryside should be an asset to be enjoyed by all. We are determined to secure the objective of increased access for all those who enjoy walking and relaxing in Britain's beautiful landscape. The proposals demonstrate that we are determined to ensure that increased access goes hand in hand with respect for the countryside and those whose livelihoods may depend on it. We are proposing a new code of practice for walkers to encourage respect for the countryside.

Countryside interests have been given the opportunity to prove that their oft-repeated arguments for voluntary agreements can now deliver. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, made a neat debating point about the right to roam in urban areas. However, if the noble Lord cannot tell the difference between the Elephant and Castle (where I was born) and open moorland, I am afraid that I cannot help him.

The Government fully understand that farmers and others who care about our rural areas are anxious about what the future may hold. I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Luke, who referred to the worst recession this century. I thought that that was perhaps a little over the top. It has been calculated that in the 1990s the total transferred to agriculture from taxpayers and consumers as a result of the CAP is of the order of £92 billion. In 1998 it will be £11 billion. Between 1990 and 1995 farmers incomes rose by over 70 per cent. in real terms. However, we are of course aware of the problems in the last season.

The £85 million already committed to assist livestock farmers is a large sum of money. It is made available to livestock farmers in recognition of the particularly severe economic pressures they are facing at the moment. Farmers have immediate concerns that the Government are prepared to address. I am sure that noble Lords are aware that the Government have decided that the charges for implementing the SRM controls on cattle, sheep and goats will not be recovered from industry from 1st April as previously planned. The value of that decision to the farming industry throughout the United Kingdom will be some £35 million. We have also decided that we will meet the costs of setting up the new computerised cattle tracing system and running it and enforcing it in its first full year. That is worth another £35 million.

In addition to relieving charges, the Government are conscious of the financial position of livestock producers. As well as providing agri-monetary compensation, the Government will shortly be completing the redistribution exercise arising from the special aid schemes for livestock producers introduced in 1996. The net effect of this is that we shall be redistributing some £9 million which will go mostly to some categories of beef special premium producers but also to some suckler cow producers. That is a total of £164 million in a very tight public expenditure situation.

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We all know the problems of the strong pound. The freezing of the green rates is worth £400 million to farming in the next two years. We know that many beef and sheep producers face some very difficult economic conditions at the present time and want to be able to review their options for the future. We are therefore launching a wide-ranging consultation in the very near future in order to gauge farmers' interest in early retirement and other options. We hope that the results will be available by late April.

Perhaps I may turn to a few of the points made in the debate. If I do not deal with all of them I shall certainly write to noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, referred to the 150 government working parties. He said that not one concentrated specifically on rural matters. That appears to me to be a failure to understand the central point that rural problems should be taken into account in all relevant areas of government policy. The DETR and MAFF are currently conducting a joint review of countryside policy as part of a comprehensive spending review, including a review of institutional structures. The Social Exclusion Unit is looking at rural as well as urban areas.

A number of noble Lords referred, not surprisingly, to hunting. In our manifesto we said that we would allow a free vote on hunting with hounds. That was our only commitment, and we delivered it last November with the Second Reading of the Foster Bill. The Bill is starting its Report stage in another place. The Government remain neutral on the issue of hunting. Speaking as Chief Whip in the Lords, of course I agree with the Government.

My noble friend Lord Judd made a powerful speech. We can all agree that rural poverty is real and pressing. I hope that my earlier remarks about what we hope to do by way of welfare-to-work, the New Deal, education, healthcare and the rest show that the Government take this problem seriously. Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Dulverton and the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, to the problems faced by hill farmers in the uplands. The total direct livestock subsidies to all farmers in the UK's less favoured areas are estimated to be worth about £530 million in 1998.

In only 10 months the Government have set in train action to ensure that their policies work for the benefit of people who live and work in the countryside: in planning, the green belt, housing, healthcare in rural areas, rural education, welfare-to-work, the New Deal for 18 to 24 year-olds, the national minimum wage, regional development, proposals for an integrated transport review and extra money for farmers in a very tight public expenditure situation. That has taken place in only 10 months. We want a healthy dialogue with all those who have interests in rural areas, both representative organisations and the rural people themselves. We shall continue to listen to a wide range of views as we develop our policies. We are confident that the integrated approach to rural policy that we are developing is for the benefit of those who live and work in rural areas and all those who value the British countryside.

        House adjourned at seventeen minutes before four o'clock.

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