I am sorry that I cut getting here rather fine, but as the person responsible for transport, I cannot blame the public transport system for being late.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, the Government are about fairness, enterprise and justice. Indeed, over the past two and a half years we have shown our commitment to those principles and our determination to build a fairer, more modern Britain.
All the evidence from elections and polls show that the Government enjoy a level of support at mid term that is quite unprecedented and compares very well with the unpopularity of the Thatcher Government. Despite what the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday, we must be doing something right.
I am bound to say, having listened to the right hon. Gentleman's speech—and this seems to be the general opinion—that his jokes were far more impressive than the contents of his speech. Having listened to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on the "Today" programme this morning, it appears that the sole job of the Opposition is simply to oppose, even if it means changing their policies along the way or, indeed, doing exactly the opposite to what they did in government or what they promised to do in government. They seem to have a new park-and-ride policy: they park the old policy and ride the new one in opposition—[Hon. Members: "More."] It was a start, but I want to do it with substance.
The legislative programme set out in the Queen's Speech yesterday is indeed about modernising Britain—modernising our education system and our hospitals, tackling crime and creating a strong economy. I was particularly proud to hear a Labour Prime Minister talking about a strong, modern economy and the highest number of people in work for decades. We are particularly proud of that. I want to address some of my remarks to the quality of life and there is no better way of improving the quality of life than having a job, working and making a contribution to society. It is an important concept—a modern Britain is about providing a decent quality of life for everyone, not just a few. Indeed, my Department has a central role in local and regional government, environmental protection, housing regeneration and transport. During the past two years it has improved the quality of the water we drink, the air we breathe, the homes in which we live and our local services. Those are all measurable improvements.
For the first time in years, people are returning to public transport, making it a growth industry once again and utilising thousands more train and bus services that the Government helped to fund. If one talks to those in the industry, it is clear that there is more confidence in Labour and a belief that we consider it an important part of the transport system. The evidence is there and people can make their own judgments.
The major legislative programme announced yesterday for my Department covers many issues that are central to quality of life, and that will make a real difference to millions of people throughout the country. It will further modernise local authorities, giving people a choice about how they are governed, promoting well-being in local communities and tackling sleaze. It will give us a modern and integrated public transport system, turning around years of underinvestment. It will make the system safer, improve services and increase choice. It will improve the quality of our countryside, offering greater protection for wildlife and improved access for everyone, rather than the privileged few. The Opposition, when in government, used to talk about many of those aims, but they failed to pass the legislation to implement them.
For 18 years, the Conservative Government systematically undermined local democracy. Their idea of democracy was to abolish the Greater London Council and the metropolitan councils, crippling local government and taking power away from local people. They imposed the poll tax, which cost taxpayers billions of pounds and totally failed as a form of local authority financing. They also imposed a crude capping system on all local authorities. The Conservative Government's obsession with the market gave us compulsory competitive tendering and worse services.
Yes, it is. I want to remind the Opposition of the policies that the Conservative Government imposed. The electorate should remember what 18 years of Tory Government did to local government services, transport and the countryside.
Local authorities now have a secure basis on which to plan. For the first time in years, no capping limits have been announced in advance and no councils have been capped. That never happened under a Tory Government, but it has happened under this Labour Government.
If the right hon. Gentleman is so determined to return local democracy to local people and local councils, will he allow local authorities a fourth option in the forthcoming reorganisation of local government? That would be to retain a system akin to—or a slight modification of—the current committee system?
I advise the hon. Gentleman to wait until the Bill is published. Such questions will be answered then.
We have replaced the restrictive practice of compulsory competitive tendering introduced by the previous Administration with a duty to provide best value. That will improve the effectiveness of all local authority services in giving a better deal to local people. The proposal has been welcomed by Tory as well as Labour local authorities. The emphasis will be on the quality of services provided to local people, not on the least cost—the great obsession of the previous Administration until the poll tax, which was about maximum cost and very little benefit.
The third new local government Bill announced in the Queen's Speech will continue our campaign to modernise local government. We are committed to local government that is open, accountable and which secures the delivery of efficient and high-quality services. It will enable people to make choices about how they are governed. If they want a mayor, they will be able to say so in a referendum.
The Bill will also tackle sleaze and introduce a new ethical framework and statutory code of conduct for councillors. I am sure that that will be welcomed by all parties. There will be a bond of trust between the community and those who represent them—an essential requirement for confidence in local government. The conduct of everyone in local government—councillors and officers—must be of the highest standards. The Bill will also give local authorities a new power to promote the social, economic and environmental well-being of their communities.
The Bill will also tackle the culture of intolerance, fear and ignorance created by section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. No decent person should tolerate the marginalisation and exclusion from society that section 28 promotes. However, I make it clear that repeal of that measure will not provide a licence for abuse. We will not tolerate such things and we will be tough on any such offensives. However, this is a matter of social justice: there is no place in any fair society for the intolerance, fear and ignorance brought by section 28. It has no place in a modern Britain.
I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that intolerance of people with minority life styles is entirely inappropriate. However, does he agree that the purpose of section 28 was not to promote intolerance, but to prevent the active promotion, in the classroom and elsewhere, of homosexuality as a way of life?
That was the intention; it was a fair and proper intention. The difficulty has been that the fear of prosecution has prohibited people from talking about the difficulties that youngsters face during puberty and the development of their sexuality. That is what it is about and it is a difficult balance—I will not say that it is easy. People have strong views about the matter and I understand that. The Government's judgment is that section 28 does not help in that process and that we need to repeal it—and, indeed, we shall.
Another matter with which the previous Administration failed to deal—there was much talk about it and they made one or two efforts but failed to do anything—is leasehold reform. For 18 years, the Tories failed to do anything about local government; we are delivering. Similarly, for years they talked a lot but failed to deliver on effective leasehold reform, allowing unscrupulous freeholders to continue to exploit leaseholders. In contrast, we are delivering. Our Bill will reform the present leasehold system to give leaseholders a fairer deal. It will extend choice and make it easier for leaseholders collectively to buy their freehold and it will give them the right to manage their own building. Alongside that, we will create a new type of tenancy, commonhold, which will allow people collectively to own and manage their building from the outset, without the need for a separate freehold.
Those reforms will modernise housing tenure. They are difficult legal concepts, as hon. Members on both sides of the House are well aware. During the consultation process for the Bill we received many highly complex legal proposals, to which we are addressing ourselves. Through the draft Bill outlined in the Queen's Speech, the House can begin to take the first steps to reform leasehold, which is creating a great deal of social injustice in housing.
That is an important and complex issue. The problems associated with leasehold in the south are different from those of long-term leasehold in the north—where there are long-term rentals with minimum conditions, but the new freeholders are pressurising many elderly people. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the legislation will deal with those two very different types of problem, given the complexities to which he referred?
I am well aware of the problem to which my hon. Friend refers. I fought as a candidate for the Southport constituency in 1966. While not all constituencies have problems with leasehold, Southport certainly did. It is a matter of grave concern. The problems are different throughout the country, which is why we embarked on the consultation process and the draft Bill. The House will have an opportunity to continue the debate. My hon. Friend has discussed the matter with Ministers and we will continue to discuss it. We do not underestimate the difficulties and the legal complexities. However, one has to make a decision at the end of the day. We want to deal with all the ramifications. That is our intention in the Bill and it will be welcomed by all concerned.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way and I apologise for asking him to press the rewind button. Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman said that the substitution of the so-called best-value approach for that of compulsory competitive tendering had been widely welcomed by a variety of local authorities, thereby apparently proving that the producer interests, at least, were on his side. Can he provide a single example of an end user who has welcomed the proposal?
Yes, an awful lot of bodies that represent consumers and actual people in various areas have said that the measure is welcome. They have pointed out that, taking into account the full costs involved in compulsory competitive tendering—social costs, wages and value—it was worse for the taxpayer, who ended up paying a great deal more. The National Consumer Council, which is a reputable body, made that very point. It is a body that we could claim to have on our side in welcoming best value as it has been introduced into local authorities.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene so quickly after two other interventions. I welcome the Government's commitment to the introduction of leasehold reform and commonhold. Is he aware that perhaps one area of agreement with the Leader of the Opposition did not become apparent in the Chamber yesterday? Leasehold reform will be particularly welcome in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where there are about 27,000 leaseholders. The right hon. Gentleman might have welcomed the Government's commitment to reform because the electorate there will be so grateful for it that they may keep him in his job.
I shall avoid commenting on by-elections. Leasehold reform may or may not be an issue in that by-election, but it certainly was in Southport in 1966. It is matter of social justice. We are trying to correct matters and bring about greater social justice on leasehold.
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that, but for 18 years the Conservative Government did nothing. Perhaps I should correct that statement: they huffed and puffed but failed to get agreement on legislation. They did not make it any better. People demand leasehold reform because the Tories did not deal with the problem. That is why we have agreed to introduce the measure. Perhaps they can explain to people in the forthcoming by-election how they have done enough and why they do not need to support the Bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman indicates that he will—good, we look forward to him saying that at the by-election.
We are delivering on better local accountability, more local empowerment and better quality local services, including local transport. My Department has received almost 100 local transport plans drawn up by local authorities. They have identified the transport priorities in their areas and can bid for the £700 million that has been made available.
This country faces a great challenge in tackling congestion and pollution. Everyone, including the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors, recognises that the economic and environmental damage that congestion and pollution cause is unacceptable. To carry on as before would be the most anti-motorist policy of all. Even the motorist organisations readily say that. The Conservatives sat back while congestion costs rose dramatically. The number of cars per mile, despite the investment of about £70 billion, rose from 70 to 100. Despite the tremendous sums poured into the road programme, they did not reduce congestion; we ended up with more.
It became obvious, even to the previous Government in their last year of office, that we could not build our way out of congestion and that the only way forward was to improve public transport. That was clearly stated in the
Green Paper produced in the last few months of the previous Administration. It referred to
a presumption in favour of introducing legislation, in due course, to enable congestion charging".
However, they did not guarantee that they would recycle the revenues back into local transport. Under the right hon. Member for Wokingham, they have reversed their position, as on so many things. I am a little confused.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in considering the transport plans that local authorities are putting to him, there is a case for bypasses where there are traffic bottlenecks? In considering Hertfordshire's transport plan, will he bear it in mind that Baldock in my constituency has an appalling bottleneck that must be tackled? There has been a campaign for a bypass for more than 20 years. It would make a huge difference to the economy of north Hertfordshire. Will he bear in mind the thousands of representations that I have had over the years and give us the money?
There was a common refrain in the House on the road programme, certainly when we were in opposition. The problem with the previous Administration's road programme was that most of it was a wish list with no timetable. They spent all their time doing what the hon. Gentleman did in making a special plea. We have reformed the road programme and taken a different approach.
Yes, we cut the programme, but the money put into roads by the previous Administration did nothing to reduce congestion. We are talking about transport corridors and further investigation into those areas because we are not against a road programme.
Roads are an essential part of transport. Most movement in this country takes place on roads, by bus or car. There will be constant competing demands from hon. Members for particular schemes in their areas. We are convinced that bypasses can play a part and, as we have already announced, we intend to increase the bypass programme. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointed out in his pre-Budget speech, now that we have abolished the fuel duty escalator, the extra moneys could be hypothecated to roads and public transport. We are finding the extra resources that are needed to improve the transportation system.
There is a proposal to build 36,000 houses in Shropshire, where 67 per cent. of people drive to work in a private car. Does the Secretary of State think that that proposal will increase or reduce congestion in Shropshire, where there is a £94 million backlog on the roads? If it increases congestion, will that be good or bad for the sites of special scientific interest in Shropshire?
One aim in changing the road programme was to save about 100 SSSIs, which were already being destroyed by the previous Administration's road plan. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about the location of houses and the problem of congestion, the Tory Government's housing policies also contributed to the congestion. We are reconsidering those planning rules. We are not continuing with the massive shopping-housing estates. About 600 of the 900 built in the past 10 years were brought about by the previous Administration. We thought that that was wrong, so we are changing that. We are holding discussions on household growth in a more regional way and we shall report our conclusions to Parliament at the appropriate time.
The hon. Gentleman makes the interesting point that what we do about housing, regional planning and transport all contributes to congestion. We have to balance those factors in making a judgment. We will have to make that judgment and we intend to make it. At the moment, we are being advised by all parties inside and outside the House on exactly how we should achieve that balance. At the appropriate time, the Government must make a decision and I will have to come to the House to explain our priorities and the balance of our judgment in these matters.
I must make progress; there is a lot in the speech.
I was saying that the right hon. Member for Wokingham had reversed his position. He came to the House and said that he wanted to deregulate roads and increase speeds, but his leader set up a transport commission to look at the matter again. I wonder what Tory policy is. The right hon. Gentleman comes to the House and says that he has changed their policies and that in opposition the Tories do things differently. He has made that clear, just as he did on the "Today" programme. While he tells us that, the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues are setting up a transport commission to find other solutions. That fits: the right hon. Gentleman tells us what the Tories do in opposition while his hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the transport spokesman, works out how to deal with those problems in Government. No doubt the hon. Gentleman is about to reverse the policy.
I noticed that the Leader of the Opposition made the interesting caveat that they do not necessarily have to accept the conclusions. Yet again, we do not know what the Tory policy is. Clearly, the Opposition are confused. Once they have decided their policy on congestion charging, we should like to hear it.
I will give way in a second.
In our last debate on the subject, I could not make up my mind whether the right hon. Gentleman was for or against congestion charging. If I remember rightly, he said that he was against unfair congestion charging. We never worked out what was fair or unfair congestion charging. Has he worked it out yet? Has he talked to the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer about it? What is his policy on congestion charging?
I have stated our policies clearly. We shall oppose congestion charging in the Bill that the Government introduce. Can the Secretary of State clear up an important confusion that is worrying Londoners and the nation? Does he think that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) should be allowed to run as a potential candidate for London mayor, or does he agree with the Prime Minister that the hon. Gentleman would remind people of the extremism and everything else that made the Labour party despised in the 1980s? Which side is the Secretary of State on in this interesting dispute?
That is an absolutely irrelevant question.
I repeat my question to the right hon. Gentleman. He has said that he is totally against congestion charging, although his document previously said that he was against unfair charging. Does that mean that he now opposes all charges, fair or unfair? Does it mean that the Opposition do not believe what they believed in government—that congestion charging may have a role to play in dealing with congestion problems?
I have already answered that question: I shall oppose, and my right hon. and hon. Friends will support me in opposing, this Government's measures and the congestion charging that they propose to bring in, because the motorist is already unfairly burdened by this miserable Government. Now, will the right hon. Gentleman give us a straight answer—is the hon. Member for Brent, East a suitable person to run for mayor? It is high time that London and the nation were told.
On congestion charging, the House will have noted that many people agree that, with the best will in the world, although we are giving local authorities powers that they may use if they wish, it will be a number of years before they can be implemented. We are making it absolutely clear that we need to improve the public transport system by finding new resources and investing in trains and buses, to ensure that the motorist has a choice. That is the priority in the next few years. That is the Government's intention. Already, there are signs that, where we have used such methods, people are using their cars less and using public transport more.
I shall give the right hon. Member a short answer to his Livingstone point. There is no doubt that any candidate—including myself, euro candidates or candidates for whatever it might be—must agree to sign up to our manifesto. That is a simple principle, and it applies. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has already been interviewed by the party selection committee, so we must wait to see what happens because things have switched around a bit.
Incidentally, the Conservative candidate has certainly switched about a bit in the things that he does and the policies that he says he supports. He has sharply changed his stance on the underground. He used to say that he wanted it to be kept in its public form—as at present—with bond financing. Now, because the right hon. Member for Wokingham has stated that he believes in a privatised underground, the candidate has made a complete reversal and is saying that he believes in privatisation. In the Labour party, we decide a policy and candidates have an obligation to implement it. They must sign up to the manifesto.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has now had a chance to study our great proposal for the Londoners' tube, which was endorsed by the final two candidates in our very open and democratic selection process for the job of the Conservative candidate for mayor. That, surely, is the way to do it—an open process, which everyone can attend and the media can see what is going on, decided by a democratic vote.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House two guarantees? First, will he guarantee that every member of the Labour party in London will get a vote on the Labour mayoral candidate? Secondly, will he back the Prime Minister in saying that the hon. Member for Brent, East reminds us of the extremism of the 80s—yes or no? Does the hon. Member for Brent, East remind us of the 80s? [Interruption.]
Order. The House has had a very happy knockabout, but I do not recall personalities being in the Queen's speech. Perhaps we can get on and deal with the subject before us
It is the Government's preference to deal with the substance of policy.
On reflection, the Deputy Prime Minister may feel that he was a little unfair to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) in saying that the question that was asked about the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) was irrelevant because he had, in his earlier speech, mentioned the fact that we got rid of the Greater London Council in the early 80s. I was the Secretary of State who—on reflection, I believe wisely—recommended to the Cabinet that we get rid of the GLC. One reason we did so was that the hon. Member for Brent, East was then the leader of the GLC, and he represented an uncontrollable left-wing influence that was damaging to London.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain one simple point? What is the difference between what I did, which was to get rid of the GLC and its leader—now the hon. Member for Brent, East—and what this Labour Government are trying to do, which is to stop the hon. Member for Brent, East becoming London mayor? Is not the only real difference that I succeeded but they will fail?
Order. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to deal with the subject before us. As I said earlier, we have had a nice knockabout, but there is a serious debate before us.
Thank you, Madam Speaker, but the abolition of the GLC is an important issue because we are restoring London local government. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said that he abolished the GLC because of the personality of its leader, without regard to the wishes of Londoners for an authority. It would have been a lot better to consult the people of London on whether they wanted to get rid of their local government.
Another important issue is particularly relevant to this debate. When the Tory Government took over from the GLC, they failed to find the finance for London Underground. They nationalised it when they took over the GLC and took responsibility for investment. That is why we now have a major problem of £7 billion of disinvestment in the underground system. That was not a clever move and it was certainly to the disadvantage of London.
One feature of our Bill will be hypothecation. What is the position of the Conservatives on that? They might say that they are not in favour of congestion charging—we shall wait to see how that argument develops—but are they totally against hypothecation, under which any money raised goes directly to improving public transport? We think that that is the right policy. It is a radical departure and a fundamental change in transport financing. We are looking at congestion charging and, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced recently, any money raised by increases in fuel duty above the rate of inflation will go towards improving public transport. That is a welcome new form of finance and it is very different from the Tories approach to transport when they were in government.
Yes, spending less; it is the same thing. The Tories are obsessed with a market-led solution. They presided over the disintegration of our national bus network and years of underfunding. In contrast, this Government have found more money for the public transport system. That is why we are beginning to see, for the first time, a reversal of the decline in the number of people using buses. We are beginning to get the necessary resources. At the bus summit last week, the industry committed itself to £380 million of investment—equivalent to 8,500 new buses—because, as the industry would tell the Conservatives if they discussed the matter with it, we have given a vote of confidence in the public transport system.
We envisage the industry playing a central role. Evidence of investment and the integration of transport at local level are becoming apparent. All that is encouraged by local authorities working with bus companies in the quality partnerships that came about under the previous Administration. Where that approach is failing, our Bill will provide powers for statutory quality contracts, better road architecture, more information for passengers and better buses, which will improve the bus service.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to improve the quality of bus services—particularly in my constituency, where Stagecoach services have been branded a disgrace by the traffic commissioner—is through co-operative competition, which will be promoted by compulsory cross-ticketing? Bus companies should not be able to freeze out a competitor by refusing to cross-ticket and refusing to compete.
Those are important issues. To get the best out of the bus system, we have to have cross-ticketing and information on through travel. The industry has been pressing us for that. Some companies feel that statutory quality contracts may be one way to achieve improvements, in partnership with local authorities.
The Bill will establish the Strategic Rail Authority. There is unanimous support for that. I read the evidence given by the hon. Member for North Essex to the Transport Sub-Committee. Many questions were raised. I do not think that he said that he was fundamentally against the idea; he seemed to believe that it was a useful idea, but did not want it to be used in the way in which I might use it. We have to reassure hon. Members about such matters. I have told the House several times that neither the authority nor I want to renationalise the railways, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I think that the right hon. Member for Wokingham quoted the chairman of the shadow authority on that.
The Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) gave us a great deal of advice on the Strategic Rail Authority. As a shadow authority, it has already begun to renegotiate the franchises to ensure that in future they guarantee greater investment and new trains and services.
As the Queen's Speech made clear, following the recent tragedy at Paddington the Government will ensure that rail safety is a top priority. I am sure that that is the wish of the whole House. Rail is the safest form of land transport, being 15 times safer than travelling by car, but we are determined to make it safer and to re-establish public confidence. After the Ladbroke Grove tragedy, I set in motion urgent action to achieve a more open, responsive and rigorous safety culture throughout the rail industry. As part of that, I have asked for monthly reports on signals passed at danger, which I shall place in the Libraries of both Houses; the first will be made available this afternoon.
That report gives statistics on SPADs for the past 10 years and splits the figures by month. Annual figures show that the total fell gradually from 1993–94 until an 8 per cent. increase occurred in 1998–99. Monthly figures demonstrate the cyclical nature of the problem, with SPADs tending to peak in October and November when damp conditions can lead to poor braking performance. This October, there were five serious incidents, comprising 7 per cent. of the monthly total. However, this October's total was significantly lower than those of the preceding 10 years. Nevertheless, we cannot be complacent. As Ladbroke Grove demonstrated all too clearly, a single SPAD can result in catastrophe.
In addition to the industry investigating every single SPAD, the Health and Safety Executive will thoroughly investigate more serious SPADs, for example, when a train breaches the safety rules and there is an overlap at signals. That is why at last month's rail summit I sought from the industry a commitment to reduce the number of such SPADs, and why, in its report to be submitted to me on 30 November, I shall expect nothing less than a detailed programme of action, on which I shall report back to the House. I have also asked Sir David Davies to undertake a review of the train protection system. All those important steps will improve safety.
Another recommendation of the Transport Sub-Committee was a proposed Bill to deliver safety improvements in aviation by separating the operation of National Air Traffic Services from safety regulation. The Government will never compromise on safety and the measure will enhance one of the most robust systems of aviation safety regulation in the world. Our preferred option on how to achieve the partnership we want is to secure safety regulation strictly in public hands and to split the shares as follows: 49 per cent. publicly held, 5 per cent. held by workers, and 46 per cent. in private hands.
We are now openly discussing those deals and also alternative proposals advanced by the trade unions. We shall have a Government-appointed director on the board, a golden share and a veto built into the licence to protect safety in the public interest. Those are matters of concern, but let no one doubt our commitment to safety or try to stir up safety concerns for ideological or industrial ends.
Our proposals are intended to achieve more than safety. There has been criticism of delays in the public sector programme of investment in NATS. Our proposals will ensure that the system receives the investment it needs—more than £1 billion over the next 10 years—through a partnership with the private sector that frees public funds for other priorities and increases opportunities for NATS in the global economy. Our proposals will allow us to draw on the project management skills of the private sector and to upgrade our systems, while maintaining the two-centre approach at Swanwick and Prestwick, and ensuring public accountability and protection of the public interest. The Bill will deliver a modern integrated transport system that uses innovative financing techniques to deliver better quality services.
Legislation on the countryside and water form an important part of the Queen's Speech. Labour has been the champion of the countryside—one need only look at the history books to see that. Labour Governments developed the planning system and created the green belt; and, since 1997, this Government have added 30,000 hectares to it. A previous Labour Government created national parks, and this Government will establish two more—the south downs and the new forest.
Not at the moment.
The House has often expressed grave concern about the deterioration of the quality of life in our countryside. The 1997 Rural Development Commission report on conditions in the countryside revealed that, after 18 years of Tory Government, 43 per cent. of villages had no post office, almost half had no school and three quarters had no bus services. Those were the consequences of 18 years of Tory Government for rural areas, according to that report. The Government have taken immediate action to deal with all those issues: we have tackled the quality of housing, provided for 1,800 rural buses and improved the local environment.
The Government have also taken a global lead on the environment by brokering for the first time, at Kyoto, a legally binding agreement to tackle climate change. We used our presidency of the European Union to develop policies to achieve that.
I am sorry, but the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) wanted to intervene earlier, so I must give way to him.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to expansion of the green belt. Does he accept that there is no value in expanding the green belt if the territory that it protects is allowed to be constantly eroded? I know that that is so because I represent a constituency on the edge of Manchester. Such expansion does not preserve city centres or the quality of life in the surrounding suburbs.
We created the concept of the green belt and we are proud of that. The issues that the hon. Gentleman mentioned will be tackled when we consider housing development and regional planning. We shall have to present some judgments on those matters—especially on brownfield sites—to the House. We have set a target for brownfield sites. The previous Administration talked about a 50 per cent. target for building on brownfield sites, yet their record was less than 45 per cent. Their target is now two thirds. We shall make changes and achieve the targets that we set. Our record contrasts vividly with that of the Opposition when they were in government.
We have integrated social and economic policy and conservation is a key theme in the Bill on the countryside, which gives added protection to sites of special scientific interest and to wildlife. When we came to power, more than a quarter of SSSIs had been seriously damaged by the previous Government's policies. In stark contrast, the Government have saved more than 100 SSSIs through our new approach to the road programme. The previous Administration would have destroyed more than 100 SSSIs through their road programme, yet now Opposition Members constantly ask, "What are the Government going to do about SSSIs?" We are unpicking the damage that their policies, especially their road programme, did to SSSIs. The advances help to improve our performance in many of the quality of life indicators that we have published, including those for birds and wetlands.
The new Bill will fulfil the aspirations of millions of people who want to enjoy the freedom of walking across some of our finest and wildest countryside. I remember the wonder that I felt as a boy on my first visit to the lake district. Its beauty has remained with me and fires my passion to preserve and enhance it for all to enjoy. I am proud that the Bill will grant a new right of access to 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath and down to the many, not the few. That right will not be unfettered. We expect people to act responsibly when exercising it, just as landowners' rights must be balanced by their responsibility to manage their land effectively and sustainably.
The measures that I have outlined constitute the essential features of the Government's campaign for a better and fairer Britain and a better quality of life for all. We want a Britain that puts behind it the Tory years of centralisation, boom and bust and neglected public services. Our programme highlights the contrast between a Tory party that trampled on local government and a Labour party that liberates it; between a Tory party that neglected housing and a Labour party that protects leaseholding and expands housing expenditure; between a Tory party that presided over a fragmented public transport system and a Labour party that is improving it; between a Tory party that is the friend of bigotry and intolerance and a Labour party that believes that everyone has equal worth; and between a Tory party that believes that the open countryside should be the preserve of the rich and the few and a Labour party that makes access to the countryside a reality.
The Government are committed to enterprise, fairness and a better quality of life. Our legislative programme exemplifies the contrast between Labour and Tory Administrations, and I heartily recommend it to the House.
I have declared my interests in the register, but I am not speaking on their behalf.
We all enjoyed the Deputy Prime Minister's contribution and it was good of him to arrive for the debate in the nick of time. We thought that he had fallen foul of his own congested transport system. He managed to prove us wrong on this occasion, although I am sure there will be others. Indeed, at a conference at which I was speaking only this week, the Labour representative was unable to turn up owing to the tremendous traffic congestion and transport chaos in London.
At business questions, the Leader of the House criticised the Opposition for not wishing to talk about agriculture during today's debate. I can reassure the House that we regard agriculture as crucial in the countryside. We have chosen the countryside as one of today's themes and, in recognition of how important we think it is, our shadow Cabinet agriculture spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), will wind up the debate. He will have a great deal to say about the enormous damage that Labour is doing to the countryside in general and the agriculture industry in particular. We feel that Labour does not understand that a good agriculture industry is crucial to the maintenance of our landscape beyond the towns and cities, and my hon. Friend will stress that in his winding-up speech.
The Queen's Speech reveals that new Labour is guilty of deception under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, for there is nothing new about this programme and nothing new about these Ministers. My young and active Conservative Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions team faces a—[Interruption.] Ministers should not object, as they are considerably older than the shadow DETR team. Everything is relative. My team faces tired, burnt out, worn out Ministers who already look as if they have been in office for more than a decade, and so quickly have they made mistakes and so rapidly have problems emerged that the state of the country is bad enough to imply that they have.
The Deputy Prime Minister is wallowing in the past: he is interested in the history of 10 or 15 years ago, and reluctant to talk of the future because he knows that his party has numerous problems in deciding what candidates it should field in important elections and what policies it should put before the House. The only remedies peddled by the Government to cure the nation's disorders are more laws and more taxes. Most other people in the country have already worked out that our problem is too much tax and too many laws, not a shortage of either. There is no vision in the Queen's Speech to renew great cities, to improve our schools, to sort out our hospitals or to solve the transport crisis that the Government are creating. All we get are old Labour ideas from old Labour figures dressed up from time to time in modernisers' clothes.
I am very interested in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about age. Are we to take it that Conservative Front Benchers are now so ageist that they talk not about the quality of their spokesmen but only about their ages?
I talked about the quality of the members of our team and said that they are energetic and have many good ideas. I was contrasting an Opposition brimming with ideas to improve this country, with a tired old Government who do not know what they are doing and have lost their way. The Labour Government are gluttons for punishment. I am glad that the hon. Lady smiles at that; she knows that there is some truth in it.
In the midst of the fiasco of trying to choose a candidate for mayor of London, Labour has decided to re-enact the same scenes all over the country—it wants a Bill to bamboozle many more towns and cities into having executive mayors. Let me make a personal comment to the Secretary of State: he is ill-advised to embark on such a course and I ask him to pause and consider the pattern that is emerging. First, a Secretary of State is briefed against for not doing his job well. Then newspaper reports, from sources close to No. 10, say that he is under threat of losing his job. Then comes the dreaded phone call saying, "Alun, we want you to go to Wales and stay there. Frank, you would make a wonderful mayor—just give up the health job." The present Secretary of State has already experienced the first two parts of that worrying pattern: saturation briefing against his competence and question marks over his future.
If the Secretary of State passes such legislation, will he get a call telling him that Labour is desperate for a candidate it can trust to be mayor of Leeds or Liverpool? How many mayors does he think there will be under the proposal? Are there enough Cabinet members in disfavour to fill all those new slots? Can we be told who will be facing a merry Christmas in the Cabinet? We have a right to know. Is this Labour's new deal for Cabinet members—resign and be offered a job as a mayor?
The Opposition think that Labour should stop bashing local government. We believe that if a council wishes to keep a committee structure, in which all councillors can be involved on an even footing, it should be allowed to do so. [Interruption.] The Government do not like this at all, because they know that there is much that is good in the present system of local government, which they intend to sweep aside. The Secretary of State could not even answer the sensible intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who asked whether he would allow councils to keep the present system. The right hon. Gentleman must make up his mind, and we urge him to make up his mind in favour of their doing so.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Did he notice that, in answering the intervention to which he refers, the Deputy Prime Minister not only did not seem to know what the fourth option would be, but suggested that I should wait for the publication of the Bill? Was he not aware that it was published six months ago and has already undergone pre-legislative scrutiny?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Bill was published in order to allow the House and the Select Committees to study it and make recommendations. We are now considering those recommendations and will report back on them.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has won game, set and match, but let us put that on one side. Anyone can make a mistake.
The important thing is that the Secretary of State should understand the anger, in Labour as well as Conservative local government, at the prospect that existing practices would not be allowed to continue under his proposed legislation. I urge him to think again. If he does not, we shall table amendments that would enable the existing system to continue. We regard this as another of Labour's modernisations, which would drive a bulldozer through the checks and balances of our local constitution, exactly as the Government have done in our national constitution.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He may be interested to know that the borough of Trafford has embarked on a cabinet style of local government already, and that many Labour councillors are feeling excluded from the process and increasingly frustrated at their inability to do their jobs.
The Secretary of State has a great deal of thinking to do, to try and make the councillor' s role a decent, good role in some of the models that he is proposing, especially in his model of the elected mayor, which represents a massive downgrading of the elected council and councillors. He has never explained how that would work, and we look forward to seeing more of the details, as doubtless he rewrites the Bill as it goes through the House, and guillotines it at the end, in the same way as he had to rewrite much of the Bill dealing with the government of London, and then decided to guillotine it so that we could not debate pages and pages of substantial amendment. That is how the Government have been bulldozing our constitution, both nationally and locally.
The Bill has been designed by people who do not believe in local democracy and whose idea of devolution is that anyone living under devolved government must accept whatever central Government want. Labour cannot accept the idea that a mayoral candidate for London might ever disagree with the elected Government. "Perish the thought," they say, "that the Welsh Assembly should wish to do something different from that which the Prime Minister seeks." It is an odd style of devolution that entails all the extra costs of more officials and more politicians but gives none of them the right to independent thought or action. For those and other reasons, we will give the local government Bill strong opposition. We are against mayors made in Downing street.
When it comes to his transport policy, the Secretary of State is becoming a joke. We know that the Prime Minister is seriously worried that DETR is upsetting all the motorists. We saw in a recent television poll that the Government are in deep mire with their record on transport. When people were asked in the poll whether the Government had a good record on transport, 79 per cent. said no, they did not, and only 16 per cent. said yes they did. The public have got this one entirely right, and the Secretary of State should be deeply worried that he has upset not just the Prime Minister but so many people trying to travel round the country.
We know that the Government are so worried that the Chancellor has been prevailed upon to moderate his language about the fuel escalator, but he has not yet changed his actions on the petrol tax. People will not thank the Government until they are absolutely sure that it is not just the words that are changing, but that the deeds will change as well.
It is a Conservative tax.
It is not a Conservative tax. The last increases in fuel duties were introduced by a Labour Government and a Labour Chancellor, at a higher rate than any that the Conservatives introduced, from a higher level of the duty. We are against it; the Government are in favour of it, and they cannot wriggle away from the responsibility. The Deputy Prime Minister seems to think that he has not been governing the country for the past two and a half years. Perhaps he has not, but the public believe that the Government have been governing the country and they know that it was this Government's Budgets that put the price of fuel up so much: it could hardly have been done by the outgoing Conservatives, who can no longer put through a Budget.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House in what year the fuel duty escalator was introduced and by which Government, and who now proposes to abolish it?
When a new Government come into office, they have to decide on their policies. This Government decided to put the fuel duty up in each of the Budgets that they have introduced. They not only decided to put it up, but they put it up by more than the Conservatives, and from a much higher level. The Deputy Prime Minister should remember that we opposed the Government's increases in fuel duty. We are now asking him to come clean. Will he tell us that they have finished with increases in petrol duty? Will he promise us that there will be no further increases in petrol duty for the lifetime of this Parliament and under this Government? Will he give that guarantee?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman has now confirmed that a Tory Government brought in the tax and that a Labour Government are now committed to abolishing it. That is precisely the position. Any increases in the duty that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was prepared to consider over and above the inflation rate, he would hypothecate to public transport. Do the Opposition agree with that degree of hypothecation if we introduce it?
I think that the Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that the Chancellor of the Exchequer reserves the right to increase fuel duties not just in line with inflation, but by more than inflation. That is exactly my point. This is a dishonest Administration. They say that they are abolishing something when they have no intention whatever of abolishing it.
I am grateful to my very learned hon. Friend, who has read the Red Book carefully and confirms my point. We cannot trust the Government on the fuel duty. It is very obvious that they will increase it.
Given that currently £17 out of every £20 spent at the petrol pump goes directly to Treasury coffers, and that, during his oration, the Deputy Prime Minister blathered on about the principle of fairness, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Deputy Prime Minister should tell us whether he believes that it is fair that 85 per cent. of the spend on petrol goes to the Treasury? If he does not, at what alternative figure does he propose to aim?
That is a very good question for the Deputy Prime Minister and I am sure that he will not be able to answer it. I do not know whether he wishes to try to answer it.
The record is clear on the matter of raising fuel duty. Under the previous Administration the tax on fuel went from 7p to 42p a litre, and the money that they raised from the motorist was increased from £4 billion to £21 billion a year, but they spent less of that on transportation systems.
As I thought, the Deputy Prime Minister was not going to answer the question, because he has not a clue about the answer to it. Let me make a prediction. The right hon. Gentleman thinks that he has a deal with the Treasury on hypothecation, but he will find that other parts of his budget are cut to allow for the fact that he now has his hands on a little bit of the money that he is raising by way of extra taxes.
The Deputy Prime Minister failed to point out that when the fuel escalator was introduced, only two countries in Europe had lower fuel prices than the United Kingdom. We now have easily the highest fuel prices, with the cost of diesel twice what it is in Spain and three times what it is in Turkey. The real humbug—
That is why we are abolishing it.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister contain himself and stop interrupting?
Last year, Madam Speaker, you kindly granted me an Adjournment debate on the crisis in the road haulage industry. At that time, I said that the Government were abusing the duty for general taxation purposes, but the then Economic Secretary said:
That is not the case."—[Official Report, 11 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 349.]
In last week's pre-Budget statement, however, the Chancellor said that the duty would be used for general taxation.
That is a very powerful point. We well know that the Deputy Prime Minister has been rolled over by the Treasury on all sorts of matters—not least his failure to get decent money for investment in the London underground and for other necessary public transport investment.
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how he would fill the black hole that would be created by cutting taxes on fuel and building 100 extra roads, which would represent an extra £3 billion of expenditure and lost tax in year one, not even taking into account the fact that he would not have any road toll charges? Would he cut health or education spending?
The Government have not been taking account of the sensible, common-sense policies being launched by the Opposition. We intend to have a good sum to spend on health and education—we have always matched what the Government have offered on those—while having a lower overall total of public spending. I shall give two examples from my own budget: we said that we would abolish the regional development agencies and privatise the tube, taking all that expenditure out of the public accounts.
It is therefore easy to see how we can get by with lower taxes and lower overall spending while having extremely good, perhaps even higher, spending on services that really matter, such as schools and hospitals. Deliberate misinformation by the Government means that the point has not been understood, but many of my right hon. and hon. Friends with shadow ministerial briefs have also identified, as I have, areas where we would not match the Government's spending because we think that it is wasteful. This is a tax-and-waste Government; we would be a more sensible Government.
Did I hear the right hon. Gentleman correctly when he said that he would privatise the tube? Is that the position of the Conservative candidate for mayor of London?
It has been our mayoral candidate's position for a very long time. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman the Londoners' tube scheme, which includes free shares for all Londoners. That scheme will be very popular and our candidate will have great fun in putting it to London voters.
I have been deflected by interventions for rather a long time, and I must now make progress on some of other measures in the Queen's Speech. The main problem with the Secretary of State's transport Bill and policy is that they cannot possibly work. We still have no idea of what timetable the right hon. Gentleman has in mind for the Bill, let alone what transport it seeks to regulate. He recognises that people want to travel more and there is congestion, so he decides that the one thing to do is cut the capacity of the system.
The Government have failed to create conditions to increase rail capacity, and road capacity is cut by installing bus lanes on motorways and placing all sorts of impediments on main highways to stop or reduce the flow of traffic. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State cuts almost every bypass and road-widening out of the programme. The answer to travel congestion is more capacity. We need more capacity on public transport and we need to maximise the use of existing main roads and improving some of them.
Now I hear some people asking for a consensus approach to transport. Well, if the Government want that, they must start responding more positively to many of our good ideas that would make the situation much better. Has the Secretary of State read our ideas in "The Common Sense Revolution" which would increase the flows on our main roads? Why will he not take such action? Has he read our proposals for a Londoners' tube, with a massive increase in investment and capacity? Why will he not take that action? Has he seen our proposals for better car parks at bus interchanges and train stations? Why will he not get on with doing that?
The Government have only one answer to congestion—blame and tax the motorist. If the motorist is moving, tax him, and get him through the congestion charge. If the motorist is stationary, tax him, and get him through the parking charge. Now that some of the traffic jams in and out of our main cities are so bad, motorists fear that they will have to pay both the congestion and the parking charges while in the traffic jam.
Given the right hon. Gentleman's interest in investment and private enterprise in London Underground and his position as chairman of Mabey Securities Ltd., will he tell us whether he is getting money into Mabey Securities via its sub-company, Mabey Construction, which is now outside the Palace of Westminster, building half of the Jubilee line?
I made it very clear at the beginning of the debate that I am not speaking on behalf of any business interest, and I would not waste the time of the House putting forward a business case. That is something that I do in my private time outside the House, and I am in no way inclined to use the opportunity of this debate to further any business interest that I may have, so I shall return to the subject of the debate.
We all know that taxing the motorist off the road does not work. Labour has tried it for two and a half years, and traffic has grown. It has grown because people need to move around, and as more people get jobs, so more people have to travel to work. As people want more leisure, they need to travel to cinemas, theatres, clubs and pubs, and many of those journeys cannot be undertaken by bus or train, so people go by car and pay the extra tax.
The congestion problem on our railways and roads will not be solved by legislation, but it could be eased by investment. Traffic jams will be made worse by building too many homes in the countryside. Standstill Britain needs steadfast Government to tackle the problems. Tax and spin are not man enough for the job. We need common sense and better travel facilities.
Today, an embarrassed Secretary of State will want to take attention away from his heroic failure in transport by talking of his green ambitions.
Our policy is not to say no new homes in the countryside. I shall come to the point later, so if the hon. Gentleman is patient he will benefit from listening yet again to our popular and good policy on where new development should take place.
If I may answer this point, I shall then come to another point from the hon. Gentleman.
The Secretary of State will never be trusted as green or with our countryside unless he lifts the threat of the bulldozer from so many of our green fields. He has shocked the nation by his refusal to throw out the Crow report which proposes 1.1 million new homes in the south east, half of them on new greenfield sites. It is no good his saying that he has to treasure and study the report. The report is so off the wall that he should just say so and announce a better policy.
We say that in some areas where there has been a lot of pressure from development and where unemployment is low, local people and councils should have the right to regulate the amount of new house building. We are not saying that there will be no new development on greenfield sites; we are saying that there should be much less than the Secretary of State proposes, and we are identifying a local democratic way in which communities can have their say and can have an influence.
Many Labour Members think that that is a good idea and wish that their Government would propose it. I pay tribute—uncustomarily, one may think—to those Labour Members who have spoken out about their areas in the south-east where they would like building on greenfield sites. I can reassure them that, come the common-sense revolution, we shall be happy to accommodate their views. We are delighted that they wish to make a contribution. Any area that wants housing on green fields, whether a country area or not, will be welcome to have it under our plans.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the early 1990s, when I believe the Conservative party was still in Government, the Rural Development Commission estimated a need for 80,000 social housing units for rural communities, but only 17,700 were built? Can he explain how the common-sense revolution has introduced new policies, that were not in operation when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet, which will secure for the next generation of rural dwellers the affordable housing that they desperately need and which was denied them for 18 years under his Government?
As I have made it clear, if a local community wishes to build homes of the type that the hon. Gentleman proposes, they will be free to do so under our policy of trusting local councils and local communities rather more. Obviously, decisions will also be dependent on Government funding if they wish to have an element of taxpayer subsidy. That will be decided year by year in the usual budgetary way.
We are not against the provision of new homes. Many new homes will be needed, and we would like to see many more of them built in the towns and cities. For example, there is a great opportunity in the east Thames corridor which requires some strategic leadership and vision of the kind that we gave in the 1980s by starting off at the western end with the docklands development. I trust that the Secretary of State will take that as sensible advice and might even come round to that view as he studies the unfortunate Crow report.
The Secretary of State must understand that many of the people who will be seeking new homes in the next decade—there will be many such people—would like to buy modern flats and houses in towns and cities, and it is up to the Government to do a rather better job of freeing up the brownfield sites in the public sector, cleaning them up, making them available and expediting the planning permission. [Interruption.] Now we come to the history lesson. I shall not take any history lessons from the Secretary of State on urban renewal. He has only to go a few miles from Westminster to see one of the greatest urban renewal successes that the world has ever seen in the form of the massive docklands redevelopment. I am asking him to take that model, or something like it, and carry it further east and take it to the heartlands of the northern and midlands cities.
Recent studies show that unemployment is rising in the Labour heartlands in the north and the midlands. We see that the great divide is becoming worse. The Government are presiding over a disunited Britain. They are concentrating too much development in the south and are not offering enough investment and development in the north. They need to tackle that as a matter of great urgency.
Why cannot the Secretary of State make up his mind on the many good proposals in the Rogers report on urban renewal, and come to the House to make a full statement and be cross-examined on them? Why does he not launch a blitz on brownfield sites to bring them back into use? He cannot be serious about people using public transport more if he presses on with plans to locate over 1 million people on greenfield sites in the south-east without proper access to trains and buses. Let us not pretend: those people will not have proper access to trains and buses if that kind of suburban development is encouraged. Greenfield development clearly favours using the car and the already-congested motorways.
The Secretary of State's biggest embarrassment must be the Government's decision to sell a chunk of National Air Traffic Services. Before the election, the now Chief Secretary told everyone that our air was not for sale. Many Labour candidates and Back Benchers believed him, as did many members of NATS staff. Unfortunately, it turned out to be another great Labour lie. The policy will be deeply unpopular, and I strongly object to the way in which the Secretary of State proposes to go about it.
Instead of selling 100 per cent. to a wide range of British shareholders—giving existing managers and employees a real stake and a real say in their business— the Secretary of State intends to sell around half, surrendering control to a single trade buyer, which could be a foreign company. He will be willing to sell control of our airways at less than half a fair price—perhaps to a foreign interest. The taxpayer will be robbed, and the national interest may not be looked after properly. NATS needs massive new investment. It does not need a foreign owner buying it on the cheap to make a quick buck. Will the Secretary of State confirm today that these contentious matters will be covered by primary legislation? Will he promise not to guillotine or stifle debate on this most sensitive subject?
I appreciate that many Labour Members who oppose this part of the Bill want a different future for NATS from the one that the Opposition would like. I would never embarrass them by suggesting that we agree on what we would like to see in place of the present system. We do not agree on that, but we have a strong common interest in voting down this miserable proposal from the Government. Many decent Labour Members and the Opposition agree that the proposal is wrong for the staff of NATS, wrong for the taxpayer and wrong for Britain. I urge the Government to think again before they get into a mess on the Floor of the House with the Bill.
The Queen's Speech is full of measures which will make life worse. It is a meddlesome, bureaucratic and wrong-headed programme. It is the work of modernisers who want to destroy any institution that they have inherited without having something better to put in its place. The Government are failing to deliver on transport, and they have created standstill Britain.
The Government are now on a collision course with their own supporters over public-private partnerships for the tube and in the air. The Government can look forward to a series of rows over future mayors as they seek to destroy councils. The battle between the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is billed as the battle for Labour's soul—so will the battle over NATS be. We will discover that the Government have no soul. They have only a set of empty soundbites, as they fail to deliver the promises and the hopes that swept them to power.
The country has waited a long time for a transport Bill that will begin to address what has been, in effect, 20 years of total destruction of an integrated system. In my county, the bright new white rural rider buses are providing desperately needed services for many villages which had been deprived of almost any kind of efficient bus service.
The Government have demonstrated that they are prepared to tackle the important aspects of planning—which will integrate and improve the lives of people in rural and urban areas—and to think in the long term about the needs of a modern society and of the United Kingdom in the next millennium.
Above all, I believe that the decision to include legislation on the railways as part of the new transport Bill will at long last give sufficient muscle to the Deputy Prime Minister to allow him to do what he has long wanted to do, but has been unable to do because he has not had the primary legislation at his command.
The Transport Sub-Committee was honoured to be asked to consider the railways legislation and to make recommendations on aspects that we thought could be improved. Most of us received the bulk of the Bill with acclamation. We took evidence from anyone who wanted to draw attention to particular aspects. Opposition members of the Committee made it clear that they did not regard the process as a means of negating their right to oppose the Bill in its entirety, but they were prepared to take part in the detailed examination of the evidence that was presented to us.
The Strategic Rail Authority is the kind of development that a fragmented and destroyed railway system desperately needs. At the time of privatisation, the previous Government clearly did not consider that the railways would be used by more passengers in the future; they did not care about them. They decided that the system, which was clapped out and had had no real investment for 20 years, should be removed from the Treasury as quickly as possible, irrespective of the chaos that would follow.
Some years after privatisation, the railway system is still in the most appalling mess. Some companies are facing up efficiently to the need for new rolling stock and integrated services, but others are failing disastrously. There are problems not only with time-keeping but with integration between one service and another. Recently, a Labour Member of Parliament was told in my hearing on the west coast main line that the train to Wales would not be held for her because it was run by a different company and the fact that our train would be late meant that the connection would be disregarded.
We still have a long way to go, but the Sub-Committee believed that we should consider certain matters with great care. We want the Strategic Rail Authority to state plainly its aims and objectives for a new rail system and to consider how it can draw certain lines of demarcation. We want the regulator's powers and its relationship with the authority to be set out clearly, and we want safety to be addressed with some urgency.
We considered that many aspects of the legislation are extremely hopeful and should be commended. The SRA will be supported by the general public, who are conscious of the need for the forward planning that has been sadly missing from a system that has been torn apart at the roots. They want better timetable planning and better information, but above all they want to feel that the passengers' interests are at the top of the league of needs.
We hope that the membership of the SRA will include passenger representatives. We think that the existing passenger organisations need greater support; they certainly need proper funding and more immediate powers. Above all, the SRA must represent at the top level the interests of those who use the services. It is not good enough simply to say that we are thinking of changing many aspects of our railway companies without considering the impact on the passenger. Whether passengers are commuting to work or using the services for holidays or business, it frequently seems that their interests are the last thing on the companies' minds.
The acquisition of new rolling stock and the provision of high-quality services must be an urgent matter for the companies. We rely on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ensure that when the franchises are being renegotiated the Strategic Rail Authority considers not only the companies' safety record but their investment record and the quality of the service that they are providing now. Frankly, if, after this many years of operation, a company cannot guarantee a good quality of service for its existing passengers, promises about what it will do in the future may ring astonishingly hollow. That is still the case for far too many companies and organisations throughout the rail industry.
Not only do we welcome this long-overdue Bill, but we think that the Strategic Rail Authority will transform much of the planning for railways in the new century. However, safety will inevitably concern everyone using every form of public transport. The references to safety in the Bill were fairly limited because of existing legislation, but the general public will want extra reassurance. Those of us who know about transport know that people who travel by car face safety problems every day of their lives—much more frequently than those who travel by rail or air. Nevertheless, a bad incident, such as the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove, not only makes people deeply concerned, but makes them feel at risk. No matter what reassurances are given by individual companies, people will want to know that legislation is in place to provide that safety measures are the most important aspect in the rail companies' day-to-day operations.
The Bill considered by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, on which I serve, is entirely different to that proposed in the Queen's Speech. The new Bill proposes the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services. Does the hon. Lady think that that privatisation will increase air safety, or decrease it?
I shall come to National Air Traffic Services in a moment, but I should first like to speak briefly about the Railways Bill and the work done by the Select Committee.
My Committee was asked to look, in a pre-legislative way, at an existing Bill. Much time was spent on getting the evidence into a shape in which it could be presented to the House of Commons in quite a short time. I should like to record my appreciation of the work of all members of the Committee, who sat through many hours of evidence. I also wish to thank the Clerks and the support staff—they did a fantastic job of getting the report ready before the end of the previous Session, so that we could consider the reintroduced Bill in this Session. I must say that although this is a useful way of considering legislation, it requires a great deal of work and puts considerable pressure on Members of Parliament and on the support services which Select Committees have at their beck and call. I hope that if this is to become an accepted method of consideration, the House of Commons will think seriously about whether it is prepared to give the Select Committees enough support.
We will expect the SRA not only to set out its aims and objects in very specific terms, but to include new members and passenger representatives. We will expect the Deputy Prime Minister to set out quite precisely the role of the franchising director and the head of the SRA. It would be unfortunate if there were any confusion about the various responsibilities which could have an effect on the railways.
It is also vital that the SRA publish an annual report, which the House of Commons has the right to examine—in common with passenger organisations—and debate. We ought to know what the authority is doing and how efficiently it is being done.
I would have liked more discussion of pensions. When franchises come up again, it will be essential that those who work in the railway industry—existing pensioners and those who expect pensions—should be certain that franchise companies will not regard pension funds as a nice golden pot available for exploitation. It would be quite wrong if pensions funds to which people have contributed over many years became a bargaining chip among the economics of differing franchise companies. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister is aware of how sensitive that matter is, and that he will make sure that there can be no doubt about where ownership of the funds lies. There have been problems in the bus industry in the past, and we are sensitive about this matter.
Let me turn to aspects of the Bill that seem fairly controversial. I do not drive. I am driven more often than not, mainly because I have the nasty habit of composing my best speeches after I have left whichever meeting I have just attended, and that is not the ideal frame of mind in which to drive a car. However, I know how deeply wedded people—particularly males—are to their motor cars. I am often astonished that more babies are not born with wheels rather than feet.
Motorists seem frequently to approve wholly of proper transport planning as long as it does not deprive them of their own cars. Unless the Government begin to tackle congestion in our towns and cities, gridlock will soon result. It will not matter how many cars anyone owns as all of them will be sitting in a traffic jam.
Before the general election, my Committee studied countries that have understood the relationship between congestion charging—and motorway tolling, although that is not under discussion at present—and the provision of proper transport services. Norway has tied together charging with the provision of high quality services. People appreciate and respond to that. I do not pretend that motorists in Norway are deeply enamoured of having to pay, whether by smart card or any other means, but hypothecation has enabled them to see the direct link between what they pay and the standard of provision in particular cities.
Unless the Government take charge of congestion in our cities, we shall not be able to move. All the emotive rubbish about how we are trying to deprive people of their little tin boxes may be of use in party political broadcasts, but it runs counter to the basic system of transport planning for the new century.
I shall finish on safety. My Committee recommended the creation of an independent safety authority, not just for railways but for aviation and maritime affairs. We did so because the general public are concerned that when, for whatever reason it may be, an industry hands over some responsibility to private companies, there will be a clash between the interests of directors who are responsible for raising money and profits and the interests of passengers. That fundamental worry is the same for transport by air, rail or sea.
It is essential, therefore, that the Government respond to the clash of interests that the Committee perceived in the Civil Aviation Authority. Putting the safety unit's responsibilities at arm's length would reinforce people's comfort, and the same would be true of the railway industry. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is minded to remove the responsibility from Railtrack, and I want to see fairly urgent action on that. I want Railtrack to be told that it will no longer have the strategic unit within its organisation, because there will be a clash of interests, and from the passengers' point of view it is vital that we are seen to be dealing with that as urgently as possible.
One approach would be to fund an independent unit to cover the inspectorates of all those industries. It would be seen to be independent and would report directly to the Deputy Prime Minister, so it would have a connection with Government that would enable it to set out clearly the need for particular responses both to accidents and to future planning.
People using passenger services, whatever form of transport that involves, want to be convinced that the requirement for their safety is laid down so precisely that the companies have to respond to it and will not be able to say—as, frighteningly, some said even after the latest rail accident—that there might be a point at which they would not tolerate an independent person telling them what safety standards to adopt and what kinds of investment and responses they should make.
I find it extraordinary that in Railtrack, a massive company with direct responsibility for safety, the only person who resigned was the person in charge of public relations. That seems to me to set an interesting standard for responses to such problems. I would have liked the directors of Railtrack to think seriously about whether they should resign, because of their own responsibility and the way in which the public regarded their performance.
As for National Air Traffic Services, I have no doubt that the Government are wholly committed to maintaining safety, but my Committee recommended a number of ways in which non-profit organisations could not only raise the money needed for new equipment, but perform at the same high level of safety as was achieved before, and as we would expect for the future.
I hope that during the passage of the Bill the Deputy Prime Minister will be able to consider carefully what we have suggested. Non-profit organisations seem to me to be the answer. It is not sensible to hand over air traffic control to a private company whatever its nationality—although I find it difficult to worry too seriously about Her Majesty's loyal Opposition's views on foreign ownership. I am afraid that in my constituency both Rolls-Royce and what used to be British Rail Engineering are now German owned, and several other major companies are foreign owned. When I said at the time that I did not think that that was in the national interest, I was informed that my views were narrowly based, nationalist and old fashioned. Indeed, I suppose that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who speaks for the Opposition, would say that I was old as well, which would automatically disbar me from holding a sensible view.
The Bill gives us the opportunity for the first time to deal with a transport system which had become disintegrated, disorganised and unresponsive to the needs of ordinary members of the public. I am sure that the Government are certain that it will carry us forward into a new, planned and developing economy.
My Committee and I believe that this is the first serious attempt for perhaps 20 years to begin to plan the investment in, and the development of, our railway industry and the other related activities that we want to expand, such as rail freight and the efficient use of light railways. I am convinced that that attempt is positive and useful, and I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister. We now have a serious Transport Minister in post—something that we have lacked for so long that it is difficult to believe that at last we have one.
I listened with some scepticism to the Deputy Prime Minister's rather overblown assertions about the benefits of the constitutional reforms that the Government intend to extend to local government. I should have thought that a certain modesty might have attended upon his judgment of the consequences of their constitutional reforms of the past two years. I very much doubt that when the Government introduced an Assembly in Scotland they anticipated that Labour would not control it. The inevitable consequence of the present circumstances is that on the next economic downturn it will be controlled by the Scottish Nationalists and the United Kingdom will face a major constitutional crisis.
I read with incredulity references to making the constitution for local government more accountable. We have an Assembly in Wales, but when it passed a vote of censure on a Labour Minister, where was the accountability? It was dismissed as though it were of no consequence whatever.
As for the House of Lords, the Government's action was one of political spite. There is no constitutional reform; they have simply decided to get rid of the hereditary peers and replace them with a committee. The virtue of the committee was that it enabled no decision to be taken about an alternative or any reform. We all know—especially those of us who listened to the late Enoch Powell and Mr. Michael Foot—that there is no reform that the House will pass that will create a credible House of Lords, as any such reform would deny the powers of the Commons. The Government can therefore only deal with the hereditary peers and face up to the fact that there is no constitutional integrity in any proposed reform, as we will find in the not too distant future.
I should have thought that those arguments would weigh in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister as he tried to persuade us that we would benefit from his innovations in local government. In London, the situation is farcical. Everyone knows that the Labour movement wants the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) to be mayor. It is quite evident that he carries the overwhelming support of the Labour movement. So what is his crime? Why are we going through this charade? [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister is quite right to leave at this point, but I am sure that he will consult Hansard because I am about to explain why the Government do not want the hon. Member for Brent, East to be mayor.
The hon. Gentleman has committed the ultimate crime: he says in public what the vast majority of Labour Members believe in private. His only crime is living up to—and owning up to—the essence of what the Labour party is all about, and that has to be stifled to ensure that London does not get the choice and the man that the bulk of the Labour party supports as the potential candidate. So all the stuff about accountability and constitutional reform turns out to be ill-judged, short-term and not thought through. I therefore approach the overstated claims of constitutional reform in a mood which is a great deal south of zero when I hear them being repeated today.
I shall concentrate on two lines in the Queen's Speech about the reform of local government. Of course I am well aware that there will be legislation to introduce directly elected mayors. I should now like to make what might broadly be called a loyalty pledge to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). I agree with every single word of his speech today, with the exception of the passage about directly elected mayors.
In my view, the proposal at least to experiment with directly elected mayors is long overdue. First, we have too many councils. When we were in power, we had to face the need to continue the process that has been under way in this country since the 1960s to rationalise the number of councils so as to reflect modem conditions and the sophistication of contemporary services. My colleagues in that Government, the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales, decided that they would go straight to unitary authorities and that they would prescribe them by law. I believe that they were right to do so, and that that is the only way in which we shall achieve the desired results.
In England, for all sorts of political reasons, the decision was to set up a local committee to examine the matter area by area. The proposal was controversial and ran into the ground, but I advise the Government that the relevant legislation is on the statute book that would enable progress towards unitary authorities to take place. Such a structure is necessary for a modern system of local government. It is what obtains in Scotland and Wales, and in all the large metropolitan areas of the country.
Secondly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find candidates to stand as councillors. That is not a problem particularly for the Conservative party—all parties are finding it difficult to find men and women of the necessary calibre to become councillors. The reason is self-evident: increasingly, competitive pressures mean that it is difficult for people to deliver, on a part-time basis, the intensity of service that the job today requires.
However, all hon. Members know that local government is of massive significance to the fabric of our society. It delivers a range of services that are fundamental to the quiet and decent enjoyment of a civilised society. Therefore the inevitable question arises: how does one create the accountability that will deliver the services with a degree of local discretion while at the same time carrying out national priorities? That is the dilemma that we must resolve.
Running a major city such as Leeds, Newcastle or Birmingham is more than a full-time job. The chief executives appointed to lead the official side of council work are paid, on average and broadly speaking, more than their peer group of local citizens. Certainly, the amount that they receive is in line with the earnings of the more senior people in their peer group. Yet the council leaders, whose job of leading such cities is as sophisticated and testing as any job in government—with the exception of the most senior Cabinet Ministers—are supposed to give their full-time commitment for remuneration that is at the very opposite end of local community norms.
There is something crazy about that situation. The remuneration of council leaders does not reflect the need to attract the men and women—already engaged in full-time careers—who will give a positive lead in identifying, and being accountable for, the dynamism of Britain's great cities. That makes no sense. Priorities are topsy-turvy when officials earn dramatically more than their political masters.
To get the men and women whom we need to run the councils we must recognise the scale of the responsibility involved in what is a major undertaking. Moreover, accountability would be best entrenched if those leaders were directly elected. That would give them a local profile—especially in the major cities—commensurate with the quality of the job and the challenge involved.
As I understand it, the Government consider that we should move to experiments of the sort that might be compatible with what I am saying. My anxiety is that, if it is left to local discussion to work out the compromises that would lead to an agreement to centralise power in one directly elected person, an effective administration will never be established. That is because the potential leader, looking forward to the sort of employment terms that I am outlining, would have to reach all sorts of compromises with the other councillors to get them to agree to shift power from the committee structure to him or her. The type of streamlined and effective organisation that I consider it our task to demand would therefore not be realised. We will get that only if central Government set out a framework that the House can debate and legislate for, which would enable us to find out whether it could be made to work in practice.
The next and absolutely essential change that must take place is for central Government to realise how Whitehall suffocates local government officials. All of us who have been in government understand the consequences of the formula-driven distribution of funds from central Government. Each Department distributes by formula certain sums of money as of entitlement—of right—to local authorities. Whether it is housing, social services, education or whatever, central Government hold the purse strings.
At a local level, it is like a barony—the equivalent officials in each authority are looking up to Whitehall and not across to the leadership of their councils. Those officials are much more interested in the word coming down from Whitehall than in a collective concept of how to run the local authority more effectively. That is because central Whitehall prescribes in the minutest detail how they get the money and what it can be spent on.
The situation is not as bad as it used to be in every case, but the House will imagine my incredulity when I first discovered in the early 1980s that a form requiring 80 answers had to be filled in before one could build a council house. The questions covered the slope of the roof, the colour of the bricks and the composition of the footings, all of which had to be approved by my Department in Whitehall. It is not as bad as that now, but that suffocation was not apparent to Members of Parliament or councillors, who talked about the freedom to take decisions when they could take practically no decisions that were not double-checked and rubber-stamped in Whitehall.
That culture still exists. As long as cash is distributed by formula and entitlement, we will never break it.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me I will not, as I wish to deploy a logical argument.
The city challenge scheme with which we experimented had the opposite impact on local authorities. Instead of Whitehall saying, "This is what we want. This is what you will do. Then we will give you the money", we said, "This is the money that is on the table. Tell us what you will do." There were few conditions. One was that they had to work in conjunction with the whole community, including the private sector. The second was that they had to get the participation of the whole community. In other words, it was no good the leader of the local council saying, "The head teacher wants this, the chief constable wants that, council tenants want that." We asked, "Where is the head teacher? Where is the chief constable? Where are the tenants?" If they had all come together to work out what could be achieved and had backed it locally, with the private sector adding to public funds, the Government made commensurate judgments about the allocation of funds—the better the plan, the more money one got.
In the first year, there was an outcry from those authorities that lost out. In the second year, those who had lost had found out how the people who had won had done so and had upped their standards. Then one got a degree of local enthusiasm and initiative that was unheard of in local government.
The Government should not only have directly elected chief executives, but should extend that concept, which was specific to perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 people in a major metropolitan area, to the whole authority, encouraging it to produce a corporate plan and ask for Government finance to back it. That would have a dramatic effect, not only in breaking the knot between Whitehall and local authority officials, but in making those officials work as a team and think about the community. Unless everyone was committed to the corporate plan, they would not win. All local authority services would be working towards the advancement and improvement of the authority.
That concept could be made to work. It would have a totally new psychological impact on local authorities and communities. The people involved would become genuine leaders of their communities, fighting for standards in which they believed and which they thought relevant. They would be allowed to initiate, to experiment and, sometimes, to make mistakes.
Today, we have a conformist society imposed largely from the centre, and with conformism goes drabness. I believe that that is uncharacteristic of the extraordinary phenomenon of Victorian England, which developed these great metropolitan areas with local dynamism and leadership. We have to recreate that on a model that is to be found quite frequently across the world. I strongly urge the Government to be brave and to take a chance to recreate the dynamism of local government in this country.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate.
The history, tradition and procedures of this House are recognised throughout the world. To participate in my first debate as the elected member for Hamilton, South fills me with pride, a sense of humility and some apprehension. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand the mixture of emotions surging within me. I congratulate previous speakers; I hope some day to be able to match their expertise.
I am told that it is traditional to pay tribute to one's predecessors. Even if no such tradition existed, I would wish to pay tribute to mine, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. I had the privilege of knowing him as a friend. He is an individual of boundless energy and a man of real talent who never forgot why he entered politics. His ambition was to serve and leave a legacy of improved living standards for those whom he represented. This, I believe, he achieved. As a Member of Parliament, he had much to be proud of and I am honoured to follow in his footsteps. I know that the House will join me in wishing the Secretary-General of NATO a successful term in office, in the knowledge that he will work to deliver a safer and more peaceful world.
I have lived in Hamilton since I married my wife Betty in 1964. Hamilton is the industrial, commercial and administrative centre of the constituency. It was a main stopping place in coaching days. The museum in Muir street is housed in the Hamilton Arms, a 17th century coaching inn. In its day, many famous people stayed there, including Thomas Telford, Dr. Johnson and his biographer, Boswell, Wordsworth and Coleridge. South Lanarkshire council is renovating the museum and merging it with the Cameronians museum. It is introducing the latest technology to create a virtual reality history of Lanarkshire's own regiment, the Cameronians, also known as the Scottish Rifles.
Hamilton has historic churches and graveyards, and a world famous mausoleum. To the south-east stands Chatelherault, a 1730s hunting lodge of the fifth Duke of Hamilton designed by William Adam. It was recently refurbished for £7 million and restored to its former glory. We also have the remains of Cadzow castle, allegedly built by David I, where Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in 1568. The town centre is being regenerated and will be a showpiece for Lanarkshire when it is completed.
I want to raise another important issue. I am sure that everyone has heard of my local team, Hamilton Academicals. Some commentators have a little difficulty with the name. During the by-election I, too, had some difficulty with the Accies. Their supporters decided to run a candidate against me to draw attention to the fact that the Accies no longer have a football stadium. He was well supported. Not only did he save his deposit, but he recorded 1,075 votes. The morning after the by-election, people said that it was the best result the Accies had had all season. Seriously, the result was important because it showed the depth of feeling on the issue. I have held two meetings with fans' representatives. I hope that the new Government initiative on community football, backed by the Co-operative Bank, can be used to deliver a new home for the Accies and a community resource for Hamilton.
In electoral terms, Hamilton, South is small. It covers three main areas: Hamilton, Burnbank and Blantyre, the birthplace of David Livingstone. There are also picturesque villages such as Ferniegair and Quarter. Quarter's most famous miners are well known: Keir Hardie and the most famous Scots singer of all, Harry Lauder. They both worked there.
South Lanarkshire council, based in Hamilton, is the largest employer in the area. It has an excellent relationship with the Hamilton chamber of commerce and the Lanarkshire development agency. This co-operation has been successful in attracting new, high-tech companies which, together with traditional industries such as Philips, Atlas Hydraulics and Oticon, offer real job opportunities to the people of the area.
The populations of Hamilton, Burnbank and Blantyre, as well as commuting to Glasgow, are employed in local Lanarkshire companies, such as Rolls-Royce, Hoover, Terex, Honeywells, E J Steils and Robert Lightbodys— I would recommend their cakes to anyone.
Hamilton, South was predominantly mining communities, with a history of miners' representation, such as the late Alex Wilson MP who died in service in 1978. He was a man of the people—a miner himself who fought hard on behalf of the coal industry and the people of his constituency. To follow in the footsteps of men like Alex and George is, indeed, an honour as well as a challenge—one that I willingly accept.
During the recent by-election, many important issues were raised, including drugs and the effect that this evil trade has on individuals, families and communities. The House, along with the devolved Scottish Parliament and the Assembly in Wales, has a duty to defeat this evil which preys on individuals, recognises no barriers or class and eats like a cancer into the fabric of our society. Within my constituency, during the by-election, we had the 100th drug death in Scotland. A young woman, a classmate of my youngest daughter, was found dead because of a drugs overdose. We have a responsibility to the country, which is why the resources available must be used to maximum effect. We must consider establishing a fast-track approach: specialist drug courts that can deal with the suppliers immediately, pass sentence within days and confiscate the proceeds from their ill-gotten gains. We must also assist the victims, who need support, not incarceration. That is why I congratulate the local newspaper, the Hamilton Advertiser, which has published a hotline number to enable people anonymously to report suspected drug dealers to the police.
The police in my constituency, working with South Lanarkshire council and various community-based groups, have been innovative and forward looking. The child safety initiative is a demonstration of how effective co-operation can be. Initiatives such as that, if they are to be successful, require the support of the communities.
In Hamilton, South we have an incredible range of active voluntary organisations such as the Blantyre volunteer group, Petal, Arthritis Care, Hamilton Women's Aid, Crossroads care attendance scheme, Cruse Bereavement Care, Hamilton community carers, Lanarkshire elderly forum, Hamilton disability forum, Lanarkshire community care forum, the Samaritans, the Citizens Advice Bureau and, of course, south Lanarkshire's benefits, advice and advocacy services. They work tirelessly on behalf of the communities.
The Government set out their economic objectives within their manifesto before the general election. The pledges made were relevant to my constituency then and remain so today. It was a contract with the people of this country, and at the next general election the people will pass judgment on how well the Government have done and how much they have delivered. I will be happy to fight that election on the Government's record.
The Government's ambition was to achieve high, stable levels of economic growth and employment, to encourage work and to promote enterprise. The reduction of our massive debt burden was essential. The achievement of a reduction of £30 billion has opened up real opportunities for the Government and the country. The Government have laid the foundation of a fairer society where work is rewarded and the elimination of poverty becomes a crusade.
The measures delivered by the Government are making a real difference to the lives of the people whom I represent. In Hamilton, South some 369 people benefited from the introduction of the minimum wage. Throughout the United Kingdom nearly 2 million workers improved their level of pay, two thirds of whom were women. From next April, child benefit will be increased to £15 for the first child and £10 for subsequent children. It will benefit nearly 9,000 families in my constituency. The new minimum income guarantee of £75 a week for a single pensioner and almost £117 for pensioner couples will apply to almost 2,000 of the least well-off pensioners in Hamilton, South.
The introduction of free eye tests from last April affected 8,870 pensioners in my constituency. With the 10p rate of income tax extended to savings from April 1999, with the £100 winter allowance, and with every pensioner over the age of 75 able to receive their television licence free of charge from next autumn, pensioner households will be, on average, £300 a year better off.
The introduction of the working families tax credit in addition to those measures will do much to encourage the culture of work and remove many families from the dependency culture of the state. At the heart of that initiative lies a guarantee that every family in this land that includes a full-time worker will have minimum take-home pay of £200 a week, and that no family on earnings of less than £235 a week—almost £12,000 a year—will pay income tax. At last—a measure that will start to eliminate poverty.
There is much to be done, but we can and must all support the Government's ambition to reduce child poverty by half within the next decade, with a commitment to end all child poverty within the next 20 years. In Hamilton, South, 1,600 families are beneficiaries of that policy, and 3,000 children will notice a real difference in their lives. One thousand, six hundred working families in my community have evidence that work does pay, and that work is the route out of poverty.
The fuel tax escalator was important to my constituency. The Chancellor's pre-Budget statement contained many excellent points, and the attainment of the reduction in CO2 emission targets that allowed him to relax the application of the tax will be especially welcome. Although the Sunday Post in Scotland may claim success for its campaign, that was possible only because we were meeting our international commitments.
For many years, unemployment has been a major issue for everyone in this country. In his maiden speech, my predecessor expressed his concerns for the people of Hamilton. Hamilton, Burnbank and Blantyre, once mining areas, no longer have pits. The industrial structure has also declined, but the service sector has grown.
The introduction of the new deal has been a success story. It has assisted the reduction of youth unemployment not only in my constituency, but throughout the country. Employment in the United Kingdom is up by more than 700,000 since the general election. With the new deal, youth unemployment is down by more than 60 per cent. and long-term unemployment is down by more than 50 per cent. The ambition of full employment has been a dream for so many for so long. Twenty-one years ago, my predecessor spoke with passion about the scourge of unemployment and its demoralising effect on society. The most serious aspect of youth unemployment was the emergence of a lost generation of the young without hope, dignity or jobs. We must never be complacent, or gamble with the future of our nation again.
The measures contained in the Gracious Speech are part of the Government's on-going programme to promote fairness and enterprise, to provide people with real opportunities and to liberate their potential. I believe that it will be welcomed in my constituency.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) and for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), my wife and family who have given me tremendous support, and the members of my constituency party, who made my participation in the debate possible.
It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). He told the House that he hoped that, in due course, he would learn the skills of presentation in the House. The truth is that he is well ahead of many of us already. He rightly praised his predecessor, whom I am sure the whole House wants to wish the very best in his new job as Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The hon. Gentleman spoke with great knowledge and passion of the concerns of his constituents, whom he will undoubtedly represent with great energy.
The hon. Gentleman must have had a somewhat nail-biting end to his election campaign. As we have been talking about freedom of information legislation, I suppose that it is only right to place on the record the fact that he mentioned the relatively few votes that the Hamilton Accies gained in the election. Sadly, the candidate for my party received even fewer votes on that occasion. Nevertheless, as the Scots were saying after last night's match, we shall be back.
The sad truth is that the hon. Gentleman's speech and some of the earlier speeches have not given me the opportunity to get my breath back following the speech by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Trying to follow the twists, turns and U-turns of Conservative party policy in this area has given a new meaning to the words "common sense".
However, common sense was spoken by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who rightly praised just about everybody involved with her Select Committee, including the Clerks and all the helpers. I am sure that the whole House wants to thank her for her tremendous contribution on transport issues in recent times.
I am sorry to see that the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is no longer in his place, because he spoke a great deal of common sense, somewhat to my surprise. I found myself in considerable agreement with what he was saying. I hope that he will check this out in Hansard, because I would be happy to stand at one end of a banner proclaiming "Free Local Government" if he is willing to stand at the other. That theme chimes well with my party.
We have learned a great deal in the past 24 hours. We have learned something remarkable about the Deputy Prime Minister. Many of us enjoyed his performances on the "Today" programme yesterday and today. This morning's performance was particularly revealing, when he revealed that he has known all along that there was not going to be a transport Bill for three years after the election of the Labour Government. We thought that he was battling away with the Treasury and No. 10 Downing street, but the reality is that he is a man of great generosity who agreed to stand aside and let his colleagues take all the credit for their Bills.
However, the wait has been worth it. It is a bit like waiting for one of the buses that so rarely come. If we wait long enough, eventually three of them will come along. The Deputy Prime Minister has waited long enough and got his three Bills. Broadly speaking, we welcome his success in securing those Bills and much of their content. I shall comment on those three Bills in turn, but it is a pity that there is one Bill missing. I should very much have liked to see a warm homes Bill in the Queen's Speech. As we all know, 8 million people in this country suffer from fuel poverty. Far too many deaths—between 30,000 and 60,000 a year—are linked to hypothermia. We desperately need to take action to improve the quality of those homes.
The Deputy Prime Minister might well point out that the Government have taken action. We welcome the reduction in VAT on fuel and the £100 addition for pensioners. However, he will know that even the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry pointed out recently in a letter to Friends of the Earth in his constituency that there is little point in throwing money at the problem if the vast majority of it is simply burned to heat the air above houses. We need to have properly insulated, warm homes if people are to be able to benefit from the reduction in VAT and the £100 fuel allowance.
Under the home energy efficiency scheme, the Government have put an extra £260 million into ensuring that pensioners' homes in particular are adequately insulated.
I was trying to point out that the Government have taken some action, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have looked at the report of the Environmental Audit Committee in the previous Session, which referred to the issue as "a continuing national scandal" and said that it
should be addressed with the sort of urgency and determination usually reserved for more sudden crises here and abroad.
The Government have already taken some action, but more work is needed. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will be prepared to consider that.
As I deal with aspects of the Queen's Speech that fall within the remit of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, I hope that he will intervene. He and I agree on the need to reduce congestion on our roads. To achieve that we have to reduce the number of car journeys and increase the use of public transport. The question is: how far are we prepared to go? The Liberal Democrats' view is that we must not only reduce the rate of traffic growth, but achieve an absolute reduction in traffic on our roads. On 6 June 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister stated:
I will have failed if in five years' time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.
The right hon. Gentleman's clear intention was to reduce the absolute number of journeys taken by car. I shall be grateful if he intervenes to confirm that he intends to hold to that promise.
I am happy to respond and to tell the hon. Gentleman that the process is already under way. In the past two years, more people have started to use public transport, which is the first stage of achieving our goal. In many areas, such as Manchester and Brighton, where public transport has been improved, people now use their cars less and public transport more. I readily set the target for myself and I am glad that we are on the way to achieving it.
From that, I take it that the right hon. Gentleman intends to stick to his absolute commitment to acknowledge failure if the level of car use does not decrease in real terms during the five years to which he referred.
We are delighted that there is to be a draft Bill on leasehold reform. As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges, such legislation is long overdue. We are also delighted that there is to be a water efficiency Bill, even though the Minister for the Environment appears to have been as surprised as anyone by its inclusion in the Queen's Speech. We also welcome the three major Bills to be promoted by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.
Liberal Democrats acknowledge that opening access to the countryside is important. However, the Deputy Prime Minister has acknowledged that that cannot be an unfettered right. For us, the devil will be in the detail: when the Bill is published, we shall want to know about the constraints that are to be imposed, and about safeguards, provisions for local consent and opportunities for local variations. I hope that the Government have also considered the very different circumstances in Wales and that there will be a separate section in the Bill dealing with the right to roam in Wales.
We welcome the greater protection for wildlife, which is an issue on which my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and hon. Members from both sides of the House have worked tirelessly. I hope that the Bill will provide protection for wildlife outside sites of special scientific interest; that it will include provisions for the financial support of important wildlife sites; and that it will provide SSSIs with protection against any exploitation of minerals, especially peat—currently, about 4,000 SSSIs are subject to peat extraction.
As I said, I entirely agree with the views on local government expressed by the right hon. Member for Henley. We have to free local government from the chains imposed on it by Governments of both complexions and Whitehall. I am absolutely delighted that the local government Bill is to repeal section 28. That was an illiberal measure, which should never have reached the statute book. We are delighted that it will be removed at long last.
We are worried that there is an overall lack of flexibility in the proposals to modernise local government. If we are to free local government, we should allow it, with the agreement of local communities, greater opportunity to decide how best to conduct its business. That decision should not be made centrally. There is too much concentration on structures rather than on outcomes, about which we should all be concerned. I am worried that the centralising tendency will be perpetuated in the Bill. Three items are missing from the measure.
If we truly want people to be interested in local government, we will not achieve that simply by tinkering with its method of decision making. We should consider the sort of decisions that local government is allowed to make. Local people will be interested in local government only if it is allowed to tackle the community's genuine problems. Local councils should be given a power of general competence to enable them to deal with all matters apart from those that they are specifically prohibited from tackling.
There should be a fairer funding system, and the introduction of local income tax. There should also be a fairer voting system—to avoid doubt, I mean proportional representation. [Interruption.] I am delighted with the Deputy Prime Minister's response from a sedentary position. I have already got two out of three concessions from him. Perhaps a little more discussion will lead to the third.
Let us consider transport, on which there may be an opportunity for discussion, despite the Deputy Prime Minister's comment. If he wants support for some of the transport measures, he must look to these Benches; he will not get it from Conservative Members.
We are introducing the measure because it is right.
Indeed. We shall support the measure when it is right. We shall not support the official Opposition's position. It is interesting to note that Conservative Members use their policies as dirty words. When the Leader of the official Opposition attacks the Government's proposal for congestion charges, he refers to it as a poll tax on wheels.
It would be easier to support the Deputy Prime Minister's transport measures if people were confident that the Government were doing everything possible and not simply requiring action from the private sector and local government. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman in our brief exchanges since I took on responsibility for transport, it is worrying that the Government's share of spending on public transport has decreased. There are other sources of funding, but the Government's share has gone down. It will decrease by 7.5 per cent. over five years according to Red Book figures.
Watch this space.
The Deputy Prime Minister says, "Watch this space"—perhaps I have got three out of four concessions. I shall keep going and make further suggestions.
As the Deputy Prime Minister is in a generous mood, he might consider another idea that would help him. The public are worried about some of the proposed further charges, and it might be worth considering whether to get rid of vehicle excise licence duty or at least to reduce it significantly for those with small cars. That might encourage people to use cars that are less polluting; it could prove to be a popular measure.
On the Strategic Rail Authority, I cannot improve on the comments of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. We support the authority. However, as we said in Committee, a strategic transport authority would be preferable as it could cover all forms of public transport. We hope that the Strategic Rail Authority will consider, for example, simplifying ticketing practice and a proper national timetable. Those are important matters, which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned. She rightly appreciated the importance of the Deputy Prime Minister moving from being minded to take safety from Railtrack to implementing it. We acknowledge that it is difficult to decide who should have responsibility for safety, but we hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will reassign it.
Let us consider bus deregulation. We support the Government's proposals to remedy the problems that the previous Government created through deregulation. The Deputy Prime should consider open-top, tourist buses, which have not yet been taken into account. There is genuine anxiety in tourist areas such as my constituency of Bath, York and many other places, where tourist buses cause problems. If open-top buses stick to a timetable, their operators can get the reduction in fuel tax. On a wet day, the bus can drive around empty, or with one or two passengers, stick to its timetable and be eligible for the fuel tax reduction. The bus thus adds to congestion. I hope that such problems can be solved.
The sad truth is, that when the Conservatives were in power, I wrote to the Transport Minister of the day and received a reply that said, "We'll look at it some time later." A new Government gained power, I wrote to them and received a letter that was exactly the same, word for word.
I have a copy of the letter, which I shall pass to the Deputy Prime Minister. We play a game in my office in which we blank out the names at the top of the letters and ask people to guess which was written under a Conservative Administration and which was written under a Labour Government.
I shall comment on the rural bus challenge. I hope that the House realises that public transport will not, by itself, solve all the transport problems of rural areas. We must acknowledge that the majority of people in rural areas need to use their cars and will continue to do so. We must ensure that policies support those people and do not make matters more difficult for them.
It is right to provide for improving rural bus systems. We welcome the small additional sums that the Government provide, but it is ludicrous to hand out a small amount of money and expect people to prepare expensive bids to get it when only 22 per cent. of bids have been successful. Preparing those bids wastes much energy in local government. There must be a better way of allocating money.
The proposal to part-privatise National Air Traffic Services will cause the greatest disagreement between the Government and the Liberal Democrats. There are clearly differences between the official Opposition and the Government: the Government want to part-privatise NATS while the official Opposition want to privatise it completely. We support neither option. However, we all want increased investment in NATS. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who chairs the Transport Sub-Committee, said, there is a sensible proposal for achieving that: the establishment of a not-for-profit, public interest company. That is the most efficient way of raising the money and would remove all existing anxieties. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that pilots, operators, the unions and more than 100 Labour Back Benchers oppose the part-privatisation, which is highly unpopular. We shall support several measures that are under the right hon. Gentleman's aegis in the Queen's Speech, but we implacably oppose the proposal to sell NATS.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, and, like him, I welcome much of the Queen's Speech. A lot of the measures will implement manifesto pledges given by the Labour party at the last election. On transport, like the Liberal Democrats, I broadly welcome the fact that we shall go ahead with a proper statutory Strategic Rail Authority. We inherited a privatised, fragmented railway system and I believe that the SRA will make a significant contribution to improving the quality of service in our railway industry. The hon. Gentleman said that he would like a strategic transport authority to be established.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has set up a committee to advise him on integrated transport. His Department, along with all the local authorities, is the driving force for the integrated transport policy. There is a fairly broad consensus between the Labour and Liberal parties that local authorities should be given the option to introduce congestion charging.
I shall take a leaf out of the book of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the former Deputy Prime Minister, and concentrate most of my remarks on the area in which I and many of my hon. Friends in the parliamentary Labour party disagree with the Government—the proposal, which is how we should consider it at present, that legislation should deal with aviation. We should be under no illusions about the importance to this country of aviation, which is a huge business. It is growing faster than the national economy, the number of jobs linked directly and indirectly to it is increasing and it is vital to the overall efficiency of the United Kingdom economy. Britain is a European leader in the aviation industry.
The Labour party leadership likes to say, "We will lead in Europe". Our aviation industry already leads in Europe. An integral part of that aviation industry is our air traffic control system, in which this country is a world leader. We must fully grasp and understand that before we significantly change the present air traffic control arrangements.
It is proposed that safety regulation be separated from service provision. There will be little opposition to that. I think that the issue is open—the proposition is supported by Eurocontrol and the Transport Sub-Committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee—and I understand that economic and safety regulation will stay with the Civil Aviation Authority, although various proposals concerning a transport safety super-body have been floated. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee, may have been hinting at that in relation to transport safety across the modes. However, I shall leave that on one side: the issue is whether it is necessary to split the CAA and have a more direct split between service provision and regulation.
One has to bear it in mind that air traffic controllers are regulators, and what they do is what counts. They keep the planes apart. I have had the privilege to represent my constituency in the House of Commons for more than a quarter of a century. Most weeks of the year, I fly in and out of Heathrow airport and no doubt many other hon. Members, as members of the public, have accepted the chance to go into the cockpit with the pilot. This country has an excellent air traffic control system. If the legislation is to propose separating regulation from service provision more formally, there will be no opposition to that, but the real issue concerns privatisation or part-privatisation. I have no doubt that many Labour Members are still trying to persuade Ministers not to privatise Britain's air traffic control.
Why are the Government proposing privatisation? First, they would receive a capital receipt. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, he set that out fully at the Labour party conference. Some people have said that National Air Traffic Services is worth £1 billion, so half would be worth £500 million, and I suspect that it will be worth rather more when Swanwick is operational. Nevertheless, a sum of money would be available, but one does not want to exaggerate it. The tax on air passengers introduced by the previous Government brings in about £700 million and the figure will soon be up to £1 billion a year—not a one-off £500 million, which would be raised from the half-privatisation of NATS, but a significant annual sum coming in from the aviation industry. Taking money out of aviation and air traffic control in order to put it into something else—a one-off capital receipt—is not an idea that should be taken on board.
The second argument, which is also financial, is that we need to privatise NATS in order to get investment. This country has a good record of investment in air traffic control—certainly a better record than the other members of Eurocontrol. I say quite openly that it is a tribute to past Conservative Governments that this country has invested heavily in NATS—we have just taken over and have inherited the investment programme—and the problems at Swanwick, which is the big new centre near Southampton, relate not to lack of investment but to technical challenges. That is why it would be a mistake, at this time of all times, to divert the attention of top management to privatisation. Private business is involved in developing the new equipment and the new system there.
I submit that our country's record on investment in air traffic control is fairly good, but we can improve it. I believe that, when the sort of money that the Chancellor was talking about last week is available, a Labour Government could justify maintaining and improving on the past investment record in respect of NATS. Some strange figures have been bandied about in the press today, but we are not talking about £1 billion a year, as someone wrote. Investing £1 billion over 10 years would be better than what has been done in the past, but the critical point is that if the Government are determined to put private money into NATS, they can do so by allowing it to borrow directly in the markets, which is what we have done in relation to Manchester municipal airport. That means that we are borrowing for investment, which is what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor believes in, and that such borrowing does not qualify as public sector borrowing under the Maastricht treaty.
I do not accept that the Treasury definition of public sector borrowing should be the decisive issue for air traffic control in this country. The decisive issues are safety and security. I shall discuss safety.
Obviously that debate will take place, and I cannot go through all the points that my right hon. Friend has mentioned, but he is quite wrong about Manchester. I introduced the innovative financing for the Manchester airports. They borrow against the assets in a domestic market, as geared to Treasury rules. I persuaded my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to change the Treasury rules. NATS operates under international agreements under which borrowing, financing and charges are agreed internationally. There is not the same freedom. Borrowing in respect of Manchester airport will not count against public sector borrowing; it will simply become private money, not public money. He is not comparing like with like.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He will be aware that his officials have negotiated at Eurocontrol a change in the arrangements in order to facilitate privatisation. [Interruption.] In relation to that point, if the argument is about how we define the PSBR, I defer to the hon. Member for Bath. I am not defending the Chancellor's definition of the PSBR, but under the Maastricht treaty, what I am describing does not come within the PSBR.
Has the right hon. Gentleman noticed another part of the Queen's Speech dealing with the Government's accounting Bill? The Gracious Speech specifically states that the Bill will
generate more investment in public infrastructure and front line services.
The Bill to introduce resource accounting will change the definition of the PSBR and make it much easier to use public money directly to invest in organisations such as NATS and to avoid the problem that we are both trying to resolve.
The British public will not believe that the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services is proposed in order to enhance safety. The airline pilots are against it. Hon. Members will have read the letter in The Times this week from the three trade unions most directly involved—the British Air Line Pilots Association, representing the pilots; the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, representing the controllers; and the Public and Commercial Services Union, representing support staff. The other names on the letter were those of the chairman of the south-west London campaigning group on clear skies, and Mr. Gifford, executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety.
Since the announcement of the complex privatisation scheme on the day that the House rose before the summer recess, the Government have still not persuaded the airline pilots—who are the key people—or the controllers. Let us not forget also that there is tremendous opposition from the general aviation community. That is not the big airlines, but the business people who fly smaller planes. It is particularly important that they should be encouraged to clock on with NATS in our controlled air space.
In conclusion, I shall concentrate on the security issues. There are two aspects—first, the threat of global terrorism. We live in the global village and must recognise that such a threat exists. I do not want to be melodramatic, but if intelligence information is received about a bomb on an incoming plane, we need to be able to seize control of the country's air traffic control system. If that is a privatised monopoly operating under price controls, there is much less incentive for it to co-operate with the Government than if it were in the public sector.
The second security issue, which transcends all other issues, as many hon. Members will appreciate, is our national security in relation to hostile military aircraft. We hope that we are moving into a century when hostile military aircraft will not try to enter our controlled airspace, but the lesson of the century that we are just leaving is that we should not bank on that. Periods of tension may still occur, and I hope that no one will defend the proposed privatisation with the argument that the air traffic control system could be taken back into Government ownership in wartime during a period of serious international tension, or during the build-up of hostilities, or even when war broke out.
For reasons of national security, other countries, including the United States, have not privatised their air traffic control systems.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. He said earlier that the Bill would separate the operation of air traffic control from safety considerations, and that that met with the approval of Eurocontrol. Do his concerns about security following privatisation also apply to the plans to allow Eurocontrol to take control of air traffic operations in the United Kingdom? Will not the laws made by Eurocontrol have direct effect in our own law, so that European airspace will be controlled internationally, rather than our airspace being controlled by our own Government and our own laws? Will the right hon. Gentleman comment?
I am not saying that at all. There is no question but that greater co-operation is needed at European level. I am referring to military issues, not the way in which we organise the arrangements and the provision of air traffic management services in the European Union and beyond.
One of our most important achievements when we held the presidency of the EU Transport Council was to secure agreement for the establishment of a European aviation safety authority, about which the Select Committee might have been a little more positive in its report. That goes beyond the European Union and beyond air traffic management and control. It covers some of the east European countries, where it is extremely important to raise standards of aviation safety.
As the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) mentioned European issues, I should point out that no country in the European Union has a privatised air traffic control system or is proposing to privatise its existing system. I do not understand a Minister saying that we propose to privatise our air traffic control system in order to facilitate greater co-operation in Europe in relation to Eurocontrol.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Does he agree that Britain has been a flagship in respect of aviation? Other member states were slow to privatise their flag carriers. The previous Conservative Government privatised British Airways very successfully. Other member states have also been slow to privatise their airports. Again, we acted as a flagship in that regard. British Airports Authority has set high standards, which are admired throughout the European Union. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that as other European states have been slow to privatise other aspects of air transport, they will probably look to us to give a lead in the privatisation of air traffic services?
I thoroughly reject that argument which should apply to the United States. I defer to the hon. Lady's experience in relation to Europe and the European Parliament, but I do not believe that we would be giving a lead by privatising air traffic control, and that that would result in some big multinational company taking over air traffic control in European airspace. That is not realistic. Can we expect the French to allow some foreign-based company to take over control of their airspace?
One of our great strengths is the way in which we integrate our military airspace with our civil airspace. That is facilitated by their being in the public sector. At West Drayton and at Prestwick, one can see how the military controllers operate with the civil controllers. I am glad that the hon. Lady made her point.
In an interesting speech, Sir Malcolm Field, the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, dealt with the argument that the privatisation of air traffic control was somehow like privatising an airline. The difference is fundamental. When an airline is privatised, it can make more private profit, as a privatised company naturally wants to do. It can do so by building its business, expanding its share of the market, providing more frequent services, improving the meals that it serves and so on. There are many means by which a privatised airline can increase its private profits.
That does not apply in the same way to air traffic control. All that the controllers do is keep planes apart. They ensure that they enter and leave our airspace and airports without any incidents. This country has a tremendous record in that regard. Therefore, I appeal to the Government not to rush into this complex privatisation scheme, particularly when NATS is moving into an important phase. It is scheduled to bring Swanwick into operation in 2002 and it must also bring the new Scottish centre into operation.
I welcome Ministers' reaffirmation that they are committed to the two-centre strategy, but it is vital that we do not go ahead with the privatisation of air traffic control. If we do not, Labour Members will be able to unite behind a transport Bill in which we believe.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his maiden speech. I hope that he will find his membership of the House satisfying and fulfilling, as indeed I am sure he will.
I shall confine my remarks to three aspects of the Queen's Speech, particularly in so far as they impact upon my constituents. I shall talk about education, health and the countryside.
The Queen's Speech stated:
Education remains my Government's number one priority.
On health, it stated:
My Government's ten year programme of modernisation for health and social care will provide faster, more convenient services to help improve the country's health.
That is the Government's rhetoric, but the reality, as perceived from Shropshire, is somewhat different.
The front-page headline on last Thursday's edition of the Shropshire Star was "Teaching on a shoestring". On Friday, its headline referred to health authority funding in Shropshire and stated, "Missing Out on Millions". I should point out that I have no influence over what the Shropshire Star prints, but, on Saturday, the headline was "Health chiefs warn of extra cash need".
On every important front, Shropshire is being shortchanged. For example, on education, the London borough of Southwark receives a 50 per cent. higher standard spending assessment for every pupil than Shropshire. So that there is no confusion, I shall provide the figures. For every primary school pupil, Shropshire receives £2,220 while Southwark receives more than 50 per cent. more—the SSA for a primary school child there is £3,396. A child at a secondary school in Shropshire has an SSA of £2,837, while in Southwark the figure is more than 50 per cent. higher at £4,377.
As if those figures were not bad enough, per capita health spending in Shropshire is £552 against per capita expenditure in Birmingham of £714, and £613 and £596 respectively in the neighbouring counties of Staffordshire and Herefordshire. That is from a Government who boast about making health and education their priority. Try telling that to the people whom I represent in Shropshire.
What will the Secretary of State for Education and Employment do about his reported comments in the Shropshire Star? When he visited Shropshire last week, the headline was "Education is the key says visitor Blunkett". Following his visit, the newspaper reported that
he accepted that the system of dishing out cash to education chiefs was unfair and Shropshire was missing out.
The newspaper then quotes him as saying:
I appreciate the way people in Shropshire feel about it… The difference is staggering.
The difference is staggering, so I repeat my question: what will the Secretary of State do about the wholly unsatisfactory situation that affects the education of young people in my constituency?
When will the Secretary of State for Health start to fund Shropshire up to the level of other health authorities, instead of closing the excellent new facilities at Kidderminster hospital, which the previous Conservative Government provided at a cost of £25 million and on which thousands of my constituents depend? I draw attention to the fact that the Queen's Speech says that the Government are committed to providing
more convenient services to help improve the country's health.
The Prime Minister went on record saying that the Government would spend money on improving every accident and emergency unit in the country.
Those statements do not apply to the Kidderminster hospital, where the accident and emergency facility is being phased out and will be closed down. Far from my constituents having greater convenience in the health provision that is made for them, they will have to journey a further 17 miles to a new hospital that is being built in Worcester. In short, I ask Ministers when this duplicitous Government will put real money where their mouth is. When will they make a reality of their much-vaunted rhetoric?
The plight of agriculture is another issue of vital concern to my constituents. After two and a half years in government and in spite of all the correspondence that we have had with Ministers, all the meetings between Back Benchers and Ministers and between trade associations and Ministers, and all the debates on agriculture that the Opposition have initiated in this Chamber, the Government have done absolutely nothing beyond what they were obliged to do under the agrimonetary arrangements, other than postpone the implementation of cost burdens that they themselves imposed.
This is a Government who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. This is a Government who say that they recognise the problems of over-regulation and yet introduce a Queen's Speech with a record-breaking 28 new Bills. This is a Government who shed crocodile tears for the beef industry, but perpetuate the ludicrous beef on the bone ban. This is a Government who shed crocodile tears for the sheep industry, but will not lift the totally unnecessary spinal column removal regulation. This is a Government who shed crocodile tears for the pig and poultry industries, knowing that the charges that they intend to levy under the integrated pollution prevention and control regulations will put the final nail in the coffin for a whole raft of British pig and poultry farmers.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will have been contacted by many farmers in Shropshire, as I have been in Norfolk. They are concerned about the implementation of the IPPC regulations. For many pig and poultry farmers, it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. They have that real fear—[Interruption.] I shall now provide the facts because, although my hon. Friend knows them, Labour Members obviously do not.
Under the IPPC regulations, an initial application charge of £6,098, which is multiplied by the number of components—the areas of pollution—and an annual subsistence charge of £2,768, which is again multiplied by the number of components, will be levied on pig producers. In addition to those charges, there will be monitoring, transfer and surrender charges, which means that for a typical 2,000-sow unit the annual costs could exceed £18,000.
That may not seem a lot of money to Treasury Ministers, but I assure the House that, to any pig producer in this country today, £18,000 is an extremely large sum because almost all pig producers are trading at unsustainable losses. For the Government now to impose increased cost burdens on the industry is totally unreasonable, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) said, it will be the last straw for many pig and poultry producers.
While I am on cost burdens, it is worth noting that under this Government road fuel duties and meat inspection charges have escalated. We may have seen off the pesticides tax, but I should like that to be confirmed. I have already mentioned the IPPC charges; there are validation charges for any butcher who wants to put beef in his window and describe it as "British".
Indeed, that is true. My hon. Friend is right to point that out. The only solace I can give him on that point is that, as I travel around my constituency and around the country, I find that more and more people are talking about stealth taxes. They know what is going on and they increasingly realise that this Government are quite different from previous Labour Governments, who espoused in-your-face socialism. We saw that coming. They were for nationalisation, clause IV and high taxation. Labour Members may laugh, but perhaps their memories are shorter than mine. Do they not recall that under the previous Labour Government, it was possible for taxpayers to pay tax of 98p in the pound? That Government's only reason for not increasing taxes above that level should be obvious to Labour Members, as it is to the general public.
To return to the extreme threats to agriculture, particularly to the pig and poultry industries, I wonder whether colleagues are aware that, this week, poultry producers received a letter from a company called Amtrak, on which they have relied very heavily for the transport of day-old chicks around the country. Amtrak now says that it will discontinue that service. That was not entirely unpredictable, because many of us recognised that it would be a consequence of the directive on the transport of live animals, which has been in the pipeline. The results of that directive are now beginning to manifest themselves.
The Government are characterised by a Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who will not make the decisions that he could make and says that he cannot make the decisions that he ought to make. Perhaps not all Labour Members heard the news bulletin this morning that stated that Germany would not consider lifting the ban on British beef unless and until there was country of origin labelling. That is significant, because the Government have set their face against country of origin labelling.
I should like an undertaking that, before he proceeds to legislate, and having carried out the review that he promised in an earlier debate about the labelling of food, the Minister will come to the House so that we can debate how we might proceed on that issue. Back Benchers on both sides of the House would then have an opportunity to tell him what the great British public want in the way of labelling.
My guess is that the public want the same as Germany: a statement of the country of origin. Many housewives would like to discriminate in favour of a purer, home-grown product against an adulterated, imported product, but cannot make that informed choice because the Government will not tell producers to state the country of origin on the product.
The Queen's Speech contains nothing for the British farmer, and I am extremely disappointed that there is no acknowledgement of the many and varied practical suggestions that have been made to Ministers by agriculture and allied industries in the past two and a half years. Many of us have spent a lot of time making constructive suggestions to help to solve our industry's problems. Not one of those suggestions has been followed.
There has been no attempt to revise the legislation affecting the splitting of sheep carcases or to authorise dedicated pig offal rendering. There has been no reply, even, to the offer by the Meat Training Council, of which I have the honour to be the honorary president, to provide courses that would cross-train meat inspectors to carry out the duties in abattoirs that are currently undertaken by expensive vets. There has been no undertaking to lift the beef on the bone ban, or to postpone the implementation of the IPPC charges, the consequences of which I have already mentioned.
This is a do-nothing Government, a Government of spin and no substance, and a Government who can no longer pretend to be the party of the countryside. The Queen's Speech contains nothing for my constituents in Shropshire, and nothing to help agriculture, which is vital to my county's economy and the maintenance of the rural landscape, which is one of the country's priceless assets.
What the Queen's Speech contains that is relevant to the countryside is a Bill to give
greater access to the countryside and to improve protection for wildlife.
Desirable as those aims may be—I have to point out to Labour Members that they will prove to be contentious and will take up much of the House's time during the next
Session—while we are discussing them, the British farmer is going out of business. The proposed legislation entirely misses the point because the endangered species in the countryside is not the wildlife, but those people who have made the countryside what it is today and towards whom the Government display an indifference that many of my constituents find hard to understand. I shall vote accordingly.
I shall not take up too much of the House's time, but I want to welcome the proposed legislation on transport. Those of us with constituencies in the south and south-east of England are particularly aware of the problems that congestion causes, although I know that such awareness is widespread.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who is no longer in his place, is my constituency neighbour, and his constituents drive into my constituency to work, do their shopping, go to college and so on. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) is also my constituency neighbour, to the north, and his constituents drive south into my constituency, causing congestion.
It is vital to tackle congestion. We have waited more than a generation for a Government with a serious attitude to tackling congestion. That is not anti-motorist. There is no such species as the motorist, only people who make journeys. At some point everyone is a pedestrian, if only while walking from the front door to the garage to get into the car. At some point everyone is a child and too young to drive, and at some point everyone becomes old, perhaps infirm or disabled, and unable to drive. Even those who drive throughout their lives from the age of 17 spend more of their life outside their car than in it.
I want to refer briefly to the true cost of congestion and pollution resulting from the unfettered use of private cars. There is the social exclusion that can be seen in affluent households where a generation of children make all their journeys in cars, from small babies strapped in child seats to teenagers driven about by their parents, and children who never play outside, fall down and graze their knees or feel the rain on their face. At some point, they will be adolescents who need to get out and look for excitement in the way that teenagers do. Such teenagers may never have travelled on their own using public transport, and they will be at risk in a way that previous generations were not. We hear plenty about children being unfit and overweight, and that is the result of the unfettered use of the private car.
The previous Government had vindictive, anti-public transport policies, which virtually destroyed public transport in much of the country, especially in rural areas. This Government want to give real choice back to the people. In too many places in Britain, elderly people, perhaps with disabilities, have no choice without access to a car. We must give choice back to the people, and that means that we must sweep away the vindictive anti-public transport policies, giving our roads back to all people, not just to the drivers.
I am delighted to speak in this Queen's Speech debate on the environment, transport and the countryside. I declare an interest in that, being married to an airline executive and a past Member of the European Parliament, I can say with some confidence that my husband and I are both well travelled. I am also a member of the Royal Automobile Club's public policy committee, but I am not speaking on its behalf this afternoon.
If I were to relate my constituency of the Vale of York to the Government's programme in the Queen's Speech, we would come out of it extremely badly. The Vale of York is deeply rural. To Americans who wonder which part of the country I represent, I always say that it is James Herriot countryside. I represent parts of the outskirts of York—New Earswick, Poppleton, Rawcliffe, Clifton Without, Clifton Moor, Haxby, Wigginton, Skelton, Shipton by Bellingborough—and the market towns of Bedale, Boroughbridge, Easingwold and Thirsk, but the geographical centre is Helperby. A deeply rural farming constituency, it has been deeply damaged by a combination of the fuel escalator and the vehicle excise duty. They have damaged all those working in farming, all who consume farm produce and all who rely on supplies from market town stalls or village shops which, with the resulting extra delivery costs, have been clobbered by a double whammy.
My farmers took great comfort from the Labour Government's promise that the ban on beef on the bone would be lifted, as would the ban on our beef exports to Europe. The two go hand in glove and until the ban on beef on the bone is lifted, countries such as France and Germany, the United States, South Africa, or any other Commonwealth country will not be minded to take our beef. We need to convince the scientific officers of Scotland and Wales to have the same confidence in the safety of British beef as our English scientific officer has.
About 30 per cent. of pig production takes place in the county of Yorkshire, and probably 30 per cent. of that is within the Vale of York. I have never before experienced the depth of crisis that exists in the pig farming industry today. It has been particularly clobbered by the uncompetitive conditions which—I accept—the previous Government imposed on it, with the highest animal welfare conditions in the western world, and a ban on sow tethers and stalls imposed seven years before it was imposed on the rest of the EU. The industry is also being damaged by the high pound and cheap imports, which are undercutting it.
My hon. Friend has one third of the nation's pig production in Yorkshire and I probably have one third of the rest of it in Wiltshire; like hers, my farmers are suffering terribly. Is she aware that it costs about £7 more to produce each pig than is achieved at the abattoir, that the industry is currently losing £2 million a week, and that at that rate, by Christmas, the pig industry will be on its knees?
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been listening to the debates of the past few weeks in the old Session, he will be aware that the offal disposal costs, which were unfairly imposed on the pig industry as a result of effects in another industry, come to, roughly speaking, the same figure of £7—a pound or two less—to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) just referred? Is she further aware that the Minister last promised seriously to consider meeting those costs two and a half weeks ago, since when an enormous amount of pig production has already gone out of existence? Will she join me in hoping that he will do something about that tonight?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valid contribution to the debate. I endorse what he says by going a stage further. It was brought to my attention by the National Farmers Union whose president, Ben Gill, is a constituent of mine, that the cost of meat inspection in the United States is met by the federal Government, to the tune of $800 million each year. That makes our farmers less competitive with those of north America. I hope that the Government will go the further mile and reimburse our farmers for those costs.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that competition with the United States is all one way, in that the Americas and almost all the Commonwealth countries refuse to accept British beef imports? Does she agree that it is time we tackled the Commonwealth beef ban as well as the European beef ban?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to a point that I have just made. I am sorry if I did not make it sufficiently clearly. I did say that not just France and Germany, but the United States, South Africa and a host of Commonwealth countries have failed to lift the ban. I linked that with my plea to the Government to lift the ban on beef on the bone.
Not only is there the effect of the high pound, cheap imports and higher animal welfare conditions in Britain, which acutely affect British pig farmers, there is also the matter of Milk Marque. I have a number of dairy farmers in the Vale of York and they are particularly aggrieved that, at a time when Milk Marque has made a major investment in the Vale of York with its new plant at Dalton industrial estate, they are facing a break-up and a three-way split.
The question that I want to leave with the Government this afternoon concerns the completely different way in which milk and sugar are treated. British Sugar and Tate&Lyle effectively have a duopoly on sugar production and processing in Britain, one looking after home produce and the other looking after imported produce. I cannot understand why Milk Marque is not able to compete in a similar way within the milk market.
I declare an interest in Denmark—I am half-Danish, and I follow matters in Denmark with interest. In Denmark and Holland, the equivalents of Milk Marque are allowed to produce and process up to 70 per cent. of milk production—in countries which are directly competing with our farmers. I have yet to be convinced—I can put my farmers' minds at rest—that Milk Marque should be broken up in this way.
I wish to refer to the Bill on access to the countryside. The impact of such a Bill and the extra responsibilities on rural communities will be difficult to evaluate. The proposal will introduce, effectively—in the Government's words—the right to roam. I believe that that is a misguided policy, which underlines the Government's ignorance of how the countryside works and of the responsibilities of those who farm and work the countryside—responsibilities which they must meet without help from the Government, or in future from the European Union.
A constituent who lives in north Yorkshire came to see me on Friday of last week. She and her husband are farmers, and of their 13 fields, 11 have footpaths. There is now a dispute over a new footpath which was not in the original plan and which is now a bone of contention between my constituent, a host of neighbours and North Yorkshire county council. This matter has upset my constituent and her neighbours, one of whom is an older lady who lives alone in an isolated part of north Yorkshire. The path would go straight past her front window. One can imagine that, on a dark winter's evening, seeing strange faces at her window would not be good for her constitution.
My constituent's husband recently received a delivery of wood for 23 stiles. He has been told—before the Bill is introduced—that he must put up those stiles single-handedly. With all the problems that the farming community in the Vale of York faces, I do not understand how farmers are expected to have the time or the resources to put in stiles. Their responsibilities will be added to if the right to roam and the access to the countryside Bill are adopted. The Bill and the right to roam will be intrusive and a threat to security. They will damage the environment, and the cost to the countryside and to the farming community will be great.
I am delighted to see that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has resumed his place in the Chamber, and I hope that he can help me with this matter. The right to roam could lead to more footpaths, and to more people roaming around the beautiful countryside of the Vale of York. What would happen if someone was to have an accident on the land of one of my constituents? Would my constituent have to take out compulsory insurance, or are the Government proposing to take responsibility?
I wish to refer to transport, and particularly to how road charging will impact on those wishing to enter cities. I have had discussions with a number of interested parties, and there seem to be many insurmountable problems as to how the charges will be imposed and policed. Are the Government assuming that there will be a second tier of traffic wardens to monitor parking charges within towns? Are the Government suggesting that there should be a new tier of bureaucrats to see whether people have paid to park in the work place or at home?
Like other Opposition Members, I wish to make a modest plea on behalf of two villages—Spofforth and Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe—which more than qualify for a bypass. The Spofforth parish council—with my support—made great representations to North Yorkshire county council. At the moment, there are complicated criteria on security and safety, and—dare I mention it—the unwritten law on the number of deaths there must be each year before a bypass can be built. I hope that the Government will look favourably on stretching the bypass programme where appropriate, and that they will look at making the criteria a little more user-friendly.
I wish to make a plea for upgrading the Al from Dishforth to north of Scotch Corner to motorway status. The project was in the roads programme and, I regret to say, was dropped just after the election. I visited the village of Rainton, and met many villagers at the invitation of the parish council. There is a particularly dangerous spur road off the A1 which goes to the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). Many of the people in Rainton use doctors and other facilities in Ripon, and depend on emergency services coming from Ripon in the event of an accident.
There have been two fatal accidents in the past six months. However, rather than the road being widened—or a bridge being built over it—it was closed to lay down some red markings. There are no lights yet, and the fatality record proves that we need to revisit the subject of the improvement and upgrading of the A1.
The Deputy Prime Minister challenged the Opposition on hypothecation. He has given the House a commitment that money raised from congestion charging will go towards improving public transport. But how will that work in a deeply rural, sparsely populated area where many villages may be inaccessible to major routes such as the A1 or A19? How will we benefit from congestion charging in the city of York?
Will money be spent to improve public services where we really need them, and not just on park and ride—which is contentious among my constituents? We have lost a large segment of the green belt. The Secretary of State seems to have lived up to his commitment to build on the green belt, as the park-and-ride scheme was built on the one remaining part of the Vale of York which was greenbelt. Will the Government explain to my constituents how public transport services in rural north Yorkshire will benefit from the scheme?
Is my hon. Friend suffering from the illusion that Labour Members have been trying to foster? She does not imagine, does she, that hypothecation means extra money? It means that some money which would otherwise have been described as general expenditure is re-described as having come from a certain tax.
We have one or two hurdles to overcome, but I accept my hon. Friend's argument that this is not extra money. For example, the money raised from congestion charging and car park charging in the city of York will perhaps be spent on public transport in the city of York. However, it will not be spent on public services generally in the rest of north Yorkshire.
My concern is that there will be a battle with the Treasury, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) will be aware that the devil is in the detail. We must ask whether the Treasury will deliver the promise of hypothecation in public transport services. In fact, less money could end up being spent on the services.
I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the Cullen inquiry, which will certainly come up with proposals that the House and the Transport Sub-Committee, on which I have the honour to serve, will want to study in great detail, but if the Government are serious about putting safety first they must define clearly the different roles and responsibilities of those involved.
In the recent hearings to which the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) referred, the Committee heard a lot of criticism of the privatisation process and an allegation that the rail industry had been fragmented. We face the danger of greater fragmentation under the Secretary of State's safety proposals. The responsibilities of Railtrack, the Health and Safety Executive, the Strategic Rail Authority, the Rail Regulator and any new safety agency must be clear. The public must be assured that the buck stops somewhere. The last thing we want is greater fragmentation.
Freight grants should be made available to all operators, large and small. At the moment it is probably too easy for a large operator to make an application and more difficult for a smaller one. We should also keep the whole question of freight capacity under review. GNER operates the services between London and Edinburgh through the Vale of York. There is enormous capacity for freight there. Obviously, safety must come first, but I hope that the capacity will be taken up.
My constituents frequently ask about the promise that was made that Eurostar would operate direct trains from Scotland and the north of England. Passengers from the Vale of York were led to believe that they would be able to board a train at York for Brussels or Paris but that has simply not happened. That has been a great disappointment and I hope that the matter will be kept under review.
On the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services and the public-private partnership, it is fair to await the Bill to see the details, but the Government must inform us where real control of NATS will lie: with the Government or with the private sector partners. We need an answer this evening.
I shall now be a bit controversial and perhaps part company with my Front-Bench colleagues. They are aware of my views and we continue to have discussions. I am disappointed that the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) is temporarily absent and will not be able to intervene in my support. I believe that we should take air safety as the model for rail safety. The structure of responsibility lying with the airline involved, under the supervision of the Civil Aviation Authority, is a model of how to run safety.
Civilian flights above 20,000 ft in the European Union would be safer if passengers knew that they would be within the overall responsibility of Eurocontrol. If we compare the fragmentation of European air traffic control with the integration of that of the United States, with a similar geographic area and population, we can see how weak our position will remain until we give Eurocontrol the powers and responsibilities to control flights above 20,000 ft.
I flew across the European Union for some years and took no comfort from the knowledge that in many instances air traffic controllers were not even working on compatible computers. Sometimes controllers would be operating a computer with one hand and holding a telephone in the other in an attempt to communicate with the next controller down the line. That situation continues, and we need to make some rapid progress.
I hope that there will be some progress in bilateral negotiations with the United States, especially on reciprocal rights for our carriers to access the internal market of the US—cabotage rights—and on European carriers having equal rights of ownership. There has been painfully little progress so far.
We Conservatives want an efficient, reliable and above all safe transport system with a sound infrastructure. We believe that that is best achieved through a reduction in state controls, the input of private enterprise and better management. Those are the criteria against which public sector improvements will be judged and delivered. I am extremely disappointed that the Government's legislative programme is regressive and will not lead to reduced congestion or improved transport services.
I am extremely grateful to be able to place on record my tribute to my predecessor, Roger Stott. I am uniquely able to do that because I knew him way back in the late 1960s when we were both in the Labour Party Young Socialists, fighting the good fight against the extremists. I followed him on to both the regional and national committees of that organisation, and it seems that fate has now determined that I should follow him into the House of Commons.
Roger was elected in 1972 for the neighbouring constituency of Westhoughton. I did not get to renew my acquaintance with him until boundary changes in 1983 put part of his old constituency into the new Wigan constituency and I became, at different times, chairman and secretary of his constituency party. He maintained the long and noble tradition—going back to 1918—of Labour representation from Wigan.
Roger was a Front Bencher for much of his time in the House and he was well respected by hon. Members of all parties. The tributes that were paid yesterday bore witness to that. He was an assiduous constituency Member and one of the first in my area of Lancashire to set up a well-resourced office to look after his constituents' needs. One of the first people whom he employed there was my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), now the Minister of State, Cabinet Office.
Roger had a hinterland, as the new expression has it. He was not only a politician. He had a great interest in cricket and was a member and regular attender at Old Trafford, whenever his parliamentary or constituency duties allowed, as well as at the Oval and Lord's. He was also the mainstay of the all-party group on cricket. His interest even extended to setting up a team in Wigan, which he called the Levellers, which was appropriate, considering that Wigan was the birthplace of Gerrard Winstanley. Just how important the game was to Roger is shown by the fact that he succeeded in inveigling me into playing cricket with him. That says much for his desire to play the game, but not much for his ability as a selector.
Roger threw himself into his job as an Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland. He was extremely assiduous in trying to ensure that peace was engendered between the two Northern Ireland communities. He reached his real parliamentary fulfilment at that time. Even when his job no longer directly involved him in Northern Ireland, he continued his search for peace and for ways for the two communities to come together in understanding. The number of people who came from Northern Ireland to pay tribute to him at his funeral, and the realisation that his efforts had been recognised, was a source of pleasure to his family. It is fitting that half his ashes were scattered in Northern Ireland to make sure that his connection with the place would continue. It is equally fitting that his remaining ashes were spread in his Wigan constituency, which he represented so well.
Roger was a great advocate for Wigan. That was probably one of his easier jobs, because Wigan is a great town with magnificent people. It has an extremely long history: it is a pre-Roman settlement. Hon. Members should not worry that I will go through Wigan's entire history—I shall be brief. Wigan was a Roman town, called Coccium. It was continuously settled, as can be seen from the place names in the surrounding areas and in the town itself, by the native British Anglo-Saxons and the Viking settlers. After the Norman conquest, we had the honour to be one of the four boroughs in the Lancashire area. In 1246—over 750 years ago—we received our charter.
Lancashire is well known for the many great Catholic families who have lived there throughout its history. When civil war broke out in 1642, Wigan was, from the point of view of this House, on the wrong side, joining with the Catholic king, Charles I. There was suffering in the town after the parliamentary victory in the civil war. But during the Restoration, Charles II noted the town's contribution to the cause of the Crown and gave us our coat of arms, which bears the motto "Ancient and Loyal".
Coal has been mined in the area for many years, from surface pits and then from drift mines. That natural resource was exploited in the industrial revolution, first by canals, such as the Leeds-Liverpool canal, and the Bridgewater, the world's first commercial canal, and then by the railways, which opened up the town and its products—particularly coal—to the rest of the country.
Coal, cotton and engineering became the mainstay industries of Wigan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as was the case in many other Lancashire towns. In the 1930s, Wigan, like many other areas, was hit by the great depression. However, it allowed George Orwell—real name Eric Blair—to make famous the music hall joke, and our town, by writing about what we would now call the underclass in "The Road to Wigan Pier".
After the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the coal and cotton industries declined; that decline became precipitous in the 1980s. Wigan's go-ahead council faced up to the problem by making the creation and saving of jobs its first priority. It went out of its way to attract new industries into the town. Wigan has the Great Universal Stores, the Tidy Britain national group and the Tote. It also has Millikens, an American carpet company which brought to Britain cutting-edge computer technology for the carpet industry. When my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister came to Wigan to support me in my by-election campaign, he came to the Plaxtons bus factory, which was saved by local government money. The company has since expanded and now employs many hundreds of people to produce quality buses.
The Wigan Borough Partnership, formed by the council, is a partnership between the council, local businesses, the chambers of commerce, chambers of trade and the training and enterprise council. It has been held up by many Ministers, both Conservative and Labour, as a model of how local authorities should work with the private sector in regenerating the local economy for the people.
Of course, partnership is not new to Wigan. Way back in the 1950s, the county borough joined with Lancashire county council to bring the Heinz company into Wigan. I say that that was a partnership, because the factory straddles the border between the old county borough and the Lancashire county council—the Orrell urban district, as it was then. That boundary is still there, so half the factory is in the constituency of my neighbour and good friend, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield. I can assure the House, however, that the factory's most famous product—over-indulgence in which could lead to effluence—is made in the part of the factory that is in my right hon. Friend's constituency, not in mine.
It is a tremendous tribute to the town, its people, its local businesses and the council that unemployment is now just slightly higher than the national average, especially considering the depredations of the 1980s and the terrible changes that were forced on us then. Of course, there are still pockets of urban deprivation and social exclusion. But the Government's working families tax credit, the increases in child benefit, the new deal and the introduction of the minimum wage have all put money into the pockets of ordinary people in Wigan. That money flows straight back into the local economy, increasing employment. The Government's measures are increasing the ability of local people to live decent lives, and also represent a significant boost to the local economy.
Wigan has moved a long way since receiving its charter in 1246; we still have our history. What about "Uncle Joe's mint balls, that keep you all aglow"? They are known and sung about around the world. And of course we have the famous Wigan rugby league team, probably the most famous team of either code in the world. It is known wherever rugby is played. It was the first rugby league team to be invited to play in the Middlesex sevens. In fact, it is the only one, but that may be because we won it. It was the first rugby league team to play a rugby union team, and the first to play at Twickenham. It has moved on and up. It now has a brand new home, which it shares with Wigan Athletic football club, which stands at the top of the Nationwide second division. I hope that that team will go on to become the champions and move into the first division, as a stepping stone to its premiership ambitions, in which I am sure it will succeed.
The brand new, joint use, all-seater stadium which seats 25,000 is in a triumvirate of stadiums in the Robin Park area. There is a council-owned, council-run athletic stadium, and a council-owned, council-run sports arena, which contains the northern centres of excellence for tennis and cricket. Hon. Members who helped me in my by-election campaign were very impressed by that collection of sporting facilities in the Robin Park area.
Wigan is not all urban: countryside surrounds the former pit villages of Crooke, Aspull, Standish and Haigh on the constituency's northern edge. They open out into wonderful countryside. Indeed, only an hour or so's drive from Wigan are north Wales, the Derbyshire dales, the north Yorkshire moors and the magnificent lake district.
That brings me to one of the reasons why I wanted to speak in this debate. It has always been important to working people to go out to the country. For people who were wage slaves in pits or mills for six days a week, it was important to be free men on Sunday. That is what the right to roam will enshrine in statute—the right of ordinary people to enjoy the countryside. The measures for wildlife protection, which will protect our ancient woodlands and meadows and biodiversity, are also important to ordinary working people. The council and voluntary groups in Wigan have worked hard on those matters, both in the town and in the surrounding areas.
I welcome the Bill that will continue the process of modernising local government. I am one of the few Members who is also a councillor, and I have been for 25 years. Modernisation is a four-part process. The Government have already begun on best value and an end to crude and universal capping. The further two parts—ethics and the management of local government—will be dealt with in the coming Session.
On ethics, most fraud in local government is committed by the public against local authorities. Only a very small amount of fraud or corruption is committed by officers or councillors. I do not deny the importance of rooting out such fraud, but it knows no party boundary. We ought to be careful not to throw party political stones as we all live in glass houses in that sense. A clear and consistent code of conduct is important to ensure that no one goes into local government or other public service purely for personal gain.
On management, some people see the introduction of mayors as a panacea. I am not among them, but I believe mayors can play a role and the community should have the ability to choose its own form of government. Splitting the executive from the rest of the council offers opportunities to local councillors, but there are dangers in that system, and we must be sure to handle change carefully. The form of management chosen by a council must be relevant to local people.
I am proud to follow Roger Stott into the House of Commons. I am honoured that the people of Wigan chose me as their representative here, and I am proud to support a Labour Government who are carrying out manifesto commitments that will make this country a better place for ordinary people to live and work.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who spoke with charm and fluency. One is, of course, meant to say that of a maiden speech, but in this case it is true. What is more, the hon. Gentleman sufficiently disagreed with my views about the right to roam to assure him a safe and prosperous future on the Labour Benches. I am sure that we shall hear him speak many times, as much to the point and equally in disagreement with my views.
Unusually, today's debate joins the environment and agriculture, and I wish to speak about the interstices between those subjects. First, I shall discuss the state of agriculture, particularly in West Dorset. It is a week or two since we held the third of a series of debates on agriculture. In a world in which, we are told, only e-cornmerce, the development of telecommunications and other whizz-bang, high-tech industries move quickly, it is astonishing that the situation in agriculture should have evolved dramatically, to say the least, in the space of just two or three weeks.
I recall saying in the presence of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about three weeks ago that the situation of our pig farmers was dire. For some of them, it is no longer dire: they have gone out of business. I said that some of our smaller and medium-sized dairy farms faced imminent closure; and, in just three weeks, that is no longer true, as some of them are out of business. One of my constituents ran one of the most efficient middle-sized farms—500 acres—in the area. He received various accolades for his business acumen, but he has sold up and left the business.
The situation is going to change not over the next month or six months but over the next few weeks—and not in a drain but in a cascade. Present policies will lead to the virtual elimination of all but three classes of farm in West Dorset. There will be old family farms where the owners have never borrowed. They hold their quota by purchase, and they have no fixed costs other than the modest cost of a modest existence in a modest house. They will continue until the farmers retire or die, and they will not be succeeded by their children.
The second class that may survive consists of those farms lucky enough to engage in some industrial process. One farm in my constituency combines the rearing of pigs with dairy production in a highly mechanised modern fashion. It has gone for the upper end of the niche markets for both meat and cheese. In effect, it is a wholesaler of final product, and a farm only in an ancillary sense.
Thirdly, some land will be farmed by very large contract farmers. Much land, however, will go out of production. My hon. Friends the Members for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) will testify to the same patterns of change in their constituencies, whether faster or slower than in mine.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the decline in farming is being expedited by the stranglehold of bureaucracy and form-filling imposed by the Government? Would it not be a great gesture in the run-up to Christmas if the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food eased off on the regulatory bureaucracy?
Absolutely. The threat of the integrated pollution prevention and control regulations—mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow—the offal disposal costs, the aggravation of IACS forms and the endless inspections and parade of bureaucracy do nothing to help, and the extra costs imposed are accelerating decline. I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will tell us today whether he can do something about offal disposal costs. I persist in believing that he has an absolute right to act. He has not deposited in the House of Commons Library any legal opinion to the contrary. Action would be a welcome help for a pig industry in near-terminal decline.
We moved from the serious problem of six or nine months ago to the crisis of three months ago in both the dairy and pig industries. We have moved now to impending catastrophe. We shall lose traditional farming in West Dorset and, I suspect, in England.
I said that I would speak about the interstices of the environment and agriculture. I want to try to explain how someone such as myself—a free trader and a free marketer—can believe it right to try to avert the catastrophe that I have described. We should not do so merely with early retirement schemes, although my farmers would welcome some help in leaving the industry with dignity. It has been months since we first heard from the Government about early retirement schemes, and it would help if some schemes were produced.
In addition to early retirement, however, we need subsidies. Now, how can someone like me defend agricultural subsidies? [Interruption.] The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says that I can do so because I have a farming constituency. I do have such a constituency, but I supported agricultural subsidies when I stood for the seat now occupied by a candidate for the mayorship of London—the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). In fact, it is about as far from being an agricultural seat as humankind has yet devised.
It is rather a long time since Hampstead heath had a cow or a pig on it.
I am a free marketeer and a free trader, yet I favour agricultural subsidies—and I suspect that anyone who understands the relationships between agriculture and the environment is bound to do the same. Agriculture is not in an ordinary sense an industry, and the countryside is not a park—nor was it given to us in its present form by accident. The shape of our countryside, which is part of the nation's ancient inheritance, evolved because of what human beings have done to it.
It is conceivable that our countryside could return to its mediaeval origins. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to study the matter, we now have wild boar in West Dorset.
I may be a bore, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not wild.
I first brought to MAFF's attention the fact that there were wild boar in West Dorset when I first entered the House two and a half years ago. I put down a harmless question asking whether the Ministry was aware that there was a feral population of wild boar there, and I was told, "No there isn't." Then the Ministry sent down a chap to find out what was going on, he did so, and I asked another question: what would the Ministry do about it? The answer was that there would be another study. We have not yet heard about the study, so nothing has yet happened about the wild boar in West Dorset.
As I said, I can imagine the whole countryside reverting to its mediaeval origins. There would not only be wild boar all over the place, but lots of forests and, as a result—this will please Labour Members—hunting everywhere. Hunting developed in this country because it was necessary for humankind to defend itself against certain animals.
However—I hope that this is the more realistic prospect—if we wanted to keep our countryside looking roughly as it does now, but without agriculture, we would have to pay somebody an awful lot to look after it. We could try to persuade landowners to look after it, but they would be disinclined to do so because it would be such a costly exercise. There are probably not enough people in the United Kingdom with enough money to keep up as parkland all the land that is now agricultural.
We would therefore have to do one of two things. The first option would be to do what I begin to suspect not only the Cabinet Office but the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have as their ulterior purpose—to allow massive housing development on the land. That is the very plan that was leaked from the Cabinet Office, and it is a perfectly rational plan, which would be entirely economically sustainable. I have not the least doubt that over the next 10 or 15 years Dorset could have not 50,000 new houses, but 500,000.
I am sure that there would be takers. As the prices for country cottages and holiday lets came down, the inhabitants of the city would flood in, and the landowners would be adequately remunerated by those huge housing developments. By then the landowners would no longer be farmers; the Government's wonderful policies would have produced groups of great landlords. I suspect that that is where the Government are heading. It is a perfectly rational economic prospect, but a perfectly appalling environmental prospect.
If that happens, landowners will no longer be farmers because they will have been driven out of farming by an unfair regime that allows other people to compete us out of the market, combined with an unwillingness to subsidise sufficiently to enable us to support that regime. If we then wanted to persuade them not to build houses but to keep the parkland looking like parkland, we would have to pay them mightily.
In fact, if I replay history a little, I can imagine the English countryside being looked after in that way, by stewards and executive agencies set up to pay people to keep the landscape looking the same, but without farming. Then some brilliant person—perhaps the Minister's special adviser—might make a clever suggestion. "Minister," he might say, "We could lessen the subsidy that we have to pay to keep England looking the way it does if we did a spot of farming. We could bring in a bit of income to supplement what we would otherwise have to pay."
The Minister—it would not be the Minister of Agriculture but the Minister for the Parklands of England, responsible, perhaps, for the executive agency English Parks—would look round and go off and get some expert scientific advice. There is not much of that in MAFF, of course, although there is a great deal of inexpert scientific advice all over the place.
The advice to the Minister would be that he could indeed save money if the parkland was used productively. Although it might not quite pay for itself, the agriculture would bring in a good bit of the money that would otherwise be spent looking after the place. That is the justification for subsidising agriculture.
Agriculture is an industry that we need environmentally, and we as a society do not have to pay nearly as much for it as we would have to pay in the long run to keep the place looking as it does now—if that is what we wanted. Subsidy is the social cost that we pay to avoid the plans of the fiends in the Cabinet Office to house over the whole lot.
I have been paying close attention to the hon. Gentleman's fairy tale, and I am very interested in it. However, he has managed to create the whole scenario without once mentioning the element that so distorts the agricultural industry in this country, with such dramatic results. What is his view of the common agricultural policy? What role does he think it plays?
The hon. Lady may or may not be surprised to know that my view is that we would be better off if the whole common agricultural policy was scrapped. I have not the slightest doubt, and neither have the farmers in West Dorset, that they would be much better off if they could, by and large, compete in an open market on fair principles and receive subsidies only to the extent that they were unable to compete in that market.
I believe that the total subsidy required to keep our agriculture going would then be minuscule compared with what we contribute to—and receive back from—the CAP. I am speaking not about the net effect on the United Kingdom economy but about the gross effect on the UK taxpayer. The CAP has brought forth unnecessary production, imposed quotas to deal with that, and then imposed huge administration costs—in short, it has distorted the market so as to maximise the subsidies required to keep that market going.
I suspect that that opinion is common ground between many Labour Members and many—in fact, almost all—Opposition Members. But none of us knows how to unmake that dreadful machine. [Interruption.] If the Minister knows how, it is surprising that he has not yet done it. I venture to prophesy that by the end of his time as Minister of Agriculture he will join the ranks of the many previous occupants of his post, all of whom failed to do it.
I would welcome it unreservedly if the whole CAP were scrapped tomorrow. I expect that there would then be far fewer subsidies. I was trying to explain why I need not oppose—indeed, why I must go on supporting—the degree of agricultural subsidy necessary to keep the industry going, on environmental grounds.
I have been trying to think about the subject a lot in the past few months, and it seems to me that the Government's problem, even with a Minister who really has good intentions towards the industry, is that, essentially, the Government's deepest thinkers are following an entirely different logic. They reckon that agriculture is the equivalent of the coal industry, and that the Labour party should see it in the same way as the Tories saw that industry. They think that it is an industry that has had its time, is kept going by subsidy and needs to be got rid of. If we got rid of it, except for the tiny fraction that is economic, we would, they think, have solved the problem.
Then, if the leftover land caused problems, it should be used productively by building houses on it.
I am familiar with the argument that my Government's approach to agriculture is in the same mould as what the Conservatives did to the coal, shipbuilding, steel and heavy engineering industries during the 1980s. I specifically rejected that argument in my speech to the Labour party conference this year, and I got a cheer for doing so. Our approach to agriculture is to address the problems in their real terms and to help people who are going through a difficult time to get through in an economically rational way.
I take the Minister's words entirely at face value. They are an honest reflection of his own views. However, they do not represent the Government's deepest thinking on the matter. I expect that there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the Minister will find himself locked in combat with powerful members of the Government.
If, as I believe, the Minister's words do not represent the Government's thinking, let me suggest the following steps. First, we need them to take action—not slowly and in the next few months, but in the next few days—to maintain two parts of the agricultural industry that are under the most severe and intense threat—the pig industry and the dairy industry. It is already three weeks since the Minister last said that he would consider such action. We need something to be done now.
Secondly, we need an absolute statement, not from the Minister but from the Deputy Prime Minister—if not the Prime Minister—that he utterly abjures the idea that has been leaked as the thinking of his own kitchen cabinet: that of trying to solve the problems of the land of this country by housing over it. Thirdly, we need a reconsideration of the status of agriculture as an industry so that it becomes clear that, quite apart from any economics, its value to society makes it worth subsidising. If those three steps were taken, the industry would survive and we would be able to relax a little in the face of what I fear is about to hit not just us and the farmers in my constituency, but the Minister himself.
I welcome the Queen's Speech and I am proud to be a Labour Member supporting a Government who are delivering for my constituents. I am pleased to welcome many of the measures contained in yesterday's speech, particularly the proposals to establish the Strategic Rail Authority and to introduce a countryside Bill extending the right to roam. However, I regret the inclusion of plans for the partial privatisation of National Air Traffic Services. Given the loose wording in the Gracious Speech, perhaps it is still possible to change the Government's mind.
The speech says that a new transport Bill
will include measures for National Air Traffic Services to separate safety regulation from operational matters, and deliver major investment in the next generation technology.
Those are fine objectives that are worthy of our support, but they are entirely achievable without privatising one of our finest public services.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I want to remind the House that the Paddington train disaster, which had an effect on my constituency, has changed the political landscape significantly. It has reignited concerns about the suitability of privatised safety regimes. Pressing ahead with this public-private partnership now would be insensitive and completely out of step with the public mood.
A recent poll conducted by The Guardian shows that 73 per cent. of voters are in favour of renationalising large sections of the railway, although that is not a realistic proposition. Other polls indicate that 72 per cent. of the public are against the privatisation of air traffic control. In fact, only 16 per cent. are in favour of it.
Labour Members have no problems with the separation of safety regulation from operation. We agree that air traffic control should not have to compete with schools and hospitals for scarce public resources. However, these are not the crucial issues. The nub of the argument in the House and in the country is the essential conflict of interest between commercial pressures and the delivery of a public service. It is significant that Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and others have already indicated their desire to buy a large stake in National Air Traffic Services. That could represent a serious conflict of interests. The track record of Virgin Trains is hardly one that we would wish to replicate in the skies. Of course we recognise the need for extra investment, but there are other ways in which to achieve that without recourse to privatisation.
The report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs offers Ministers other alternatives. The independent, publicly owned corporations in operation in Canada and New Zealand are one such model, as are the trust models. They free air traffic control from the public sector borrowing requirement and allow it to raise capital for future investment. NATS is an extremely attractive proposition for investors, with a guaranteed income stream returning an operating profit of £55 million in 1997. There have been suggestions for the future of the Post Office to give it the necessary commercial freedom. Let me say for the record that if that is good enough for the Post Office—a much-cherished and much-loved public institution—it is good enough for air traffic control.
If one looks at the argument from the other side—perhaps from a neo-Thatcherite perspective—one finds other question marks over the proposed deal. Until the computer problems at Swanwick are sorted out, one could argue that to dispose of a public asset at a rate far below its eventual sale price is irresponsible and is playing fast and loose with public assets. Perhaps this is not the time even to consider privatisation. We heard about the funding regime for Manchester airport in the exchange between my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), but what worries me and many of my hon. Friends is that this proposal is a gamble.
At times I am proud that Britain is ahead of other nations and is regarded as innovative, but this is not one of those times. No other country has been down this road and this is the last service that anyone should gamble with. When an aircraft drops out of the sky there are few, if any, survivors and we need to be absolutely sure that the course of action that will be laid before the House is the right one. I really do worry about it.
The proposal was first made by the previous Conservative Government; it was a politically inspired measure. If political meddling with air traffic control reduces safety standards, the consequences are too appalling to contemplate. It will be of little comfort to our constituents who live under the Heathrow flight path in London, Slough and Reading if we say in years to come that the Government did not listen to the warnings of Labour Back Benchers and, perhaps more importantly, the men and women who have given us the finest, safest and most efficient system in the world.
It would be arrogant for Ministers to dismiss the views of the people who provide the service. When the pilots through the British Air Line Pilots Association and the air traffic controllers tell us that they are seriously worried that commercial pressures will compromise safety, we should listen to them.
The experience of the commercialisation of the Swiss air traffic control service is not good. Staff at the Secretary of State's office have been swamped with e-mails from Swiss air traffic controllers. They were good enough to send me copies. One says:
I am an Air Traffic Controller working for an ATS Provider that has been privatised since January 1996.
I am concerned about the effect privatisation has had on Air Traffic Control.
In my experience:
When the company I work for was a Government Department, the overall emphasis was on safety rather than financial considerations.
With privatisation, I believe that this emphasis has shifted to cost-cutting at every available opportunity—even to the detriment of safety. Also, for a few highly placed people, it has meant significant rewards or bonuses, without coming under any form of scrutiny.
Privatisation has meant redundancies, a halt in personnel recruitment, outsourcing, numerous restructuring episodes and diminished working conditions. This has led to our current critical situation: a chronic shortage of personnel, staff morale and motivation at an all-time low and a serious lack of confidence in management as well as in our technical and administrative support.
Having witnessed the transition from a Government Department to a Privatised ATS provider, I believe that:
The end of large state monopolies means the apparition of 'super monopolies' with little or no transparency.
The monitoring of safety associated costs and investment in Air Traffic Control, MUST remain a Government responsibility.
As such, I am completely opposed to the privatisation of NATS.
That communication is signed by an air traffic controller from Geneva area control centre in Switzerland.
The NATS public service ethos puts public safety above all else, as it is immune from shareholder pressure to reduce costs. Britain currently has a service regarded as the safest, best and most efficient in the world. I want to keep it that way. As I said earlier, it would be grossly insensitive, after what happened at Paddington, to proceed with undue haste with these proposals.
Given the large transport agenda before us, I do not understand why we are seeking to divert attention from the need to improve public transport by proposing to privatise a popular public service that returns a profit to the Treasury. That profit amounted to some £40 million last year.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
In a minute.
It is a question of trust. I am old fashioned enough to believe that we should keep our promises. In October 1996, seven months before the general election, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury who was then Opposition transport spokesman, declared that our air was not for sale. In opposition, our policy was to retain full public ownership of NATS. Given that there are viable alternatives to the public-private partnership, why should we break a clear pre-election promise? Why should we press ahead with a discredited Tory proposal that we rightly opposed before 1 May 1997?
The opposition to the proposal is not confined to the Labour party, or to the people in our country, or to the controllers and the pilots. It is evident in this House of Commons: early-day motion 446 indicated the depth of opposition to the partial privatisation of air traffic control.
Labour Members rightly condemn the Conservatives for becoming ever more right wing. We attack their proposals to privatise the national health service, but we are considering a dangerous and discredited Tory plan, on which even the Tories have gone cold. Even those countries with rampant, right-wing regimes that have privatised everything that moves have stopped short of introducing full market forces into air traffic control. Nowhere else has done that: even New Zealand has a state-owned enterprise, and the United States is planning a Government-owned air traffic corporation with private borrowing powers. As I said earlier, the proposal is a gamble that many Labour Members cannot, and will not, support.
There is no financial pressure to go ahead with the sale of NATS. The Labour Government are no longer constrained by Tory spending limits. The economy and public finances are in good health. The public-private partnership would provide only a one-off capital receipt. It would lose the Treasury a profitable income stream of about £40 million a year.
Why has the proposal been made now? Are the Government so desperate for a capital receipt of £500 million that they must proceed with such haste? We know that there are others to deal with the future investment requirements of National Air Traffic Services. I have already mentioned the trust model and the independent publicly owned corporation model referred to in the Select Committee report, but there is also the option of a bonds issue. That mechanism is slightly contentious at present, but it funded the investment requirements of the channel tunnel rail link and it is available for National Air Traffic Services.
I sometimes wonder how we got ourselves into this mess. Perhaps a deal was done somewhere that I missed, or perhaps the proposal is driven by the Treasury. How genuine was the consultation on the various options for the future of National Air Traffic Services? Higher forces than I will have to address those matters, but I urge Ministers to think again. It is still not too late. Listening to Members of this House is a sign not of weakness, but of strength.
Labour Members will have heard, via their pagers, that we have a little local difficulty in London with regard to mayoral candidates signing up to manifestos. I believe that our candidates should abide by the party's pre-election promises. Before 1997, I and many other Labour Members were electoral candidates and we abided by our pre-election promises. We consulted nationally on our policy over air traffic control. In good faith, we told our constituents—some of whom worked at Heathrow or in the airport industry—that no future Labour Government would ever contemplate the privatisation of air traffic control.
I intend to keep the solemn pre-election promise that I gave on behalf of my party. I hope that Ministers plan to do the same.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and I agree with much of what he said. I hope that he re-establishes some sort of dialogue with the Deputy Prime Minister in the near future.
Unfortunately, I missed yesterday's Gracious Speech, for the very good reason that I was seeing constituents in Frome market. Although I studied the proposals in detail later, I intend to review them now through the eyes of my constituents. I shall apply the essential Frome market test to the Government's proposals to determine what is relevant to the people in my area.
That does not mean that I shall turn a blind eye to the wider legislative proposals. I agree with many of them, although some of them—notably the reduction in the access to jury trial—I consider to be retrograde and illiberal. Other proposals, such as those to do with freedom of information, are simply inadequate.
According to the Frome market test, the Government's proposals fall into three categories. There is the legislation that is proposed on the countryside, and the legislation that, by commission or omission, will have an effect on the countryside. Finally, there is the legislation that did not appear in the Queen's Speech.
I shall deal first with the legislative proposals for the countryside. We have already had a fair amount of debate on the matter, and I suppose that all hon. Members would agree that there is a need for better environmental legislation. The perennial problem is to balance the interests of the environment with those of a dynamic rural economy. There is also the need to facilitate proper access to the countryside for leisure purposes that should be enjoyed by those who do not have the privilege of living there. Getting that balance right is crucial to the success of the Bill.
We have argued for some time that there is a need for better protection of wildlife and of sites of special scientific interest. The Deputy Prime Minister has just returned to the Chamber, and I hope that he will say whether the Bill will address the vexed question of interim development orders. They represent a significant problem, in terms of their effect on SSSIs and of the distortions that they make to minerals planning systems across the board.
Many outstanding interim development orders litter the countryside. As a result, companies often have all the aces in their hands when they deal with planning authorities trying to make sense of the environmental and industrial factors involved in minerals extraction. However, I am pleased that those matters are being addressed.
When we have argued for better powers of regulation, we have always made it clear that they would be powers of last resort. They would be used to deal with those who do not co-operate and who do not go along with voluntary management arrangements.
Coupled with the need for better regulation is the need for better and more flexible incentives, so that people who are trying to manage land properly and are sensitive to environmental issues can proceed with their farming businesses. That balance is essential. The same applies to the right to roam. There must be a balance between the interests of those who wish to use the countryside for recreation and those whose livelihoods are bound up in working the countryside to maintain agriculture. In both instances, it is important to develop a right of appeal to an independent arbitrator if there is a dispute. There will be disputes and an unaccountable body should not take the final decision.
We also need to consider liability. Successive Governments have failed to tackle the problem of liability for people injured on someone else's land. I remember an absurd situation when I was on the county council. We were told that we had to put lighting on a closed and locked skip site at night because someone might break in, fall into a skip and break an ankle. If we did not have the lighting, the county council could have been liable. That is nonsense. The same could apply to farmed land and could imply liability on the part of the landowner.
Other measures in the Queen's Speech could have implications for the countryside, such as education. The speech stated that change has been focused on the infant classes. There has been a change and it would be churlish not to recognise that there has been more input into the education of younger children, which has resulted in reduced class sizes, but many problems are still associated with applying rules that were designed on an urban or suburban model to rural situations. Village schools are still threatened. Many such schools do not have flexibility with accommodation, which is a major constraint. I wonder whether the Government have fully recognised the difficulties.
Last week, I visited Bishop Henderson school in Coleford in my constituency, which has applied two years running for the capital spending that it needs to implement the Government's maximum class size policy. It was turned down last year and is hopeful of success this year. It cannot implement that policy without the classrooms to enable it to happen and at the moment the capital expenditure is not available.
There is a panoply of crime legislation. Again, the question is whether it will improve the criminal justice system in places, but only at the cost of reducing marginal expenditure on patrols in rural areas. For many years, there has been a diminution in such expenditure. I speak as the former chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority, which is receiving a report this very day from the chief constable saying that he will have to reduce front-line services to put in place new Government initiatives. We all support those initiatives, such as DNA testing, but the authority does not have the resources to deal with those and to police adequately the country areas of my constituency.
On transport, we have not yet got right public transport in rural areas and it is possible that we will never do so. It is a major problem. I wonder whether we should look again at the Education Act 1944 and the interplay between school transport, which is a major expenditure for most local authorities, and public transport. There is a difficulty at the moment. Recently, a company that provides services over a wide area of my county has changed hands. One reason for the change was that it has to provide great 50-seater buses for school transport, which are unsuitable for small villages where they are picking up perhaps one or two passengers. The economics are not right and somehow we have to get them right.
Similarly, we must get rural rail services right. We have main lines that are vastly underused and could be used to provide a better rural rail system. However, I do not detect the forward strategic thinking that will make that happen. For example, Railtrack in its wisdom decided a few months ago to demolish a bridge in my constituency on the main London to Exeter line at Temple Combe. Now we have a single instead of a double rail bed, so that that main line cannot be converted to double use. Frankly, that is absurd and it should not have happened. It is indicative of the fact that Railtrack has still not got the message that we want more investment and more use of our rail services.
I hesitate to use the term common sense about the congestion policies in the Government's programme because it has been devalued by the Conservative party, but we need common sense in applying anti-congestion policies to rural areas. It would be most foolish to apply taxation to areas where there is no congestion rather than applying the remedy to areas with the problem.
Most people in rural areas have to use a car. Car ownership is high in rural areas compared with urban areas, and most households have more than one car. They have to because they cannot operate without them. In general, these cars are also among the oldest in the country, so they are not a measure of relative richness, but of relative necessity. Surely we should consider ways in which to ease the burden for essential car users in rural areas, for example, by adopting a huge reduction in or the removal of vehicle excise duty, which would make an enormous difference to people in such areas at a stroke.
The Queen's Speech mentions a Bill for the Post Office. I will not elaborate on that other than to say that I have serious concerns about the effect of the proposals on sub-post offices in rural areas, which are an essential network. They have such a capacity to provide services in rural areas. At the moment, the income that they have lost from the removal of benefit payments is not being reinstated. All the automation in the world will not do anything about that in the short term. I ask the Government to reconsider that matter.
I also ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to reconsider his rather surprising announcement last week that he would introduce a punitive regime of daily signing on for people suspected of fraud. How will that work in rural areas? How is someone to sign on 20 or 25 miles away every day and make sense of the social security regime? It is not a sensible measure.
The main thrust of this debate has been agriculture. I cannot add to all the speeches about the desperate agricultural crisis. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Queen's Speech does not contain primary legislation on agriculture—some would say that more legislation is the last thing that we want, as some of the present secondary legislation is more onerous than it should be.
The situation has been more than adequately described by hon. Members who have outlined their experiences. The only thing that is keeping many farmers going for even a few weeks and months ahead is the fact that land and quota prices have held up. That will not continue. The fact that land prices have held up is largely due to non-agriculturists buying into the rural economy—buying a farmhouse with land—and not to bare land prices. The moment that these prices start to reduce, the banks will pull the rug and there will be an enormous number of business losses.
The problems facing the pig industry have been highlighted and are extreme—they could not be more urgent—but the same applies to the dairy and the sheep industries. Yesterday morning, I watched a disposal sale of cattle. A relatively young farmer was selling good stock—black and whites, second or third calving. It was reasonably good-quality stock, but it was fetching less than £300 per cow—£285 perhaps. Four or five years ago, it would have been twice or three times that. It is a desperately miserable position to be in.
There is no business in the calf rings. On a good day, there may be some bidding for continental calves, but, generally speaking, there is no movement in the calf market. In the sheep pens, no one is bidding for sheep and there are not many there. No one has seen a pig in the market for years. That is the reality.
There is a knock-on effect for all the industries that depend on agriculture. A couple of livestock hauliers at the market told me of their experiences. I will mention their names because they were kind enough to spend time explaining the situation of their businesses to me: Mr. Butt of Charlton Musgrove and Mr. Conway of Bratton Seymour. As a sign of how bad things have got, one of them said that he had calculated his bad debts in June or July at about £5,000 but that by October or November, they had risen to £28,000. That is the state of agriculture. If it cannot pay the downstream industries, those industries will go. In the case of livestock, that is serious because specialists are involved. Not anyone can drive a livestock lorry. Once those skills have gone, they will never come back. All we are doing is inventing jobs for people overseas.
I urge the Government to examine what they can do. I would have liked some minor measures in the Queen's Speech to help tackle the agricultural depression. I would have liked legislation to assist the formation of farmers' markets. The Minister of Agriculture knows of the problems with existing market charters. I wanted legislation to establish an agricultural ombudsman so that we could act on the overload of pettifogging bureaucracy that is often applied far too strictly. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is always right and the farmer always wrong even when the matter patently involves a simple mistake that anyone could have made.
I would have liked measures to deal with fair competition, labelling and the oligopoly of the supermarkets. We have heard today of a new wheeze from Safeway, which has asked for a £20,000 premium on producers. Given the state of the industry, it cannot be right for a supermarket to use its market muscle to bully producers whom it knows can do nothing to withstand it.
I would have liked changes in the compulsory competitive tendering regime that the Tories introduced. They have been moaning about the fact that local authorities cannot select where they buy their goods from, not realising that it is their legislation that prevents local government from making rational decisions about sourcing goods. It is time that that was tackled.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have written to every local authority in England about those matters, in respect of pigs and pork products and, separately, in respect of beef. The Agriculture Ministers in the territorial Departments are writing in similar fashion. It is not right to say that the legislation requires local authorities always to purchase the cheapest. Best value is about more than just price.
I am grateful to the Minister for highlighting what I know he has already done. However, there is a basic difficulty. Best value is not simply a matter of price, but it requires a set of specifications to be issued in advance to which many contracts are linked. It requires authorities to work constantly through a third party over which it has no direct control. There are distinct obstacles to local authorities taking decisions in the interests of their community and local producers. His exhortation is welcome and helpful, but there is still a legislative problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman know that the forthcoming local government legislation proposes to give local authorities a power of economic, social and environmental competence for their areas? If that is added to best value, many of his points about local authority action may no longer be an issue.
I am happy to recognise that point, but I will be even happier when it has been tested in court that the general competence to act is matched by a competence within a specific spending bracket that allows local authorities to do as they would wish. I suspect that there is still a problem in that local authorities will be open to challenge under the competitiveness clauses of previous legislation. Unless there is amendment to that in the Bill, as I hope that there will be, there will still be a problem. Perhaps if there is no such amendment, we should try to insert one.
I would have liked changes to the corporate structure to encourage the development of co-operatives and vertical integration in industries of the sort that, tragically, we did not see with Milk Marque, as a result of the intervention of the Department of Trade and Industry. Such changes would help to ensure a more constructive attitude to making rural businesses work, and work better.
The sad truth is that none of those things is in the Queen's Speech. There are plenty of measures, but few will impact directly on country areas, and even fewer on the rural economy. I hope that the new Cabinet Committee on rural affairs will produce something substantive so that the next Queen's Speech will contain measures to help the real economy in rural areas. The trouble is that in a year's time, it will be too late for many agricultural businesses, for many businesses that derive their income from agriculture and for many general businesses that will see the agricultural crisis coming home to roost in many of the rural areas that Opposition Members represent.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this fascinating and important debate. I believe that in the Queen's Speech we saw, for the first time, a Government saying three cheers for the environment. We should definitely value that.
I particularly welcome two announcements in the Queen's Speech. First, there is the long but eagerly awaited transport Bill, which I hope will include everything that was in the excellent White Paper last summer. I must mention the extremely welcome inclusion of pilots for home zones, which were the subject of my first ten-minute Bill. The Department headed by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has proved most accommodating about that small package of measures, which were approved by Members of all parties, apart from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He tried to rubbish them by saying that they concerned only kicking balls through windows and damaging the dahlias. That shows why he sits on the Opposition Benches while the Deputy Prime Minister sits on the Government side.
Those measures were designed to reverse priority from the motor car to the pedestrian in designated areas, with all sorts of beneficial knock-on effects for residents and the community as a whole. That is not surprising when one considers the larger picture on which the Deputy Prime Minister's Department has been working. It is no less than an attempt to reverse the damage done to our communities by the huge growth in road transport and the decimation of our public transport under far too many years of Conservative Government.
The Conservatives still prefer to be seen as the friend of that mythical beast, the motorist, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) eloquently pointed out. They talk as if this creature, the so-called motorist, was not also a responsible member of society—perhaps a parent, at times a pedestrian or even a Member of Parliament.
I did not know whether to be amazed, saddened or amused by the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Wokingham earlier this year that traffic speeds should be increased rather than decreased. How out of touch with popular opinion can he be? The common sense revolution? I think not. That is of course why he is in opposition while the Deputy Prime Minister is in government.
Many pioneering measures have already been taken by local councils, so much so that pedestrianised town centres seem to be becoming to be accepted as the sensible norm. Slower speeds in residential areas have already increased pedestrian safety. I am delighted that the new Bill will include measures radically to reduce road congestion and pollution, and will underpin a truly integrated transport strategy which will benefit both town and country residents.
My second great welcome is for the proposed countryside amenities and conservation Bill which the Minister for the Environment, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), did so much to advance. The subject of new Government action to protect our best wildlife sites has been debated many times in both Houses and received unprecedented support from Members of all parties since it was first raised so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) last November in his excellent early-day motion. That shows that EDMs can and do work.
We do not know all the details at present, but the Bill's aims are clear: to increase protection for our wildlife, particularly that in sites of special scientific interest, and to provide greater public access to the countryside, particularly on foot. There are to be measures to prevent damage, increased penalties for those who cause it, and increased agency powers to prosecute for wildlife species offences. As with all major Bills, the devil may well be in the detail. There will be lengthy debate, in which I hope to participate both in the House and in Committee.
At this point I wish to flag up one concern and that is that there should be sufficient resources to underpin these new measures and, in particular, positive environmental management. Yes, there is a need for tougher penalties and enforcement powers, but that is only for the minority of offenders. We all know that the majority of damage is caused either by neglect by landowners who will not or, more often, cannot maintain their sites, or by modern agribusiness practices which are supported and, indeed, favoured, by current subsidies. It will be no surprise to the House to hear that I am talking about the pernicious common agricultural policy which benefits a small minority of our richer farmers in the south and east.
Many farmers are desperately eager to adopt more environmentally friendly farming methods. The demand for organic food, as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), knows, has grown enormously but, scandalously, 70 per cent. of United Kingdom consumption must be imported. Many farmers are eager to subscribe to environmentally friendly support packages, such as countryside stewardship—I think that is what it is called—but there are simply not enough resources to meet demand.
I understand that shortly there will be a good opportunity to revise the CAP. I hope that the Government will take advantage of it and act to the advantage of our wildlife and of those who are best placed to steward or act as guardians of the sites in a way that is sustainable and is a positive contribution to the local rural economies where such sites are. I am concerned about wildlife protection, but that is because I am concerned about the environment more generally. That means being concerned for those who are best placed to be stewards or guardians of the environment—our farmers.
Finally, I hope that after much entertaining and positive debate, by this time next year we shall have on the statute book legislation that is truly comprehensive. There is unlikely to be another such major opportunity in the foreseeable future, so we must get it right. Indeed, we will get it right.
I should like to give a cautious but warm welcome to the aspects of the Queen's Speech for debate today. First, however, I pay tribute to our two new colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and for Wigan (Mr. Turner). Their maiden speeches were superb and I thoroughly enjoyed them. It is a bonus that we have an additional two regional accents in this place as they are becoming a rarity.
Earlier in the debate Conservative Members kept dwelling on the subject of the Greater London council and I am not sure why. As I remember it, the GLC was created by the 1970–74 Conservative Government along with the metropolitan county councils, of which one was my own—West Yorkshire. That Government made sure that they brought into those counties the leafier areas around our cities to ensure that at last they could control the areas which contained our major cities. It did not work, so in true democratic style Mrs. Thatcher gave them the chop. They were all brought to a sudden, shuddering end. I am sorry about that as I rather miss our county councils.
I should also like to pick up on comments made by other Members about the farming community. My constituency is a strange mix of town and country. Hundreds of small hill farmers are having an extremely difficult time. I am well aware of their plight and from time to time I write to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), and I hope that he can do even more than he already has done to help them.
I should like to dwell largely on the proposed railway Bill. Following the dreadful Ladbroke Grove crash, there has been an amazing change in the public's perception of public ownership. An element of public ownership in Railtrack assets would have wide support. The support would be forthcoming as there is now genuine anxiety throughout the country about conflicts of interest between the duty to shareholders to provide profits and the duty of care to the travelling public to provide an extremely safe method of travel. However, that is not where we are at today. Today, we are proposing a transport Bill which will have as its main objective the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority which will be part of a national integrated transport system. The SRA, through its regulatory and franchising roles, will, we hope, have the ability, with the help of the railway inspectorate, to provide a safe environment for rail travellers. I understand that the SRA will have duties to promote rail use, plan strategic development of the network and promote integration between different modes of transport, all of which are needed and which are welcome.
One of the recommendations of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs when it examined the draft railway Bill was that the SRA should be permitted to dispose of property only when it had consulted all interested parties through an established procedure and was satisfied that it no longer had any potential for railway-related development. It should particularly consider whether the land might be used for the development of rail freight or integrated transport facilities, such as car parks or bus stations. The Select Committee also recommended that the SRA should enjoy a first option to buy any land which Railtrack wishes to sell where it believes that the land may be needed for future operational railway purposes. Those are sound recommendations, particularly given the growth in rail use by passengers and freight, and I trust that they will be incorporated into the part of the Bill concerned with establishing the SRA.
I am proud to report to hon. Members that I am now the elected president of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society. I should also declare a minor financial interest, and unlike the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) I am happy to give details without being prompted to do so. I own five £10 shares in the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Company Ltd. It is a non-profit-making company set up to operate legally the light railway.
The Select Committee recommended that, with the exception of lines which are used predominantly as a means of public transport, heritage railways should be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. I trust that that will be so under the transport Bill. In evidence to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, the Heritage Railway Association said that its principal concern was to prevent inadvertent inclusion of preserved railways within the scope of general legislation.
Public transport must be cheap, reliable and safe if we are to move people and freight from cars and lorries to buses and passenger and freight trains. If the transport Bill is to be socially inclusive, it must also enable my constituents, especially those in the two wards of my constituency that are among the most deprived in the country, to travel cheaply and safely, enabling them to visit sports events, sports facilities and relatives in other towns and to take advantage of the wonderful range of museums and art galleries that we in west Yorkshire have in abundance. The elderly and disabled should also be empowered to enjoy those excellent facilities.
In Keighley, we have our Star buses, which kneel, allowing older people and sufferers from arthritis to enter the bus even when weighed down by shopping. In west Yorkshire, our pensioners have various cheap off-peak travel schemes which are not enjoyed by pensioners in north Yorkshire. I should like the transport Bill to extend those advantages to all areas, so that pensioners can enjoy cheap off-peak travel wherever they live in the United Kingdom, regardless of local authority area.
Women, especially those with young children, are another group that was badly let down by the previous Government in their rush to deregulate bus services and privatise the rail network. Women often do not have the use of a car; therefore, decent, affordable public transport can make all the difference in the world to the quality of their life. Specifically for them, safety must extend to rail and bus stations and the surrounding areas.
Improved lighting helps to give confidence. Many of my rail journeys end late at night at Shipley railway station, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie). When my fellow passengers have been collected by cars, I am frequently left alone to wait for a taxi, or to walk up to the rank in the town centre. Due to the isolated nature of the station and the low level of light, I frequently find that experience daunting; I cannot be alone in that.
A further nettle that must be grasped by the SRA is regulation of the railway operating companies that will compel them, without arguments, to strengthen trains at busy times. Of course, packed trains create high profits. Too often, on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines—both largely in my constituency—Northern Spirit fails to add units when it could plan ahead to take account of commuter rush hours or connections with well used trains from or to London. West Yorkshire passenger transport executive has brought pressure to bear on Northern Spirit to end such practices.
Many of us could give a very long list of moans about things that are going wrong with public transport in our area, but most of us confine our complaints to correspondence with the operating companies, as in our view our role is that not only of a defender of the rights of travellers but as an advocate of public transport, so we try to encourage its use. Commuters will not gladly opt for the rail alternative to their car if they run the risk of sardine-like conditions and cancellations, which exacerbate overcrowding and can mean a late start to the working day or a meeting missed.
On the more controversial issue of the part-privatisation of National Air Traffic Services, we are told that there will be a separation of service provision from safety regulation, which is welcome. My problem is that I regard air traffic control as entirely about safety—it is its reason to be—and I have difficulty in understanding how the separation can work. However, as always, I am anxious to hear the arguments that will doubtless be made in the debate on the transport Bill.
I understand that NATS is well equipped, that investment has not been lacking, and that the situation in the most congested UK air space—the south east—compares favourably with similar areas throughout Europe. Having had three especially bad experiences in the summer involving Brussels airport, I am well aware of what and how things can go wrong when—I am only guessing—equipment and staffing levels cannot cope. On each of my Brussels experiences, we were told that two of the three runways were closed due to turbulence over the airport. Closing two of three runways is a radical and unusual remedy. As a delegate to the Council of Europe and a seasoned traveller, I hope, by way of enlightened self-interest, that my right hon. Friend will get that part of the Bill right.
The Conservatives, with help from their friends in the media, keep suggesting that the Government are at war with the motorist. There is nothing in the outline of the Government's legislative proposals to back up that view by any stretch of the imagination. The motorists known to Conservative Members must be extreme fundamentalists if they consider themselves to be under attack by the Government. They presumably want new motorways until the UK is covered in concrete, believe that side streets are not appropriate places for children to play and think that damage to the environment is not their problem. I have yet to meet such a fundamentalist motorist. The motorists who write and talk to me are not a race apart, they are the same as the rest of us. They have children or grandchildren suffering from asthma, they are concerned about global warming and the future of planet earth and they would prefer not to be motorists if alternatives were in place. I hope and trust that, for all our sakes, the Government's transport legislation will ensure that the alterative of cheap, safe and reliable public transport will be put in place sooner rather than later.
I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to Madam Speaker and the House for having absented myself for a little more than an hour and a half in the middle of the debate. I warned Madam Speaker that I had a long-arranged meeting with two gentlemen, one from Somerset and one from Yorkshire. I am grateful for being called.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I entirely endorse the complimentary comments of the hon. Member for Keighley on her new colleague, the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who made a fine maiden speech. I came in during the middle of it. I also endorse the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that it was a fine speech, but I did not agree with much of it, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is destined for a long and successful career on the Labour Benches.
Yesterday I was in the Gallery watching the Queen deliver her speech. I was shocked that what turns out to be the first page of the speech was entirely devoted to propaganda promoting the supposed achievements of the Government. It would have shown a bit more balance if the Queen had been allowed to state that many of the economic benefits that the Government claim for themselves were put into effect by 18 long, hard years of horrible decisions taken by the previous Conservative Government. It was not right that the dignity of the Queen should have been somewhat bruised by having to make such a propaganda statement. Labour is spending £1,000 million more on government than the Conservatives did. The Government have plenty of press officers, some of whom are now national figures, and they appear to have a camp-bed fixed in the "Today" programme studio. They have plenty of ways to get their message across.
It was appalling that the Queen had to read out a split infinitive, yet she told us:
Education remains my Government's number one priority.
All those people beavering away in the Cabinet Office could have got their grammar right.
The comment about education comes pretty sore to those of us from Shropshire. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) successfully winkled out of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment the fact that there is a huge disparity in education funding across the country. The average rate per pupil for primary schools in Shropshire is £2,220, against £3,396 in Southwark. Average spending on secondary pupils in Shropshire is £2,837, against £4,377 in Southwark. I offer my heartiest congratulations to all those working in the education services in Shropshire for coming up with such sterling results, given the extraordinary disparity in funding. I shall come back later to the underfunding of rural services and the aggressive switch from rural areas to the inner cities.
I should have liked a commitment in the Queen's Speech to reduce the burden on schools. I visited a comprehensive recently where the headmaster was facing 29 different directives. He said that it was impossible to do justice to more than half a dozen. We want fewer burdens on schools and greater freedom.
I should also like to state my total hostility to the planned introduction of the so-called modernisation project into utility regulation. The process of privatisation should have led to the release from Government interference and into the free market of industries that had for many years been stifled by state control and Government underfunding.
Let us consider telecommunications. The Labour party said that it was absolutely impossible to privatise British Telecom which, as we all remember, gave a rotten service, with public telephones not working and the installation of a new line taking three weeks. All that has changed. There has been a dramatic increase in telecommunications usage, and more people are employed in the telecommunications industry than were employed prior to privatisation. The last thing we want is renationalisation by the back door through the imposition of a regulatory regime.
I am delighted to see that the Minister for Housing and Planning is now in the Chamber, having escaped from the campaign of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson)—
I should like to draw the Minister's attention to page 57 of the document "A Fair Deal for Consumers", in which the Government announce their intention of appointing
a single cross-utilities panel of perhaps 8-12 members with broad-based expertise amongst its membership in the water, telecommunications, gas and electricity industries.
Why? The lesson of privatisation is that free markets work. They drive down prices, drive up quality and give choice to the consumer. They should be free of Government interference and subject to less regulation. I can see no advantage in having a cross-utility body, given that the only experience the utilities have in common is that of being under state control for years. They used to cost taxpayers £50 million a week in subsidy, but now contribute £50 million a week to the Exchequer in taxation.
On the main theme of the debate—transport and country matters—we in Shropshire are not well served by rail services in that there is only one direct link to London each day. Recently, I have held talks with the two main train companies serving the area—Virgin Trains and Central Trains—and Railtrack. There is to be a spectacular increase in investment—for example, Virgin Trains is to invest £1 billion in new tilting trains to Wolverhampton—so I have been trying to secure co-ordination with Central Trains and Railtrack to upgrade the track to Shrewsbury and further into Shropshire.
It is clear from those discussions that there is a new spirit among railway operators. They will have to live or die by what they provide—Virgin Trains will receive no Government subsidy this year. I hold no brief for the operators, but I am impressed by the way in which they are investing and coping with the enormous jump in demand for their services—the latest figures show an increase of 15 or 16 per cent. They are terrified that the new entrepreneurial spirit and the investment that is being unleashed on our antiquated railway system might be braked, or even stopped, by excessive interference from another regulatory authority.
Nothing in my discussions indicates that the new Strategic Rail Authority will improve services to Shropshire. We are all elected to make the case for our constituents and to approach on their behalf companies that now have market freedom to invest and make their own decisions. I do not want to have to knock on the door of yet another quango, because quangos do not have the habit of serving the customer.
Coming from a rural constituency, I am not happy with the promise to give greater access to the countryside. We already have access to 10,000 miles of footpaths. That is a gross infringement of the principle of private property. The countryside is not a playground for the public. Although the Minister shakes his head, the measure is drafted in that spirit and according to urban thinking. There is no demand in the countryside for greater access. I have received few letters about it, but there is great alarm about the measure's impact. I am delighted that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present for the debate.
The definition of grasslands, which the measure will cover, must be tightly drawn. The laws of trespass will also have to be redefined. I shall cite the case of a farmer who lives not far from me. A network of footpaths crosses his farm and he has a lot of stock. He found that gates on his land were constantly left open. To prevent that, he put chains and a weight on the gates. A fit person could easily have pushed the gates open, and, if they were not latched, they swung back. A couple of weeks later, the farmer found that someone had removed the chains, the gates were again left open and stock was running down the road. That is a genuine problem when farming incomes are down by 75 per cent. The whim of urban lobbyists, who push the Government hard, will create practical problems for farmers in my area.
Agricultural production is exempted from the Bill. The Government believe that rights must be accompanied by responsibilities. That should cover the hon. Gentleman's second point.
I agree with the Minister that rights and responsibilities go together. However, a tragic incident occurred last year when a lady let her dogs loose in a field of cows and she was killed. The Minister may not know that matadors train on cows because their anatomy—I shall not go into too much detail—allows them to turn faster than bulls. It is not necessarily safe to take dogs into a field of cows. The Bill should make provision for controlling dogs. I am glad to see the Minister nodding.
The measure should also provide for compensation because those with shoots on their land and others will suffer loss of income. Land that may look like a playground to urban Ministers is a source of income for many farmers.
Let us consider transport. My constituency includes 98 villages, and 67 per cent. of people in Shropshire drive a private car while 97 per cent. of freight travels in a diesel-powered truck. The Government have done nothing to make movement around Shropshire easier or cheaper. Every business has been penalised and rendered less competitive. That contradicts the second paragraph of the Queen's Speech, which states:
My Government's aim is to promote fairness and enterprise".
The Government make merry about the fact that the Conservatives introduced the fuel escalator. It was introduced at 3 per cent. when only two other countries in western Europe had lower fuel costs than the United Kingdom. We now have startlingly high fuel costs. A fuel distributor in my constituency produced three fuel tankers during the recess and showed how much diesel £3,750 could buy. The tankers were like the three bears—baby tanker took 5,000 litres in the United Kingdom and middle-sized tanker took 10,000 litres in Spain for the same amount of money, while big tanker took an incredible 16,000 litres in Turkey for the same amount of money. Shropshire's businesses are supposed to compete despite there being such a disparity in fuel costs.
The Government have greatly increased vehicle excise duty, which is £5,750 for a truck of more than 40 tonnes against just over £300 in Portugal and £400 to £500 in France and Spain. I secured an Adjournment debate on that subject this time last year. The Government clearly stated that the swingeing increase in fuel duties was to preserve the environment and to honour the Kyoto demands to reduce 1990 levels of CO2 by 10 per cent. between 2008 and 2012. I have explained until I am blue in the face that the figures do not add up.
The Library stated that in 1990 this country generated 159 million tonnes of carbon. Road transport contributed 30 million tonnes and goods vehicles contributed 5 million tonnes, or 16 per cent., of that. It is quite inconceivable, even if the fuel escalator works, that the Government will achieve their carbon targets from the road haulage industry. Of course they are not doing so—almost certainly an increased number of loads are being carried, but they are not being carried by British trucks. British companies have three choices: put up prices, close if they cannot do that, or move overseas.
Has the hon. Gentleman read the Government's consultative document on climate change strategy? It suggests a range of measures, one of which concerns transport. Is he not misleading the House if he pretends that transport is the only issue about which the Government are concerned in respect of climate change?
I certainly did not say that. I said that the justification given in my Adjournment debate last year for putting swingeing extra duties on carbon fuels was the achievement of the Kyoto demand for a reduction in the national quantities of carbon produced. This measure will not achieve any environmental gain at all because the loads have to be carried. As I said earlier, 97 per cent. of the freight in my constituency has to be carried by diesel-powered trucks. If it is not carried by UK-owned trucks, it will be carried by foreign trucks.
It is now worth while to go on a fuel cruise. Special trips are being run from Dover on which tractor units travel on the ferry to France because fuel is nearly half the price there. There is a huge discrepancy, and we can take a French company to illustrate the point. Mr. Petar Cvetkovic, the managing director of Norbert Dentressangle, said:
Our UK based operations and those of all British hauliers are becoming less and less economic. If the Government continues with its fuel Escalator policy, UK industry will become more and more vulnerable to European competition, placing many UK companies and jobs at risk.
Foreign vehicle trips to the UK have increased by 57 per cent. since 1996, and nearly one in 10 of the heavy trucks on the road is foreign registered and running on cheaper fuel.
The Government are losing out by, I suggest, between £400 million and £500 million per annum in duty. Last week, we heard a woolly statement from the Chancellor to the effect that he will cut the fuel escalator. He needs to slash it, because road haulage is a strategic industry. I warned a year ago that it would be in dire straits if the Government did not take action, and my warning has sadly come true. The president of the Road Haulage Association in Shropshire went bust. Since then, I have received letters throughout the year from desperate hauliers. I repeat that there is no environmental gain from this measure.
We made one gain last week, however, when the Chancellor admitted that the measure has nothing whatever to do with the environment but is purely a means of raising revenue. The revenue is not being spent on our roads: £32 billion is being raised from road users, but only £6 billion is being put back. There is a huge backlog of road repairs—in my county, it represents £94 million—yet every car owner pays, on average, £900 more in tax, or fuel duty and vehicle excise duty, every year.
People in my area do not have a choice. The last thing that they can afford to lose is their car, and the measures to impose congestion charging will have no impact on traffic. My constituency contains 98 dispersed villages and hamlets, so it will never have a comprehensive public transport system. That is not an option—there will never be the funding for it. My constituents will drive from north Shropshire to, for example, Telford or Newcastle-under-Lyme or Wrexham. They will be paying a tax to another local authority, which may spend that money on improving public transport in its area. There will be absolutely no gain for my constituents who drive back into north Shropshire, because the tax will not be levied there.
I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me the solution to that problem for those who will drive every day from an area with no congestion charging to their place of work in an area with congestion charging. They will have to travel or risk losing their jobs. They will have to make that journey and park the car, because there is no alternative, but the tax that they are handing over, when they are already being crushed by a £900 a year burden in other duties, will be of no benefit to them. That is a fundamental flaw in the Government's proposals.
Let me answer that point now. Presumably, if the fruits of congestion charging are applied to the easing of congestion, the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be the beneficiaries.
That is exactly my point. The congestion will not be diminished because people have to drive into that town to get to their place of work. There is a ring of factories all around Telford.
I suggest that the majority will still go to those factories by car because there will not be a comprehensive bus or minirail system. That will not happen in a widely dispersed rural area.
The Government's policy is all stick; there is no carrot. There is a case for road pricing—the way we distribute the use of the asset of our roads is entirely Stalinist. It is the last great element of the British economy run like Gosplan. Once we have paid our vehicle excise duty and insurance and filled up the car with petrol, any of us can go on the roads at any time. There is no marginal cost. We just get hit behind the neck with the wet sandbag of a queue. That is how the market takes effect.
The Government's proposals contain no hint of a recognition that there is a case for a carrot. In rural areas, people could be released from the burden of vehicle excise duty, so long as they did not move out of their drive-to-work area. If they wanted to drive into Birmingham, I could see a sharp case for increasing the cost of access to the road. [Interruption.] The Minister seems to agree.
There are cases in the United States where such a scheme has worked. The experiment in Leicester led to charges of £10 before people moved on to public transport. In the area around Puget Sound in north-west America, where about 3 million people live, the drive-to-work rush hour has been stretched by about four hours by staggered road charging. The same is true of the 805 freeway in San Diego, where at certain times of the day the charge is 25 cents a mile and, as traffic builds up, it increases to $4. That is a much more intelligent way of using a pricing mechanism—giving a bonus to those who drive at unfashionable times of day and penalising those who drive at busier times of day. What the Government are proposing is crass. It is a crude tax on those who use cars, and it will not reduce congestion.
The Minister may nod, but there is no evidence that such a car charge will reduce congestion in an area like mine.
As for the countryside in general and the kind of area in which I live, I find it incredible that the Government intend to fiddle around with the means of delivering local government, when easily the biggest problem facing rural areas is the massive shift of central Government funds from rural areas to urban areas—£500 million during this Parliament. In my constituency, there is not a single public service that depends on public funds that is adequately funded for the current population.
There was a march in Whitchurch on Saturday, which I led, in support of the fire service, which is the most underfunded in the UK. It must overspend its standard spending assessment by 46.7 per cent. That is ridiculous. The fire authority in Shropshire gets £8 million from central Government, compared with £22 million in Staffordshire and £22 million in Cheshire. The reason is that the formula for the distribution of central Government funds takes no account of the sparse population of Shropshire.
That is my next point. The Home Office launched an inquiry with independent consultants to examine the cost of delivering police services in a sparsely populated rural area. It is obvious that there are more police stations and more radio masts, and that communications are difficult. The result showed clearly that, in sparsely populated areas, there was an increase in the cost of delivering that service. I have a letter from the chairman of the West Mercia police authority, who states:
In essence therefore the independent study confirms that rural forces have been underfunded for five years, and the study further exemplifies that West Mercia would benefit by £2.3m (or 2.1 per cent.) if the revised sparsity factor was implemented.
But what do the Government do? They shelve the report. However, underfunding is causing a crisis.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions promised Shropshire county council that it would have a three-year run and that it could plan ahead with an increase in its SSA of 6.1 per cent. We have heard that that will be cut to 5.4 per cent. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true? If it is, it will knock £1 million straight out of Shropshire's budget.
In addition, there is an amazing proposal to build 36,000 new houses in a county where every publicly funded service is stretched. The Queen's Speech states:
A Bill will be brought forward to reform local government to make it more innovative and accountable.
Who is responsible for the plan to impose 36,000 houses on Shropshire? My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and I do not want it; the democratically elected county council does not want it; and the district councils are horrified because they will have to find sites for houses and roads. The very best estimate is that in Shropshire probably 45 per cent. of the sites will be brown field, so there is not a prayer of our getting near the Government's 60 per cent. target of building on brownfield sites.
The obvious disaster is environmental. The Queen's Speech contains a commitment on sites of special scientific interest. What will be the impact on congestion and traffic of building 36,000 houses for 100,000 people? We all want indigenous growth, and Shropshire has twice the fastest rate of growth in the west midlands, but the best estimate based on that growth is that we require 18,000 houses.
I raised that point in an intervention on the Deputy Prime Minister, but will the Minister tell me what mechanisms the people of Shropshire can use to stand up against that proposal? What is his reaction to the notion of holding a local referendum on this issue, which crosses all party boundaries? The proposal has nothing to do with accountability; it will be imposed by central planning in Birmingham.
I am aware that other Members wish to speak, but I want to mention the largest hole in the Queen's Speech—the astonishing lack of a reference to agriculture. Given that agricultural incomes are down 75 per cent., it is incredible that there is no mention of what the Government will do about it. There are things that they can do.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned the pig industry. Why on earth does this country have higher welfare standards than any other in Europe? The Farmers Guardian reported that 80 per cent. of Dutch pig farmers do not respect the welfare standards in Holland that are much slacker than here. Why do the Government not propose something in respect of labelling so that the British consumer has a choice of which pork products to buy?
The Government have made complete nonsense of their negotiations on the dairy industry, giving Ireland a huge increase in its milk quota at a time when milk prices in this country are already depressed. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry made the extraordinary decision to ban Milk Marque from going into processing unless it was broken up.
I am delighted that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has just arrived in the Chamber, because I want to ask a question. Milk Marque's share of raw milk production has fallen to 38 per cent. The threshold in Europe for a monopoly is 40 per cent., and in the United Kingdom it is 25 per cent. Therefore, why has Express Glanbia, with 30 per cent. of the liquid milk market, and Wiseman's, with 85 per cent. of the Scottish liquid milk market, not been sent for inquiry?
The biggest problem with the milk industry at present is the suspension of the calf scheme. We thought that we had a token opening of the beef market and, in theory, with that lost the necessity for a calf scheme. The real horror is that we do not have an opening of the beef market, but we have the ending of the calf scheme. Calf production is currently at its peak, with 600,000 calves being produced between now and the spring. However, I have received absolutely no sensible response from the Government to my letters.
Baroness Hayman suggested in another place that dairy farmers in north Shropshire should produce cross-bred calves. That is a ludicrous suggestion when they are trying to produce quality dairy cows, half of which inevitably will be bull calves. There has to be a solution to the problem, for economic and straightforward humanitarian reasons.
I am most surprised that there was nothing in the Queen's Speech recognising the huge imposition of regulatory costs, and particularly those on abattoirs. There have been more friendly noises from the Government about an appeal mechanism and a review. There must be an independent authority to which those who are penalised by the Meat Hygiene Service or, in future, the Food Standards Agency, can appeal, and there must be an independent report on the activities of those agencies at the end of the year.
All in all, I am definitely not an enthusiast for the Queen's Speech. There are extraordinary holes in it, and major problems for the countryside are not addressed. Those issues that are mentioned are meant to pander to the urban lobby.
I offer my congratulations to my two hon. Friends who made their maiden speeches today and who are no longer in their seats. Unfortunately I was not in the Chamber to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), but I was present to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who made a terrific speech. He made heart-rending remarks about our late colleague, Roger Stott, and no one could doubt his passion for his constituency.
I shall concentrate on the modernisation of local government and the plans in the Queen's Speech to change voting procedures and introduce flexibility. I have been a local government worker and served on a local authority and I have many friends and family members who work in local government, so I have no doubt that local government needs to change. However, we need to remember the great debt owed to local government workers who provide essential services to our local community. Too often, they are easily denigrated and criticised. It is my experience that the overwhelming majority of local government workers are greatly committed to the public services that they provide. Ever increasing demands are made on them by both political parties when in government.
The day-to-day pressures faced by local government workers mean that it is not always easy for them to embrace change positively. Several years ago, I was a child protection worker, which involved knocking on doors, after calls had been made, investigating whether children had been abused. Those situations were often very dangerous, and one knocked on a door without knowing what was behind it.
Against that background, it is difficult to be enthusiastic about bureaucratic structures and changes—they are the last thing on one's mind. One cannot be blamed for just wanting to get on with one's job. That is the same for teachers, planners, housing officers, those responsible for empty housing—my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning knows that that issue is close to my heart—and many others. As we introduce change, therefore, it is vital that we be a little more understanding and be seen to be listening. If we are to make those changes successfully, we need to bring local government workers with us. Local councils will then be more popular with the communities whom they serve and will be more responsive to them. That is exactly what the Government want; indeed, it is what I want.
There are three, or possibly four, alternatives for structural change, but I think that most councils, particularly district councils, will opt for a leader with a cabinet. Many councils made an early change to that model. My local authority, the Tory-controlled Kent county council, adopted that model and Labour-controlled district councils have done so too. We hear criticisms from Conservative Members, but Conservative-led councils have already embraced that new system. That model is my preference, and it legitimises what has already been happening for several years, in that senior council members effectively form the executive. What is important is that the change will make them more accountable.
I have served on local authorities for many years and I have sat on too many unnecessary committees, providing little opportunity for councillors, particularly back benchers, seriously to question the chairs of committees or departmental directors. It can be disappointing for someone elected to a local authority, brimming with enthusiasm to serve one's ward and council, to be marooned on the public conveniences sub-committee.
Research shows that the majority of councillors retiring at the last local elections were overwhelmingly young and had served only one term of office. People want to serve their wards and use their knowledge base to represent the people who elected them. Many such councillors have partners or families and they attend scores of committees, leaving them little time to get out and about in the wards to try to understand their constituents' problems; so it is little wonder that they become frustrated with their often limited role.
If that role is to be enhanced within the new structures, it is essential that scrutiny committees have the necessary resources, as Select Committees here do. Council members will then be able to develop real interests and pursue matters. For example, a local authority back bencher might be interested in special needs education. At the moment, there may be little opportunity to debate that issue on the education committee, and because there is little time to get out and about in the wards to understand the issue, it will receive little scrutiny in the chamber.
The new structures offer back benchers the opportunity to get out and about in their wards, to talk to parents and to people in schools, and to really get into a subject such as special educational needs. They will then have the opportunity in a scrutiny committee to put the director and the chair of the education committee through their paces for a couple of hours. In that way they will be able to discover whether the policy matches up to what is happening in the wards. That will stimulate public interest and local councils and it will be far better for local democracy. The new system will also be far more attractive to the opposition if they can question the chair of education at a two-hour public hearing rather than under one small committee item.
The new proposals will provide better opportunities for all parties and individuals and for local community groups. If they know that the particular issue in which they are interested—whether it relates to disabilities, social services or transport—will be the subject of a two or three-hour scrutiny committee, information can be provided in the same way as it is provided to a Select Committee. Press releases can inform people of what will be discussed, and that will create a more accountable local council than the present often, though not always, clapped-out structure.
I also welcome the more direct consultation to which councils will have to have regard. There will be a direct impact on staff and we need to ensure that staff have proper training and are made aware of good practice. This is where beacon status plays an important role. Consultation must mean far more than sending out a leaflet with a box to tick.
I recommend that Front-Bench colleagues look at an exemplary model of good practice and consultation in my constituency—the Snodland partnership. Snodland is a community of 10,000 people in my constituency. We heard Conservative Members rightly trumpeting their areas for having one third of the pig production in the country. In this area of my constituency, we have 10 per cent. of the UK's paper and board manufacturing—some 1.4 million tonnes. Snodland's industries are mainly paper and cement.
The Snodland partnership has brought together the town council—a Labour council—the borough council and local industries, and £500,000 was put in the pot. The partnership involved the community, which was consulted time and time again. All the people in the town—young and old—were consulted before works began. They knew what was to happen and were asked what they wanted.
Within a year, we have gained a refurbished high street and a clinic providing advice for teenagers—there is concern about the number of pregnancies in the community. There is a roller-blade park, a community minibus and a millennium museum, which I had the honour of opening a few weeks ago.
Out of the partnership has arisen a chamber of commerce, which—with local schools—organised the first "Snodland in Bloom". I presented the certificates, which I was pleased to do. All the pictures were put in the library, and I asked whether parents were coming in to look at the pictures. The librarian said yes and that, as a consequence, children were joining the library. There is the benefit of community involvement—a small thing like that can make a real difference to the community. I congratulate all involved, particularly Snodland town council, and those in Tonbridge and Malling.
I welcome the creation of more flexibility for people to vote. We all—irrespective of political parties—lament low turnouts. Local councillors who have worked hard for their areas can sometimes muster only 15 or 16 per cent, and that is lamentable. However, I am unconvinced that annual elections will increase turnouts. The evidence from the House of Commons research paper shows that there is little difference in turnouts between annual elections and all up in four years.
If the third up every year proposal is an attempt to address councils about which the Government are concerned—where there may be a one-party state—it will not do the trick. At the moment, local councils should decide how often they hold elections. There is a danger with the third up every year system in terms of councils with no overall political control, and where there is seemingly no end to that. In such councils, there is drift, and all concerned have one eye on the election. I can think of councils in Kent where there has never been agreement between the political parties about an agenda for the next four years. There is continual infighting and, year on year, everyone has their eye on the election. There is no leadership, and local communities suffer.
Rolling registers, voting at any polling station and voting by post have been suggested. The Milton Keynes referendum is an excellent example of a turnout in the region of 50 per cent. If we can galvanise public interest, turnout will increase.
Turnout does not always work to our advantage. My namesake, John Shaw, who was leader of Medway council for many years, lost his seat in 1987. The turnout was higher than usual because it was the day of the general election. He was having a miserable time, as many Labour councillors in the south-east did that night. All night he had canvassed with his team without finding a single Labour vote. He came across a group of houses where he had helped the residents enormously. With confidence, a spring in his step and a poster in his hand, he knocked on the door. The response was, "Councillor Shaw, delighted to see you. We cannot speak highly enough of you. You've done so much for this local community that everyone thinks you're wonderful. What you haven't done for this family isn't worth writing about. But it's time for a change."
It is time to change local government, so I welcome the Queen's Speech. The legislation will rejuvenate what is sometimes rather tired out. There are many committed people working in local government and we need to give them a far more modern structure in which to do their work.
I apologise for my absence during part of the debate. I was with the Defence Committee at an informal session with General Sir Michael Jackson, as part of the beginning of our inquiry into Kosovo.
I commend the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on his maiden speech. I am afraid that I missed the speech of the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) but, like everyone in the House, I mourn the passing of Roger Stott, not least because I hope to inherit his duties as treasurer of the Lords and Commons cricket club. I suspect that there may not be too many candidates in that election. I only hope that I can bowl half as well as he did.
I share some of the sentiments of the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw), especially about the public service performed by local government officers. I take my hat off to him for his work as a child protection officer. All those involved in such duties do an immensely difficult job and he is right to say that we owe them a debt of thanks. I do not agree, however, that there is a need for yet more change in local government. The hon. Gentleman supports a Government who have become expert in reforming bureaucratic structures and imposing new ones.
I warmly welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks about the need to protect the quality of life of the citizens whom we all represent. There are great challenges to that quality of life in my constituency and in many others in the south-east. When I was first adopted as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Reigate, it was my perception that the key question for the constituency would be the environment, and how we are to protect and sustain it for future generations.
The central and most important issue is housing. We are now faced with the appalling prospect of another 1.1 million houses in the south-east by 2016, of which Reigate's share would be 10,000. Even on the Serplan figures, Reigate would have to put up with 6,000 more houses. We are already part of the way through the previous part of this exercise, which began in 1991 when the numbers were laid down.
Happily, the area along the southern boundary of my constituency is all green belt, but all the green fields are now part of something called the Horley masterplan and the farms will be built on right up to the limit of the green belt. Unsurprisingly, the people who live in the area are deeply unimpressed.
This question is of central importance. I agree with the article in The Independent today, which says that the Deputy Prime Minister's decision about the Crow report and the regional planning guidance as a whole for south-east England
may be the most fateful decision ever taken about the English landscape.
I agree with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, when it refers to a nightmare future of sprawling development, traffic congestion and urban decay. I agree with the chairman of the environmental services committee of my county council, who describes the plans as "sheer madness". I also agree with the chairman of Buckinghamshire county council that the plans "beggar belief'.
We face hideous congestion. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to "carmageddon", and the word sums up the position. The widening of the M25 has only just been completed, under plans from the previous Government. These days, as soon as the M25 gets snarled up, my constituency knows all about it. The A25 is packed solid; anyone who travels down Reigate hill regularly will understand the problem.
A large proportion of my constituents commute to London by train. We know that the rail network needs investment—in its capability, quality and capacity. Not least, it needs to be made easier for people to use. Ideas such as creating greater car parking at key transport nodes, such as the railway stations in my constituency and elsewhere, are vital.
There are other environmental threats to my constituency. The prospect of a second runway at Gatwick airport was formally outlawed under an agreement between Gatwick and the local authority. However, the Government's suspension of planning permission for Crawley to build houses under what might conceivably be the flight path over a second runway gives us great cause for concern that the Government may overturn the legal agreement between Gatwick and its neighbours. I warn the Government that if they do that, there will be enormous opposition from everyone living there. It is enough that Gatwick's capacity will increase from 28 million to 40 million passengers a year. To believe that that part of the world can cope with 80 million passengers a year is to live in cloud cuckoo land.
My constituency is faced with the prospect of a plant making energy from waste being built next door to a landfill site. That will give Redhill the huge privilege of dealing with all Surrey's domestic waste. That environmental issue has certainly excited the concern of the people whom I represent.
I receive endless letters about the masts put up by the new telecommunications networks. This is an issue concerning the quality of life—the visual environment is being affected by such things ending up all over the place. People feel that they have no control or influence over the planning process—when plans for the masts arrive, they are objected to, almost nothing happens, and up they go. Imagine my delight, therefore, when the Deputy Prime Minister made quality of life his central theme. The three central measures that the right hon. Gentleman outlined at the beginning of his speech—as in the Queen's Speech—were the modernisation of local government and of the public transport system and the provision of access to the countryside.
Let us consider modernising local government. The local government organisations and standards Bill is about structure; it is about offering more options regarding the style of local government that my constituents will enjoy. It will provide a directly elected mayor, a cabinet system with a leader, or directly elected mayors with council managers, and future models will allow the Secretary of State to add to that list.
I say to the Government, "Enough. We have all done it—Conservative and Labour Governments alike." Every time we think there is a problem with local government, we tear it up, peer at the roots and then replant it in a slightly different way. The previous Conservative Government were as responsible for doing that as the Labour Government are now. It is about time we tried to make the system that we have work better. We in this House are vested with our people's sovereignty; this is a representative democracy, and power and responsibility stop here.
It is up to us to hold the Government to account, but we are in danger of not applying the same principle to local authorities. People understand that they are represented locally by their councillors. It should be up to councils and councillors to choose how to organise their affairs, and we should devolve power to them. Councillors should decide whether they want an elected mayor. The principles that we apply to the House of Commons should apply to local councils so that people may hold councillors directly to account. We should not try to impose yet another new management system from the centre. Let us be serious about devolving authority.
Government has become hideously complex. Even as a professional politician, I find it difficult to grasp the variety of agencies responsible for carrying out functions for my constituents. The quangocracy has gone mad, and there are chairmen of a vast number of authorities. The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) is nodding at that—like many Members, he appreciates how difficult it is to nail down who is responsible when something goes wrong, or even right. It is hard to find out who we may wish to influence on particular decisions.
Let me give an example of why, in the interests of our quality of life, we must devolve authority to local government. A tidal wave of houses threatens my constituency and 116 more in the south-east. Local people should be able to choose between economic growth and quality of life. They are in the best position to make those judgments. If they want more jobs and more wealth generation, they will choose a relaxed planning system that will encourage businesses. If, alternatively, they feel that they will be overwhelmed, they will be more restrictive. The power should lie with them.
As regards the Government's approach to the modernisation of the public transport system, I am astonished by the lessons that they seem to have drawn from the experience of the past 18 years. They say that the Conservatives spent £70 billion on roads, but that congestion increased from 70 cars per mile to 100. They seem to have drawn the conclusion that they do not need to spend money as it clearly does not solve the problem. If we had not spent that money, however, the problem would be infinitely worse. The Government's conclusion is completely wrong.
In my constituency, for example, the M23-A23 interchange is hopelessly inadequate. It dropped off the roads programme some time during the Conservative period in office, but all that we want is a small road at the junction so that people do not have to make a highly dangerous U-turn. Officers from the Highways Agency have visited the local authority to discuss the scheme, but the agency has only £3 million to spend on schemes for the whole of the south of England. It is hardly surprising that our scheme never got near completion. There is simply not enough money in the roads programme, and someone will die as a result.
A further quality of life issue relating to roads is noise, which intrudes greatly into people's lives. A section of the M25 runs past some of my constituents' homes. It has been expanded, but expanded in concrete. Local people are desperate for a tarmac surface that would improve their quality of life by reducing the constant noise from the motorway. Again, there is no money.
As president of Reigate and Redhill rail users association—a wise post to hold given the number of commuters in my constituency—I have found that the privatised rail companies make serious efforts to listen to representations by me and other rail users' representatives.
Part of the problem that I now see with the Strategic Rail Authority is that the confusion of responsibilities will grow—confusion between the Government, who have significant powers to direct the authority, the authority itself, and the rail companies. It is bad enough at the moment trying to get Railtrack and the operating companies to agree which of them is making the noise when noisy trains disturb my constituents.
The operating companies say that the problem is duff railway lines, while Railtrack says that the operating companies are running their trains on square wheels—"flats", as they are known in the trade. I am not in a position to judge, but if one goes on at them long enough, they can come to an understanding. Railtrack has started to take responsibility, and I am delighted to say that, having been nagged by me, it has finally promised to lay a newer design of line to reduce the noise and improve the quality of life for my constituents who live nearby.
As for access to the countryside, for the time being there is still some countryside in my constituency. On Banstead heath the north downs escarpment is stunningly beautiful, and there is also the farmland south of Reigate. However, if we have to find space for 10,000 more houses, or even the Serplan recommendation of about 6,000, that countryside will disappear. If there is one thing that Professor Crow's report shows he does know about, it is the fact that the 60 per cent. target is unsustainable if all those houses are to be built, and at least half of them will have to go on greenfield sites.
Access to the countryside will not be the answer for my constituents, because they already have access to the beautiful parts of the countryside in the north downs, and the lovely walks on Banstead heath. The question is whether we shall be able to keep any countryside. If not, if my constituents are to have access to any green fields at all, we shall soon have to introduce an "access to people's gardens" Bill. My constituency is about to be swamped with concrete, and I fear that the measures promised in the Queen's Speech will do nothing to save it from that fate.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for being absent during part of the debate. I was carrying out a long-standing engagement with the Environmental Services Association, about which I shall say more about later. I was delighted to hear in the Queen's Speech of a series of proposed Bills that will have an impact on the environment and the way in which our communities work. The right to roam Bill, the important transport legislation and the new proposals for utilities regulation and water services will all have a substantial impact on quality of life and the way in which our environment works.
The important unifying factor in the implementation and the consequences of the legislation is local government. I am pleased that, although it is late in the debate, we have now discussed at some length the Government's proposals for local government. They are important not only against the background of the measures in the Queen's Speech but because of our past debates on housing, waste management, economic regeneration and the devolution of power. In all those important areas, it is the tier of government represented by local government that will be responsible for ensuring that results of benefit to our people are achieved.
One of the most important successes in terms of environmental action following the Rio summit has been the local action carried out under Agenda 21, which has largely been pushed forward by local authorities, with non-governmental organisations as partners.
The local government Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech is the second to arise out of the White Paper, and is of central importance, especially in view of the history of local government over the 18 years during which the Conservatives were in power. I find it astonishing that the Conservative party has now declared 1999 to be the year zero. I imagine that anyone who dares mention anything that happened before that date is met with a withering sneer. As far as I know, those in Conservative central office with any knowledge of local government have now been sent to the countryside, where I imagine they will meet leaders of Conservative councils who are enthusiastically implementing the changes that the present Government have made in local government.
The idea that nothing that happened before is pertinent to what the Conservatives are saying now or is of concern to them represents a profound misunderstanding of local government. Over many years the Conservative party lambasted it unmercifully, passed pettifogging legislation to restrict what it could do, and ridiculed it in the newspapers and in the Chamber, with the result that local government became demoralised and the population felt that it could not do its job satisfactorily. Local government became worried about whether it could deliver on many of the services covered by the proposed legislation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is my neighbour, for giving way. Did not one reason why local government had a bad reputation lie in the antics of a man who subsequently became the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), when he was in command of local government in London? Is not Labour so traumatised by that memory that the Government are doing everything they can to make sure that the hon. Gentleman never again has another senior local government position?
I am interested that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) should raise that issue. I find it strange that he confirms again that the previous Government abolished an entire tier of local government simply because they did not like one person. That does not seem to be a responsive attitude towards the future of local government. However, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman mentioned someone who is standing as mayor of the new London authority, as I wanted to say a word or two about the consequences of ignorance. It seems to me that the Conservative party is profoundly ignorant of the past, the future and the real circumstances of local government and what can best be done to modernise it and make it accountable and in tune with the people.
I was interested to see the document that was recently produced by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on policies for the environment, town and country. The net policy proposed by the Conservatives is that they would strengthen parish councils. I am not sure how that would work. The document also demonstrates their wish to protect the countryside, but to allow unlimited car access and remove from local authorities any ability to organise local communities in such a way that the car does not destroy the lives of people who live in rural areas.
The ignorance of the Conservative party, however, was best summed up for me today. The hon. Member for New Forest, East will be interested to know that I attended a lunch at which the speaker was Jeffrey Archer, the Conservative candidate for mayor of London. He made a short speech and then offered to take questions. As the lunch had been organised by the Environmental Services Association, one of the questions related to waste management. Mr. Archer was asked whether, if he
became mayor, he would do something about the fact that London's waste is dumped all over various parts of the home counties. I wrote down his reply, which was as follows:
This is a serious issue. We need dialogue on this. I have already spoken to the leaders of Kent and Surrey county councils and in the next few days I am due to have a meeting with the leaders of Middlesex county council.
[HON. MEMBERS: "Middlesex?"] Yes, Middlesex. Immediately the image came to me of Mr. Archer turning up to a meeting at Middlesex—
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should make it clear that I am referring to Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare.
When Lord Archer turns up for his meeting at Middlesex county hall just across the river, I fear that he will be somewhat surprised to find that that county council was abolished in the early 1960s. It worries me that a person standing for such high office should know so little of the geography involved.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) that the local government legislation proposed in the Queen's Speech will give local authorities the opportunity to be in tune with their communities, and to innovate and move forward on their behalf. Legislation already passed on best value will shortly begin to make a substantial change to the way in which local authorities provide services for their communities. It will also mean that those services will develop in partnership with those communities. They will no longer be dominated by brown envelopes, nor subject to the bottom line that is part of a very limited definition of accountancy.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was mistaken in his understanding of the history of local government. A key change proposed in the Queen's Speech will affect the one component of local government that has never changed, even during the long period when the Conservatives were lambasting local authorities. The committee system of local government remains unchanged since Victorian times. Can that system develop the necessary innovation and empathy with local communities, or should another approach be adopted?
I suggest that the idea of local authorities having a leader with a cabinet to replace the interminable procedures involved in a committee system represents a substantial step forward for local understanding and accountability. It is not true that that idea is not popular with local communities, or that it is of no interest to them. I wish to place on record that, in the recent consultation carried out by Southampton city council, more than 7,000 written forms were returned by residents, a majority of whom supported the adoption of a system involving a leader and a cabinet.
Once explained so that people understand that they represent a serious step forward for local government, the proposals are genuinely popular. I therefore commend that element of the Queen's Speech, as it will give new life and powers to local government.
The proposed environmental, social and economic powers for local government will ensure that it will be able to implement the many other proposals in the Queen's Speech. Those measures will make sure that our environment, transport and local communities can move forward with security and safety.
This has been a wide-ranging debate, as one would expect given the breadth of issues covered by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It has been notable for two excellent maiden speeches from the hon. Members for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and for Wigan (Mr. Turner). Both acquitted themselves with distinction, and I know more about their constituencies than ever before.
Also notable was the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who is not in the Chamber at present. I am sorry that he does not appear more often in the House. His forthright support for the concept of directly elected mayors made me wonder whether it was too late for him to enter the London race—especially as there is some doubt about whether it is necessary to accept all aspects of party policy to do so.
There have been other high-quality contributions from both sides of the House. I was particularly moved by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who described the reality facing farmers in his constituency here and now. It was a powerful plea for action, not more words, from the Government. His plea was endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who also exposed the way in which the Government are depriving rural services in his constituency of funds. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) rightly identified the burden of over-regulation as one of the biggest problems facing farmers.
I intended to refer to the speeches of some six Labour Members, but as they have not returned to the Chamber I will skip that section of my speech. However, I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the debate. We scheduled agriculture as one of the subjects for today's debate to help him. I wanted to give him a chance to remedy the extraordinary omission that many of my hon. Friends have drawn to the attention of the House—the fact that in one of the longest Queen's Speeches ever, which contains more proposals than the previous Queen's Speeches from this Government, agriculture, which is suffering the worst crisis for a generation, does not even merit a reference.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley back to the Chamber. I am afraid that I have already referred to him, but he will be able to read the reference in Hansard. I am sure that he will enjoy it as much as my colleagues did.
Labour said that 1999 was to be the year of delivery. What the Government have done is to deliver many farmers into the hands of regulators, bankers, creditors and even liquidators. This evening, the Minister has a chance to fill that gap in the Queen's Speech, to tell the thousands of farmers what he will do to help and to make it clear that Labour has not simply forgotten them.
The only passage in the Queen's Speech that directly affects agriculture and the countryside is the proposal to introduce the right to roam and overhaul wildlife protection. The only reference in the Prime Minister's speech yesterday was to my comment about illegally fed French livestock, which he seemed to think related to the completely different issue of the French ban on British beef exports. I will deal with both issues later. Whether the right hon. Gentleman is muddled or whether he deliberately plays fast and loose with the truth, the fact is that the more he twists and distorts Tory policy, the more we will tell the truth about Labour policy.
The proposed countryside access and amenities Bill will deal with two completely unconnected themes. The first is wildlife protection. In principle, we support the need to strengthen existing legislation, although we will need to study the detail of the Bill when it is published. The second is the right to roam. We remain worried about the practical consequences of using the law to increase access to land instead of the voluntary approach, which was making such excellent progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York emphasised the consequences for her constituents. My fear is that many people will simply not understand where the right to roam begins and ends. The consequences for conservation could be damaging.
The fight against rural crime, which has already been hit by the Home Secretary's cuts in the number of police, will be made even harder. Furthermore, an opportunity to streamline the existing cumbersome procedures for altering footpaths is being missed. I hope that the Government will accept amendments to remedy that.
One other issue affects the countryside. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) exposed the Government's total failure to protect green fields against excessive development. My hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) referred to that problem and to the disastrous impact that it may be having on their constituencies and the regions around them.
That failure was further compounded by a leaked Cabinet Office report—mentioned in the thoughtful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset—which recommended that prime agricultural land should no longer be preserved for food production, and that it too should be sold off for development. There could scarcely be a starker warning that this Labour Government do not believe that British agriculture has any long-term future. It would cost the Minister and the taxpayer nothing this evening to give Britain's beleaguered farmers a modest morale boost. Let him say that the idea of flogging off prime agricultural land for development is unequivocally rejected.
Let me turn now directly to agriculture. It is three weeks since the House last debated the subject, and France's illegal ban on imports of British beef remains in force. We keep being told every day that the Government are pursuing the right strategy. Let us review the progress.
It was almost a year ago, on 22 November 1998, that the Minister first told the House that the ban would be lifted. By 17 December, he was able to say when exports would start. He said:
I anticipate that we will be able to start exporting deboned beef by the spring of next year."—[Official Report, 17 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 1091.]
For anyone who wondered how that great achievement had come about, he was later to say:
Labour leadership in Europe and our constructive approach towards our European partners has clearly been shown to succeed."—[Official Report, 14 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 405.]
In mid July, the Minister obviously thought that his diplomacy was working because he announced to the House a firm date for resumption of beef exports. Spring was a little late this year, because the date was 1 August. In the four months since then, not a single ounce of beef—not a single kilogram, we might say—has been sold to France and Germany. So defective was his diplomacy that he clearly made his statement in July without checking with France that it agreed. Yet he was on notice that France harboured doubts, because France had abstained on the issue when it was discussed at the Agriculture Council in November 1998.
It is a strange notion of diplomacy that involves not talking to the French Minister. Three weeks ago, as the crisis reached fever pitch, it emerged that the Minister had not even spoken to his French counterpart for more than a week. He told Radio 4 that it would be nonsensical to do so. Perhaps it was just as well, because when he eventually did meet the French Minister two and a half weeks ago, just four days after the European scientific steering committee had unanimously endorsed the safety of British beef, he went to Brussels with all the aces in his hand and still managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He allowed France to reopen five aspects of the scheme that had already been settled to everyone's satisfaction. He told us that it was only a matter of clarifying a few technicalities and that France would lift its ban on British beef exports by last Thursday. That was a week ago, but that deadline, like every other deadline in this whole story, passed with no lifting of the ban by France and no action by Britain.
On Monday, the Minister told The Times that he believed that a solution was very, very close and that the two sides had taken a major step forward. Three days later, the position seems to be unchanged. The fear is now that he is preparing to make more concessions for which there is no scientific, legal or political justification, unless, of course, the Prime Minister has ordered him to go on giving in to France, however outrageous its demands.
The Minister is rather a decent fellow and I like him very much. I have to give him some advice: I do not think that the Prime Minister is any longer on his side. If the Minister allows more conditions to be imposed on the date-based export scheme, which is already so hedged with restrictions that rebuilding exports will inevitably be a long, hard process, and if British beef will be allowed into France only with a special label, his weakness will be exposed still further. At the very time that the row over beef exports has reached its climax, the scandal of contaminated French meat fed on illegal materials has erupted. That scandal is a separate, unrelated issue, but it raises the same principles.
Four weeks ago, the practice of feeding French livestock human sewage and other illegal material was publicised, and the Minister refused to act. Does anyone believe that if a British farmer was caught feeding British animals with illegal materials the Minister would stand at the Dispatch Box and say that no action was needed? The Minister tried to justify his inaction by saying that he was advised that there was no risk to human health. Even that was a misquotation. The actual advice was that there was no immediate risk to human health.
If the Minister is willing to accept that advice when it applies to meat produced in France, why will he not accept the advice of the chief medical officer about meat produced in England? Why at this time of all times, when France is demanding ever more detailed information about British meat, is the Minister so trusting of the French authorities that he has not even obtained their response to the European Commission inspectors' report? Is he afraid to ask for it? I understand that the French sent their answer to the Commission almost three weeks ago. Why has it not been published? If everything in the French cowshed is so tickety-boo, why the secrecy? There is a disgraceful double standard operating here. A Minister who agrees that safe British beef must carry the stigma of a special label before it can go on sale in France while refusing to allow British consumers to know which French meat coming into Britain has been fed with illegal sewage sludge will never enjoy the confidence of British farmers and consumers again.
Finally, on beef, three weeks ago the Minister claimed:
As for a link between the ban on beef on the bone…and the date-based export scheme, no such link exists.
I am sorry that the Minister is catching the habit of the Prime Minister of making statements that are not true. Just six days earlier, the agriculture counsellor at the French Embassy in London wrote to the Farmers Guardian making it clear that the British ban on beef on the bone was a reason for the French continued ban on British beef exports.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is saying that I have misled the House, but of course I have done no such thing.
Let me make it clear that what I said was that the Minister told the House:
As for a link between the ban on beef on the bone…and the date-based export scheme, no such link exists."—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol.336, c. 1119.]
If the Minister made any assiduous study of the farming press, he would have seen a letter in Farmers Guardian six days earlier in which the agricultural counsellor at the French Embassy made it clear that such a link did exist. Therefore, I believe that the Minister's statement on 28 October in the House was misleading.
That cannot be so. For the avoidance of any doubt, the date-based export scheme is for deboned beef only. No beef on the bone can go through that scheme for exports to the European Union. That is a matter of fact, whatever the opinion of others.
I am afraid that it is now all too clear why the French Minister runs rings round the British Minister, day in and day out.
Why will not the Minister ignore the Scottish and Welsh objections? Is not devolution supposed occasionally to involve some differences between what happens in England, in Scotland and in Wales?
Action on beef was not the only absentee from the Queen's Speech. Pig farmers, another casualty of the present Government's failures, were also totally ignored. My hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire, mentioned their plight several times. A year ago, in an Opposition-inspired debate, I called for action on labelling to end the practice of describing food as British if it was grown abroad and merely processed here. I called for action to stop retailers selling pigmeat produced under conditions illegal in Britain without telling consumers about it. One year ago, I urged Ministers to make sure that the public sector purchased food that was produced to British standards. It took seven months for the Minister to follow that up.
On 1 July he told the House:
I have on my desk draft letters waiting to go out to the major public authorities—the prisons, the health authorities and local authorities—not via other Departments but directly, urging them to source products of the highest welfare and animal welfare hygiene standards."—[Official Report, 1 July 1999; Vol.334, c. 422.]
No doubt, on 1 July, the Minister wanted farmers to believe that those letters would shortly be sent; but if they thought that, they would have been wrong. When I questioned the Minister four months later, on 26 October, he could not give a straight answer, and it transpired, incredibly, that those draft letters had remained unsent. They were sent to the authorities only after I had tabled a parliamentary question at the end of the summer recess, and I have little doubt that they would never have been sent if the Conservative Opposition had not actively pursued the matter on behalf of pig farmers.
In this debate, the Minister was keen enough, in an intervention on the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), to take credit for having sent those letters. When the Minister allowed a misleading impression to be created by his answer on 1 July, it was the action of a weak man who is once again letting down British agriculture.
I turn to one more subject on which the Minister has recently again been vocal—the pesticides tax. On 20 October, the Minister told the House:
The whole world knows that I am an opponent of a pesticides tax."—[Official Report, 20 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 457.]
Perhaps it was not quite the whole world who knew it, because last week, on 9 November, the Government published a document called the pre-Budget report, which, helpfully, has a section on pesticides. Paragraph 6.108 on page 112 says:
The Government believes that a tax or charge could be a useful tool…in addressing the environmental impacts of pesticides.
As far as I know, the Minister is still a member of the Government, so perhaps this evening he will say whether he agrees with the pre-Budget report. It is, after all, an official document. It is not some crazed spin doctor employed by the Chancellor to rubbish his colleagues, although it may be having that effect. Or perhaps the Minister was hoping to be released from his present job and made one of Labour's numerous candidates for London mayor—a position for which he need not support Government policy anyway. If the Minister does support the Chancellor, will he explain what happened between 20 October and 9 November to produce such a dramatic change of view?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This seems to be one of those policies that just appear, without any provenance. One might call it a bastard policy—but perhaps that is an unparliamentary word.
Was the Minister simply too weak to win his argument with the Treasury, or did he lack the guts to stand up and defend Government policy? If he fails to defend Government policy in the House, when he is surrounded by numerous supporters, what chance can there be that he will defend British interests in Europe and elsewhere when he is surrounded by other Ministers, championing their national interests?
I am conscious that many other areas of agriculture are causing concern at the moment, but I have tried to focus primarily on the most topical issues. I recognise the urgency of addressing problems of over-regulation—which have been mentioned—including the burgeoning cost of the integrated pollution prevention and control proposals.
I recognise that dairy farmers, like pig farmers, are being forced out of business week by week and month by month. That process has been accelerated by the Government's unjustified refusal to allow Milk Marque to invest in higher value-added products in processing, without first being broken down into smaller and weaker units. The Minister keeps telling us that he wants farmers to co-operate more for the purposes of marketing, but it is the Government in whom he serves who have denied thousands of dairy farmers the chance to do so. Once again, he has placed British dairy farmers at a disadvantage to their continental counterparts, who are able to take part in such vertical integration.
At the common agricultural policy reform talks in March, the Prime Minister failed to stop Ireland—a country already four times self-sufficient in dairy products—from gaining an increase in its milk quota next year while British dairy fanners, who are denied by the quota system the chance to serve their own home market, will be further undercut by cheap imports from the Republic of Ireland.
Let me conclude with three suggestions. As I said at the beginning, I want to be as helpful as possible to the Minister. There are three things that he could announce before 7 o'clock tonight. First, instead of discussing with the French more concessions on the date-based export scheme, which will make it even harder for British beef exports to resume, he should launch a legal action to obtain compensation for British beef farmers for the loss of the exports that they should have been enjoying since 1 August this year.
Secondly, until France has published its answer to the European Commission inspectors' report about contaminated meat and until that answer has been studied by British scientists to their complete satisfaction, the Minister should impose a precautionary ban to halt the sale of potentially contaminated French meat, which is coming into this country. Thirdly—perhaps the easiest and most overdue measure—the Minister should announce tonight that he is lifting the ban on beef on the bone in England.
If the Minister takes those three actions, he will have our full support and will go some way to restoring the damage that has been caused by the failure of the Queen's Speech even to refer to the crisis in agriculture. Without those steps, his credibility will be further damaged. If he fails to act now, instead of finding the solution to farmers' difficulties, he will become part of the problem and I will have to urge the House to oppose the motion.
I am slightly disappointed, because the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) usually calls for me to resign, and he has not done so. I am not sure whether it is a softening of his attitude or a display of weakness on his part, but it is a disappointment to me, because it does my credibility with my colleagues and with the farming community no end of good when he makes such calls.
First, I refer to the two excellent maiden speeches that we have heard today. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) referred to his predecessor and wished him well, as I know that the whole House does, in his new and very important responsibilities. My hon. Friend's maiden speech was a well-judged balance between pride in the history and endeavours of his local community and a careful warning of the problems and challenges that face his constituency on child safety and drugs. He also referred to pensioner incomes and the need to reward people who work hard and want to earn a living and keep more of the income that they earn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) also made an impressive maiden speech. He, too, paid tribute to his predecessor, who was popular across the House. In particular, he paid tribute to Roger's important role in Anglo-Irish relations, for which I know he will be remembered here and in Ireland. My hon. Friend is clearly getting the hang of being a Labour Member of Parliament. He praised Mr. Blair, as Labour Members of Parliament are encouraged to do—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I used to be the Chief Whip. It is no use being surprised at that. My hon. Friend praised Mr. Eric Blair—George Orwell—the author perhaps best known for "The Road to Wigan Pier". He is right to remind us of the tremendous local efforts that have been made in Wigan to tackle structural unemployment and to remind us of the importance of access to the countryside, as it is understood by those who work in urban communities and look to the countryside for recreation.
We have had a good and wide-ranging debate. I was particularly struck by the opening speech for the Conservatives by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). He put the ham into the Woking, having seemingly inherited all the jokes that the Leader of the Opposition discarded. He told us that he was brimming with ideas. We paused and a ripple went round the Government Front Bench as we waited to find out what was going to hit us. A quiet came over the whole House and then the right hon. Gentleman wished us a merry Christmas. I do not want to be left out, so I, too, wish everyone a merry Christmas. The right hon. Gentleman went on to describe his Front-Bench team as young and energetic—a controversial description, but the alternative would be to describe them as old and lazy, which is unfair—even I would not call them old.
The right hon. Gentleman lectured us about the downgrading of local democracy—this after a former Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), boasted of having abolished the GLC because he did not like the election result. It is not possible to downgrade democracy further than that. Two questions were asked, but the right hon. Member for Wokingham did not feel able to answer them, so, for the sake of accuracy, I shall do so. He was asked who introduced the fuel escalator. The answer is, the Conservatives. Then, he was asked who abolished it. The answer is, the Labour Government.
It came as a revelation to me, but perhaps I do not follow such matters as closely as I should, when the right hon. Gentleman told us of Lord Archer's exciting plan to sell London Underground. He did not say to whom Lord Archer would sell it, even though that is a fair question to ask of matters lying in Lord Archer's hands; nor did the right hon. Gentleman say how much Lord Archer would sell it for, which is an even fairer question. The right hon. Gentleman did not tell us about the impact of the policy on congestion, passenger fares or passenger safety, or what would happen to the pension fund arrangements, a relevant point which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody).
We heard the right hon. Member for Henley tell the House that the Labour Government had abolished the unelected Tory hereditary peers in an act of political spite. He failed to appreciate the irony of accusing us of acting out of political spite in that respect when he had boasted that the Thatcher Government had abolished the GLC because he did not like the election results. To hold that view is bad enough, to think it all right to state it in public is even worse, and to see nothing wrong with it even now is worse still.
The right hon. Gentleman became extremely upset about the Labour party internal arrangements for choosing candidates for public office—not determining the right to stand for public office, but choosing the Labour party candidate. He banged on for so long that he began to sound like a Labour party activist; for a moment, I thought that he was going to join the party, so great was his desire to participate in the process. Then, I looked across at the ranks of the Conservative parliamentary party and noticed that the more moderate and decent wing of the Conservative party was sitting at one end of the Chamber, on his own, and that the 17 other Conservative Members present were huddled behind the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), no doubt in an attempt to bask in the hon. Gentleman's reflected glory and stay as far away from the right hon. Member for Henley as they could while still sitting on the Conservative Benches.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the remarks made by the right hon. Gentleman about local government structures and the way in which the current Government should approach such matters. The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) was on similar lines. Those important matters are not as party political as some people try to make them: we all want structures that work for local government.
In winding up the debate, it is right that I concentrate on matters directly related to my portfolio. As I have done on many previous occasions, I shall respond specifically to the long list of charges and denunciations thrown at me by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. He always says that he wants to help me, but it never sounds or feels like that. He complains about over-regulation. I am trying to bear down on the regulatory burden in the sector for which I am responsible. We set up working groups to consider priorities that were chosen not only by me, but in consultation with the National Farmers Union.
The hon. Gentleman complains that the Queen's Speech does not provide for more legislation on agriculture. I am trying to deal with the existing burden. A new approach to the industry, not a new Act of Parliament, is needed to tackle the problems in agriculture. Measures will be forthcoming from the Government this year—for example, announcements will be made about the rural development regulation. Although that does not require immediate primary legislation, it is an important mechanism for reshaping our support for agricultural communities and farm businesses.
The mechanism is important because it takes us from a system of price support through a system of compensation payments for price cuts to a system—I hope—that decouples support from production and strips into its component parts the theory of multifunctionality that underpins the common agricultural policy. That means that we will spend more public money on paying—defensibly, I believe—for the goods that we wish to purchase and that less money will underpin production, whether we want the product or not. That is an economically rational way forward that is right for our country, our taxpayers and our consumers, and it is right for our farmers as well. There will be fixed-rate payments, which will remain constant while public goods are purchased. They will not be subject to market fluctuations in the same way as the current CAP regime.
The hon. Gentleman helpfully put to me three ways of avoiding his utter condemnation. His speech contained a full list of complaints, if not the new list, although it did not constitute utter condemnation. He suggested that I could fight for compensation, but that is a matter for the courts. We are considering a private sector trade; it does not take place with the Government. It is for those who suffer losses through the unlawful acts of others to fight to recover them through the courts. People who are unable to demonstrate their loss should be compensated, but that is a matter for the courts, not the Government.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk also invited me to ban other countries' products on no scientific or professional advice whatever, yet we are complaining about the French Government taking exactly such action. It would be grotesquely foolish for me to do for our country exactly what we are attacking the French for doing for theirs. Remember, the other member states of the European Union are on my side in my handling of the dispute. That includes Germany, which is often cited. The difference between Germany and France is that the Germans are trying to lift their ban while the French have suspended their parliamentary procedures for lifting it. The other 13 member states have lifted their bans. The Commission is on our side—so much so that it has commenced infraction proceedings against France. More than that, when I asked the Commission to do so on an expedited timetable, it did exactly that.
I did not hear that report but I am happy to explain our position on labelling, which has been consistent throughout. Product labelling is a condition of the date-based export scheme. Companies, such as St. Merryn Meats in Cornwall and the Scottish abattoir that has joined the scheme, want to export clearly labelled products. The Scots prefer "Scotch beef' as the designated term on their product. That will be accompanied by the abattoir number, which is traceable throughout the industry. A range of options is open to St. Merryn Meats, including the Meat and Livestock Commission's assured British meats label. Other clear designations are open to the company.
Labelling has two purposes. One is to facilitate consumer choice, and the other is to facilitate traceability within the meat sector. In the discussions, I have always been a staunch advocate of both. Labelling is already a condition of the date-based export scheme, as far as it is within the United Kingdom's competence to enforce it. I am sorry that this is a little arcane, and I know that the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) knows about it, but not every hon. Member does.
Within the European Union, discussions are going on around what are called the beef labelling regulations. The views of the United Kingdom Government and of the German Government are, for all practical purposes, the same. We are supporters of those regulations, and we believe that the product should be labelled and that the consumer should be free to choose.
We intend to sell our product on the basis of its excellence and the powerful public safeguards that make it one of the safest in the world. There is no intention to sell our products by deceit or deception, as is often alleged by our opponents or those who want to make trouble. It is not true, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ludlow for giving me the opportunity to correct that misunderstanding.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk asks me to lift the beef on the bone ban. My view is exactly the same as it has been since I received the report of the chief medical officer, stating that I could lift the ban on retail sales and on direct sales through catering outlets. I want to lift the ban. The only constraint on my doing so is whether it will be possible to lift it in an orderly way throughout the United Kingdom, which requires the consent of others.
That is not a recipe for indefinite delay. I said that I hoped to lift the ban before Christmas. That is still my objective. If it is not possible to do so with the consent of others, we will have to consider whether it should be done on a different timetable in different parts of the United Kingdom, but that is not the most desirable way forward, as it is bound to lead to confusion and difficulties in the industry. It would be better to do it together if we can, and it is right to allow a modest delay on our part to try to achieve that outcome.
Competence is devolved. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is consulted in these arrangements. That was always the case. There is nothing new in that. The powers that were vested in the Secretary of State for Scotland and in the Secretary of State for Wales are now devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Their chief medical officers are not giving to them the same advice as is being given by the chief medical officer for the United Kingdom.
Liam Donaldson is appointed as the chief medical officer for the United Kingdom, not for England. The advice that he is giving to the United Kingdom Government is not the same as the advice that the advisers to the other authorities are giving them. To reconcile these matters, we are allowing a little time. I hope that we can lift the ban soon. I certainly think that it is right to lift the ban.
No, I shall make progress. A range of points was put in the debate. I am sure that the interventions are all intended to be helpful, including that of the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), but I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. Time is short, so I shall make progress and deal with some of the other matters that were raised.
I return to the alternative policy proposed by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I am criticised for discussing these matters with the French, although I do not put to one side any of our rights in law. Indeed, the Commission is taking infraction proceedings against France, after we allowed, as we said we would, days but no more than that to try to get the issues resolved by discussion.
Incidentally, I have not given up hope of getting the issues resolved by dialogue. It is only fair to tell the House that we are very close. For the sake of completeness, I should also tell the House that I have made no concession whatever around the operating arrangements of the date-based export scheme. I could not do that. It would not be right for me even to attempt it, and I would not even attempt it.
Although it applies specifically in our country, the date-based export scheme is the property of the European Union, which decided on the scheme on a recommendation from the Commission at the Council of Ministers last November. It is not up for renegotiation.
Nevertheless, the French have sought other assurances on five points that are in the public domain. None of them are fundamental to the date-based export scheme, except for one area of disagreement, on which we cannot give the French what they seek. We are, however, able to give the French guarantees, and it is right to do so for this reason: we want the French to be our customers. If customers ask for guarantees and we are able to give them those guarantees at no extra cost or compromise to ourselves, surely it is right to do so. We will then be able to achieve what must be our core objective, which is to sell them beef. I want the French people to be customers of British beef. That is the purpose of talking to them, discussing with them and not shouting at them and being high handed, which is the alternative approach that is often urged upon me.
More than that, I am invited to ban French products coming into this country on no scientific or medical basis whatsoever and then defend my subsequent illegal action in probably the same court that the French would be in defending their illegal action against us if it gets that far. It is not sensible to start a trade war over these issues; it is not even proportionate.
At the beginning of our discussion, some people urged—I notice that they have shut up about it since—that we should use article 36 not as it was intended, but twist it and use it as an excuse. That point is made over and over again and it enters the folklore. So that the whole House can consider the advice that comes to me, I have put it—the best legal advice that is available to me as a Minister—in the Library. Everyone can then consider it. Have the advocates of using article 36 come forward with an alternative opinion? Have they said that the advice that I have received is not well founded in law? No, they have not. They have just moved on and come up with other arguments. Perhaps, if I resigned, the ban would be lifted. Why on earth should the person who is working hard for his country trying to sort the problem out be attacked and criticised?
The problem is not of the United Kingdom's making. Indeed, it is not even of the French Minister's making. I do not believe that the French saw it coming any more than we did. Having got the problem, surely the sensible thing to do is to try to work it out with people who are our friends, neighbours and significant trading partners. We should do that rather than escalate the quarrel and let the fallout land where it will.
There are those who say, "Ah, the French have more to lose than Britain, because they export more food products to us than we export to them." That is a very simplistic way of looking at things. If both sides were willing to accept hundreds of thousands of job losses and the millions of pounds worth of commercial losses that would hit both countries if we followed a trade-war policy and tried to enforce it when much of the trade is through third countries in the complexities of what is a single market, that would be ruinous to both countries. There is no point to that, but that ruinous policy is the official policy of the Conservative party.
The Minister seems to be trying to curry favour with the Prime Minister by following the same example of deliberately distorting the Opposition's position. There are two separate issues. We are dismayed at the fact that the Minister allows the French to continue reopening issues on British beef exports that have been settled to the satisfaction of everyone else.
However, there is a completely separate problem. Contaminated French meat may be coming in and being sold to British consumers without any label drawing attention to its origin. The Minister has the power, under the treaty of Rome, to impose a ban and there would be nothing illegal about that if he were satisfied that there was a risk to health. I accept that there is a dispute about whether there is a risk to health. He has scientific advice, which says that there is not, but other scientists, including some whom the Government have relied on in the past, say that there is. If he were satisfied, as we are, that there is a risk to human health, such a ban would be entirely legal, would be proportionate to the problem and would be targeted specifically at it. The only person who has advocated a trade war is the Minister through his own one-man boycott of French goods.
It is true that the Government have scientific advice. They have it from their scientific advisers. We carefully checked the advice through the working arrangements within government that will form the new Food Standards Agency—it is not just a matter for my Department, but for the Department of Health as well—and the scientific advice is clear and firm. Again, so that everyone can see what it is, I have placed that advice in the House of Commons Library. I have other scientific and medical advice, but it originates with the hon. Gentleman.
Each and every one of us can choose from where to take one's advice. Where would hon. Members take their advice from? The Conservative party presided over us getting into this mess in the first place. Under the Conservative Government it was Britain that was isolated in Europe. The Commission thought that we were hardly worth doing business with and despaired of us when it tried to help. Every single country was against us. Just to confirm them in the poor view that they had of us, officials from Britain were sent to frustrate each and every measure under discussion in the EU, even measures that would have been to our advantage had they been carried.
That is the sort of policy that is being urged upon the British Government, and I am saying that it would be better to try something different which might actually work. The one thing that I can demonstrate to the House and to the country is that the disastrous policies followed by the Conservative Government demonstrably did not work and, worse than that, the Conservative party has managed to refine things now to get us into even more trouble than we were in then.
I have only a few minutes left and I should try to answer some of the points that have been made in the debate.
Let me come straight to some of the complaints made by the hon. Member for Ludlow, although we have had them all before. He referred to the ban on sheep spinal cord. That is an important issue and I make no complaint about his raising it. I am considering the matter, but we have clear advice from SEAC that that is a necessary precautionary measure. The Government collectively think that they cannot go against its advice on the matter, although I want to consider it further.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the integrated pollution controls, again, perfectly properly. Representations are being made within Government about the charging, but I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that existing farmers would not be paying for pigs until 2003 and for poultry until 2004. Before we get there, I hope that I can have some positive and beneficial influence on the charging regime. I am looking hard at those areas that are within my direct competence, including the Meat Hygiene Service, to see what can properly be done on the charging regime, and I hope to have something to say to the House soon. It would be a fair criticism of me—I notice that the hon. Gentleman did not pick on what would be a fair criticism—to say that I should have said something about this already. My response to that is that, while I do not say something about that, the charges remain at the current level rather than being increased, so that at least should be some comfort to the industry.
I was asked about day-old chicks and welfare rules. No welfare rules apply specifically in those circumstances. There are no new rules on day-old chicks, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to pursue that further with me by correspondence I shall be happy for him to do so. I regret that I was not in the Chamber when he referred to a letter that he sent me to which he has not had a reply, but if he would let me have a copy of that I shall ensure that he has a reply tout de suite, as we who negotiate with the French say.
The hon. Gentleman and others asked about the pesticides tax. What I said about that is not incompatible with what has been read out. There are advocates of the tax, although I, famously, am not one. The document says "could" not "would", and the Chancellor did not refer to it in his statement earlier. We want a rational way forward on these matters, not the hysteria that comes from the Opposition.