NIGEL Evans and Tony Blair have clashed in the Commons over the plight of the Ribble Valley countryside and population.

The Tory MP demanded that the Prime Minister meet a delegation from his constituency when they g to London to join in the countryside demonstration in March.

But Mr Blair accused him of seeking to 'capitalise' on people's grievances.

Mr Evans tackled Mr Blair at Prime Minister's Questions and told him: "On February 25, 1998, I asked you to come to the Ribble Valley and see for yourself the plight of the countryside, but you were too busy.

"Since then, things have got decidedly worse, with more post office closures, local rural schools closing -- one closed in my constituency only last year -- the highest petrol taxes anywhere in Europe, country pursuits now facing extinction and farming facing the worst crisis in more than 60 years.

"You would not come to Ribble Valley three years ago, but on March 18 the countryside will come to you.

"Will you give a commitment to remain in London to receive a delegation of marches from Ribble Valley, so that they can tell you face to face how bad it is in the countryside these days?"

Mr Blair said he would put Mr Evans right "on a few facts."

He said there had been closures of rural post offices, but there had been 3,000 under the Conservative government and the problems were continuing.

But he added: "The current government are putting in additional investment to try and give rural post offices a future.

"On the issue of rural schools, I honestly do not know how you or any other Conservative MP has the cheek to go on about the closures -- the Conservatives closed hundreds of rural schools, whereas the Labour Party is putting investment into our schools.

"As for fuel duty, I shall point out only one fact: in the last Parliament there was a greater increase in fuel duty than there has been in the current Parliament. Those are the facts."

Mr Blair said the government was helping the countryside by providing a stable economy and help for the farming industry as well as investing in their schools, hospitals and police.

Mr Blair concluded: "Before you try to capitalise on any grievances country people have, you should explain to them how you will revive those schools, hospitals and police when you were committed to cutting the very investment on which they depend."

Mr Evans said: "I am now writing to ask him directly to meet the delegation. I asked him a straight question to which the answer was yes or no. He didn't give one.

"There will be hundreds of people from Ribble Valley on the march who would love to tell him straight what is going on."