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Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I do not believe that to be the case. It became clear, following the "Herald of Free Enterprise" disaster, that public inquiries were not necessarily the most effective way of establishing what happened and too often they were dominated by those wishing to defend their position. As with investigations into air accidents, in respect of which there has not been a public inquiry since 1972, we believe that this technical and expert manner of investigating such tragedies is the way to go forward in order to produce the lessons which we must learn to ensure that river safety is at the highest standard possible.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, is the Minister not aware that his answer was profoundly unsatisfactory and that when, as in this case, the Department of Transport itself comes under inquiry in connection with the work that it did as regards the supervision of safety on the river, it is necessary to have, in addition to the inquiry that was undertaken, a full public inquiry? It is a different circumstance where the Department of Transport has no direct responsibility in a situation, but is the Minister prepared to accept that in this case they did? Therefore, in the interests of justice being done and being seen to be done, is it not really necessary to ensure that a public inquiry is undertaken?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that the department does indeed have a responsibilitythat is why an independent investigation by the Marine Accident Investigation
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, are the Government now satisfied with the standard of safety for passenger carrying vessels on the Thames and on other inland waterways, taking account of the many revolutionary changes in design which are taking place?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, as I said, I believe that we have a satisfactory safety regime. My noble friend talks about revolutionary changes in design. It is worth bearing in mind that many of these small passenger vessels that ply this trade, particularly on the River Thames, are indeed very old vessels that have been modified. It is important to make sure that they carry the necessary modern safety equipment.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, when the final provisions of the Charities Act 1993 are brought into operation at the end of this year, the Charity Commission, as part of carrying out its statutory function of promoting the effective use of charitable resources, will have a full range of powers to register, monitor and investigate charities and so ensure their accountability. Decisions in individual cases are the responsibility of the Charity Commissioners.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware of the activities of an organisationformerly the Campaign against Health Fraud and now called Health Watchwhich has been systematically destroying the reputations of people working in complementary medicine, particularly those in nutritional medicine? I give as examples the well-known Bristol Cancer Help Centre, Larkhall Natural Health, the British Society for Nutritional Medicine and the Breakspear Hospital. The information which Health Watch has provided to the media has been subsequently proved false, but it is too late for such organisations to regain their reputations. These organisations are helping a lot of people whom the National Health Service cannot help. Can the noble Baroness say what recourse the organisations and individuals concerned can take in order to regain their reputations?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Government have gone a very long way towards providing a framework within which the charity sector can practise. It is a question of accountability and a light touch on the very small charities. The powers of investigation are much heavier as regards the larger charities. Some of that activity has already been implemented, but much has yet to be introduced. The Charity Commission is doing a great deal to improve its information and advice services to charities. It is working very well.
Lord Hooson: My Lords, is the noble Baroness satisfied that the Charity Commissioners have the power to control, in particular, the fund-raising charities who, in some cases, spend most of their money on their own administration and propaganda rather than on the objects of their charity? Is the noble Baroness satisfied that the controls are there?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, as a result of the 1993 Act, I am absolutely satisfied that the powers are there. The Charity Commissioners have powers to institute inquiries and to suspend or remove trustees. They have powers to require information to be provided by a charitable organisation. At the end of the day they have powers to make an order to protect charitable property. The powers extend to simple advice and information right through to legal remedies to obtain restitution.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Sections 8, 9 and 11 of the Charities Act to which she has referred give enormous powers to the Charity Commissioners requiring the furnishing of information, failing which a criminal offence is committed? Furthermore, is not the answer to the Question asked by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, that if an individual or organisation feels defamed it has ordinary remedies under the law?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, yes, I am satisfied that it has the resources. I am also pleased to report to the House that enormous efficiency measures are being undertaken by the Charity Commissioners. They include the introduction of technology which will help enormously in managing their particular role for charities.
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, does the noble Baroness appreciate that many of the people who have been damaged by Health Watch are not very well off? Does she approve of the fact that that organisation is supported by the Wellcome Foundation and Private Patients Plan, among other pharmaceutical and insurance companies? Is the Minister aware that the ordinary person cannot fight the money of these big organisations?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if there is a suggestion that that or any other organisation is acting improperly and inconsistently with its aims and objectives, that must be a matter for the Charity Commission.
Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun Recess on Thursday 25th May and return on Monday 5th June. It is expected that the House will sit at 11 a.m. on Thursday 25th May.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion on the Order Paper in my name calls for a coherent array of policies embracing the social, economic and environmental needs of rural areas. The speeches in today's debate will, I am sure, range widely over this broad canvas, but no speech will be more welcome than the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham.
It was just over two years ago, in March 1993, that I opened a debate in your Lordships' House on a very similar Motion. The main change in the two years since that debate is that the need for a coherent rural policy is now firmly on the political agenda. The Government are to produce a White Paper in September on rural policy, while in the Labour Party we have produced a consultation paper entitled A working countryside, with an excellent analysis of the problems of rural areas and a wide range of proposals for comment and consultation.
Rural problems are substantial by any reckoning. Around one-quarter of rural households live on or below the margin of poverty. The earnings gap between rural areas and the national mean has widened since 1979. Those who are living in poverty in rural areas are predominantly the elderly poor, who comprise some 60 per cent. of poor households. Unemployment increased between 1990 and 1995 by 51 per cent. in urban areas compared with 74 per cent. in rural areas. Recorded crime in Great Britain increased by 111 per cent. between 1979 and 1993, with an 87 per cent. increase in the metropolitan counties and a 144 per cent. increase in the shire counties.
We know that agriculture is no longer the major employer in the countryside. Nearly 100,000 jobs for farmers and farm workers have gone in the past 10 years and another 100,000 may go by the end of the decade. However, the less than 3 per cent. of the population engaged in agriculture and forestry are the custodians of the visual and environmental aspects of the 80 per cent. of the British land mass which is rural.
Alongside the stark facts of the rural social problems, there is the paradox that some 13 million people now living in towns and cities expressed the wish to live in the countryside in a recent survey, with 45 per cent. of those interviewed longing for the rural lifestyle. A Gallup poll showed that "the countryside" ranks second only to freedom of speech as the best aspect of life in Britain. When we take all those facts together, we can understand what Professor Howard Newby meant when he referred to,
There is a real social stratification in rural society, with one part of the rural population having less need of jobs, schools and public transport, while others have to struggle with problems of unemployment, bad housing, lack of transport, lack of childcare and many other social problems. There is an underclass in rural areas just as in urban areas, but it is more hidden. Significantly, only 28 per cent. of those defined as "poor" in a recent study actually admitted to the existence of deprivation in their area. They seemed almost to be taking their relative poverty for granted.
I turn now to some of the problems facing rural areas. The National Federation of Women's Institutes said that its members identified the village shop and/or post office as the most highly desired amenity in rural areas; the Village Retail Services Association (VIRSA) claims that one-third of village shopkeepers are pessimistic about the future of their businesses, with incomes well below £10,000 per annum. One shopkeeper said that there were three Peers of the Realm in his parish, all of whom used his shop, but that he never saw a parish councillor from one year's end to the other.
The two-car family (or even the one-car family) can get into town to visit the supermarket or hospitalif there still is onebut 25 per cent. of rural families in Wiltshire have no car. The National Association of Health Authorities & Trusts recently staged a rural health conference. The conclusions of that conference make extremely interesting reading because they concentrate on social rather than health problems as such. The conference concluded that poverty was seen as the key
Turning to education, the Association of County Councils argues persuasively that the range of educational provision in rural areas is kept low because the standard spending assessment does not take sufficient account of increased travel costs or the diseconomies of scale in providing for smaller groups. The National Association for the Support of Small Schools has pointed out that,
If proper provision of education and associated services for rural areas is to be encouraged, there needs to be some explicit weighting for the costs of rurality in the standard spending assessment, going beyond the present limited allowance towards certain school-related costs. If total spending levels are tightly constrainedthey areand there is no allowance for the costs of rurality, there is bound to be an inequity in funding between urban and rural areas.
Of course, it is not only the village school that is disadvantaged. In rural areas, it is that much more difficult to sustain a full range of adult education, youth and community services, and leisure provision. The English metropolitan districts offer twice as much pre-primary and four times as much local authority day care as the English counties. One rural parent has put it graphically:
There are many and varied analyses of rural problemsI have touched on only a fewbut virtually all reports and surveys show that the two major problems, from which so many other problems flow, are jobs and housing. The greater relative degree of unemployment in rural areas and the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy are central to the problems of rural areas. The lack of affordable homes to rent or buy is a major social problem in rural areas, and has been recorded and emphasised by virtually every recent report on rural areas, including by the Duke of Westminster's study group; the Rural Development Commission; the Housing Corporation; the Association of County Councils; the Rural Housing Trust; the Archbishop's Commission and Report entitled Faith in the Countryside and our own Select Committee Report on The Future of Rural Societies.
That situation is the direct result of the Government's right-to-buy policy for local authority housing, accompanied by the refusal to allow local authorities, either as enablers or providers, to replace the lost houses and so maintain the stock of affordable housing. If rural houses, as they become available, are snapped up by rural
The Government's right-to-buy scheme is a classic example of a popular, successful and vote-winning policy resulting in major socially undesirable results. The tragedy is that the Government could have achieved their political objective and at the same time prevented the worst social effects if they had allowed the local authorities, either as enablers or providers, to replace the stock. We have made it clear that the Labour Government will allow a phased-in release of the receipts from the sales of council houses to be used to build more houses.
Turning to employment, it is clear that more jobs will not be forthcoming from any reform of the existing common agricultural policy that is likely to take place. Every attempt to increase agricultural efficiency and to get our farm prices closer to world prices must exert further downward pressure on agricultural employment. There needs to be a radical redirection of the CAP towards a comprehensive policy for rural development, embracing the role of farming and other rural activities, the protection of the environment and the maintenance of socially viable rural areas.
An excellent Chatham House paper entitled Making the CAP Fit the Future argues that such a rural development policy should assume a political importance which is comparable to that which the CAP has occupied. It also suggests that member states should have greater freedom to pursue locally adapted social and environmental schemes, provided that they are fully decoupled from production and are strictly controlled and monitored to prevent the distortion of competition.
I have already mentioned the Labour Party's consultation document, A working countryside, which places a heavy emphasis on job creation in rural areas. The document sets out three broad objectives for the rural policy of the Labour Government: economic renewal (to ensure a broad range of job opportunities); social and democratic renewal (to strengthen rural communities); and the protection and enhancement of the countryside environment.
There is a curious idea abroad that the Labour Party lacks specific policy proposals. The document A working countryside lists no fewer than 47 policy proposals, and invites consultation on them all. Time does not allow me to list them all, but they all relate directly to the three broad strands of rural policy for the Labour Government: rebuilding the rural economy; renewing rural communities; and respecting the rural environment.
If I pick out just a few of the proposals, your Lordships will appreciate the wide-ranging nature of the document and the work that has gone into it. It suggests extending opportunity with a partnership with the private sector to ensure that rural communities have access to the information superhighway, which will increase job opportunities in the countryside; environmental initiatives to create jobs, to save energy and to improve water quality and the local environment; improvements in nursery education and childcare provision, a particular problem in rural areas; a partnership between local
That is a selection only of the proposals contained in the document. They include also maintaining the network of rural post offices and strengthening them by giving them much greater commercial freedom; the stopping of rail privatisation and a much greater degree of regulation of the private bus companies, whose privatisation has, in many cases, wrecked the rural transport system. Each health authority will be required to develop a rural health care plan. There will be a statutory responsibility for local councils to develop their cultural policies; the retention of playing fields for the public good; linking rural schools to the information superhighway, thus giving access to new educational opportunities; a judgment of all policies for rebuilding the rural economy and renewing rural communities on criteria of environmental sustainability; a moratorium on new road schemes pending a full review on environmental and economic criteria; a target of increasing Britain's tree cover by 50 per cent. by 2010; existing SSSIs, special protection areas and Ramsar sites (the wetlands) to become sites of national importance with stronger protection; sites of local importance established with local plan protection; and the designation of more parts of Britain with national park status. That is only a selection of our proposals.
To conclude, I suspect that there will be fairly wide agreement all around the House on what needs to be done. I am convinced that the Labour Government will set about the task with new ideas and a fresh approach to rural policy, and will recognise the force of the remark made by the Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, in January 1991:
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