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Mr. Green: Absolutely. Agriculture must be at the heart of any economic regeneration of the countryside. The proposals that the Government are considering to remove protection against building on the best agricultural land are potentially damaging not just to the environment, but to agriculture as an industry. As my hon. Friend says, that is one of the central failures of the Government's analysis of the countryside's problems.
There are some good proposals in the rural White Paper. We welcome, for instance, the deregulatory measures for small abattoirs, and measures to encourage tranquillity. There is, however, nothing like enough to meet the scale of the crisis in the countryside. The Government have promised £1 billion over three years, but all of that is respun and recycled money. All of it was announced in the previous spending review, when the Deputy Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and proudly announced £1 billion for the countryside. He was simply re-announcing old money.
Many of the policies in the rural White Paper are characteristically ineffectual. Of its 176 pages, only 11 are devoted to agriculture, and those contain very little substantive content. One of the big ideas of this much hyped White Paper is the creation of an electronic rural portal. I am sure many of my hon. Friends--indeed, hon. Members on both sides of the House--talk to people in the countryside, and visit pubs and talk to people in their constituencies. I can honestly say that I have never yet met anyone who said, "What we need is an electronic rural portal. That would solve the problems of the countryside." Even those who think that such a portal is the solution to the countryside's problems should be aware that, for all the hype in the White Paper, there will only be a prototype ready later this year--so there is not even an electronic rural portal available to solve the countryside's problems.
Other big ideas include the so-called rural advocate, who will have the right to attend the rural affairs Cabinet Sub-Committee. That sounds very important, except when we consider that in the whole of 2000 that body met only once. It is hardly likely to be at the centre of the Government's planning if it meets only once a year.
The White Paper also contains proposals to remove controls on development of the best and most versatile land. That symbolises better than anything the Government's neglect of agriculture. They have failed to provide a practical solution to the key problems that many people identify in the provision of rural services. Their proposals on rural post offices will do nothing to promote the long-term viability of the rural post office network.
The Government have talked a great deal about the new rate relief, but in the White Paper they step back and list it only as a matter for consultation. They talk about support for community transport schemes and rural buses, but their fuel tax increases have made it harder for people in rural areas to travel and to work. The Government have not thought through the effects of their bus policies. The gimmicks of a rural bus grant, a bus challenge fund and
The Government have announced £30 million extra for rural policing at a time when people who live in rural areas now find a policeman one of the rarest sights in the British countryside. The blue line is becoming thinner and thinner under Labour.
Mr. Bradley: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps, this time, he would care to answer my question. He said that the Government were making available £30 million in extra resources for rural policing at a time when people were seeing fewer and fewer police officers. Is he suggesting that we should not make that £30 million available?
In view of what the Conservatives say about the consequences of the Hunting Bill for the police, will the hon. Gentleman also tell us whether his Front Benchers propose to recruit further police officers--and pay for that recruitment--to take up the burdensome responsibilities that he believes lie in store?
Mr. Green: I think that the hon. Gentleman is a bit confused on that last point. If he is saying, as I think he is, that the Hunting Bill will put unnecessary extra pressure on the rural police, I completely agree with him. It is an absolutely unnecessary Bill, and that is why I voted against it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman voted against it as well. I voted against it on Second Reading and I voted against a complete ban. Such a ban will have many deleterious effects, one of which will be to put extra pressure on the police.
I repeat what I said in response to the hon. Gentleman's previous intervention. We shall restore police numbers to at least their pre-election levels. We shall also make rural policing more visible and accessible, to cope with the real problem for people in the countryside, which is that they never see a policeman and they feel less safe as a result.
Mr. Bradley: I shall explain again what I was asking. Will the Conservatives underwrite the £30 million a year additional funding--which he has just denigrated--that the Government are making available for rural policing? As it is the hon. Gentleman's party, not mine, that believes that the Hunting Bill will result in a need for further policing, will it fund that further policing? Will he answer those two straightforward questions?
Mr. Green: It seems slightly perverse of the hon. Gentleman to say, "We are passing legislation that will make the police's job more difficult. Will you, when you are in Government, support the consequences of that legislation?" That legislation has not yet gone through the Houses of Parliament.
We have said, without any of the prevarication shown by the Government, that we will cut business rates for rural shops and rural post offices. We will review the unfair changes to the local government finance settlement that penalise the shire agencies. We will abolish the regional development agencies and transfer many of their responsibilities for economic development to county councils, together with their funding. We will abolish the national and regional house building targets. We will reform the planning system to give a new right of counter-appeal to allow local communities to specify the use of local architecture and local materials. We will streamline the local planning system to ensure that planning appeals are quicker and less costly.
We will give local communities new powers to control the spread of mobile phone masts, and more powers to local authorities to tackle the problem of troublesome travellers. We oppose the Government's plans for new taxes on driving into town centres, in particular market towns, as that would damage any attempt to improve the economic regeneration of that important sector of the economy.
Compared with the Government, we have a practical set of proposals that will make a real difference. The Government say that there is no crisis in the countryside, and that their White Papers are leading the way to solving the problems that exist. I have to tell them that, judging by the briefings that have arrived relating to this debate, no one out there in the real world agrees with them. The National Farmers Union makes the point that
If I were asked to judge between the two White Papers, I would say that the rural White Paper was worse than the urban White Paper, because the Labour party has no knowledge or understanding of the countryside. It is one of the Government's more ludicrous claims that they now have more rural Members of Parliament than the Conservative party. Indeed, I am told that the Labour parliamentary rural group has 168 members. That is a fascinating figure. I think that they are fooling themselves that they represent rural constituencies, but if they do, they must take note of some very damaging figures on how they perform on behalf of their rural constituents.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is today publishing a pamphlet entitled "Representing Rural Britain: Blair's Bogus Claim", and Labour Members who represent rural constituencies or claim to do so would do well to read it. Labour claims to have 168 rural MPs--more MPs than the entire parliamentary Conservative party--but the pamphlet reveals that more than twice as many questions on rural affairs were asked by Conservative Members as by Labour Members.
Perhaps those Labour Members are not present because they are drawing up written questions as well, but far more written questions on rural matters--101 to 88--have been asked by Conservative Members than by Labour Members. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats asked nearly as many as Labour Members. There are two possible explanations: either Labour does not have as many rural MPs as it claims, or those whom it has are idle in representing their rural interest in Parliament. That is the question that the Government and their Back Benchers must consider. Are they fooling themselves and everyone else when they claim to represent rural Britain, or are they neglecting rural Britain in Parliament? There is no other explanation of those figures.