04 March 1998
Cunningham hits back at Tory attack over countryside
AGRICULTURE minister Dr Jack Cunningham hit back at Tory accusations last night that the Labour party was a poor custodian of the countryside.
Tory MPs accused Labour of learning nothing from Sundays countryside march which saw 250,000 people demonstrate through Londons streets.
An Opposition motion urging ministers to listen to the “voice of the countryside” was defeated in the Commons by 321 votes to 131 after the Government used its voting majority of 190.
The Government then amended the motion congratulating ministers on their “emphatic commitment to comprehensive countryside policies”. It was carried by 265 votes to 163, thanks to a Government voting majority of 102.
Earlier, as shadow agriculture minister Michael Jack opened the highly charged debate, he was branded a “hypocrite” by Labours Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley).
Mr Campbell was ordered out of the Chamber after Deputy Speaker Michael Lord had pressed him several times to withdraw the attack. He is the first Member to suffer this penalty since the General Election.
Responding to the Tory charges, Dr Cunningham insisted the Government
had provided extra cash for education and the health service in country areas.
“We have found extra resources for hill and livestock farmers as well. These payments will begin to be received by farmers next week.”
He accused the Tory Party of having “betrayed” rural areas, adding that it was a record country people roundly condemn.
Breaking away from his address, Dr Cunningham flatly denied his Whitehall office move had triggered a £2.3m bill for the taxpayer. He said reports that this was the cost of transferring him and his ministerial colleagues from 1 Whitehall Place to 17 Smith Square were unfounded.
The figure was said to include more than £10,000 on an antique reproduction desk – the average annual income of a hill farmer. Other costs included £120,000 for the restoration of four ministerial rooms and £447,000 for the cost of renting new accommodation for displaced civil servants.
Pressed further by Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Charles Kennedy on weekend reports of a new department of agriculture and rural affairs being established, Dr Cunningham said the ministry was being slimmed down, reorganised and re-directed with a “new open culture”. He said it would be for the Prime Minister to make the final decisions.
Mr Jack had launched a scathing attack on the Government, accusing it of “ignoring” Sundays march and of being divided over rural issues.
He said the Government did little listening and spent most of its time “condemning the previous administration.
“Hasnt it dawned on the benches opposite that in 18 years, in spite of some things we may have done that upset some people some of the time, we never provoked a reaction that filled Londons streets in the way that the country people rose on Sunday? Let that be a lesson to the Labour Party,” he said.
Winding up the debate for the Opposition, Tory environment spokesman Tim Yeo said the Government failed to allocate resources fairly, always giving more to the towns.
“Tonights debate was a chance to show that the Government understood why 280,000 people gave up their Sunday to march in London,” he said, but added that that chance had been missed.
Replying, junior transport minister Glenda Jackson said the previous Tory Government had closed 450 village schools, threatened rural post offices with privatisation and built 60% of new houses on greenfield land.