I beg to move, as an amendment to the Address, at the end of the Question to add:
"But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech makes no reference to agriculture and the countryside, contains no proposals to assist farming, tourism and the rest of the rural economy to recover from foot and mouth disease, does not include any commitment to establish an independent public inquiry into the origins and handling of the epidemic, and does not explain how the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, from whose title agriculture is regrettably excluded, will protect the countryside and the environment without changes in planning policy to prevent excessive development on greenfield sites, to the detriment of balanced development of the inner cities;
regret that specific measures to improve transport are notable by their absence from the Gracious Speech;
and have no confidence that the Government will achieve the world-class public services that they promised prior to the general election.".
I again congratulate the Secretary of State on her new appointment and I express my sympathy to her for the loss of her voice, with which I heard her struggling on the radio this morning. She is the first head of a new Department with wide responsibilities and she carries a formidable burden in that capacity. On behalf of the Opposition, I genuinely wish her well in the task that lies ahead. I welcome the creation of the new Department. In establishing it, the Prime Minister seems to have heeded advice that I first offered in an article in Country Life in 1994, although I would have defined its role slightly differently.
Before dealing with the crisis in rural communities, the plight of farmers and other matters referred to in our amendment, I want to mention the wider environmental agenda on which the future of agriculture and the countryside, not just in Britain but elsewhere, ultimately depends.
This is, as others have mentioned, the first British Government to be elected in the 21st century. I hope that, in future, environmental criteria will be one of the main benchmarks against which they will judge all their decisions, and by which they will measure the success of all their policies, not just those for which the Department has direct responsibility.
Sustainability is the great challenge for the new century. The world's population is growing, and all around the globe people naturally aspire to better living standards. As a result, unprecedented demands are being placed on our planet's natural resources. Meeting those demands in a sustainable way must now be the top priority for Governments everywhere. We are all stewards of our inheritance. It is our duty to leave behind a world better than the one we inherited--a world that is not consuming natural resources at an irreplaceable rate. That is a duty for which the Prime Minister has shown scant regard in the past four years.
May I give the hon. Gentleman a little bit of advice? From where he stands, the result of the general election was extremely bad news because it means that the Government Benches continue to be thickly populated by people who rise to ask planted questions.
My hon. Friend anticipates my point: the problem as far as Geraint Davies is concerned is that only a very small number of those lackeys will be rewarded with ministerial posts. If I may offer him another piece of advice, I believe that the hon. Gentleman will command the respect of the House and of his constituents, and he might even gain the attention of his Front Benchers, if he speaks on the merits of the issue and offers constructive advice to the Government, instead of trying to make cheap debating points about what may or may not have been the record of previous Conservative Governments.
Few promises have been more spectacularly broken than Labour's pledge to be the greenest Government ever. However, in welcoming the Secretary of State, I recognise that she comes to the Department fresh, so we shall live in hope that the Government will repent of their errors.
On specific aspects of policy, I shall first explore another area on which Labour's record thus far has been truly dismal: agriculture. In the past four years, agriculture has been brought to the verge of extinction. Farm incomes have collapsed by two thirds, and 20,000 jobs a year have been destroyed in each of the past two years--even before foot and mouth disease hit Britain in February. I do not believe that a Labour Government would have allowed any other industry to suffer in that way without implementing a package of emergency measures, making regular statements to the House and establishing working parties and special Cabinet Committees to achieve the industry's survival. In 18 years of representing a rural constituency, I have never seen the farming community so demoralised or so despairing of its future.
The Secretary of State heads a new Department whose title does not even mention agriculture. She heads a team of Ministers in the Commons, not one of whom has agriculture as part of his main responsibilities. Those omissions confirm the worst fears of many people in the countryside that Labour simply does not care whether farming survives as an important British industry.
It is not merely the title of the Department that conveys that chilling warning; it is the actions of the Labour Government over the past four years. In a period of steadily worsening crisis in farming, Labour has refused to block substandard food imports from entering Britain, even when they threaten human or animal health. Labour has refused to introduce honesty in food labelling, even though consumers are misled every day about the origins of the food they buy. Until foot and mouth disease struck, Labour refused to claim much of the available agrimonetary compensation, even though part of the cost of that cash help for British farmers is met by the European Union. Labour has refused to protect the best and most versatile agricultural land from the threat of development, even though that risks irreversible loss of Britain's finest farmland. Labour has refused to stop gold-plating Brussels regulations putting ever greater burdens on farmers, slaughterhouses, food processors and thousands of other businesses. Labour has refused to protect conventional and organic farmers from the threat posed by genetically modified crop trials that are neither properly controlled nor effectively monitored. I urge the Secretary of State to reverse every one of those mistaken policies.
Will the hon. Gentleman display his knowledge of agriculture by telling the House which UK industry receives more subsidy than any other? Which UK industry receives a subsidy equivalent in amount to the subsidies given to all others?
I am bound to say that even I, with my extensive knowledge of the way in which Labour has treated agriculture for the past four years, was not aware that it was the Labour Government's policy to cut further the subsidies that are currently paid. We live in a world in which every advanced and wealthy country subsidises its farmers. If Britain alone were to go down the route that is advocated by the hon. Gentleman and perhaps supported by his party, then as night follows day, what remains of a once great British industry would be immediately destroyed.
Much of what the hon. Gentleman has told the House is myth. We should look at the detail. Does he agree that the detail is what is important? Was not it a Labour Government who introduced a ban on liquid condensate? On a range of issues, the Labour Government have--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman displays his knowledge by not even knowing what I am talking about. He should look at the record of the previous Conservative Government and at what this Labour Government will do.
It is this Labour Government who have refused to take any action against poultry meat imports from the far east, where growth-promoting drugs are used that have been banned throughout the European Union on health grounds. It is this Labour Government who have refused to take action against French or German beef that contains illegal and dangerous cuts. It is this Labour Government who deliberately talked out a Bill that was introduced by a Conservative Back Bencher last year which would have introduced honesty in food labelling.
The Under-Secretary of State says from a sedentary position that it would be illegal to introduce honesty in food labelling. That is exactly the problem. The Labour Government refuse to contemplate any action to defend the position of either British consumers or British producers. If they are not willing to take on the bureaucrats in Brussels on that issue, there is no hope that anything remotely resembling a level playing field will ever be introduced for British agriculture. British taxpayers would regard it as a perfectly proper use of their money to fight a legal action to introduce the principle of honesty in food labelling. As soon as there is a Conservative Government, we will put that at the top of our priorities.
Again, the hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. This Government are willing to stop those practices in Britain, but they do nothing at all to stop goods that have been produced using the same practices abroad from coming into the British market.
On the subject of legality and otherwise, does the hon. Gentleman remember the Merchant Shipping Act 1988? The then Conservative Government were warned about the illegality of what they were doing--they were trying to define on grounds of nationality instead of residence. As a result of continuing with that, they ended up having to pay £100 million to Spanish quota hoppers. Is he recommending that course of action again?
I am recommending a course of action that will protect British consumers from dangerous, substandard imported food. I believe that it is perfectly proper for the British Government to consider coming into conflict with the European authorities to protect British consumers. As it happens, both the European treaties and the World Trade Organisation rules contain specific provisions that allow the principle of free trade to be over-ridden where considerations of human or animal health apply. Indeed, all I am suggesting is that the same standards that we apply to every other industry be applied to farming and to food products. We do not allow substandard products that may endanger human life to come into this country--for example, motor cars that do not meet European standards. Why should we allow food that fails precisely the same tests?
I move on to common agricultural policy reform. I hope that the Secretary of State will set out the Government's long-term aims. They should aim, first, to apply the principle of subsidiarity to the CAP and, secondly, to end discrimination against farmers in member states that are outside the single currency area. That is an urgent issue, given the continuing weakness of the euro and the imminent expiry of the agrimonetary compensation arrangements. Thirdly, the Government should aim to rethink the basis of agri-environment schemes. I hope that the Government will publish a paper on the options for CAP reform and instigate a debate both inside and outside Parliament.
I turn now to foot and mouth disease. I regret to say that the Secretary of State did not get off to a happy start in her answers to questions on the issue last Thursday. Neither the tone nor the content of her replies to very reasonable questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House suggested that she realised the extent of concern in the countryside or the urgency of the measures that are still required. Hon. Members readily understand that after less than three weeks in the job, she will not be on top of all aspects of her brief, but her ignorance of some of the important issues is not, I am afraid, a reason for falling so quickly into the bad habits of her predecessor and making statements that are not true.
The responsibilities of the Secretary of State's new Department are wide ranging, and I trust that there will be another chance to debate foot and mouth disease specifically before the summer recess, but I want to touch briefly on four aspects of the epidemic today. First, a full and independent public inquiry is needed. Last Thursday, the Secretary of State steadfastly refused to countenance an inquiry on that basis--again confirming fears that the Government are hoping for a small, low-level review of the epidemic, conducted in a way that minimises the risk that ministerial blundering will be exposed to public gaze and that will prevent Ministers, including the Prime Minister, and former Ministers from being questioned in public.
The Prime Minister was, by his own account, in personal charge of handling the crisis from late March until, I understand, yesterday. His extraordinary claim that the Government were in the home-straight of defeating foot and mouth disease just before the election clearly owed everything to his wish to deceive voters into thinking that the crisis was over, and nothing to the facts. In the three months that the Prime Minister was in personal charge, he did not once see fit to make a statement on the subject in the House.
The scale of the disaster, the damage to the livestock industry, the countryside, tourism and the whole rural economy, and the enormous cost to the taxpayer clearly justify a full, independent public inquiry. To help that process, I am today publishing and placing in the Library possible draft terms of reference, and I am inviting my counterparts in all other parties to consider them and to suggest any amendments that they feel should be made, with the aim of reaching all-party agreement on this very important issue and about the need for the inquiry and the basis on which it will be conducted. I have also written this morning to the Secretary of State to make it clear that she would be most welcome to join any discussions that take place.
The second aspect of the epidemic is the need for a full recovery plan. Last Thursday, as reported at column 172 of Hansard, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Government would introduce such a plan, but refused to say when. The crisis in the countryside caused by foot and mouth disease cannot wait until politicians find time to consider the problems at their convenience. Thousands of businesses face imminent collapse, and many need cash help now. It is more than three months since we suggested that interest-free loans should be available to such businesses and repayable only when they return to profitability.
Ministers, whose salaries are paid regularly each month, do not always realise the agony of people whose businesses are running short of cash; they need help today. To back up the interest-free loans, we believe that further measures to increase rate relief are also required. Will the Secretary of State say why England will not match the measures already taken in Wales? Will she ensure that help is available in rural areas hit by the disease, even when those areas happen to fall inside urban local authorities? Will she set out as soon as possible the measures to be taken to deal with the new difficulties that will result from the ban on lamb and sheep exports? Will she announce the withdrawal of the Government's unworkable proposal for a 20-day ban on livestock movements? Will she introduce proposals for the recovery of the tourism industry, to help the livestock sector recover after the loss of valuable breeding stock and to assist other parts of the rural economy, including the important equestrian sector? Will we hear again soon from the rural task force, whose former chairman is, once again, absent from the Chamber?
The hon. Gentleman has just outlined a package of financial measures, which he would like to be put in place to assist the countryside. He has told us many times in recent weeks that his party could identify savings worth £8 billion in the Government's Budget. Why did he not propose putting that £8 billion into some of those measures, rather than proposing to spend on tax cuts the sum that he believed could be saved?
I am sure that it will be a comfort to the Government Whips to tick off another box to show that one of the questions that they planted has been asked. [Interruption.] I am quite happy to answer the question because I set out my view many times before the general election. The answer is that we believe and hope that this epidemic is a one-off crisis. It is a proper use of the Government's contingency reserves to meet the costs of a one-off crisis. That is precisely the purpose of the reserves. The expenditure commitments that I have outlined, which are precisely those that I outlined before the general election and during the campaign, would be met by a claim on the reserves.
"any unrecovered losses by anybody in any circumstances."--[Hansard, 21 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 172.]
I have never suggested that, and I regret that the right hon. Lady distorted my comments. I remain concerned, however, about businesses that have suffered unrecoverable losses directly as a result of foot and mouth disease. I shall give the right hon. Lady an example.
Farmers whose cattle pass the age of 30 months experience a fall in the value of those animals that can never be recovered. Before foot and mouth disease, those animals would have been moved off the farms and sold. Given the foot and mouth disease restrictions in many parts of Britain, farmers were not able to sell the animals but received no compensation.
At the request of the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I set out on
Will the right hon. Lady say whether she agrees with the response of the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on
The fourth aspect of the epidemic that I wish to highlight is vaccination. I think that the Secretary of State indicated on Radio 4 this morning that vaccination is once again under consideration. Why is that the case if the Government have made the progress in overcoming foot and mouth disease that the Prime Minister claimed? Setting aside the mystery of why an option that was examined as a possible solution when the crisis was at its peak should be reconsidered now, nearly two months after the Prime Minister said that the Government were in the home-straight, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what circumstances have changed to lead to the reconsideration.
Since the Government rejected vaccination in April, is there scientific evidence available that points to a new need for the process? Has the disease become endemic in some areas, or is it that with the election out of the way the Government are no longer afraid of the National Farmers Union? Will the right hon. Lady say what the purpose of vaccination now would be? Can she or her advisers answer the three questions that I have posed since March when vaccination was first seriously considered?
First, would vaccination reduce the number of animals that have to be slaughtered? Secondly, would it speed up eradication of the disease? Thirdly, would it bring forward the date on which Britain regains its disease-free status? I have asked these questions each time that vaccination has been discussed. I have said throughout that if the answer to at least two of these questions is yes, the Opposition will support vaccination, but I am still waiting for the answers.
I move on to the environmental issues. Yesterday's announcement, characteristically made by the Prime Minister outside Parliament, that the Government are to review energy policy raises the issue of climate change. Can we be clear who is now responsible for this area of policy? Is it the Secretary of State or is it the Deputy Prime Minister? Or has the Prime Minister abandoned hopes of achieving joined-up government and essentially decided on this issue, which so clearly has both domestic and international dimensions, to institutionalise muddle and possibly conflict within the Government ranks?
Is it the diplomatic skills for which the Deputy Prime Minister is so famous that qualify him to continue handling sensitive international negotiations? What steps do the Government propose to take to try to persuade the United States to respond more positively in the wake of its regrettable decision not to ratify the Kyoto agreement? What roles will the Secretary of State play, if any, in the Government's review of energy policy?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Labour's dogmatic decision to block the construction of 15 new gas-fired power stations has had a damaging effect on the UK's carbon dioxide emissions, and that allowing those power stations to be built would have cut carbon dioxide emissions by almost three times more than the total included in the Government's package of energy taxes?
The Government's disregard for sustainability extends beyond their approach to climate change to the whole area of planning and development. It is sadly obvious that the way in which the new Department has been set up downgrades consideration of environmental concerns in planning decisions. For the first time for more than a generation, planning policy is now under the control of a Department that has no environmental remit at all.
Will the Secretary of State exercise any influence over planning policy and decisions in future? Does she recognise that current Government policy involves using up greenfield sites at an unsustainable rate? When will the Government stop ordering local councils to build thousands of houses on greenfield sites in defiance of local wishes? Is not it time to give local communities a bigger say in planning decisions?
Why is Labour using regional planning guidance to force more than half the regions in England to review the green belt? Has not Labour already destroyed enough of the green belt in the past four years, without inflicting even more damage? Does the Secretary of State understand that once they have been developed, the green belt and the greenfield sites outside the green belt never return to their previous uses, and that whole areas that once enjoyed silence during the day and darkness during the night are lost for ever? Does she recognise that giving the go-ahead to bulldoze yet more greenfield sites and to concrete over yet more of our green and pleasant land simply reduces the incentives for developers to tackle the urgent tasks of regenerating our run-down urban areas and of re-using more previously developed sites?
Labour's planning policy of environmental vandalism is not only disastrous for the countryside but hurts the towns by denying them the chance to benefit from the regeneration to which the private sector would undoubtedly devote more effort if Labour did not make it so easy for them just to develop greenfield sites.
The countryside is threatened not only by bulldozers. Peaceful areas such as the Stour valley in my constituency, part of the Dedham vale area of natural beauty which extends to the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin, are also threatened by noise pollution from aircraft. I recognise that new air routes may be needed as the number of flights increases, and that extra airport capacity is likely to be required, but the best way to make that environmentally acceptable is to encourage quieter aircraft. I wonder whether the Government have a strategy to that end.
Given the frenetic spread of mobile telecommunications masts, often in worryingly close proximity to schools, homes and hospitals, would my hon. Friend care to say something about the desirable revision of planning policy guidance on that subject? Will he also agree with me that it is imperative that the Secretary of State should do so this afternoon?
My hon. Friend raises a matter that is of great concern to people all over the country, particularly to many parents who are worried about the presence of, or proposal for, a mobile phone mast close to a school where their children are studying. The concern about these masts is widespread and very real, and I very much regret that the Government have been dragging their feet over toughening up the planning regime for them. Conservative Members have been making clear, strong proposals on this matter for a considerable period. I hope that the Government will lose no time in responding to these suggestions. Any delay in taking action by the Government will simply provoke greater anger in urban and rural areas, and may also increase the health risks that may result from badly sited mobile phone masts.
The Government's hostility to the countryside in the past four years has sadly not been confined to their neglect of agriculture. Resources have been systematically switched away from rural areas. Shire counties lost an estimated £700 million in funding in the previous Parliament, and Labour's reluctance to extend the limited reduction in business rates already introduced for some village shops, post offices and pubs threatens the survival of many businesses that are the life-blood of their rural communities. I urge the Secretary of State to take up another of our suggestions and cut another £1,000 off the business rate bills of vulnerable rural shops, post offices pubs and garages.
The countryside is at risk from other threats. Labour's obsession with pressing ahead with genetically modified crops regardless of the environmental consequences could threaten Britain's wildlife and jeopardise the livelihood of many farmers. Will the Secretary of State give an unequivocal guarantee that no commercial planting of genetically modified crops will be permitted until their environmental impact is fully understood and advisers such as English Nature and others have confirmed that it is environmentally safe for such planting to take place? Will she also ensure that no genetically modified crop trials are authorised on sites within cross-pollination distances of organic farmland, and will the Government fulfil their obligations under the biosafety protocol to introduce liability legislation on damage that may arise from the environmental release of genetically modified organisms?
Finally, will the Secretary of State say whether, under the new Whitehall structure, she will chair the rural affairs Cabinet Sub-Committee? What will be the role in future of the rural advocate? Will the Government follow the practice of their predecessor and publish an annual update of the rural White Paper?
Time does not permit me to address various other issues such as animal welfare, biodiversity, fisheries and forestry, but I hope that they will soon be debated in the House.
Labour's first term was one of missed opportunity environmentally, malign neglect of the crisis in agriculture and hostility to much of the countryside.
No; it is too late.
The fact that the only reference in the Queen's Speech to rural issues is the promise to give time for yet another vote on banning hunting is a frightening indication of the Government's priorities for their second term. Now that the electorate have given Ministers a second chance, I urge them to use it to rebuild the rural economy, to support farming in the wake of the foot and mouth epidemic and to strengthen protection of the environment at home and lead the debate on the green agenda abroad. If they do those things, they will have the full support of myself and the Opposition. If they fail, they will be rightly condemned inside Parliament and outside it.
I shall be brief.
My Department's role in achieving sustainable development goes far beyond the rural environment. It covers the full range of environmental challenges, which are issues that affect the whole country. We have led the world in setting the strategy for a cut in greenhouse gas emissions. We have also legislated for greater protection for wildlife and landscapes and delivered cleaner rivers, beaches, air and drinking water. We shall continue to attempt to do that.
I have the greatest admiration for my right hon. Friend, but surely there must be some way in which we could allow one of her junior Ministers to read her text.
I believe that that is the case. However, if it is possible for me to communicate with the House, I should prefer to do so. If my hon. Friend is telling me that she cannot hear what I am saying, that is a different matter.
I shall endeavour to continue.
My Department will work with other Departments to ensure that sustainable development is at the heart of the Government's policy. It was clear from the remarks of Mr. Yeo that he has little to say about rural areas and not much to say about the Opposition amendment. The only two things that he had to say were, first, to imply that had the Opposition become the Government, they would have done all the things that they failed to do in the 18 years when they had the chance and, secondly, that the tragedy of foot and mouth disease is not only the most devastating thing ever to befall the British countryside but, in some way, almost the fault of the Government.
The amendment regrets the Department's new name, although it reflects the widespread recognition that the future of agriculture is as part of the food chain and that sustainable agriculture is a key element in that chain.
The amendment and the hon. Gentleman's remarks illustrate the almost unbelievably selective memory of the Opposition. He referred to the need to protect the countryside from genetically modified organisms. The only people who have so far licensed GM foods were the Conservatives when in government. He demanded a commitment to a public inquiry into foot and mouth disease. That comes oddly from a party who steadfastly refused any kind of inquiry into the BSE crisis, which was certainly one of the worst disasters to befall this country and continues to overshadow agriculture today.
When the present outbreak of foot and mouth disease is over, the Government will want an inquiry into what took place. We will want it to be thorough but speedy; we will certainly not want it to be delayed or expensive.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which will be considered.
Just as BSE is only part of the legacy left to the Government by the Conservative party, so it is only part of the problem of the agricultural industry, let alone the wider rural community about which the hon. Member for South Suffolk said so little.
The Secretary of State said that we are less committed to the countryside than we might appear and that the Government are very much committed to it. Can she explain why there was no reference of any kind whatever in the Queen's Speech to agriculture, rural problems or the countryside, apart from a commitment to a free vote on the banning of foxhunting?
The hon. Gentleman's timing is immaculate; I was about to come to precisely that point. The amendment claims that the Gracious Speech ignores the countryside, but its priorities are the improvement--including through legislative means--of education, health and crime, as well as of wider public services. They are just as important--perhaps even more so--in rural areas as elsewhere.
On average, between 1983 and 1997, 30 village schools closed each year. When the Conservatives left office, they left a third of all villages with no local shop. Nationwide, more than 3,000 post offices were closed and the Conservatives planned to privatise the rest. Britain spent less on rural development and green farming than any other EU country, except Spain and Greece, which were much poorer. By 1997, three parishes in four lacked a daily bus service of any kind.
Although the amendment calls for changes to planning policy
"to prevent excessive development on greenfield sites", the Conservatives released 1,200 hectares of green belt land for development in their last year of office alone. What was that about all spin and no delivery?
In sharp contrast, let me highlight some of the things that the Government have done. We set up the BSE inquiry that the Conservatives shirked, but we also put our money where their mouth has usually been. Last year, only two village schools closed. Last September, we set up a £40 million small schools support fund to begin to raise standards in schools with fewer than 200 pupils. English shire counties received £447 million extra to raise school standards overall and to tackle repairs. We have already legislated to extend 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief to all village food shops, as well as to sole village pubs and petrol stations and to new, small-scale non-agricultural enterprises on farms. The Post Office is obliged to prevent closure of rural post offices unless it is absolutely unavoidable. We have set out a seven-year rural development programme costing £1.6 billion.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk asked me about reform of the common agricultural policy. That is not the subject of today's debate, but through modulation of the existing CAP scheme, we have again shown the direction in which we wish it to go. I refer to measures such as the rural enterprise scheme through which we can help farmers respond better to consumer requirements. We are also refocusing the support that we provide to hill farmers and have substantially increased the money available for agri-environment and farm woodland schemes. That is on top of providing short-term help in the agriculture industry as a whole.
Two thousand new or improved rural bus services have already been provided, and 30,000 hectares--an area three times the size of Bristol--have been added to the green belt. That is the record that the Conservative party seeks to deplore.
What of the future? We shall build on the rural White Paper with a programme of investment to support the improved public services that rural areas so desperately need. I shall chair the rural committee to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
Extra resources are being made available to continue help to small schools, with the target that all rural schools should be connected to the internet by 2002. We are investing £270 million to support the post office network and to offer new services through computerised links. We are committing an extra £100 million of public and private funding over the next three years for the renewal of market towns to make them the focus for economic regeneration. Ninety such towns have already been announced, and we expect a further 30 to follow.
Three thousand affordable homes a year are on their way and a £30 million police programme should help to cut rural crime. Some £239 million over three years will be invested to boost rural bus services, supporting dial-a-ride, taxi and car-sharing schemes, with a new £15 million parish fund for community-based solutions.
The whole of England can now access NHS Direct and in the new NHS plan, up to £100 million will go on improving general practitioner services. Improvements will include new mobile units, one-stop centres and tele-links to hospitals in 100 areas covering the majority of people in the countryside.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State's visit to the Ribble valley yesterday to talk to farmers and those affected by foot and mouth in the tourism industry. She listened very carefully to what they said. They asked her whether they would have a future in tourism or farming after foot and mouth is eradicated. She said that she did not have an open cheque book, but can we expect an announcement from her soon on a survival package for those involved in tourism and agriculture who have been blighted by foot and mouth?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I listened very carefully to what was said yesterday. I have borne it in mind and will continue to do so. Work is in hand on a farm recovery plan and also on longer-term developments for the countryside for which, as he will appreciate, his constituents and others present called yesterday.
I congratulate the Secretary of State warmly on her appointment and wish her success. Given the flow of imports into this country that satisfy neither the meat hygiene nor the animal welfare criteria that we rightly demand of our own produce, will she undertake to introduce new honesty in food labelling legislation so that consumers can know the country of origin and the method of production of food and thereby make a free and informed choice about what to buy?
It was the Labour party that supported improved labelling for foodstuffs when the Conservative party opposed it. As for some of the specific requests of Conservative Members, not only have they been illegal since the previous Government signed up to an agreement under the Single European Act, but the National Farmers Union is on record as saying that they would be both illegal and counter-productive. This country has billions of pounds worth of exports from the food and drink industry, and the measures proposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party could jeopardise them. We will do everything that we can to protect British consumers, subject to the rule of law and to taking action that is not counter-productive.
Crucial in the context of rural services as a whole--this is a commitment that the Conservative party never even thought of giving--is the pledge in the rural White Paper to set a rural services standard. That will be a statement of what services rural people are entitled to expect and it will be independently audited every year. All major Government policies will be assessed for their impact on rural communities when they are drawn up. We shall set up national and regional rural sounding boards to give rural stakeholders a voice at the heart of government.
What all that shows--not in words from a party that had 18 years to deliver, but in concrete examples of delivery from this Government and concrete commitments to follow them up in future--is that we have laid out our commitment to investment and reform in rural areas as much, and perhaps even more so, than in the country as a whole.
Since being appointed to the new Department, with its crucial focus on sustainable development, which requires us to consider the economy, social issues and the environment together, everyone to whom I have listened in rural areas--not least in the farming community--has expressed a desperate desire for a renewal of hope, ambition and prosperity in Britain's countryside. The constituents of Mr. Evans did so yesterday. That is not only an ambition and an aspiration that the Government share, but an aspiration that is at the heart of, and given expression to in the programme for, the Queen's Speech.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment to the new Department and wish her well. I also congratulate her on contributing to the debate today despite her difficulties with her voice. I hope that she will be better soon. Despite the brevity of her contribution, she said rather more about her aspirations for the new Department than we heard in the Gracious Speech.
Many of us will have read with considerable interest the press release that the new Department put out on
"Our aim must be to enhance the quality of life through promoting: a better environment; thriving rural economies and communities; diversity and abundance of wildlife resources; a countryside for all to enjoy; and sustainable and diverse farming and food industries that work together to meet the needs of consumers."
I suspect that everyone in the Chamber would applaud those aims and wish the Secretary of State well in achieving them. They are fine words, but, sadly, the words in the Gracious Speech give us cause for considerable disappointment. There is little sign that the Government will do anything to put them into action, or of what the new Department is to do.
The Queen's Speech states that the Government are determined about
"Tackling climate change and making a reality of sustainable development".
As has been implied, however, the key issue is the Kyoto protocol, which we understand is to be left in the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister, so there will be no action for the new Department there. The only other relevant reference in the Queen's Speech is to the vote on hunting with dogs. As we all know, that is to be a free vote, so it is not an issue for the new Department.
The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that many other issues, such as the need to improve health, education and transport and the fight against crime, are as vital in rural as in urban areas. I agree, but her Department will not deal with those matters. We are pleased about the dismantling of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the establishment of the new Department, but what is it going to do?
Mr. Yeo rightly and properly mentioned farming. We know that the foot and mouth crisis has resulted in the slaughter of 5.5 million animals and the payment of £1 billion in compensation already. Sadly, we still hear of new cases almost daily. There was no reference to that crisis in the Gracious Speech or, more particularly, to any Government plans to set up a full and independent inquiry into foot and mouth and their handling of the crisis. The House and the country at large will want to know, for example, what impacts the common agricultural policy and the Government's management of the rural economy have had. What has been the impact of the gradual decline of the end-use price that farmers now receive on the way in which livestock is moved around the country, and on the spread of foot and mouth disease?
Only by means of a full inquiry, along the lines of the Phillips inquiry into BSE, will we discover what are the lessons that we urgently need to learn. I strongly urge the Secretary of State to say more than that there will be an inquiry: she must state categorically that it will be a full, independent and public inquiry, with the widest possible remit.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there must be a full inquiry into the circumstances of the foot and mouth epidemic and its consequences for the wider economy. Does he agree that it should also examine how the disease was contained so effectively in those continental countries where outbreaks occurred, and why the containment of isolated cases in this country was so unsuccessful?
My hon. Friend is right. We need to look more widely into the matter. Indeed, I suspect that the inquiry should also look at how the rather different regime that exists in Scotland handled the crisis.
As he has done before, with the support of Liberal Democrat Members, the hon. Member for South Suffolk rightly raised the issue of consequential losses. He said that there was a need to look at the compensatory framework in relevant cases, and I very much agree with his remarks. The Government have already introduced a number of measures in connection with that matter, but they have not said for how long those measures will apply. Many people will be interested to know what the Government's plans are in that respect.
However, we hope that the new Department will look at other issues beyond the public inquiry into foot and mouth. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the protection of the green belt. We argue that the Government should look urgently at the possibility of introducing a greenfield development tax to make it more difficult to build on green fields. It is an obscenity that there are 150,000 homeless households in this country, and yet there are a staggering 750,000 empty houses. Before we start talking about building new houses on the green belt, we should look at measures to redress that ridiculous imbalance.
I do not know the full details of the case, so I shall not be drawn on that question. However, local authorities are being placed in a difficult position by the imposition of housebuilding targets by central Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in trying to persuade the Government to change their approach. Local authorities should have a much greater say in setting such targets in their areas.
The Government should also consider a variety of other measures. For example, action should be taken to strengthen opportunities for farmers' markets in different parts of the country. That matter is especially close to my heart, as the first ever such market in this country was established in my constituency.
The Department should introduce measures to tackle the huge regulatory burden placed on people working in agriculture. Reference has been made already to the gold-plating of EU legislation, but other measures that need to be introduced include the establishment of one-stop shops where people working in agriculture can obtain information about the various farming support payments that are available. Perhaps the Government should also consider establishing a parliamentary ombudsman for those who work in agriculture.
The new Department also covers the crucial issue of the environment. The Labour Government have not shone on that issue in the past four years. They appointed Jonathon Porritt as their environmental adviser. In The Daily Telegraph on
"Anybody looking at it dispassionately is going to have a hard job proving that Labour has put the environment at the heart of Government, which is what they claimed they would do."
I hope that the new Secretary of State will do everything in her power to ensure that the environment truly is put at the heart of everything that the Government do.
In the past four years, under a Labour Government, the use of renewable energy has remained static at only 2 per cent. of the UK's primary energy, and targets to reduce soot and dust--the so-called PM10s--have been downgraded. In rural areas, air pollution is now at its worst for 10 years. Plans to tackle fuel poverty have been downgraded by the simple expedient of changing the definition. One million households have allegedly been taken out of fuel poverty by that means.
Under a Labour Government, we have had one of the lowest recycling rates in the EU. Sadly, even plans to reduce car use and increase cycling have been downgraded. It has not been a happy record. The Government could do a lot. They could take measures to boost recycling, make greater use of renewable sources of energy and increase the penalties on polluters. As the hon. Member for South Suffolk said, the Government could introduce rules of corporate environmental responsibility.
I agree that the Government need to take action not only in this country but elsewhere, not least in respect of the recent decision by President Bush on the Kyoto protocol. He has thrown down the gauntlet on action to deal with climate change. It is one thing to seek renegotiation of the protocol; it is another to repudiate it in the way that he has. I hope that the Government will recognise that it is debatable whether President Bush has a mandate for the line that he has taken. It is certainly debatable whether in the medium term the American economy can be sustained unless action is taken to minimise energy use. I hope that the Secretary of State and, even more important, the Prime Minister, will take the lead with our European partners in putting pressure on President Bush to rethink his disastrous decision.
It was a great disappointment that there was little evidence that the Prime Minister talked to President Bush about the Kyoto protocol during the summit last week when he had the opportunity to do so.
I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the Deputy Prime Minister was a key player in the original protocol? Does he recognise that the fiscal incentives that we have introduced to encourage people to use smaller cars and the tax that we impose on petrol put us in a leading role in the environmental agenda relative to other EU countries? Does he accept that in those terms a great deal of progress has been made?
The hon. Gentleman challenges me on several issues. I welcome the contribution that the Deputy Prime Minister has made, although I remind the hon. Gentleman that the right hon. Gentleman's negotiating skills, especially with his French counterpart, could be called into question. We are perhaps sitting on our laurels in respect of our success in meeting the targets set by the Kyoto protocol. The results of an independent analysis of Government action suggest that we have much more to do, and that many of our successes so far have resulted from policies adopted, perhaps inadvertently, by the previous Government, especially in respect of the so-called dash for gas. Bearing in mind some of the plans that the Government have had to reduce growth in the use--and indeed to reduce the absolute use--of motor vehicles, I question whether the Government have been remotely as successful as the hon. Gentleman suggested.
That brings me neatly to the other topic for debate today: transport. Here, too, we have a new Government Department, with a new Secretary of State. On
"Transport is at the top of the Government's agenda and we are determined to deliver a better transport system".
A better system is certainly needed, but it is a great pity, given that this is apparently at the top of the Government's agenda, that there was no mention of transport in the Gracious Speech. The new Secretary of State rightly says that we need a better transport system, but there is no suggestion that he will take any action to help achieve it.
I suspect that all in the Chamber would agree that the public transport system is a shambles and that, even for those who rely on their cars, there is now increased congestion and delay. The one thing that we now know above all is that that congestion and delay is costing this country dear. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that congestion on our roads costs British businesses some £20 billion a year. Our doctors tell us that the resultant pollution brings forward thousands of deaths every year. Ridiculously, it was possible to get around a Victorian city more quickly in a horse and cart than it is to get around a modern city in a modern motor car.
Even for those who rely on their motor cars, as some, particularly in rural areas, sadly must, the situation is not good. We shall persuade more people out of their cars only if we have a better public transport system. Yet it is a Labour Government who, over the past four years, spent less Government money on public transport than even the previous Conservative Government were spending on it.
To take as an example the shambles on our railways, it is no wonder that passengers feel that the Strategic Rail Authority cannot work out a strategy, that Railtrack cannot run a railway and that even the Deputy Prime Minister could not work out who to blame next.
I believe that many, although not all, in the House would agree that the shambolic state of our railways was shaped by the Tories' disastrous rail privatisation, which led to an unwieldy, fragmented structure, with hundreds of different parts all competing with one another. It was a recipe for the chaos that ensued, and in part led to the tragedies of the Paddington and Hatfield rail crashes, and the absolute obscenity of Mr. Gerald Corbett, the former chief executive of Railtrack, being offered a golden goodbye of £1.3 million, despite his admission that both he and Railtrack had failed.
Sadly, the new Secretary of State has said that he has no plans for any structural changes within the railway, yet structural change is now urgently needed. I do not support the calls from many people for renationalisation because I recognise that bringing back Railtrack alone would cost billions of pounds--money that I truly believe should be used not to line shareholders' pockets but to invest in improving our railways.
Some changes could be made. Parts of Railtrack--those directly responsible for the running of the railways--are run as a monopoly. It is not right in a monopoly to have a conflict between shareholder profit and passenger safety. We should restructure those parts of Railtrack that relate to the running of the railways, as distinct from its property management portfolio activities, and turn them into a not-for-profit public interest company.
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would leave Railtrack as a private company in charge of all the property side and leave the taxpayer to bear the burden of all the work that has to be done on maintenance and improving the railway?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, for whom I have great respect as Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee. No, I am not saying that. She will be well aware that Railtrack has assets that have no direct connection with the railways, such as buildings in the centre of major cities and so on. I am referring to those properties and their management, as distinct from the properties and activities that directly relate to running the railways. [Interruption.] I am glad to see, from the movement of the hon. Lady's hand, that I am already beginning to bring her round a little.
The hon. Lady will be aware that her Committee has been critical of the way in which our railways operate. On other aspects of transport--National Air Traffic Services, for example--she and her Committee have advocated a model similar to my proposal for Railtrack.
On restructuring, the new Secretary of State could go even further. For example, to reduce the number of elements in our railway system, he could reduce the number of franchises. He could also allow more of the train operating companies to take responsibility for maintaining the track on which their trains run. Rather than the perverse system under which 300 people are employed to work out delay attribution, he could introduce a completely new system giving incentives to train operators. At any one time, 60 people are sat down working out who is to blame for any one train delay. That is nonsensical.
Many, many changes need to be made and I urge the new Secretary of State in the new Department to reconsider his statement that he has no plans for structural changes to our railway.
On the hon. Gentleman's comparison with the NATS model, is he advocating that the Railtrack model should be a public-private partnership with the train operating companies and the Government forming elements of that partnership? Would not that be an equivalent?
Again, the hon. Gentleman takes me down paths that I do not want to follow at great length. He will remember the lengthy debate about NATS and the plans for part privatisation, which were vigorously opposed from these Benches and by more than 100 Labour Members, airline pilots, trade unions and others. For those parts of Railtrack that are directly related to running the railways, I advocate a model similar to that proposed for NATS by the Select Committee.
Adopting such a model, which would involve a not-for-profit public interest company, would enable that company to raise money through bonds and there is now a much greater likelihood that that model would attract additional private sector finance. Many Members are well aware of the difficulties that Railtrack is experiencing. It is unable to attract private sector investment, its credit rating has plummeted and it is having problems bringing in additional private sector money, although the Government's 10-year transport plan depends on that significantly. Therefore, the model that I propose would help the Government to achieve their desire to have £60 billion invested in the railways, which is much needed, including the split that they propose.
Geraint Davies must be aware of the ludicrous situations that have arisen over the past couple of months. Railtrack has constantly come cap in hand to the Government to ask for yet more money and for payment of money that it would receive in due course to be brought forward. The sad truth is that money that taxpayers have handed over will be used to pay shareholders' profits and the golden goodbye to Gerald Corbett. That is not how I want taxpayers' money to be used.
The word has gone out that civil servants in the new Department are referring to it by the acronym DETOL. I simply say to the new Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that our transport system needs far more than sticking plaster and DETOL if we are to put it right. A lot more needs urgently to be done.
The creation of two new Departments and the appointment of two new Secretaries of State has already been mentioned. But that in itself will not do much to address the many concerns of people in our rural communities about the environment and the need to create a safe, reliable and affordable public transport system.
No, I shall not.
Urgent action is needed from the two new Departments. Sadly, from the contents of the Gracious Speech, it looks as if we might be in for a big disappointment.
Before I call the next speaker, I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker's decision to impose a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches now applies.
I recall my beloved mother telling me of a crooner in the 1930s who was known as "the whispering singer". I never understood the advantage or attraction of such a performance, but having listened to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I realise that it may have had a quality of its own, not usually heard in the human voice. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her sterling performance.
The Queen's Speech is a clear indication of the fact that the Government have been given not only a positive mandate, but a series of instructions. The general election proved conclusively that the electorate do not want Her Majesty's loyal Opposition back in charge: they have too many uncomfortable memories of what happened when they were in government. The electorate know that many fundamental services are sadly in need of renewal, development and improvement, and they decided that a Labour Government with a large majority would be capable of delivering the level of service that they want. That is what we expect of the Government.
At long last, legislation has been placed on the statute book to create the Strategic Rail Authority and support rural transport such as buses. Those measures can be used to transform the situation for the average person. The normal passenger does not want to stand on an unstaffed, dirty station wondering whether they are safe while they wait for a train which, if it arrives at all, will probably be late and filthy, with lavatories that are virtually unusable. Normal passengers want to know that they will have sufficient services to get them to work on time. They need bus services that meet train services and they want better facilities such as proper bus stations, in addition to fully staffed services, so that they can use those constant and vital parts of the public services in the most efficient and comfortable way.
If the Government are to deliver that, they face many difficult and sharp problems and they need to take some hard decisions. An incoming Minister needs to consider the Strategic Rail Authority. I am second to none in my admiration for Alistair Morton, but in the two years of its existence, the authority has delivered neither the agenda nor the decisions that are needed. In spite of the appalling accidents that have caused so much uproar in the railway industry, it is clear that the train operating companies and Railtrack have yet to address the difficulties that make it impossible for the average passenger to receive the level of care that he or she needs.
Why is it, in this day and age, that almost as soon as the train operating companies got over the trauma of what happened at Hatfield, they started to squabble among themselves? Why is it that Railtrack seems incapable of taking a major decision that will have an impact on the services or produce high-quality care and safety? Why is it that we reward very inadequate management on the basis that the previous general executive of Railtrack was rewarded for failing at his job? I would be happy to leave Parliament tomorrow with the same compensation that was handed out to Mr. Gerald Corbett, if failing in one's job is all that is required, but I see no obvious way in which I can demonstrate how incompetent I am. Having looked at what people get paid for these days, it is no wonder that there is real disillusion and disappointment among the general public about what is happening in our transport services.
I want to address two narrow points. Because of the length of time that it will take to have an impact on the transport system, great and immediate action must be taken on the control of the Strategic Rail Authority and the direction in which it is going. The train operating companies must be told that they will not be given franchises unless they guarantee high standards for the passenger. The passenger must come first, and it is about time that we said that over and over again.
Above all, Railtrack must cede many of its responsibilities. It is no use saying, "We don't want restructuring" and then saying, "Oh yes, we would like them to do this, but to keep that." We are talking about a private monopoly company, not a state company, and it does not do the job that it was set up to do. It appears incapable at director level of understanding that it is a railway company. It still has only one engineering director. It does not have an in-house engineering inspection department and, in many instances, it is incapable of insisting that its contractors comply with the terms and conditions laid down in their contracts. That cannot be acceptable. None of us would accept that quality of work in our own homes, so why do we accept it within the public services?
There is another matter that is dear to my heart. The Government had better sort out their attitude towards the mix of private finance and public funds. Railtrack is a classic example of how we hand over vast amounts of assets to private companies which then fail disastrously to provide what they have undertaken to provide. The Government had better think hard about that. If there is any suggestion that private companies with a legal commitment to make a profit for their shareholders will be brought in to run the NHS, I believe that the public are ahead of us in rejecting the idea. That is not the way to do it. It is not the way to provide high-quality clinical services or anything else.
Look at the private hospitals built alongside NHS units. Look at what they charge the NHS for the provision of services. Look at the poor standard of care that is still only too acceptable. At the weekend, some very nice ladies told me what they want from the local county social services for the care of the elderly in my constituency. Their complaint was simple. They said, "It's appalling. The Government are going to require providers to pay the national minimum wage. We will have to increase our wages bill." They will have to pay £4.10 an hour to people who have responsibility for the elderly in Britain. I do not regard that as acceptable; indeed, in this day and age, I do not regard it as defensible.
I will not support Government moves that lead Britain away from a national health service provided by people committed to public care, towards a service that is far too frequently looked upon by private health companies and insurance companies as a way of making massive profits. We have seen what that means in the transport industry. We saw what happened when companies such as British Rail Engineering were sold. Managers were brought in and told to run the company but they were incapable of doing what they had been asked to do. Private firms came in and asset-stripped entire companies. As always happens in such cases, the British public were left with the worst deal, paying all the bills, not getting the services and finding that it was unacceptable to question loudly what was happening. Many members of my family have been wholly committed to the NHS. I have never received private care because I have strong views on the quality of clinical care provided in the private industry--and it is an industry.
I say this to the Government: I expect results in the transport industry and I expect the national health service to benefit from large sums of taxpayers' money and to achieve high clinical standards of care. I do not expect a Labour Government in any circumstances to treat the workers in the national health service in the same way as workers in the transport system have been treated in the recent past. I see no hope of the Government getting support from many members of the Labour party if that is their intention.
It is with a sense of enormous honour and no small degree of humility that I rise to present my maiden address following my election success in the constituency of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and hon. Members who have already spoken with great passion and ability in the debate on the Gracious Speech. My ambition is to prove, in the months and years to come, a willing ambassador and representative for my constituents, while paying due regard to the traditions and respect accumulated by the House over the centuries.
My constituency and its boundary-changed predecessors have been well represented in the past by some exceptionally able Members of Parliament, who have gained great respect on both sides of the House. Most recently, Mr. Alasdair Morgan was an eloquent and forceful advocate for the region and for Scotland as a whole during his term as Member of Parliament for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale between 1997 and the recent Dissolution. Although we may have disagreed about Scotland's place in the United Kingdom, Mr. Morgan was in all senses an honourable Member who set new standards in terms of being accessible to his constituents. I have spoken to many residents of the three counties encompassed by my constituency and have yet to speak to one who does not acknowledge the open and able way in which Mr. Morgan represented them. One of the most important aspects of party politics is to recognise quality on both sides of the House: Alasdair Morgan served us well.
Prior to Alasdair Morgan's arrival, between 1979 and 1997, the noble Lord Lang of Monkton was Member of Parliament for Galloway, and then for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. The Chamber has seen many exceptional talents in its long history, and Lord Lang was surely one of its most eloquent; he now brings his talents to bear on proceedings in another place. He served the House well throughout his time as Secretary of State for Scotland and as President of the Board of Trade and during his spells at the Department of Trade and Industry and the Scottish Office. During that time, by common consent, he never lost sight of his role as a constituency Member of Parliament and he was a forceful advocate for my region. They are big shoes to fill.
Galloway and Upper Nithsdale is a constituency that is rightly described as "Scotland in miniature"--although the fact that it covers more than 1,500 square miles means that "miniature" may well not be the most appropriate adjective. It encompasses the three principal counties of Wigtownshire, Kirkcudbrightshire and part of Dumfriesshire covering upper, mid and lower Nithsdale. From the burgh boundary of Dumfries, it stretches westward to the busy port of Stranraer and northwards up the Nith valley to Kirkconnel and the Ayrshire border.
The tourism and farming industries are the bedrock of the local economy, based around the small market towns of Castle Douglas and Newton Stewart. My constituency, by common consent, is host to some of the finest dairy herds in the UK and some of the most expansive upland hill sheep farms. Our pedigree farm stock includes the world-famous belted Galloway, to whose profile this particular new Member's has somewhat cruelly been compared.
Our tourism market has suffered greatly from the foot and mouth crisis that has gripped our region, like so many others, but we look forward to welcoming old friends and new to treasures such as the Scottish national book town at Wigtown, the fishing port at Kirkcudbright and the rugged scenery of upper and mid-Nithsdale, with its mining towns and small communities dependent on fishing, field sports and walking tourism.
As you will be aware Mr. Deputy Speaker, the climate in Scotland is not always the most clement. I am happy to reassure the House that the subtropical climate of the gardens of Galloway remains a huge draw for visitors, no doubt aware that the Mull of Galloway is further south than Hartlepool. The climate and the gulf stream have created a corner of Scotland where palm trees happily co-exist with the Scots pine.
The rural communities scattered across that half of Dumfries and Galloway are a delight to the visitor, but a challenge to maintain. I am sure that all hon. Members would support the view that Scotland's diversity is its attraction. Part of that diversity lies in its sparse population in rural areas. I am well aware of my obligation to play my part in sustaining those rural communities. Too often, families are separated far too early when offspring have to leave to find work or to further their education. We must find a way to keep those communities together by encouraging sustainable development and long-lasting rural and family communities that work.
This is an important time to represent Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. The challenge to create viable long-term communities has been made all the more critical by the arrival of foot and mouth disease earlier this year. Following its spread across the constituency, the sense of emptiness is in places palpable. Farmyards lie empty, fields lie overgrown and auction marts that were for so long the social centre of rural Britain lie sadly dormant.
Given that mine is a constituency in which farming and tourism are the major employers, the House will understand that foot and mouth has ripped the heart from Galloway. The worry, the despair and the torment have been unimaginable. We must all hope that the progress against the disease can be maintained, and that life can return to some degree of normality as soon as possible.
Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that my particular accent has not emanated much from the Conservative Benches in recent times. I am happy to be the advance party for others who will surely follow, and in the meantime I will make a habit of providing simultaneous translation for those who require it. It remains important that this House be a meeting place for all opinions the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. I am delighted to be the one to return the Scottish Conservative and Unionist tradition to the Floor of the Chamber and I look forward with relish to my time ahead.
I look forward to representing in this House a beautiful and unique part of the United Kingdom. I feel passionate, as hon. Members I hope will have understood, about the particular needs and views of my constituency. I look forward to playing my small part in moving the region forward.
It is a delight to follow Mr. Duncan. He follows a long line of distinguished hon. Members representing that constituency. I found his speech very entertaining, although it contained a sombre note because, like mine, his constituency has been struck with the dread contagion of foot and mouth disease. He said that he was an ambassador for his constituency. He carries a heavy burden because, for the Conservative party, he is an ambassador for the whole of Scotland. I suspect that there will continue to be a small advance party after the next general election, but I wish him well.
I want to confine my remarks to foot and mouth disease. My constituency of Pendle has now been touched by the disease; it struck just after the general election. Before then, it was held in the so-called Settle-Clitheroe rectangle. The A59 was the firebreak. We were all keeping our fingers crossed that the disease could be contained on the Ribble valley side, but, on 9, 10 and
Feelings have been running high in my constituency. Many accusing fingers have been pointed at the Government and others. I was gratified to learn that the Secretary of State had accepted an invitation from Mr. Evans to meet farmers at Gisburn. Yesterday, I took some farmers from the Pendle area to meet the Secretary of State, and they told me afterwards that she had handled the meeting very well. There was a lot of praise for her straightforward handling of the questions and she impressed the farmers, but some of the concerns that came out of the meeting still have to be addressed by the Government full square.
At the centre of the concerns was whether British farming had a future after the disease had finally been stamped out. If the farmers take the compensation and restock, will there be a cap on numbers? Several farmers said that the 20-day movement ban would kill the industry. I do not know what the answer is if we want to prevent foot and mouth taking hold and spreading again, but there were real concerns about that. There were concerns about foot and mouth being endemic in the deer population, and I know that the Minister will want to comment on that in the winding-up speech.
Concerns were expressed by people in the agricultural supply industry whose businesses were reeling. The number of bad debts in farming made it very difficult for the people who supply the farmers to carry on. It was suggested that people in the agricultural supply business could do some of the work that former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials are doing at present in advising farmers, on disinfecting, and so on.
There was much concern that compensation was not reaching farmers quickly enough. That is clearly critical, because farmers, like the rest of us, cannot survive on fresh air, and they need to know when they will get their money. That is not an exhaustive list of the issues that the farmers raised, and there was an expectation that an inquiry will take place.
It sticks in my throat when I hear Mr. Yeo, who speaks for the Conservative party, banging on about an inquiry, given that it took the Labour Government to hold an inquiry into BSE. Why could the Conservatives not have held an inquiry into BSE during their long period in office? They had to wait for us to win the 1997 election to have an inquiry. However, I do not want any inquiry to be like the Phillips inquiry, which took two years to complete. It would take a week to read the entire Phillips report, which runs to 15 volumes. Life is too short for that; I want an inquiry that will be focused, that will not take for ever and that will supply the answers to some of the questions that have been posed.
Outside the meeting, farmers also expressed other concerns, which, for reasons best known to them, they did not raise directly with the Secretary of State. Some people were anxious that the vets themselves may have spread the disease--I do not know the answer to that. Another criticism was that vets with a background outside farming were brought in from overseas. A farmer told me that a vet from Florida who did nothing but treat exotic animals came over to deal with foot and mouth disease.
This is a case in which the Government are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The state veterinary service had 220 vets, which was clearly not enough. We needed to bring vets in to deal with the outbreak, and the number increased to 750 or 800 vets. Clearly, there is always someone who is prepared to mock or sneer and say that the vets brought in did not have a perfect command of English or whatever, but the important factor was that the vets could identify the disease and recommend the proper action to take.
There were concerns about lorry loads of carcases being removed from the infected area in Pendle along country roads through areas that were not infected. I am not aware of the logistics involved in getting the animals to the renderers, and I invite the Minister to comment on that.
There was a separate meeting about the state of the rural economy. I was told--it is a shocking statistic--that £1.2 billion was lost to the north-west economy as a result of foot and mouth disease. I, and many others, are still waiting for the list of successful towns that bid for help under the market towns initiative. That information should have been made available on
There are many angry people in Pendle who have pressed the case for vaccination. They set up a small group, the Heart of Britain foot and mouth action group, which managed to persuade Pendle borough council to back a resolution calling for the introduction of protective vaccination in areas immediately threatened by the disease, and mass vaccination in areas that rely on tourism. That could mean the entire country outside urban areas. It seems that the question has not been properly thought through. I agree with the Government's position, which is that vaccination should be held in reserve. It is possible to vaccinate rapidly if the situation becomes completely out of control.
I advise those who have written to me about these matters to refer to the remarks of Jim Scudamore, the chief vet, in his contribution to the inquiry undertaken in the last Parliament by the Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. On
The Liberal Democrats' policy should be put on the record. At a public meeting in my constituency, the Liberal Democrats gave people the impression that their party's position was to vaccinate everything that moved in the farmyard. That was not the position. On
How extensive is the foot and mouth epidemic? I have only two more minutes. Many think that it is endemic in the upland sheep and the deer populations. During the BBC's "World at One" on
I am delighted to be the first Conservative Member to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan on his maiden speech. It was a pleasure to hear a good Scottish accent on the Opposition Benches--my mother is half Scottish--and one that I could understand. There was no need for translation.
My hon. Friend Mr. Yeo made a typically eloquent and forceful contribution to the debate. Perhaps that is not a genuine compliment because I know that he is not standing for leadership of the Conservative party.
I agreed with my hon. Friend when he said that he was pleased that the Gracious Speech included a reference to tackling climate change and making a reality of sustainable development. I am strongly of that view. If the Government really wish to take that approach, after making their declaration in the Gracious Speech, they could reincarnate the Select Committee on the Environmental Audit. I see two distinguished Labour Members who were members of that Committee, but I do not think that any Opposition Members present in the Chamber sat on it. Were it in existence, we would be harrying them, as much as we did in the previous Parliament, to commit themselves to tackling climate change, to making a reality of sustainable development and to making those issues the heart of their policy in government.
As a matter of fact, by a peculiar quirk of our procedures, there is no impediment to that Committee being set up immediately. Unlike all other Select Committees, apart from the Public Accounts Committee, we do not have to be set up by the Committee of Selection. The Whips could get together and reach an agreement today to reincarnate the Committee, and I have mentioned this to a Government Whip and to the Whip who is talking away on my own Front Bench, my hon. Friend Mr. Paterson. Let us get on with that, so that we can have a real debate about sustainable development instead of the good but token remarks in the Gracious Speech.
Obviously, the main theme of the Gracious Speech--or perhaps I should say the main priority; we are getting into semantics here, but I understand the difficulty that the Government are in--is improvement in our public services. Few of us would quarrel with that--it was certainly the theme of the general election--and that applies across all the public services, including the police, health, schools or whatever.
I want to concentrate on transport and to drag the debate away, if I may, from the concerns of Mr. Prentice, who rightly spoke about agriculture, BSE and so forth. I want to concentrate on my own concerns as the Member for Orpington and a Member for our great capital city. Transport is a real problem in the capital city today. Many of my constituents commute into London to come to work. Indeed, many of them work at the House of Commons and I know of the problems first hand, because they complain to me regularly about the nature of the commuter services that they have to undergo daily.
First, commuters have to get to the station and find a car park; the buses are not always reliable. The trains are often late when they get there, as Mrs. Dunwoody mentioned. A recent commuter watch by the Evening Standard found that 25 per cent. of the trains going from Orpington to central London on the Connex South Eastern line were late. When commuters get on the trains, they habitually find them overcrowded.
Overcrowding is the problem that people complain about most often in my constituency. Indeed, some of the staff members here have complained that, in this hot weather, they have almost fainted while going home after a day's work in the House of Commons. The fact that they are packed, like sardines, into an overheated old carriage makes me wonder about safety. If something went wrong, what would happen? That is clearly on people's minds since the recent accidents, which we are all very sad about.
When commuters get to London, they have to face the underground, where the gates are frequently closed because no more people can be accommodated on the platforms. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said of facing the horror of an evening's journey home in temperatures of 90 deg F that it would not happen to animals. Human beings should not be allowed to be carried in that fashion legally.
There are huge problems. It is not only that the present situation is so bad. There is also very little light at the end of the tunnel, which itself seems a long way off. Even Ken Livingstone, the Mayor, said the other day that it would be at least five years after the next election for Mayor--fortunately for him--before we should see any significant improvements in transport in London. Similarly, Sir Alastair Morton said only yesterday, I think, that it would be at least five years before we saw any major improvements in the railways. That is a very long way off when one is sitting in a packed train going to work.
I remind the House that London is the great engine of economic growth, and we cannot afford to have more dispirited people turning up for work. I look to the Minister to say something about how the situation on my own commuter line can be improved. I want practical measures to be introduced, for example, to deal with the problems of overcrowding. There should be some reasonably affordable short-term solutions, such as platform lengthening, signalling replacement, and dealing with bottlenecks such as the infamous Borough market junction, which could lead to some improvement to the commuter line that my hon. Friend Mrs. Lait and I share. Such measures would allow people to carry on with some hope that something will happen, not just in the long-distant future, five or 10 years from now, but in the foreseeable future.
The beginning of a Parliament is a good time not only to think of immediate concerns of that kind--important though they are to my constituents--but to stand back and examine the Government's approach. It is essential, in relation to the new Departments in particular--whose creation at least shows a recognition of the need for a fresh Government approach--that there should be clear thinking and clear-cut decisions. In that respect, I welcome the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research--not a Conservative think-tank, but one that is more oriented towards new Labour--which had some sensible things to say. In particular, it made the point that we should drop the dogma. How often have we exchanged dogmatic views of "public right, private wrong" or "private right, public wrong" across the Chamber or in a general election? We have had our fill of such exchanges in the past few weeks and should try in the interests of our constituents to drop as many of them as possible. We should also recognise that different solutions are appropriate in different circumstances.
I certainly recognise that the Government's transport inheritance from their predecessor was not perfect. The privatisation of the railways, for example, was overcomplex and made a signal error--sorry about the pun--by splitting track management from train operations, organisation and management. My view is not that of hindsight; to the horror of the then Government Whips, I expressed it on Second Reading of the Railways Act 1993. I have always felt that that separation was a fundamental error in our privatisation plan.
Nevertheless, privatisation has some advantages, an important one being that, to some extent, it has removed the Treasury's dead hand from investment. It has also made the railways more customer oriented.
I therefore accept that, because of their transport inheritance, the Government have been constrained in their transport decisions. However, despite all its obvious faults, Ministers have undoubtedly made matters worse by dumping all the blame on Railtrack after the recent accidents. Consequently, Railtrack is now not the vehicle for raising private capital that it was originally envisaged to be. That is a serious problem for those trying to attract extra investment to the railways rapidly, so as to give relief to constituents such as mine.
The Government have a serious choice to make about whether they are going to support Railtrack, so that its share price increases and it is able to attract investment and private capital, or whether--as the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Crewe and Nantwich were saying--to restructure Railtrack. I would not be averse to the latter option. Railtrack is so subsidised by taxpayers' money that there is case for saying that we should take the equity for that and thereby make Railtrack effectively a renationalised company.
Subsequently, bits of Railtrack could be leased out to the operating companies and management of the operating companies could be reintegrated with management of the rails. We might then have a sensible and less complicated system. It would be a fitting finale if we called the new organisation the British railways board, as Simon Jenkins humorously suggested the other day. That is the type of process that we need.
The Government have only themselves to blame on the underground; they cannot blame their predecessors. Ministers not only created the underground public-private partnership of their own volition, they recreated all the mistakes that had been made in the Conservative Government's privatisation of the railways. The PPP is too complex. Even Bob Kiley says that he cannot understand it, and I should think that he has studied it far more than anyone else has. It also envisages splitting rail from track as happened in the railways privatisation.
The Government have some clear decisions to make on the underground. Should they--
As I represent part of the city of Sheffield, hon. Members may be surprised to see me speaking in a debate on the Queen's Speech that is focused on rural issues. Hon. Members who have not visited the constituency of Sheffield, Heeley may not appreciate how green it is and how many of my constituents take a keen interest in rural affairs. However, I am sure that hon. Members will know that Sheffield, like Rome, is built on seven hills and that Heeley has its fair share of them. They afford residents some of the most magnificent views of the city and of the beautiful Derbyshire borders that are at the southern boundary of my constituency.
The constituency also boasts a farm, Heeley city farm, which not only has animals, but which offers work training, education and various community enterprises, all of which are seeking to work in an environmentally friendly manner.
It is a particular privilege for me to represent Sheffield, Heeley, as it is the area where I grew up and where I first joined the Labour party. I am only the third Labour Member for the constituency and have the distinction of knowing both previous Labour Members. The seat was first won for Labour in 1966, when my father was the election agent. I know that many people still remember the then Member, whose name made him an ideal candidate. In these more cynical days, it would perhaps be thought of as a deliberate ploy to select Frank Hooley, with "Hooley for Heeley" providing an easy and memorable slogan.
By the time of the 1970 election, with a father and uncle as councillors in Sheffield, I had already developed an interest in politics and took to debating the case for Labour with my school friends. A permanent reminder is my school photo of that year, in which I can be seen proudly wearing my "Hooley for Heeley" sticker. It was, however, to be an early lesson in losing; the Conservative candidate won that year, with a narrow majority of 713. Four years later, Frank Hooley was re-elected and served the people of Heeley as an excellent constituency Member until 1983.
In that year Bill Michie was elected, continuing as Member of Parliament until his retirement at this general election. I also first knew Bill when I was a child. My earliest memory is from a time when he was standing for the local council when I spent a morning with my sister making red rosettes in the campaign room. However, I cannot claim to have made the rosette which he stills wears to this day, prominently sporting an "Old Labour and proud of it" sticker.
In his maiden speech, my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan highlighted the physical differences between himself and his predecessor. I, too, claim differences from mine, and not just differences of gender. Robert Waller and Byron Criddle, in their "Almanac of British Politics", described Bill Michie as follows:
In a national newspaper during the election, I was described as
"strapping with a pleasant toothy smile."
It could have been worse. They have yet to pronounce on my political views.
Since my selection as Labour candidate for Sheffield, Heeley in July last year, I have been involved in campaigns in the constituency. On many occasions, people have told me of the work that Bill Michie did for them. Organisations have spoken highly of his contribution in supporting their aims and assisting them wherever possible. I pay tribute to his 18 years as the representative for the constituency.
Not only am I the third Labour Member of Parliament for Sheffield, Heeley, I am also the third Labour Co-operative Member for a constituency in Sheffield. The first was A. V. Alexander, subsequently Lord Alexander, who represented the constituency of Sheffield, Hillsborough. He was first elected in the early 1920s and had a distinguished political career, serving in government as First Lord of Admiralty and Minister of Defence. In May 1929, he said:
"There will be many cries raised at the General Election, but the overriding issue will be the cure of poverty and unemployment."
These are still issues for us today and I am proud to be a member of a party that has these goals. However, we should not be content that, over 70 years on from that speech, we are still grappling with the same problems. Nevertheless, that we find ourselves in a position where these are realistic goals is a tribute to the Labour Government of the past four years and to the measures set out in the legislation proposed in the Queen's Speech. There is also recognition that we should not be content with tackling such issues only within our borders, but that the reduction of poverty should be a central aim of United Kingdom international development assistance.
The second Labour Co-operative Member for Parliament--also for Sheffield, Hillsborough--was George Darling, who was first elected in 1966 and served until 1974, when he was made a life peer.
I am sure that, like me, many new Members have received letters congratulating them on their victory; some from old friends or, as in my case, former bosses. One, however, was particularly unexpected. Richard Corbett, Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and the Humber, wrote as follows:
"Dear Meg, I am writing to say how sorry I am that you were not elected. I know how terribly disappointing it must have been for you."
I hope that he does not know something that I do not; disappointment would hardly cover it.
Finally, I wish to comment briefly on the adoption and children Bill. I want to associate myself with the comments of David Davis, who urged us to scrutinise the Bill properly as it will affect the lives of many children. Over the past five years, I have had experience of, and significant responsibility for, making decisions on adoptions. The importance of these decisions cannot be underestimated; they demand considerable care and expertise. Adoption cannot be viewed merely as substituting one set of parents for another for a child who needs a new family. Adoption has lifelong implications for all three sides of the adoption triangle--the birth family, the child and the adoptive family.
I welcome proposals to speed up adoption for the many children who are currently awaiting adoptive families. Setting up a national register will help to ensure that children are matched as soon as possible with approved adoptive parents.
I particularly welcome the proposal to place a duty on local authorities to provide adoption support services. Most of the children who are adopted today have been in the care of the local authority. Their experiences will mean that they will demand more care and support than other children. A child who settles happily into a family at the age of three may experience extreme difficulties when a teenager, with which she or her family are ill prepared to cope. The continuing availability of support for those involved in adoption can be crucial if a family is to avoid further breakdown. I make a particular plea that such support is properly funded and that consideration is also given to putting funding for adoption allowances on a firmer footing.
In my work, time and again, I was amazed to see what the love and dedication of families could do for children who had experienced neglect and abuse. Adoption is so often about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. There are many children waiting for more ordinary people to come forward and care for them. The Bill will, I believe, help to achieve that goal.
I am pleased to support the Queen's Speech.
It is an honour to follow Ms Munn. Her predecessor, Bill Michie, was well known in the House. Everybody got on well with him, and he will be missed. He has been replaced by a lady with a toothy smile, as she told us herself, and we look forward to seeing that toothy smile for many years to come. She has already mentioned an interest of hers, and I know that she will be joined by many right hon. and hon. Members who wish to see some common sense in adoption matters. We wish her well in her campaign on that issue.
This is an important debate on the Queen's Speech, and I wish to use my time to concentrate on the effects of foot and mouth. The disease has hit Ribble Valley very hard. At the outset of the general election, the constituency saw a number of outbreaks and, sadly, they have carried on apace.
We were delighted when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to Gisburn yesterday. Mr. Prentice and I were there, along with members of the farming fraternity and the tourism industry. They were able to put their concerns to the Secretary of State at first hand. They made a number of suggestions and although I thought it quite right that the right hon. Lady did not come forward with immediate answers--after all, she is still feeling her way in this new Department--she listened to what they said. They will be waiting to hear what constructive proposals she makes in the weeks immediately ahead--some people cannot wait months for new proposals.
It is sometimes said that foot and mouth affects only a small percentage of livestock. However, where foot and mouth strikes, it affects 100 per cent. of animals. At this time of the year, we are used to seeing sheep, lambs and cows in the fields. Yesterday, I was at the home of a farmer whose animals had been culled in Worston. She told me how devastating it was. People are used to seeing all the animals in the fields, but there are no animals in the fields surrounding certain villages now. It has hit the people very hard.
Today, I sent messages to farmers who had written in. One wrote:
"Everyone should realise that this disease is far from over, and people's lives are being ruined. You only need to look at the faces of our local farmer and his family to understand that a lifetime of work and commitment has been ended at the hand of a slaughterman's gun due to the spread of foot and mouth."
I have other such messages, which speak with passion and experience about the enormous impact of the disease. It is not only farmers but their neighbours and friends who are affected because they feel for the farmers in their plight. They want the disease to be eradicated as quickly as possible.
People also want to know that there is a future for farming. That question was raised yesterday. The hon. Member for Pendle mentioned the rumours that persist that when restocking takes place it will be at a greatly reduced level and that there is a conspiracy to reduce the number of animals. I was reassured when the Minister said that there was no such policy. We want to know what is to happen in the short and the long term.
I hope that the inquiry will be full and public. We do not want it to continue for an inordinate length of time or to be inordinately costly, but we want a thorough examination that will be useful. I do not know what happened to the 1967 report, but it was not as useful as it should have been--we would not have been facing the present distress if it had been. We have to learn from 1967 and from what is happening now, so we need a public inquiry. My hon. Friend Mr. Yeo has made suggestions and has laid them in the Library. I hope that the Minister will be able to consider constructively that suggestion about how the public inquiry should be undertaken.
Many people are questioning how the disease has spread into new areas. One lady asked me yesterday whether we knew if the disease could live on the beaks of birds and, if so, for how long. She suggested that birds get at the carcases or on to diseased animals and that it is spread in that way. Such questions are being asked and we need to know the answers.
Farmers have referred to the importing of meat that is not of the same quality as our meat. It has been suggested that diseased meat could have caused the outbreak. If that is the case, we need to know and we need to be reassured that positive action will be taken to prevent that from happening again.
Yesterday, farmers were talking about a level playing field. They agree to enforce all the extra hygiene rules and the regulations to ensure that we have the highest standards of meat and yet they face competition from abroad--from inferior meat from countries that do not have the same rules and regulations. That cannot be right or fair.
People want a full debate about the disease. We have not had such a debate in Government time and I hope that we will have at least one full day to discuss it before the recess. That is not too much to ask of the Government. Whenever the Government were intending to rise for the recess, they could add one more day for business. Let us debate the matter then. It would be wholly wrong to rise for the recess without a full debate in Government time so that we can all make positive contributions.
People want honesty about the disease. Farmers are angry because they believe that its importance has been downgraded and kicked to one side. The media were interested before the election, but now that that is over we cannot get their interest back. The issue has been sidelined and people are forgetting about farmers. We need to let farmers and those who have been blighted by foot and mouth know that we have not forgotten them and that we understand the pain that they feel and their situation.
The question of compensation has been raised. In some cases it has been paid late, but it has at least been paid. Farmers outside the dairy sector who have not been able to move their animals for months have suffered too, but they have received no money. I do not know what some of them would have done had they not had help from the agricultural charities. When a similar crisis breaks out again, we must look at what support can be given direct to farmers who, because of foot and mouth, can neither move nor sell their animals.
In addition, are farmers who receive compensation expected to live off that money? My fear is that the erosion caused by living expenses over, say, six months will mean that they will not have enough money to restock to the levels obtaining before foot and mouth hit. The Government have not addressed the general problem of restocking but perhaps, when the disease has been eradicated, we can start to look at the future for farming in this country.
I have heard many horror stories from farmers whose animals have been culled. In some cases, the culling has not been performed humanely. I have heard about pot shots being taken at animals in the fields. That happened in Ribble Valley in the past couple of weeks, and it cannot be right. We were told, after a similar incident in Wales, that such a thing would never happen again. It must not; people involved in the slaughter must be directed to ensure that it is done in the most humane manner possible, and that animal carcases are removed. However, I still do not understand why animals are not buried on-farm.
We must look to the long-term future, and decide what direct action can be taken to help the tourism industry. My constituency has many tourism industries that have been badly affected by the disease. The Secretary of State said that she wanted to get on top of the problem by the autumn. She has our full support, but action must be taken before the autumn comes--
I prepared for this, my maiden speech, with the most exquisite of cream teas at the village school fair this weekend. After it, I went to one of my house's outbuildings, where I rummaged through some of the junk of yesteryear. I came across a very old and dusty trunk, such as might feature in classic children's books--it is mysterious enough for Harry Potter to look at. With trepidation, I prised it open. I found a few historic gems and two old newspapers. One was a rolled-up edition of the Daily Mail from 1934. The paper was a broadsheet in those days, but its contents were familiar, with stories about an opium raid in London, concern over the school syllabus, the jailing of a gang of shoplifters--and about a professor calling for an integrated transport system. How times have changed!
Since 1934, the House has heard only two maiden speeches from hon. Members for Bassetlaw--from Captain Fred Bellenger in 1936, and from Joe Ashton in 1968. Captain Bellenger was reputed to have the most beautiful spouse of any hon. Member in the House at the time, and I am certain that that tradition has been upheld in this Parliament. My wife is a business woman, an occasional lorry driver, and an exporter to Europe, so I can be certain that I will be kept well informed about the concerns of business with regard to the price of diesel.
Captain Bellenger called for an increase in MPs' pay in his maiden speech, and Joe Ashton's autobiography reports that he took up the theme. Reputedly, his first words to Harold Wilson were, "Prime Minister, when do we get paid?" Like Fred, Joe served the constituency well for more than 30 years. The particular affection that local farmers and members of the Conservative party felt for Joe is testimony to his appeal. I have given a solemn undertaking to my constituents never to mention Sheffield Wednesday other than today in saluting Joe's work--the two being inseparable. My own preference is for the Tigers--Worksop Town--and, on current trends, I will soon be entertaining Joe as the two teams meet in the same league.
Joe's autobiography has a foreword by the former Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook, who was, I am afraid, too busy to accept my invitation to Worksop during the recent election campaign. More's the pity, as I can announce today that the award for the top election breakfast in 2001 goes to May's cafe in Worksop. It provided a veritable feast--enough to sustain any politician through the rigour of the campaign.
One of the things least known about Bassetlaw is where it is. Well, north Nottinghamshire is Robin Hood country, although whether in his coup d'etat Lord Hattersley intends to star as Robin Hood or one of the merry men, I am not yet sure. We have a swathe of green across the constituency: it was once the dukeries, where landed gentry rested at leisure.
Let me return to the old trunk, for I mentioned a second newspaper. Pasted to the inside of the trunk is an 1880 edition of the Retford and Gainsborough Times headlined "Tories gain in Sheffield"--strange times indeed. I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Munn on an excellent maiden speech. I am sure that she will go well in the House. The year 1880--121 years ago--was the last time that Bassetlaw had a Member of Parliament who lived in the constituency, as I do. I live in the strawberry capital of Britain.
In 1880, my village had 40 dwellings, three of them pubs. There were two murders, one of them of a publican by the staff of one of the local pubs, and there was a severe alcohol problem. I have still to uncover any evidence of crowd incursions onto the village cricket pitch. Village life is rather more placid these days.
Swathes of red strawberries fill the fields during summer, and these are no ordinary strawberries. The best strawberries are hand picked and packed and then sent around the country to supermarket distribution centres. If I go to the local supermarket, I may find that my local strawberries have done a round-Britain trip. In reviewing our agricultural policy, I echo local sentiment--what a strange way to run the world.
My village has what every village needs--a school, a pub and a post office. I shall be looking to this Parliament for policies that sustain that basic social infrastructure of rural life. During the pre-election period, I lived on a large beef farm. I take this opportunity to congratulate those in my constituency and elsewhere who acted with speed and certainty to take precautions that have left Bassetlaw and Nottinghamshire foot and mouth free, unlike in 1967. We need a food policy that gives our farmers and rural communities certainty in planning, not merely for a year or two but for 20 years and more.
We also have the brown of many brownfield sites. With 4,500 job losses in the past 12 months--worse than in any constituency in the United Kingdom--we need sustained investment. We certainly have the land, especially at former colliery sites.
My forefathers came from Epworth, six miles across the Yorkshire border. They were saddlers and contemporaries of John Wesley. Bassetlaw is endowed with many fantastic Wesleyan chapels, and untapped tourist potential certainly exists. We are also the home of the pilgrim fathers. When Finningley airport is opened, as it surely must be, there will be tremendous potential for enticing American tourists. In February, large numbers of tourists come to Bassetlaw as part of the countryside turns white at Hodsock priory with the most beautiful white snowdrops one could find anywhere. I recommend it to everyone.
Communities of every type comprise Bassetlaw. The people are hard working and honest; they are grafters. In the war, they were the men who dug the coal, and those who fought for king and country, and the women who made the bombs, many of them stored in secret locations across my constituency. These are not an office-based people by tradition, but they can be, if given the skills.
I hope that I have given the House a bit of the kaleidoscope of the colours of my constituency--the greens, the reds, the browns, the whites. But in the last century, there was one other seasonal colour. Every four or five years, for about three weeks, every hedgerow, farmer's field and roadside verge turned a dark blue. That was until one spring in 1997, when that traditional blue was seen much less. In this new century, I am pleased to inform the House that not only has that unnatural visitor virtually disappeared from Bassetlaw's fields and hedgerows, but the farmers who once planted it with abandon now remove it on sight, should it spread to their land.
I look forward to serving the people of Bassetlaw well in the House.
It is a great pleasure to follow John Mann. He was among the first group of MPs that I met at Westminster, in a television studio, and all the new Members there made it clear that their prime duty would be to their constituents, which I found very welcome. I would argue about the best election breakfast, because I could recommend the Horse Fair cafe in Kidderminster, and I would argue about the strawberries--the strawberries of Wyre Forest are magnificent--but if that is a sample of the speeches that we shall get from the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to more.
I address the House as, I believe, the oldest new boy. I have had the ultimate compliment for the older generation in that the Fees Office, before it would pay me, demanded to see my birth certificate.
I come with an overwhelming mandate from the people with whom I have lived and worked--[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am on my feet. Someone's mobile phone is going off; we really cannot have that in the House.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I come with an overwhelming mandate from the people with whom I have lived and worked for nearly 30 years, and they have now given me the greatest honour and privilege--that of representing them here in the House before you.
My predecessor, the former hon. Member for Wyre Forest, was the first Labour Member for the constituency for 40 years, and on election he took the welcome decision to move and to live locally. He was known as a very hard-working constituency MP, who took on many local personal and general problems with great energy and commitment. He achieved rapid promotion, but he took advice from politicians and civil servants and a small minority of local doctors about the hospital, the single local issue that meant most to his constituents. He genuinely believed that he was doing the best for his constituents in that and all matters.
Wyre Forest--rather like Bassetlaw, I do not think that anyone knows where it is--is in north-west Worcestershire, a large rural area with some towns, and suffering badly from foot and mouth disease, particularly in the neighbourhood of Chaddesley Corbett. The large towns are Kidderminster, known for its carpets, for the Kidderminster Harriers and for the Severn Valley railway; Stourport, known for its inland docks, being the Blackpool for the Birmingham residents; and Bewdley, sadly known for its floods, but also for its festival. Hon. Members who represent Birmingham constituencies probably do not realise that, in the middle ages, Birmingham was referred to as Birmingham by Bewdley.
The previous hon. Member for Tatton, whom I count as one of my friends and mentors, described himself as "An Accidental MP". I am exactly the opposite--an intentional MP but of late onset. "Late onset" to a doctor means late in life.
Recently, it has been my intention to become an MP because of an all-consuming passion, born out of an intense anger about the arrogant, dismissive and unfair treatment that my friends at home have had to suffer at the hands of unelected quangos and civil servants. I and the majority of voters knew that the voice of the people was not being heard, despite successes at local elections, and we decided to use the ultimate weapon of the democratic society--the ballot box. We demand that we be heard and that our views and needs be recognised and acted on.
I must mention the uniquely drastic, punitive and unfair downgrading of Kidderminster general hospital--an acute hospital of 300 beds that earned a charter mark for all its services. How has that been allowed to happen? Consultation was, I am afraid, a farce. The option appraisal was dressed up in pseudo-statistical clothes, but was, in reality, just a vote. The application for judicial review asked a simple question, "Is it lawful to consult on one preferred option only?" The answer, of course, was yes, so the quality of consultation was not revealed, only the quantity.
How has the change been allowed to progress unhindered? This is sinister. Following local doctors' initial documented and unanimous disagreement with the health authority, they have been effectively silenced. Three consultants across the county have bravely spoken in public about disasters and disadvantages, and they have all been censured by managers and politicians. Thus, doctors who opposed the downgrading have been effectively gagged and it was possible to promote the myth that local medical opinion was in favour of the changes.
The other myth that was devastating to us was that the downgrading took place because of royal college guidelines. That was not the case. Let us look around the country: the same royal college guidelines have been interpreted entirely differently, so more sensitive downgrading has taken place at Kendal, Bishop Auckland, Neath, Hexham and several other hospitals.
My constituents will not rest until it has been made possible to ensure the provision of emergency services locally. In the meantime, the scandalous waste of money planned for Kidderminster must be stopped. The newest ward block opened in 1995 at a cost of £14 million. It is about to be gutted at a cost of £13.7 million to provide one-stop clinics, which have been in place in existing buildings for 10 years. That local hospital issue is an example of the threat to local hospital services for rural and semi-rural communities throughout the country.
The wider issues on which I was elected are to campaign for fairness and openness in decision making and against the use of spin, and for a greater voice for ordinary people in major decisions that will affect them and to help them cut through red tape. I welcome the promises to improve education and to help the police to fight crime. In particular, I welcome the emphasis laid on foot and mouth disease today, because my constituents are badly affected.
I shall also campaign to protect the original ideals of the NHS. I am extremely worried by the threat of increasing privatisation of the NHS. Given my long experience as a doctor in the NHS, as a patient, a manager and, previously, a health authority member, my dream is to represent the patients' voice, which is so weak at present.
I must recount a moment of our campaign. Outside a middle school, I was besieged by children who all wanted my autograph. I was slightly amazed until I realised that they thought I was standing for election against Mr. Blair--the Prime Minister himself. I am pleased to say that that is not one of my ambitions. My ambition is much easier to achieve. I have already appointed myself my party's shadow health spokesman, against little competition. Above all, I shall prize my independence; I have no master save the people I represent, who returned me to the House with such resounding authority.
First, I congratulate Dr. Taylor on his extremely interesting maiden speech, which held the rapt attention of all Members of the House. His detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the national health service will enable him to make an important contribution to the deliberations of the House in the years ahead, but for only four years, I hope. I was also impressed by the other Members who made their maiden speeches this afternoon--my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and Mr. Duncan, all of whom will make valuable contributions.
I want to say a word or two about the formation of the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I welcome that development, as the abolition of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was long overdue, and the Ministry had few friends as foot and mouth disease took its course. The decision will also enable the Government to make the linkages between agriculture, food production and environmental policy that much tighter, which I welcome.
On the other hand, there are dangers, because environmental policy may come to be considered as entirely an issue of the countryside and be defined rather softly as involving protection of green fields, tree planting, making small changes to agriculture and protecting rural villages. It would be unfortunate if we allowed that to happen, because, essentially, environmental policy should deal with the hard and important questions of waste management, the sustainability of our natural resources, the quality of life in urban and suburban areas, the nature of our transport systems and energy supply.
I therefore ask the members of the new Department's ministerial team, who are working in a Department that ties environment and agriculture together more closely, not to forget their responsibilities to ensure that the work of other Departments is scrutinised and influenced in terms of its environmental impact. I call on Ministers to take a particular interest in the work of the Treasury and fiscal policy and the work of the Department of Trade and Industry as well as matters of transport and local government.
I want to make a brief point about foot and mouth, which has dominated the debate. My constituency of Bury, North is largely urban and suburban, but it contains a small agricultural interest. Thankfully, the farmers in my constituency have not suffered directly because of foot and mouth, but many businesses in urban and suburban areas have been affected. Therefore, when the Government consider the consequences of foot and mouth and, in particular, the compensation payable to its victims, will they please pay attention to urban businesses that have suffered because of what has happened in the countryside?
We tend to think entirely in terms of farmers and rural businesses, which is a worrying tendency that I want to check, because I know of businesses in my constituency that have gone through an extremely difficult period over the past six months. They need some attention, too.
I welcome the fact that there will be an inquiry and I understand the Government's desire to hold it urgently and quickly rather than have it drag on for years and years. That is understandable, and we need to learn the lessons of how the disease has been managed and gradually brought under control. However, in focusing on the disease itself and in trying better to equip ourselves to cope with a future outbreak, we are missing the bigger picture. It is difficult to say this when so many farming communities have been stricken by foot and mouth, but the bigger picture is that many aspects of the intensive industrial agricultural practices to which we have become used for half a century are unsustainable. Indeed, some are revolting and need to be challenged and banned.
I hope that the Government will not only conduct an inquiry into the management of foot and mouth to learn lessons for the future, but hold a wider debate on the nature of food production. The consumption of less meat would have enormous advantages for the economy of the countryside. Its impact on human health would improve the quality of people's lives. Biodiversity would also be enhanced. I want an inquiry to take place about moving away from intensive industrialised agriculture.
I agree completely. We should also consider how four large supermarkets control the supply of food and most people's diet. There are wider issues than disease management.
On climate change, it is interesting that we have a new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but that, according to the Order Paper, the debate does not cover the environment. Although the Opposition's amendment makes a passing reference to protecting the environment, the most profound issue that every country faces is the threat posed by climate change. All the excellent policies in the Queen's Speech and the Government's achievements of the past four years will be as nothing if we do not get the policy on climate change right.
I was interested to hear Mr. Yeo make encouraging remarks about the importance of climate change. He said that his party recognises the problem, but the Conservatives said nothing in their four years of opposition and did nothing in their 18 years of government to acknowledge the threats posed by climate change. That must be seen in the light of the new intransigence of the Bush Administration in the United States and new scientific evidence.
The second report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, published in January, revised upwards its assessment of global warming. In the past few days, Nature published research by Scandinavian scientists on what impact the melting ice floe in Greenland might have on the Gulf stream. It could lower the temperature in the United Kingdom, which would have an impact on agriculture. We must get to grips with that. It is no good simply saying that it is a good point; the Government have to continue to be prepared to take the hard decisions to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, which the Opposition have resisted.
The Government announced yesterday a serious review of energy policy. That is overdue, but welcome. The country is at a crossroads. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw was concerned about the price of diesel. We can continue to delude ourselves that we can burn off fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow and that the supply of coal, gas and diesel is infinite, but we cannot sweep under the carpet the fact that the price of diesel and other fossil fuels needs to increase if we are to reduce consumption. The difficulty is that there is huge public resistance to that--they have not made the connection between burning diesel, petrol and oil for heating and the impact that that has on climate change.
I call on the Government to think more seriously about how they can raise the consciousness and understanding of the public. They need to conduct a major information programme on the link between burning fossil fuels and the impact of climate change. I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will not sit back and rest on the laurels of the achievements of the past four years, and that he intends to make great progress on climate change policy.
In my maiden speech to the House, I should like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Andrew Welsh, who served the people of Angus so well for so many years. Andrew was first elected to the House in 1974 for the constituency of Angus, South. He then served as Member for Angus, East and, since 1987, for Angus. In all those years, he effectively pursued, with single-minded determination, the interests of his constituents and of Scotland. I am delighted that Andrew continues to serve the people of Angus as our first Member of the Scottish Parliament and as convenor of its Audit Committee.
Angus is a constituency of small towns and villages with a large rural area comprising the eastern part of Angus, small parts of Dundee and the villages of eastern Perthshire. It also includes my home town of Arbroath, where the first declaration of Scottish independence was signed in 1320 and where we look forward to hosting the signing of the next.
Angus is a beautiful part of our country, but it is not without its problems. In his many years in the House, Andrew Welsh fought for the future of health services in Angus and, to coin a phrase, that work goes on. Dr. Taylor told us about the situation in his constituency. That is all too familiar to the people of Angus. One of the greatest problems facing rural areas in Scotland is the centralisation of services. Last week, the Prime Minister and other Labour Members talked about improvements in the health service, but that is not the experience of my area and many other rural areas in Scotland.
The health trust in Tayside has possibly the biggest deficit in the country. It cannot even tell us its exact size. It has embarked on a policy of centralisation of services, with disastrous consequences for my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) and for Perth (Annabelle Ewing). Stracathro hospital--the only hospital between Dundee and Aberdeen to offer acute services--is under threat of closure. Services, including acute medicine, are being removed to Dundee. In the past two years, we have suffered cut upon cut. Tayside health board undertook an acute services review to examine the health service in Tayside and make recommendations. Yet before its report was considered, the health board announced the removal of acute medicine from Stracathro.
In the Prime Minister's speech last week, he mentioned staff morale in the health service. On Tayside, it is at rock bottom. They do not know from one week to the next what is to happen to their hospitals or jobs. It has become a vicious circle: staff leave to find security, but new staff cannot be attracted because of the uncertainties of the future. We are told that a new hospital in Angus will replace Stracathro hospital. Perhaps it will form part of the biggest hospital building programme since the war that the Prime Minister mentioned. However, the new hospital will not have anything like the range of services that are provided by Stracathro. Services that are removed to Dundee are unlikely to return to Angus.
We have been told that no cuts have been made to public services, but if services are removed and a hospital provides lesser services, what is that if it is not a cut in services to a community? As we have heard, Angus is not alone in that.
In the Queen's Speech we are told that patients will be given greater influence over the health service. The people of Angus want an end to the ruinous rundown of services and the crazy centralising agenda that will leave no acute services between Dundee and Aberdeen. Those who have driven up the A90 may have seen the sign for the cafe at the entrance of Stracathro which says:
"Ye May Gang Faur and Fare Waur".
That may well turn out to be the epitaph of hospitals in rural Scotland because many of my constituents will have to gang faur and may fare waur, if they can ever get there in the first place.
There is a difficulty at the heart of the Government's programme for the NHS. They talk about the health service in rural areas and the private finance initiative, but how many private finance companies will invest in small rural hospitals or schools? They will be looking for the big projects in urban areas.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be aware that the provision of health services in Scotland is a devolved matter, but, ultimately, funding is decided by this House. In the course of the debate on the Queen's Speech, former Ministers on both sides of the House have called for a re-examination of the Barnett formula. But hon. Members should be aware that that formula will produce a squeeze on Scottish spending of some £2 billion during the next three years, of which some £400 million will come from health.
How do the Government believe that the Scottish health service can be improved in that situation? The continual squeeze can lead only to more closures and poorer services for patients in Tayside and throughout Scotland. There is, of course, an answer to the question, and that is to give the Scottish Parliament the full fiscal autonomy that would allow us to invest Scotland's wealth in Scotland's health and other services. I am sure that we shall hear a lot more of that argument in this House.
Mr. Chaytor mentioned the level of petrol tax. The Chancellor's refusal to concede any ground on the level of fuel duty imposed on our motorists causes great hardship in rural areas, particularly in rural Scotland. A one-size-fits-all policy designed to ease traffic congestion in the cities does not work in rural areas where, in many places, there is no realistic alternative to the private motor car. It is impossible for someone to get from the top of Glen Isla to hospital in Dundee by public transport. High fuel prices hit everyone in rural areas, particularly the less well-off. A litre of petrol in the Angus towns is already significantly more expensive than in city areas, and it is even more expensive in the few rural petrol stations that have managed to stay afloat. The people of rural Scotland face the double whammy of centralisation of services and increased travel costs.
The provision of good health and other services is essential to maintain rural communities. The removal of such services will inevitably lead to a lower standard of life and economic decline. If we cannot even provide good health services, how can we attract new employers to our rural areas? We should not concentrate purely on agriculture. Many small towns in our rural communities are suffering greatly from the current economic situation.
The need for new investment was graphically illustrated in my constituency in the past fortnight with GlaxoSmithKline's announcement that it was putting its Montrose factory up for sale following yet another merger. That announcement was made to the stock exchange in London before it was made to the work force or to the people of Montrose. It was a complete shock to the town, causing great distress and anxiety to the work force and townspeople, and it was not helped by some of the sensationalist reporting on the extent of possible job losses.
That factory is by far and away the biggest employer in Montrose and the surrounding area. Any rundown will cause great economic hardship. That example shows how the actions of large companies can decimate communities. There may be grounds for cautious optimism that the situation in Montrose may not be as bad as first feared, but the future hangs in the balance and the workers and their families face anxious times. The Government wish to
"introduce legislation to encourage enterprise, strengthen competition laws, and promote safeguards for consumers."
But there is nothing in the Queen's Speech about consulting the workers. The Government have recently signed up to the European directive on consultation, and I hope that the regulations made thereunder will have real teeth.
If the Government's central objective is really
"economic stability . . . leading to a more prosperous and inclusive society" they must look clearly at the need to encourage industry and industrial development in rural areas such as Angus--
In rising to make my first speech to the House, I am fully aware of the history that goes before me. Ynys Mon, or as it is known in its English form, Anglesey, is unique in parliamentary terms. Since the second world war, four different parties have represented it in the House.
First, there was the Liberal party with Megan Lloyd George, the daughter of the great Welsh Prime Minister. She served the island from 1929 to 1951. Her powerful presence in the House ensured that Anglesey was in the political mainstream during those difficult times.
In 1951, the Labour party, through Cledwyn Hughes, later Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, took the seat and served for 28 years. I shall pay tribute to Cledwyn later.
In 1979, Anglesey went blue. The Tory Member, Keith Best, was a popular and hard-working Member, but he fell from grace by--let me put this gently--immersing himself in the popular share capitalism of the day and becoming a little enthusiastic, as a consequence of which his parliamentary career came to an abrupt end.
My immediate predecessor, Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones, took full advantage of Mr. Best's downfall and, in 1987, Ynys Mon returned its first Welsh nationalist Member. In 1999, Mr. Jones was elected to the National Assembly for Wales and took on a dual mandate. He later became leader of Plaid Cymru and stood down at the general election to concentrate his efforts in Cardiff. I wish him well in that task--at least until 2003.
I return to pay tribute to Cledwyn Hughes. He was a true giant of Welsh politics and represented Anglesey in both Houses of Parliament for more than 50 years. Cledwyn was never a quitter. The 1951 election was his third attempt, against the advice of his father, a staunch Liberal and friend of Lloyd George. Cledwyn was one of the few people I have known who could say that Lloyd George knew his father. He was driven into politics by the desire to improve the quality of life for the people of Anglesey.
As Opposition spokesman, Cledwyn put to good use his background in local government and law, and ensured that social legislation to improve people's living conditions was at the top of the agenda. Following the 1964 election, he became a Minister with responsibility for overseas affairs, and in 1966 he became the second Secretary of State for Wales. He was a passionate supporter of devolving matters and, along with Jim Griffiths, was the true architect of Welsh devolution.
Cledwyn was chairman of the parliamentary Labour party during the latter years of the Callaghan Government, and went on to lead the Labour party in the other place. During his tenure as Member of Parliament for Anglesey, the island experienced unprecedented economic growth due to his drive and enthusiasm. In December last year, I had the privilege of being his guest when he was given the freedom of the city of Cardiff for his services to Wales and to the capital city. Alas, that turned out to be his last public engagement, but a fitting tribute was paid to Cledwyn by the lord mayor of Cardiff, who said:
"Cledwyn was an outward looking patriot, as opposed to an inward looking nationalist".
Those words are so true. Cledwyn was at ease at the heart of Welsh, British and foreign politics.
But the best tribute to Cledwyn was paid on
It is a great sadness that, over the past two decades, Anglesey has, none the less, risen to the top of the wrong league tables. It has the highest unemployment in Wales and the highest rate of depopulation, with about 500 young people aged between 18 and 36 leaving the constituency to seek work each year. Ynys Mon is a diverse constituency. Predominantly rural, in recent months it has suffered terrible loss owing to the foot and mouth crisis. Both agriculture and tourism, as well as auxiliary businesses, have been hit hard.
However, because of the resilience of the island community, it is already moving forward and looking forward to the challenges of the future. I believe that I can play a proactive role in that and that measures announced in the Queen's Speech will assist. Fundamental issues were addressed in it: the modernisation of public services is key. While many of the public services are now devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, it is vital that there is genuine co-operation between this House and the Assembly. I regard myself as having equal roles as a facilitator and a legislator. I am comfortable with the new politics that has emerged post-devolution and I welcome the Government's commitment to devolution in Wales and Scotland and to retaining a strong United Kingdom. Economic stability and sound finances are the foundations on which that can be built.
A fully integrated transport system is vital to delivering prosperity throughout the UK, especially to areas on the periphery such as my constituency. I am pleased that in 1997 the Government undertook the dualling of the A55 across Anglesey and made it a priority. That venture is now complete and I believe that it offers great opportunities to the local economy. It is worth mentioning that under the Tories the A55 did not extend beyond Llanfairpwll--I shall spell that out for Hansard later. It is also worth pointing out that Plaid Cymru failed to influence the A55 project. It took a Labour Government to achieve that, which is further evidence of Labour delivering for Ynys Mon. There is evidence of improvement in the railways, but we still have an awfully long way to go and I shall work with my colleagues on the north Wales coast to ensure that we achieve our goals. Everyone throughout the United Kingdom needs a modern transport system.
On modernisation, as the Leader of the House said, this House itself needs reform. How many Parliaments offer a personal hanger on which to hang one's sword and gown on day one, but fail to provide newly elected Members like me with an office or a phone until much later? Archaic splendour must be balanced with modern efficiency. I am aware that much hard work has been done, but priority must in future be given to new Members.
In the past four years, the Government have made a good start in many respects, but I am tired of the remarks that Labour has done nothing for rural communities in its first term. In my constituency, more than 2,000 people benefit from the minimum wage, a further 2,000 families from the working families tax credit, pensioner households from the winter fuel payment, and families from increased child benefit and smaller class sizes. I choose to speak in terms of a united community, rather than rural and urban communities. Ynys Mon might be on the periphery in geographical terms, but I intend to make it central in political terms. Few people get the opportunity to represent their native constituency. The people of Ynys Mon ask for nothing more than "chware teg--fair play."
Arriving in Parliament can be a daunting experience for some new Members: some are in awe, others in fear of the place. I am mindful of my late father's words of wisdom and support, without which I would not be standing here today. I believe that he was quoting Robert Louis Stevenson when he told me:
"Keep your fears to yourself but share your courage."
In the coming months, I will work with other Members diligently and with commitment and courage to ensure that social justice is not an empty cliche but fundamental to the Queen's Speech and the programme set out therein. I intend to provide the people of Ynys Mon--the mother of Wales--with a strong voice in the mother of Parliaments.
It is a real pleasure to follow Albert Owen. He made an excellent maiden speech in which he spoke eloquently about several of his predecessors from a variety of different parties. He gave us the rich history of a seat that some of us have had the pleasure of visiting on our holidays, and he spoke about the issues facing his constituency in this Parliament. On the strength of his maiden speech, the whole House will look forward to hearing him speak in future about his constituency and the issues that are of concern to his constituents.
One cannot be a maiden twice, and I return to the House of Commons after an absence of four years--described on Friday by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary as a "sabbatical". I do so in a spirit of great humility, first, because I am conscious of the fact that I have a second opportunity to represent a community--on this occasion, the royal town of Sutton Coldfield; and, secondly, because the experience of the past week has made it clear to me that this is a very different House of Commons from the one that I left only four years ago. I know how much I have to learn from my colleagues about the art of opposition and I look forward to doing so. I am, of course, sorry that I am not representing my former constituency, Gedling, which I represented for 10 years, but this is an opportunity to thank my successor, who was far more generous than he need have been on the occasion of his maiden speech in 1997.
It is an enormous honour to follow Sir Norman Fowler, who was well known on both sides of the House. He represented the royal town for 27 years, although, like me, he was a retread from Nottinghamshire who made the pilgrimage across to Sutton Coldfield. He stood up for the midlands against decisions made by southern-based decision makers that often favoured the south over the midlands. On that subject, I should like to express my hope that yesterday's visit to Birmingham by the Minister for Sport reflected a genuine desire to see whether the excellent plan for "the people's stadium", proposed by Birmingham to substitute for the lamentable performance of Wembley, might come to pass. I greatly hope that the Birmingham proposal will be given a fair wind.
Sir Norman dignified politics. It is no exaggeration to say that he was deeply respected and loved in Sutton Coldfield. Throughout the campaign, I met many non-Conservatives who had voted for him because of his hard work for the constituency over many years. He also scored many significant achievements in Parliament. His abolition of the dock labour scheme was highly controversial at the time. The major changes that he made to the pensions industry were not without their problems, but it is largely thanks to his pioneering work that today this country has the largest amount of funded pensions in Europe--indeed, we have more than all the rest of the EU combined. It is sometimes forgotten that Sir Norman was Secretary of State for both Health and Social Security for no less than six years--a remarkable achievement.
Sir Norman returned Conservative finances to the black when he was chairman of our party, and I believe that he is the only chairman in living memory to have received two standing ovations in the course of one speech at the Conservative party conference--no mean achievement, given the alleged average age of the membership of the Conservative party. It will be of great comfort to his many friends in the House to learn that Sir Norman will soon be installed in the other place, where he threatens to play a major role--in addition, of course, to spending more time with his family.
Following a disastrous decision in 1972, the royal town of Sutton Coldfield became part of Birmingham, albeit for local government purposes only. The royal town is a distinct community: we have our own schools, churches, hospitals and magistrates courts, and a myriad of voluntary sector groups that reflect the enthusiasms that characterise Sutton Coldfield. In the 16th century, the town benefited greatly from Bishop Vesey, who appears to have plundered his see at Exeter to the great advantage of his home town. Sutton Coldfield received a royal charter in 1528. Its endowed municipal charities have grown since then and do much good work. They are jealously guarded from the predatory paws of Birmingham.
Sutton park is the largest municipal park in Europe. It covers 2,400 acres; 70 acres is covered by water. It is a national nature reserve and has recently received a lottery heritage grant for work on heathlands, and a woodland grant. It is a wonderful amenity for local people. It is no exaggeration to say that, while dining at the Boathouse beside the water, one might imagine that one were in the Canadian rockies, rather than five miles from the centre of Britain's second city.
Sutton Coldfield is an area of high affluence, low unemployment and generally high-quality housing, but it is not without its challenges. It groans under the weight of development. Infill, backfill, planning conundrums and the erosion of the green belt are ever present threats throughout Sutton Coldfield. We are very concerned at how the Pedimore development, which was much spoken about in the House by my predecessor, has been given the go-ahead. As my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo said, local communities should have far more say in planning decisions. That is at the top of our concerns in Sutton Coldfield.
We have many excellent local schools, particularly secondary schools, including two grammar schools, which are over-subscribed and very popular, but we need another secondary school. I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that some of the saddest letters that Members of Parliament receive are from parents who spell out that they cannot get their children into the school of their choice. We are enormously enthused by a Church of England initiative, which may lead to the building of an additional Church secondary school in Sutton Coldfield. Today, I have written to the Bishop of Birmingham to ask that we be given serious consideration.
The bed-blocking problem in Birmingham affects Sutton Coldfield. I hope that it is now belatedly being addressed, but it is an important problem that must be solved.
We are very concerned about crime. I do not suggest that Sutton Coldfield is in the grip of an epidemic, but over recent years budgets have been constrained, there has been a tremendous increase in bureaucracy, a decline in police morale and a lamentable drop in the number of special constables. I hope that all those matters can be addressed with great care.
It is against that background that I judge the Queen's Speech. There is no doubt that there is much in it that will be welcomed. I hope that the Government will be able to deliver for my constituents in Sutton Coldfield. I have listened with great care to what the Government have said about health. I have an indirect interest in the health industry because my wife is a doctor in general practice. I am acutely conscious that my constituents, if they are unfortunate enough to be afflicted by cancer, stroke or cardiac disease, are materially less well off than their opposite numbers in many European countries, including Germany and France. That materially worse experience--the great anxiety for both them and their families--cannot be blamed on the last Conservative Government; it cannot be argued that the blame rests with them. The Government have promised world-class public services. They know the tunes, but they must deliver. My job as Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield will be to try to ensure that they do.
It is not just about money. The belief is growing that the post-war consensus on the national health service does not deliver. We must look elsewhere--to other countries. The Government must maintain access and availability, but, increasingly, it is up to others to run and to manage health care. I hope that the Government will consider carefully how to make this country's health care the envy of other European countries, instead of continuing to decline and deteriorate. I look forward to the time when we have workplace schemes and stakeholder health plans perhaps, and health care is more available through the proper ordering of the involvement of the private sector. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make a retread maiden speech.
I am uncertain whether Mr. Mitchell was delivering a maiden speech, but, in any event, he is certainly worthy of congratulation. His speech bore the hallmarks of a maiden speech in that it lacked extreme partisan rancour and had historic and geographic erudition, which illuminates all our minds when we consider such matters. Indeed, it might be said that, if every speech were a maiden speech, the quality of what we hear would sometimes be raised. Fortunately, I am not in a position to make a maiden speech, although there were moments during my election count when I thought that I was coming jolly close to being born again.
I would like to comment on the Queen's Speech, particularly with regard to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I think that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a number of mistakes over a number of years. One of my distinguished predecessors, Sir Valentine Crittall, the first Labour Member for Braintree, was also the first Labour Under-Secretary of State for Agriculture. His picture looks down upon me from my office wall every day. In that sense, the Ministry had a good part to play.
Agriculture is not the only part of our rural communities, but it would be unwise to downgrade it too far. All our rural communities ultimately depend on the widespread part played by agriculture. It is wrong to say that the Government have done nothing for agriculture. The amount of subsidy that is, rightly, paid to agriculture is enormous. It is the most supported industry of all. Indeed, I believe that more public support is given to agriculture than to all the other industries put together. That is not to say that it is wrong, but it should be recognised that that is the case.
Some people say that we should reform the common agricultural policy and move away from subsidy and support. My view is that we should perhaps change the approach to subsidy and support. It is unrealistic to believe that British agriculture in all its forms can survive in a completely free market. We have heard about palm trees in the west of Scotland. Certain parts of our nation may have climates that are more amenable to agriculture than others, but there are parts of the world with which we can never compete in terms of climate, land and soil. Notwithstanding that fact, our economy needs a strong agricultural base. Therefore, I support the continuation of support and subsidy for British agriculture.
Agriculture is not the only aspect of the rural community. Over the past four to five years, we have made progress in several areas. I do not subscribe to the view, which is normally expressed during election campaigns, that there is town and country and never the twain shall meet. The towns rest upon the countryside, and people interchange between town and countryside. To set one against the other can do no good.
There are particular difficulties in rural communities, one of which is transport. We all subscribe to co-ordinated transport--to better transport. Some villages and hamlets will never have a half-hourly bus service, but we need to find out how to build a valuable and useful transport system in our rural communities.
I am somewhat concerned about the operation of private bus companies. Enormous Government and county support goes into rural bus routes. Every time a private operator makes a loss on a bus route, he closes it and expects the county to pick up the bill. That is the opposite of the principle of cross-subsidisation. If a company operates a private bus service, it should take the good with the bad: it should run profitable services and pay for the unprofitable services out of some of that profit. We should not expect the public purse to take all the unprofitable routes and the private operator to take the profitable ones. Clearly, bus services in rural areas need greater regulation and co-ordination.
Another matter that would make a colossal difference to the lives of people in country areas is an increase in home-to-school transport. If we are serious about reducing the number of motor cars on our roads, the time and place to do it is in transporting children from home to school and back again. Anyone who drives at any time during a school holiday suddenly realises how empty the roads are at half past eight in the morning, compared with the amount of traffic before the holidays. If greater public finance went into providing home-to-school transport, the benefit would be felt not only by children, but by their parents, who are often encumbered in ferrying children around--sometimes to three separate schools. Indeed, we would be providing a service that has been lacking hitherto. The Government have done well in the support that they have given to home-to-school transport, but I urge them to go further so that we can greatly enhance village communities.
The crucial social element in the countryside is the post office. We have all lamented the decline in the number of post offices, which has happened over many years; this is not a party issue. The Government have promised that new banking measures will be introduced into the post office system. That is welcome. The Government answered a parliamentary question that I tabled saying that benefits and pensions will still be paid in cash after 2003. That must be encouraged if we are to keep the flow of business through local post offices.
If the post office, the public house, the church and the chapel disappear from the local community, it becomes little more than a dormitory housing estate. We must ensure that those facilities remain. We must do all within our power to increase local employment and work based on agriculture and its subsidiaries, where possible. However, we must also encourage other appropriate businesses in the countryside, so that it becomes a living countryside, as opposed to a picture-postcard ideal that people visit at weekends and for holidays.
I rise to speak in the House for the very first time in the knowledge that my constituency was last represented by a woman in 1955, the year I was born--no maths please. I am a lady, and I should not like anyone to do the calculation. In fact I am the first woman to be returned to the House from Northern Ireland in almost 30 years. The previous one was Bernadette Devlin, who represented Mid-Ulster as a Unity Member of Parliament in 1969--by the way, I promise not to assault the Home Secretary--and then as an independent from 1970 to 1974. I grew up on a farm only a few miles from her home in Cookstown, but our paths never crossed. She was a Catholic and I a Protestant, and we went to separate schools. When she was 10 and I was two, a new Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant was appointed to Coalisland, a small village lying between our respective homes.
The previous sergeant had been blown up by a booby-trap bomb placed by the IRA during its 1950s terrorist campaign. The new sergeant tolerated no nonsense. He was a strict disciplinarian and gained a reputation for being somewhat fierce--so much so that, as a child, I remember that the threat of seeing the sergeant was the ultimate deterrent to bad behaviour in our house. The fierce sergeant was none other than Jack Hermon.
Some 30 years later, Jack Hermon was Chief Constable of the RUC, and I was an academic lecturing in the law faculty at Queen's university. One of my colleagues at that time was a shy, bookish, softly-spoken, red-haired, bespectacled young lecturer. How the years have improved my colleague my right hon. Friend Mr. Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party! I am delighted that he was comprehensively and very wisely returned as our leader by the Ulster Unionist Council at the weekend.
In 1987, having been outraged by the Chief Constable's discrimination against women in the RUC, I wrote an article criticising him bitterly for his actions, of which I sent him a copy. Months of silence followed, then a phone call. It was a man's voice--the voice of someone claiming to be the Chief Constable, Sir Jack Hermon. All the women here will know what I mean by the phrase, "women's intuition": we know instantly when something is a hoax. I knew instantly that it was a hoax call, so I responded, "If you're the Chief Constable, I'm Brigitte Bardot." So much for female intuition and instincts. To my enormous embarrassment, he was who he said he was, and I was certainly not Brigitte Bardot. So it was that we met, subsequently married and made our home in North Down.
I have, therefore, only been called Lady Hermon for the past 12 years. For the previous 33 years, I had been Sylvia Paisley--although I am not related to Rev. Ian Paisley, and nor do I share his political views. I was, nevertheless, delighted when he said that the best decision that the Chief Constable of the RUC ever made was to marry a namesake of his.
When I first stood for selection as a candidate in North Down, I immediately learned how I was perceived by the media. The Irish News--the excellent main nationalist paper and one of my favourites--ran a story about the four candidates. The name of each appeared with a little descriptive note. Alongside mine was what was to become a traditional little note: "Lady Hermon, wife of the former Chief Constable of the RUC", and so on. A similar note appeared for each candidate, although they were not described as being married to the Chief Constable. The paper's problem was which photograph to include. Did it put in my photograph or that of any other candidate? No, it put in the photograph of Jack Hermon.
Victory at a general election brings many rewards, including, in my case, a photo of me--not Jack--with one of our Airedale dogs. That picture appeared on the front page of The Sunday Times. If I had received a pound coin every time someone had said to me, "What a beautiful dog you have," I would be enormously rich by now. Let me give a bit of advice to all hon. Members: they should never have their photograph taken with a handsome dog.
Amid all the other results in Northern Ireland, where voters appear--I emphasise the word "appear"--to have polarised to Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist party, I urge the House to note the message of co-operation and moderation from North Down. I was selected only on
I am, therefore, enormously proud of the people of North Down. They have returned North Down to the Ulster Unionist party; they have returned a woman to Westminster; and, in me, they have returned someone who remains strongly pro-agreement. The people of Northern Ireland need and deserve to see all the agreement implemented; it must not be allowed to stumble and fall at this stage.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, who no one will deny was a colourful character. Robert McCartney QC held the seat from 1995, during which time he made a lasting impression on political life in Northern Ireland. As well as being a colourful character, he was a powerful orator and he remained something of an enigma to the end. Despite having declared that
"there was more than a whiff of Lady Macbeth about Lady Hermon", he did not hesitate to step in front of me--leaving his back exposed--to address the press corps before I could make my acceptance speech when the count was declared on
North Down is truly a beautiful coastal constituency. For those who cannot visualise it, it runs along the top of the Ards peninsula. My home town of Donaghadee is well known for its splendid lighthouse, which was built in 1836 and is still in perfect condition, as are all the 100-plus steps that I invite all right hon. and hon. Members to climb and descend regularly as a form of exercise. The maypole, which dominates the centre of Holywood, is also in perfect condition and attracts tourists every year.
Mercifully, the rural hinterland has escaped the ravages of foot and mouth disease. I have listened with great attention and great concern to those who have a dreadful blight on their constituencies as a result of foot and mouth. We in Northern Ireland have escaped the worst of the ravages. That is in no small measure due to the skilful handling of the crisis in Northern Ireland by our own Minister with responsibility for agriculture, Brid Rodgers, to whom I am delighted to pay a warm tribute on behalf of the farmers in my constituency. My father, who is still farming at the age of 85, said that had she been standing in his constituency, he would have voted for her, and he is a long-standing Unionist. She has handled the outbreak superbly well.
During the election campaign I was struck, and rather offended, by the fact that North Down was frequently described in the media as the gold coast, with the "have yachts and have nots"--and more recently as "the gin and Jag" constituency. These descriptions paint a grossly inaccurate image of my constituency and its wonderful people. I shall take a few moments to paint a different picture.
It is true that in Bangor we have a magnificent marina that is full of yachts. It is the fourth largest marina in the United Kingdom. It is true also that in Bangor we have the Kilcooley estate, where there are about 650 children without one play park or playground between them. Millisle is a small coastal village which is scenic for tourists, but having canvassed there I can tell a different story. It was there that I was asked for my autograph for the first time. It was a humbling experience to find that young children regarded it as the highlight of their day, week, month and perhaps their year to ask a parliamentary candidate for her autograph.
The lives of all these children deserve to be enriched with much more investment in youth facilities the length and breadth of the constituency.
It is a delight to follow Lady Hermon, a new Member. I congratulate her sincerely on winning her seat, on winning it as a woman and on being born in 1955. I was born in 1954, so well done. The hon. Lady spoke forcefully and passionately about her constituency, and I am sure that she will be an ornament to her party and to the House. I am sure also that she will not be represented any more by pictures of attractive dogs or husbands, but by her own picture, as she deserves.
I welcome the creation of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It will enable the Government to reform the food chain, to promote a more diverse system of agriculture and to regenerate the rural economy. These are issues that concern us all, whether we live in town, as I do, or in country. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs said in the Western Mail of
"Rural areas are not on a different planet."
The creation of DEFRA clearly implies that agriculture will no longer be producer dominated. The over- dominance of producers encouraged an unhealthy rift between farmers and consumers. Ultimately, it did not even best serve the interests of the industry. Now the Government will be able to look after the food chain in a more integrated way and ensure for once that the interests of farmers and consumers go hand in hand. That means also, and most important, that agriculture practices can become more sustainable, and can protect, rather than detract from, the natural environment and our wildlife.
In all these matters, as many Members have said this afternoon, it is vital that we engage with public opinion. Most people are not concerned only with the cost and quality of their food. They can appreciate the wider environmental issues. There needs to be a wider debate, and perhaps the sort of debate that we have had today. I appreciated the comments of Mr. Evans, who spoke so movingly about foot and mouth disease.
There is a case for interests to come together to collaborate on getting things right rather than wrong. Producers and the National Farmers Union, for example, should be involved. Supermarkets, consumer groups and tourism interests are clearly vital, as are groups such as the Countryside Alliance, which is not only a hunting lobby. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds should also be involved.
The average net farming income is about £5,200 per farm in England. That is not sustainable. The common agricultural policy and a producer-dominated Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not deliver, and I am glad that MAFF has gone. There is no simple answer, but part of the solution must involve a progressive shift in subsidy payments from commodity and volume production support towards rural development, farm diversification and investment.
The then Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown, secured some progress on the so-called modulation of the CAP a couple of years ago. That is good, but we must go much further. Integrated farm management, as promoted by Linking the Environment and Farming, whose activities I have been delighted to promote in the House, and organic farming require support while they become more established in the marketplace.
Sometimes farmers are thwarted in their attempts to diversify by unhelpful planning regulations. I heard of a farm-based zoo that was refused permission to expand on the ground of the increased traffic that that would generate. However, it was given permission to fill a field with executive homes, which was not what farmers wanted.
A major underlying problem in rural areas--we have heard about this from hon. Members on both sides of the House--is a lack of public transport, which leads to a dependence on cars for those who have them and to isolation or restricted social work and education opportunities for those who do not. The previous Government announced substantial funding to promote rural bus services, and we look for real and solid improvements on the railways, taking account of a full debate in the House. There is no quick fix.
Car numbers are likely to increase, with all the environmental problems that will ensue. At the least, we must ensure that that does not contribute to global warming through increased emissions. The House knows that I have long advocated--partly through my work on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit--incentives for environmentally friendly road fuel gases. The Chairman of the Committee made a distinguished contribution to the debate earlier.
The Government have responded to the need, not least in the most recent Budget, in which road fuel duty was cut by 40 per cent. In response, the liquefied petroleum gas industry is investing significantly in pumps, but so far mainly in urban areas. The various benefits of road fuel gas availability should be delivered to rural areas. The Scots have an initiative to encourage the installation of LPG pumps and tanks in rural areas in the form of the Scottish rural petrol stations grant scheme. The scheme should be extended to cover rural areas in England and Wales. Taiwan and Japan also subsidise the installation of LPG filling points for environmental reasons.
In the United Kingdom we have used the tax system to incentivise a shift to environmental goods from environmental bads. Let us use the system creatively in the same way to help the countryside. Transport is now part of another Department and I hope that that will not mean that we lose sight of environmental considerations. We must remember the pledge of the previous Government to make such considerations central to policy making. I am concerned that the decisions on some of the proposed new road schemes, such as the Hastings by-pass, will not take a sufficiently long-term, integrated view.
Departments that are too big can, of course, be unwieldy--I shall mention no names, of course--and changing situations require changing departmental boundaries. However, other means can and should be used to ensure that policy making continues to be joined up and take into account all the strands of truly proper development. As colleagues in all parties will agree, that involves having concern not only for producers and profit but--if I may, as a former English teacher, be excused a continuing alliteration--for people and planet, too.
Like all the other new Members who have already spoken, I feel very honoured to have been elected as a Member of Parliament. I feel a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude to those who have shown trust in me. I also feel an additional honour, in that I am something of a rare breed: a Liberal Democrat MP for Norfolk. We have to go back to 1929 to find a previous Liberal MP in Norfolk, and back to 1918 to find the most recent one in North Norfolk. They held their seats for the first 18 years of that century, and I hope that we shall do likewise in this one, although I do not want to pursue the analogy with the previous century any further so far as Liberal fortunes are concerned.
I know that it is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor, but I wanted to do that in any event. David Prior was the Conservative Member for North Norfolk for four years. Despite that relatively short period, he built up a reputation for assiduous hard work on behalf of his constituents. He was on the liberal wing of the Conservative party. I think that, in modern Conservative parlance, he was a mod as opposed to a rocker. He was brave enough to initiate a debate in the previous Parliament on the reform of our drug laws, which was impressive for a new Member. I am therefore very happy to pay tribute to his contribution in this place.
One of the great privileges of this job is to work with so many unsung heroes beavering away in their own local communities, often without much credit being given to the work that they do. I am thinking in particular of some of the wonderful wardens of sheltered housing schemes whom I have met, and of the people who keep voluntary community projects such as nurseries going in the North Norfolk area. I am also thinking of the carers who look after loved ones in their own homes, and of the many teachers working with a real passion for the benefit of the children in their schools.
I want to pay particular tribute to the achievement of Hickling first school, Colby primary school and Fakenham high school, all of which achieved the honour of beacon status last week, and Cromer high school--also in my constituency--which achieved language college status last week. Those are great achievements for those schools.
North Norfolk is a wonderful constituency to represent. I shall resist the temptation to give the House a tourist's guide to our wonderful coastline, but I shall just mention three villages: the village of Little Snoring, which is, inevitably, larger than the neighbouring village of Great Snoring, and the village of Sloley. One might get a false impression of the pace of life in North Norfolk from the names of those villages.
I want to say a few words about the decline in rural services--in particular the network of rural sub-post offices. A real threat hangs over those businesses in rural areas, and it is not only a future threat. The threat of the loss of benefit payments through sub-post offices means that the value of those businesses is declining dramatically now. Any sub-postmaster or mistress who wants to retire or move on is finding it very difficult, if not impossible, to sell their business. This crisis must be addressed, and it must be a priority for the Government.
The rural transport network, and especially bus services, have been decimated in constituencies such as North Norfolk. Some interesting initiatives now exist, such as the dial-a-ride scheme, which I thoroughly endorse. However, we need more investment in the rural networks and more integration between the services provided by rival companies and between bus and rail services.
It is environmentally nonsensical that, over the years, school transport should have declined dramatically, resulting in endless extra car journeys. It seems so much more sensible to allow children to travel to school by bus, particularly in a dispersed rural area such as North Norfolk. It is also wrong that students over the compulsory school leaving age have to pay for their transport to school, as that is a positive disincentive to children from poor families to carry on their education.
I also want to mention the state of our health service. Constituents have come to see me who are having to wait a year for an appointment with a specialist about their hip, which might be causing them real pain throughout that whole period. That is unacceptable. It takes them a year to get on to the waiting list for the operation. People talk about concerns over creating a two-tier health service, but it is here already. Anyone with money can opt out of the health service here and now. Those on low incomes, particularly pensioners, are left having to wait an unacceptably long time for treatment.
Finally, I want to mention the growing concern about the disengagement of young people from the political process. We have heard a lot about turnouts over the past few weeks, but the concern over young people's voting patterns is the greatest of all. We have a duty to make politics much more relevant and to behave in a way that will rebuild people's trust in the political process. It is incumbent on us to modernise the way in which we carry out our business, and to open this place up to young people. I admit to being excited at being here, and I hope that I can do my best to repay the trust that has been placed in me.
I am delighted to follow Norman Lamb. He gave a kind, generous speech in tribute to his predecessor and will clearly bring a gentle and reasoned voice to our debates. I spent many childhood holidays at Cromer zoo in his constituency and I wish him well in this House. [Laughter.] I was not one of the exhibits, I hasten to add.
It is a costly business to be returned as a Member of Parliament. Four weeks ago, I had three suits that fitted snugly and a new pair of shoes. In the past four weeks, I have lost more than a stone in weight, my suits all need altering and my visits to the houses of 15,000 of my constituents have worn through enough shoe leather to keep all the cobblers in Brent, North extremely happy for the next four years.
So I stand before the House today a man much diminished, but a politician with a hugely increased majority. I thank my constituents for the trust that they have placed in me, and I thank my wonderful colleagues and friends in my constituency party. Their amazing support, dedication and sheer hard work, not just over four weeks but over four years, have turned a 10,000 Conservative majority into a 10,000 Labour majority in that short space of time. There is no such thing as a safe seat. There are only seats that are worked, and seats that are not. In Brent, North, we certainly intend to go on working ours.
I loved every minute of the campaign and, if she is listening, that includes the harangue that I received from one mother outside Byron Court school. As I said to my campaign colleagues that afternoon, "I don't think that we were going to get her vote in the first place." What I love is that a campaign takes one as close as one can get to what people are really feeling and what they want done by us in government. Therefore, in rising to support the Queen's Speech, I bring to the debate not the think-tank theory of a policy unit but the raw concerns of my constituents from the doorsteps of Brent, North.
I welcome the commitment in the Queen's Speech to strengthen the police's ability to fight crime. In Brent, we have a good story in that 31 new police recruits have been allocated to the area this year, bringing the force up to full strength for the first time in many years. We have been particularly successful in targeting burglary, which decreased by 16 per cent. last year as a result of a Government-funded Crimestoppers II initiative. However, violent crime in Brent has increased and we need the powers to bring it under control. Much of it is fuelled by drugs and turf wars between dealers and different gangs.
I welcome the proposal to establish a criminal assets recovery agency to get at the proceeds of crime. Drugs are a business, and if one deprives that business of its profits, it will cease trading, just like any other business. Tackling drug crime will not only reduce the instance of violent crime, it will impact on street crime and domestic burglary as well. We know that so much of that crime is committed to obtain money for drugs. Drugs are the cancerous heart of the world of crime and we must ensure that we give the police all the resources that they need to defeat the drugs barons.
I should also like the Government to consider legislating to double the maximum penalty for anyone dealing in drugs to children within half a mile of a school, as they have done in some cities in America. We must legislate to protect our children and deprive the dealer of the concentrated customer base that schools currently provide.
Later, I shall be pressing the Government further about the need to include qat on the list of proscribed substances. Today, I shall simply say that it is all too clear to my constituents, particularly in Sudbury, that that drug is a serious social evil. It has been the cause of a serious arson attack as part of a turf war, and a crowd of young men chewing the drug in one particular area have intimidated and threatened ordinary passers-by, demanding money with menaces.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must remind him that we are now debating the amendment to the Loyal Address and not the Queen's Speech in general. Although the amendment is termed fairly widely, he really must concentrate his remarks on those terms.
I take the admonishment in good part and shall try to observe your strictures.
I have placed the fight against crime and drugs as the first message from the doorstep because it is fundamentally a democratic right that our citizens should be free to live their lives without fear. The commitments of the Gracious Speech on police matters and combating crime are therefore particularly welcome to me.
Another feature that will certainly be welcome in Brent, North is the commitment to reform our health system. We have benefited greatly from the Government's capital investment in our local hospital, Northwick Park, which is one of the 182 accident and emergency departments that has been entirely refurbished. With capacity doubled to 90,000 admissions annually and a separate children's A and E to separate children from the Friday night drunks in the main casualty, the facility is faultless.
The best facility in the world, however, is no use unless it has the staffing and back-up to make it function properly. My constituents still wait far too long in casualty because of a lack of nurses and doctors and because the medical beds are four floors above in the petty empire of a different consultant. That is the type of obstacle to efficient health care that our Government must, and I trust will, sweep aside. Managers are often derided in the NHS, but the blame equally often lies in the stupid empire building of consultants who run their own departments to their own satisfaction, not to say their own convenience, and refuse to consider the needs of the hospital as a whole and to put the needs of the patient first.
I am confident that we shall increase the number of nurses and doctors, as we have said in the Labour manifesto. I also trust that we shall be equally robust in reforming the structure of our NHS hospitals to break through the artificial logjams to in-patient care. My constituents have been pleased to see us deliver world-class buildings, but they will not be satisfied by anything less than a first-class service.
I listened with interest to the mostly excellent maiden speech of Mr. Mitchell, who will clearly be an effective contributor to the House. Naturally I could not agree with him about his desire to see the national stadium relocated closer to his constituency, and I shall gently remind him on every future occasion that in his maiden speech he bemoaned the over-development in his constituency. I shall continue to assure him that the national stadium would definitely be an over-development too far for his constituents.
The national stadium is at Wembley, and the national stadium must stay at Wembley. It is vital not only to the economic regeneration of all of north-west London, but to football itself. It is of course possible to build a stadium for less than £440 million--Cardiff, Paris and Sydney are all examples of excellent stadiums built for less. Sadly, however, they all make a loss, not a profit. The new national stadium at Wembley needs to generate revenue that the FA can feed into the grassroots of the game. To do so it needs to incorporate elements that will create that revenue.
I welcome the recent news that Multiplex and ING are prepared in different ways to back the Wembley project to ensure that it is financially viable. I urge the Government and our new team at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to do all that they can to back Wembley as the home of football and of our new national stadium.
Integral to that project is the transformation of the London underground and the transport infrastructure off the north circular. The public-private partnership proposals must not only deliver the promised £13 billion of investment, but the integrated system, with unified central control maintained in the public sector, that the Government have promised. I am confident that our Government can deliver that. I believe that it is vital not simply for the future of projects such as Wembley but for the future economic viability of many areas in the penumbra around London that we should do so.
The transport infrastructure has been the subject of much of this debate and is of course integral to the success of cities such as London. London has problems with its rail transport infrastructure, but although people have talked about the need to renationalise, I do not believe that that is the answer. Instead, we must resolve the problems caused by the separation of track companies from rolling stock companies. Such problems have regularly been highlighted in the House, particularly by the Public Accounts Committee. That system was produced in the wrong way by the previous Government.
A system must be introduced in which Railtrack and the operating companies are brought together in defined regional networks so that they can operate in an integrated manner, ending the divide that we have seen to date. Perhaps we should also make the inter-city network an entirely distinct structure. I believe that we must rejoin the track and rolling stock companies, and I hope that the Government will consider new models and new ways of delivering that to the public.
It is a great honour and privilege to speak for the first time in the House as the Member for Wealden and especially as the successor to one of the most loved and respected Members of this place. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith was in many ways a unique man. He had been a distinguished Minister with responsibility for pensions and for defence, and he had been a distinguished Select Committee Chairman. For many years, he had also been devoted to the North Atlantic Assembly in which he served for 20 years, including as one of its committee chairmen and, for the past five years, as its treasurer.
Sir Geoffrey was a fine debater, devoted to Parliament and its ways. However, what people will remember most about him was that he was an extraordinarily gentle and decent man. I have never heard him say anything unpleasant about anybody in any party. That is a remarkable achievement in the world of politics. He will carry with him the best wishes of this House as he moves into his retirement.
Sir Geoffrey was the most marvellous support to me in the year that I shadowed him as a prospective parliamentary candidate. We worked closely together over that time. He was an immensely diligent Member of Parliament, much loved within the constituency. He campaigned assiduously for local schools and hospitals, for the restoration of the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, and for farming and rural communities. Those are all issues on which I would wish to continue his work.
I imagine that for many hon. Members the most immediate difference between Sir Geoffrey and I would be sartorial. He could still wear the suits he wore 50 years ago, and regularly did. When he campaigned--even when he was canvassing at the last election--he did so at a trot, managing to jog around the constituency at a rate that I found quite bewildering. When we stood beside each other--him at 77 and me at 42--people asked him why he was giving way for an older man. He still retained those wonderful good looks which people also remembered from his appearances many years ago on television.
Many of my friends who were waiting up for the election results were concerned that Wealden was about the last constituency in England to declare. They were concerned that there might be a recount, and the following morning and the following week the local newspapers had headlines suggesting that the Wealden result was in jeopardy and that Labour was celebrating a swing. These referred to the fact that the count had taken so long, and it was with some trepidation that I reached for an excellent paper produced by the Library, which reassured me that Wealden had produced the third-largest Conservative majority in the country. Having spent most of my political life fighting in marginal constituencies, I can live with that degree of trepidation and jeopardy.
Many things about Wealden are remarkable. It is a constituency that is only 40-odd miles from London, yet it contains some of the most unspoiled country and beautiful scenery that one could find. Although many people commute out of Wealden to Brighton, Gatwick and London, the constituency is characterised by areas such as Ashdown forest and the historical farms of the High Weald, and areas that are famous for characters such as Winnie the Pooh and Sherlock Holmes, great literary characters who have come to mean a great deal to the constituency.
Wealden also has villages and towns which, in their own way, are extraordinarily special; towns such as Crowborough, Hailsham, Uckfield and Heathfield and a whole host of small villages that make it one of the most desirable places to live. While one should take great comfort from those factors, one should not begin to think that Wealden is not without its problems and genuine anxieties. It is an area that has had much good fortune, but there are still real concerns, the first of which is housing.
The Government's plans--backed locally by the Liberal Democrats--to build tens of thousands of new houses in the greenbelt area are matters of profound concern. It is something that the overwhelming majority of people who live in Wealden would wish to resist. The problem is that we simply do not have the infrastructure locally to cope with those numbers of houses. We do not have the places in our schools or on the local doctors' waiting lists; nor do we have the facilities in our transport network.
I believe it is paramount that decisions on new houses should be made locally by councillors who understand those situations, rather than remotely by Ministers. I do not believe that the previous Secretary of State ever tried to drive either of his two Jags down the narrow lanes of East Sussex, yet the decision was to be his about how many houses we should take. It is vital to an area such as Wealden that those decisions should be made locally.
The next issue of concern is policing. Rural policing has been in great decline and we view that with great anxiety. We have seen the numbers of police in the county fall over recent years, and the number of police on the beat has also fallen. I want those numbers to be restored, more police to be back on the beat and, crucially, our local police stations to be kept open all the time. When someone is apprehended in the night in Crowborough, it does not make sense that they should be transported by two officers to Crawley, because that takes those officers out of service in the community for three or four hours. I will campaign on behalf of my constituents to make sure that we keep those local stations open at weekends and overnight.
There will be a wide welcome for the plans introduced by the now Conservative-controlled county council to reintroduce local community policemen, funded by the county council, so that there can be people in rural communities who work only in the areas where they live and who will not be taken away by a big crisis in Brighton or elsewhere. They will be there to look after the needs of their communities.
The next issue is the future of those rural communities which we have seen gradually slide away. The nature of those villages remains, externally, as it has done for years, in terms of the character of the houses, the nature of pubs and the fact that we still have many butchers shops in the villages, although they are declining all the time. However, far too many village post offices have closed. Nationwide last year, more than 500 post offices closed in our smaller communities. That is a tremendous loss, not just to the pensioners who depend on them for drawing their pensions each week but to the many people for whom the post office is the life-blood of the local business community. I hope that measures will be introduced during this Parliament, and that the Government will be persuaded during the debate on the Queen's Speech, genuinely to support local village communities.
At the nub of rural communities is farming. We have been incredibly fortunate in East Sussex, in that we have not had a single case of foot and mouth disease, but that does not mean that farming is not in crisis. One half of dairy farmers in the south-east have come out of dairy farming in the last two years. Their farm incomes have declined by 90 per cent. over the past five years. One of the consequences of foot and mouth will be that people who might otherwise have been able to stay in farming will feel that they simply cannot justify the huge disparity between the value of their farmhouse--which is in great demand from people wanting to move into the area--and the income that the farmland can now generate for them.
This House must act urgently to try to make sure that our farmers enjoy a level playing field and are not facing unfair competition from overseas products that do not adhere to the same standards of animal hygiene and animal husbandry. We need good labelling so that consumers who wish to buy British food know that they are genuinely doing so, rather than buying food that may have been reared overseas and simply packaged and processed in this country.
There is nothing in the Queen's Speech that suggests to me that the Government wish to act with regard to the countryside, apart from their knee-jerk reaction on foxhunting. If we do not stand up for farming, the whole fabric of our countryside will be in jeopardy and will be changed for ever.
For me, there could be no greater privilege than to represent the area where I was born, grew up and went for most of my schooling. To come from the area just north of Wealden and now to be the Member of Parliament for the area is something that, as a child, I could only have dreamed about. I know that there are many issues of concern to the constituency, issues about which I care passionately and for which I hope I can be a voice in this House for some time to come. Sir Geoffrey was here for 36 years and looked at the end of it as if he could do another 36 years and not notice the strain. He is a hard act to follow, but I shall do my best to be that voice for this constituency.
I wish to concentrate on the final phrase in the amendment, which asks whether the House should have confidence in whether the Government can deliver world-class services. I believe that that is an important challenge to the Government in this period of delivery.
Before doing so, however, I congratulate the three hon. Members whose maiden speeches I have heard: the hon. Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for North Down (Lady Hermon). It was a great pleasure to listen to them, and there was a common theme in all three speeches. It is a humbling experience to realise that so many thousands of people have put a cross against one's name, as that imposes a high degree of responsibility on each of us. I wish all three Members well in their careers.
Can the Government make any real change to our constituents' quality of life? Some progress has undoubtedly been made, but the level of turnout showed that not enough has been done to engage swathes of people in our society. I have no doubt that public services need to be overhauled. The public will believe that we are only tinkering at the edges unless we roll up our sleeves during this Parliament and help change their lives and living conditions.
We have talked about joined-up government for some time, but so far the change has been minimal from the point of view of thousands of people living at or near the poverty line in housing that no Member of this House would choose to inhabit. I would go further and say that very few in this House have ever experienced living in such housing at first hand.
I joined the Labour party 32 years ago because of my dismay at the way in which the public and private sectors addressed the housing needs of decent people. Over those 32 years, I have been a council tenant, I have lived under private landlords who sent the heavies round to collect the rent and am now, fortunately, an owner-occupier living in an historic building. Therefore, I feel qualified to comment. Sadly, not enough has changed in all that time. I have asked myself why that is so, given some of the things that we have all seen in our constituencies. I have come to two conclusions.
First, on the supply side, there are simply not enough houses in some constituencies. In some, as the hon. Member for Wealden said, the controversial point is whether housing development takes place. In my constituency, the argument is not about the placement of houses but about the quality of accommodation. I give the Government credit for some of the imaginative ways they have looked at the problem over the past four years and intend to do so in the future, as outlined in the Queen's Speech.
My second conclusion is talked about but seldom addressed--namely, that the very machinery of government fails to meet the needs of many people who are disengaging from the political process. I wonder how many colleagues went around rundown estates in their constituency during the election campaign, knowing in their hearts that we have failed to get to the core of the problems facing some areas. Those who voted said, "You're better than the other lot", but many said, "You're all the same. You don't actually make a real difference to our lives." The real problem lies here in London, where the machinery of government has failed to get to grips with the inertia in the system. Unless we genuinely deliver, on a joined-up basis, we will fail.
Why does the process of evaluating the effectiveness of a local housing strategy look only at housing? Best value criteria should be based on the same systems that good cost-centre management apply in the private sector. The cost centre must be able to deliver to its targets but, in making decisions, it must also take into account the best interests of the business as a whole. That is how the private sector operates, but the system seems to be lacking in the Government machine. That is not a new comment--the problem has existed for generations. Not only is such a system lacking, but some public sector managers seem to be resisting it.
I shall give a couple of examples. The first is a diversion from housing. Merseyside fire authority, which serves only one small part of my constituency, has concluded that under its best value rules, it should change the Heswall fire station in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Chapman to day manning. Going ahead may be fine in terms of the Merseyside criteria, but it means additional expenditure for the Cheshire fire authority, which will have to fill the gap. That seems bad business planning on the part of the fire authority. In that example, my first cost-centre requirement is met but the second is entirely ignored.
Let me return to housing. I want my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench to know that I am not hung up on ownership. There is only one principle as far as I am concerned--whether we can deliver decent housing and give citizens the dignity of a decent roof over their head each night. The provider is secondary.
In my constituency, an estate called Parklands used to be full of post-war precast reinforced concrete houses that were falling apart. As a result of an imaginative partnerships between central and local government over a number of years, a massive amount of work has been done to restore the dignity of decent housing and that estate has been changed out of all recognition. The Government have failed to consider the benefits that that investment has had in reducing demands on the police and social services as well as educational pressures. That is what I mean about making sure that in assessing how one cost centre of government operates, one looks positively at a wider range of services.
One can compare that estate with areas of my constituency where no such investment has been made in the recent past. There has been a massive decline in turnout in such places. Not only has there been a better level of turnout in areas where people have been engaged and seen the effect of the Government's delivery, but there has been an improvement in terms of other areas of Government expenditure.
The Government need to look carefully at those areas to ensure that the proposition contained in the amendment is killed off once and for all. The Opposition's premise is false, but Ministers need to make sure that they get to grips with the machinery of government and look at the needs of people on a diverse basis--not as a single cost centre. If they consider matters in that way, we will have success during the part of this Administration's time that concentrates on delivery.
I am grateful to have been called to participate in this debate, and delighted to follow Mr. Miller. I am pleased that the debate has been of such a high standard.
I am delighted to have been returned for a second term to represent Vale of York. I might not be No. 3 like my hon. Friend Mr. Hendry, but I am one of the dirty dozen. I had one of the 12 best results for the Conservatives, with an increased majority and a larger share of the vote. I take this opportunity to thank those who voted for me, and I shall continue to represent those who did not to the best of my ability over the next parliamentary term.
I would like to place before the House my interests in this area. I am a member of the public policy committee of the RAC Foundation and, with my brother, a co-owner of a smallholding in Teesdale in the north of England. I hope that that qualifies me to speak. In addition, I represent a largely rural, but partly urban constituency.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities in the Department. The jury is still out as to whether the Government were right to create a new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I regret the absence of farming in the title and I lament the split of responsibilities--environment and planning have been separated, which could lead to great difficulties for the present Administration. It is not merely a case of changing the brass plate and the Department's title. What we really need, and what was lacking in the previous Government, is the necessary political direction in particular in the midst of the farming crisis, to which I will return.
As I said, we had a successful campaign and I confirm that campaigning is fun. One reason why we did so well is that our local pledges were relevant to the electorate in Vale of York. My first pledge was to obtain a fair deal for farmers and the countryside. My second was to support local pensioners. My third was better standards in schools and hospitals. My fourth was to boost enterprise and services in rural areas, such as transport and rural post offices, and my fifth was to obtain more police to fight rural and street crime.
I am disappointed that farming is not the Government's first pledge. In the past two years in particular there has been an unprecedented crisis in farming. Incomes have fallen to their lowest levels, the number of jobs lost and people leaving farming is unprecedented and those problems are compounded by foot and mouth disease. Farmers in Vale of York told me that they had never felt so humiliated or neglected as under the Labour Government in the previous Parliament.
Farming and industry related to farming, including rural tourism, are the largest employers in Vale of York. I am delighted and relieved to say that as I speak, although the disease is all around us and presses on every frontier, as yet we have not had a direct outbreak of foot and mouth in Vale of York.
The repercussions for farmers, for those living on the land and for connected industries such as tourism, are unprecedented. The Government must come up with some strategy for recovery in the countryside, not least on business rate relief. I live in Hambleton district and I am appalled. The Government have paid lip service to extending business rate relief to farms and rural businesses, but they must appreciate that district councils such as Hambleton--and, indeed, your district council of Uttlesford, Mr. Deputy Speaker--will already have committed their budgets for this year and are in receipt of no national funds to pay for that largesse. I ask the Government to reconsider and to make such funds available.
I question the Government about why a public inquiry was so pressing after BSE but not equally pressing to investigate how foot and mouth disease started. Perhaps the Minister would like to respond in his reply. The Government have failed to make any reference to farming or the countryside in the Gracious Speech or to produce a strategic recovery programme. They have produced the 20-day standstill rule and, for the second time, I urge them not to implement it. It is most likely that foot and mouth disease emanated from meat that came from abroad. The Government should tackle the need to improve controls on meat and live animal imports. I hope that they will take the opportunity this evening to say that they will do so.
I regret the pressure put on local authorities such as North Yorkshire county council by the Government during the recent general and county council elections to reopen footpaths. The priority must be to eradicate foot and mouth disease. As the Secretary of State said last week, we must prevent any contact between animals and human beings if the disease might spread. I regret the unprecedented and unwelcome pressure that the rural task force put on councils such as North Yorkshire to open footpaths, which is a measure that the Government may yet live to regret.
At the heart of rural life and services are quality of life and the sustainability of the countryside. Rural post offices in Vale of York and elsewhere have been closing at an unprecedented rate. Those post offices offer a lifeline to rural communities. We can only keep rural sub-post offices by enabling them to retain the payment of benefits and pensions after 2003, as 40 per cent. of their income is derived from paying benefits across the counter.
The Secretary of State promised extra police. I challenge her and her deputy who is to respond to the debate to explain who will pay for the extra police. Police numbers will be restored to the levels of
Fuel prices have also been at unprecedented levels. We have the most expensive fuel in Europe and yet we remain a major net producer. The on-costs to businesses, to mothers doing the school run, to pensioners and to the delivery of goods and services in rural areas must never be overlooked.
The Government must deliver on their promises. They must improve journey times and the availability of public transport alternatives. Some 68 per cent. of the electorate are motorists and 20 million of us are car owners. I support the RAC call for a road watchdog to ensure that we speed up the introduction of quieter road surfaces, in particular the Sowerby bypass. I urge the Minister to consider that. We also need better quality road signs and street lighting.
Local authority road maintenance funding should be ring-fenced for that sole purpose. I challenge the Minister who will respond to ensure that the detrunking programme that the Government will introduce from 2003 will attract additional funds to the local authorities that must implement it. I hope that we will receive an answer this evening.
We must have better safety management. Railways must be put on the same basis as air traffic with independent rail safety investigations, as is the case for air disasters. I also submit a plea to the Minister to renew Great North Eastern Railway's franchise for the east coast rail route.
In conclusion, I regret the absence of any reference in the Gracious Speech to agriculture and the countryside. I regret that my No. 1 pledge on a fair deal for farming and the countryside is not a pledge that the Government share and also that there are no proposals to assist farming, tourism or the rest of the rural economy to recover from foot and mouth disease. I fear that that bodes ill for the farming community, the countryside and the sustainability of our environment for future generations. I will not cease to remind the Government of their duty to my farmers.
It is always a great pleasure to listen to Miss McIntosh, even though I do not agree with a word that she says. I also pay tribute to the maiden speeches that we have heard today, which have been very good. Hon. Members have kept to the point and I hope that they enjoy this place and will get a warm feeling from their constituents, who are no doubt making a beeline towards their doors at this moment.
I am fortunate to be able to speak in this part of the debate because it covers two of the areas in which I am most interested--those covered by the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and transport. I make no apology for focusing on the first subject covered in the amendment tabled by the official Opposition, but I will conclude by saying a little about transport. The Opposition amendment mentions those matters, but does not give a true reflection of what the Government did, nor of what they intend to do now that they have been re-elected with a massive majority.
The Government achieved many good things in respect of the environment. That has not been reported fairly, and the Government have not received the credit that they deserve. It is an example of what I call the law of reverse spin, which states that the less said about a matter, the more the Government have achieved. The Government stood steadfastly behind the climate change demands placed on all Governments in the western world. The stance taken by the new American President shames the developed countries. It behoves Labour Members and the Government to do something about what might be the biggest peril facing the world. The Government's efforts on the environment will affect other sectors, such as renewable energy, transport strategy and farming and food production.
I could devote my speech to foot and mouth, and the matter has been referred to by several other hon. Members. The old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was not fondly regarded in many places, and its passing has not been mourned. The new Department is an exciting new hybrid, but I should like to pay tribute to the MAFF officials who worked so relentlessly in the most difficult circumstances when the outbreak was at its height. The temporary veterinary inspectors went out day after day to deal with people in heart-rending difficulty. They did so without reward, and they were given little support by the wider populace, who were reading the inaccurate and emotive headlines in the media. Those headlines did not portray what was really happening, although we know that the outbreak caused great difficulty.
I welcome the announcement that there will be an inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak. I am happy to include my name among those who support a full and public inquiry which, as well as looking at what happened in practice, should also examine the cause of the disease, and its transmission.
After classical swine fever and bovine tuberculosis, the foot and mouth outbreak was one disease too many. We must learn from the mistakes that have been made in the practice of agriculture and in the funding mechanisms that are available. Those mechanisms cause people to do daft and illegal things, which is why I hope that we will get access to all the background information, including the intelligence reports that have been compiled. That information will enable us to know what caused this dreadful series of events.
I hope that the upshot will be a movement towards establishing a food policy. I have spoken many times in the House about the need for such a policy, and I think that we are moving in that direction. A food policy would not just be about producers, processors and retailers, but about consumers too. It would make clear what consumers should be able to expect, and what they could put back into food production strategies. I hope that consumers can be encouraged to seek higher quality produce of more local origin, even though it might cost more.
I have always said that some of our food is too cheap. I am a Co-operative as well as a Labour MP, and I believe that the best way to take the process of consumer involvement forward is through co-operation. I believe in the principles of co-operation, and the food chain is an ideal arena in which they could be applied successfully and effectively.
I am pleased that the new Department encompasses rural affairs, and I am sure that it will do so in more than name when it gets going. We need to debate the real rural issues that matter to people in rural Britain. That debate goes far beyond foxhunting. I managed to secure an increased majority at the general election because I talked to local people about what mattered to them rather than about what other people think is important. I talked to my constituents about transport, schools, health and rural poverty--the issues that affect people's everyday lives. We will be missing a golden opportunity if we do not encourage the new Department to get stuck in and deliver what needs to be delivered.
We must tackle the question of how to improve rural services, and work out how to keep shops and other services in place. I was at a meeting in North Nibley in my constituency last night, where villagers are threatened with losing both their shop and post office. It was good to see people in that community coming together to decide whether they could keep those premises open on a voluntary basis. Representatives of the Village Retail Services Association, the voluntary shop movement that has done so much sterling work around the country, were at the meeting. Although running a local post office on a voluntary basis represents a big commitment, we are beginning to see how village people can fight back to ensure that their services remain intact.
Finally, I want to mention transport, the issue around which most of the problems in rural Britain are concentrated. If we can resolve the transport dilemma, much else will follow in train. We must ensure that good quality services are provided in the more deprived rural areas and encourage people of all dispositions to use public transport systems. The Government have done much for rural bus services, but more will have to be done. I support the extension of half-price bus passes to groups other than pensioners, and we must ensure that services are kept running and, in time, improved and made more widely available.
In my constituency, Stagecoach is the dominant provider. I wish that we had more drivers and service administrators. We are putting so much money into those services that we are entitled to expect an improvement. We hear a lot about the public-private business relationship, but it is important that the private sector, as well as receiving the money, should be seen to deliver.
The railways are at the core of the transport links that keep rural communities in communication with each other. I hope that the Government will put much more pressure on Railtrack. For about nine months, I have been trying to arrange a meeting with Railtrack officials. I want to get a local line in my area reopened and improved, but so far I have met with nothing but failure. I hope that the Government will begin to put pressure on Railtrack to deliver in rural Britain--as it should be delivering in the rest of the country.
I wish to begin by paying tribute to all those hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I have listened with interest and some diligence to many of those speeches, and to the remarks made by other, more seasoned campaigners.
It is customary for a new hon. Member to pay tribute in his maiden speech to his predecessor. My predecessor, Mr. William Ross, was a diligent Member of this House. For many generations, his family has lived and farmed in the East Londonderry constituency. Mr. Ross has done so himself for many years.
When I was growing up in one of the many small terraced houses in the Waterside area of Londonderry in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, I little realised that I, a product of a working-class Unionist family, would one day be elected to this, the mother of Parliaments.
Like so many of my community, my social conditions were poor, on a par with those of many in other parts of Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. We enjoyed none of the benefits of the so-called Unionist ascendency. Outside toilets and a lack of bathroom facilities were the rule, not the exception. Our job prospects were bleak. I started work as a shop assistant in 1969. At that time, there were those who started to campaign for what they termed civil rights. Among them were Members past and present of this House. Not only did they make a number of demands but they accused my community of refusing those demands, even though we were in a similar socio-economic plight.
Some ask why we did not join in the campaign to have those demands met. Those who say that do not understand that, from the outset, the campaign was a republican one. It had slogans such as, "Smash the Orange state." The campaign quickly turned violent. Those Members of Parliament who supported it have their own consciences to search for the part that they played in encouraging protest, violence and subsequently murder. They condemned it, but they pocketed the political gains that the violence brought for their community.
The problem in recent years has been that attempts to establish a political system in Northern Ireland have as their genesis the wrong foundation. If Her Majesty's Government continually begin from the starting point that nationalists are always the aggrieved party, they will always get it wrong. That is what is wrong with the present Belfast agreement.
Decommissioning of illegal arms is essential, and it must be begun and completed. Proper accountable democracy in the Assembly must be established. There has to be a Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland liaison with which Unionists as well as nationalists are comfortable. I do not see how any of that is possible within the present framework, but the fundamentals of the approach to solving the problem must be right.
My community is angry, disillusioned, discriminated against and marginalised, not only since the Belfast agreement but for decades before. The 1998 agreement only made matters worse. I am here to work for the revitalisation of that community. In most strata of society in Northern Ireland, Unionists feel that their cultural outlook has been ignored. The Northern Ireland of today is a place where Unionists feel their second-class citizenship acutely. The advantages that nationalists enjoy are considerable. I want to work for a society that all our people feel comfortable in and with.
There are Unionist towns across Northern Ireland, such as Limavady, Kilkeel and Desertmartin, where nationalist parades can and do take place on a traditional basis without any Unionist objection or protest. I want to see that reciprocated for the Orange Order in places such as Garvaghy road in Portadown.
The charge is often made that Unionists are against change. That charge is made by those who seek to further the fallacy that Northern Ireland is a cold house for Catholics. That is utter nonsense. The acceptance of that premise has done untold harm in the past 30 years. Only when there is a realisation that the Unionist community needs to see its grievances addressed will there be the possibility of widespread acceptance of institutions that can accommodate Unionists. We want to see change. We want change such as--
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall endeavour to return to that as quickly as I can.
Of course we want to see change. The part of Northern Ireland that I represent is disadvantaged. The rural areas and the urban populations have been considerably disadvantaged. I want to work with all hon. Members in the House to tackle the problems faced by both urban and rural communities.
Future generations in Northern Ireland want to have the same advantages that certain sections of our community have enjoyed for generations. We want to see change in Northern Ireland that will allow the promotion of our community's cultural background in the same way as the nationalist community has had its cultural background promoted and financed.
I want the beautiful north coast in my constituency to be enjoyed by all citizens and visitors from across the globe in true peace and prosperity. The beautiful Roe valley, the wonderful beaches of Castlerock, Downhill and the premier resorts of Portrush and Portstewart make the constituency one of the most beautiful and stunning parts not only of Northern Ireland but of the entire United Kingdom.
In conclusion, I want to see the Government strive for a system of government to which every democrat can give allegiance and support, and in which genuine equality and freedom is accorded to all citizens of my beloved Province.
I congratulate Mr. Campbell on his maiden speech and all other hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. Like the hon. Gentleman, I come from a working-class background. In the past four years, I have listened to him and many of his colleagues in this place, and I have to say that my experiences are fundamentally different from theirs in Northern Ireland. I can only hope and pray that, ultimately, we shall see in Northern Ireland a lasting peace from which all the people of Northern Ireland will benefit.
I am delighted to speak in this debate on the Queen's Speech. I wish to talk about foot and mouth disease and its impact in my area. In Dumfries and the neighbouring constituency of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, 24 per cent. of GDP is attributed to agriculture. The foot and mouth disease outbreak of the past two or three months has had a real impact on the area. People who believe that they had no real connection with farming soon discovered differently.
Much of the debate in recent weeks and months has centred around agriculture and the impact of the disease on farmers, but others have been seriously affected. Some businesses closed down almost overnight. Those included agricultural contractors and people involved in tourism, which we have grown to realise is closely connected with farming. So foot and mouth paints an extremely bleak picture.
If there is any comfort at all for the people in my area and the neighbouring constituency, it is down to the fact that the disease was handled somewhat better there than in other parts of the country; but there is little consolation for those who are hit hardest. There is a variety of different views on the way in which the situation was handled because, let us not forget, some farmers lost generations of work--burned before their very eyes as the disease hit hard. We are talking about pedigree livestock; bloodlines that could be traced back to the 1850s were lost, never to be recovered. It was extremely hard for these people, but some of them have been quick to come back and I compliment those who were working on the ground, trying to deal with the crisis. I echo some of the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew, who spoke about the temporary veterinary inspectors who worked hard and with so much dedication to lessen the impact on households and families.
Hindsight is a magnificent thing, and I have never seen as many experts come out of the woodwork as I have in recent weeks and months. Suddenly, everyone had the magic answer of vaccination, which they said should have been used from day one; but obviously, people had different agendas. No one was offering any other real alternative, and I firmly believe that the cull policy was the best way to proceed. That policy is still being carried out on the English side of the border.
The issue started with cross-party consensus, but regrettably, became an election issue. Only two days before polling day, in my area, stories were being spread that vets and slaughtermen were returning on 8 and
The prospect of an inquiry has been raised. An inquiry was held in 1967, but regrettably, little was done from that time onwards, which is why, in 2001, we were left somewhat wanting. We should remember that. In 2001, an unprecedented 2,000 animal transportation movements, involving 1.3 million sheep, led to a rapid spread of the disease. Therefore, we need an inquiry, but we also need a follow-up to it--we must consider how we would deal with foot and mouth if it ever arose again, and we must examine procedures every three, four or five years. The inquiry must find out how the outbreak started. I am on public record as saying that, if criminal proceedings have to be brought against any person, or any group of people, we should not be afraid to bring them. We should highlight what was done well and should not be afraid to acknowledge where we got things wrong.
We need explanations for cases that suddenly arose some 30 miles from the nearest previous case. The inquiry should examine traffic movements and vehicle movements, and the potential for the spread that arose from those. It should consider human movements--people working uncleanly and causing spread.
One of my local newspapers printed a letter from a chap inquiring about mushroom sheep--sheep that had not been there in the evening but had appeared the next morning. Lo and behold, some two or three days later in another part of his neighbourhood, the same thing happened. I am almost convinced, although I cannot be sure, that I witnessed similar happenings. Sheep would suddenly appear in fields where previously there had been nothing. It beggars belief that, throughout this difficult period, people may well have been carrying out illegal livestock movements. Of course there has been rumour and gossip, and the inquiry must get to the bottom of some of that, too.
Is there a role for vaccination? Should vaccine ever be used in the future? We need extensive research and development to ascertain whether it is a possibility.
Foot and mouth never really was an election issue. People's real concerns in rural constituencies are the same as they are in cities and urban areas: they are about the national health service and children's education. The amendment before us talks about "world-class public services". Earlier this year, the Leader of the Opposition appeared at a fund-raising event in my constituency and spoke about policing in the area. He said that he wanted to return police numbers to the figures that stood in May 1997 and crime to 1997 levels. I have news for him: crime has fallen by 5 per cent. The number of uniformed police officers has risen by 42, and the number of civilian staff by 29. I do not think that people in my constituency would want to see a return to the May 1997 figures.
People's real concerns also include transport, and the Tory theory behind bus deregulation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, Stagecoach is a major player in my area. I am not convinced, despite all the money that the Government and our local authority have ploughed into public transport, that we are getting the transport provision that we need and deserve.
People are also concerned about affordable housing. Let us never forget that, to many people, affordable housing means an affordable rent.
Let me sum up by saying that some people should not return to farming. I do wonder that there is a healthy situation in my area, where 24 per cent. of GDP is connected to farming. I do not believe that that is healthy. We need to provide support to farmers and communities to ensure that we have a vibrant rural economy. That can happen only when people sit down and discuss the issue as whole rural communities, rather than individual groups within communities.
It would be invidious to mention all the hon. Members who have made excellent maiden speeches this evening. We have seen the capabilities of the new intake of Members of Parliament in the most remarkable way this evening, and I give credit to all of them--but particularly my hon. Friend Norman Lamb, whom I very much welcome to the Liberal Democrat Benches.
Mr. Drew was absolutely right in saying that, to rural areas such as those which he and I represent, what matters in this Parliament is that the Government should start to deliver in the key areas of social policy. We have been waiting too long for them to do so. Education, health, policing, public transport and the public services on which we depend are also the key issues in other parts of the country.
Overlaying that is the crisis caused by foot and mouth disease, and we in Somerset feel much the same way as Mr. Evans. The world has looked aside and the media spotlight is elsewhere; they are no longer interested in foot and mouth. However, there happen to be cases in our area, and those outbreaks are just as important to our agriculture industry and our other businesses as were those in other parts of the country.
The caravan has moved on and we feel forgotten. That cannot be right, which is why the amendment tabled by the Conservative Opposition correctly says that it is remarkable that the Queen's Speech does not address the most pressing issues in rural areas: first, how to effect a recovery in our agriculture industry; and, secondly, and perhaps even more important, how to effect a recovery in all the other businesses that have been affected not only by foot and mouth but by the long-term slowdown in so many of our rural industries and the impact of that on the economy.
I am deeply disappointed that there is no legislation in the Queen's Speech to address that. Furthermore, there is no measure to put into effect the promises made in the rural White Paper and no intention to lead with a recovery plan that will put cash into businesses that desperately need it to put them back on the road to recovery.
It is a paradox of debates on the Gracious Speech that we often discuss not what is included but what has not been included. I have little problem with many Bills in the Queen's Speech and some address issues with which I have sympathy, but I do not find what I want in respect of the core areas of delivery and improved public services. The proposed education Bill is so far removed from the reality of what we need to improve education services in schools and university provision in Somerset as to be laughable.
I welcome the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Education and Skills. She and I have shared many Adjournment debates late in the night, talking about the problems of Somerset education, and she has always shown that she understands the issues. However, I have to tell her that a Bill that deals principally with 57 new varieties of school and labels that will categorise pupils and put them into the various educational establishments without improving any of them--they will be irrelevant in many rural areas, which have monopoly suppliers such as a single secondary school providing an option for an area--is not what we are looking for.
We are looking for reforms of local government finance, and we have been waiting for them for so long. We want a measure that will put right the gross inequities in standard spending assessments whereby a child in Somerset receives £1,500 a year less than a child in a leafy London suburb. That is what we want from the Government, but we do not have it. Yet again, we wait for those necessary reforms.
The system does not provide the new school buildings or the extra teachers that we need and it is making admission policies more difficult. Other hon. Members will know that policies that are intended to be good-- I applaud them in terms of class sizes--mean that more pupils are unable to attend a school on their doorstep, so they have to travel a considerable distance to an alternative school.
In the health service, the systems are being messed about, there are no promises of real delivery in the acute services that we need and constituents of mine still have to wait 18 months to get into the Royal United in Bath or into Yeovil general hospital for a simple orthopaedic operation. That is not good enough, and the Government must start to deliver on their promises.
We must begin to address primary care issues. My general practitioners in Somerset are in desperate straits, wondering how on earth they will manage. They are being asked to do more and more with less and less, only to find that the bureaucracy is overwhelming them. That cannot be right either.
We desperately need to address issues of long-term care. Only last week, an elderly persons' home in a neighbouring constituency but on the border of mine, was closed, affecting many of my constituents. People rang my office in tears because their relatives were being told at a week's notice that the home was to close and that they would have to decamp we know not where. We must get long-term care right. We do not have the correct funding or structure to provide long-term nursing or personal care, and that should be a priority for the Government in this Session.
Hon. Members also mentioned housing. We have not got that right. I am still greatly concerned that overstretched social housing in rural areas cannot cope with the people who want to move because their living conditions are grossly unsuitable or their family circumstances have changed. They are stuck. The only way for them to put a roof over their head is to move far away from their friends and relatives--possibly to accommodation that might be unsuitable--simply because the housing stock does not provide what is needed.
Those are important issues. On an additional note, I am concerned about the need to reform this place to make it more relevant to our constituents' needs. That idea has pervaded all discussions about the Queen's Speech. People have talked about the Government holding Parliament in contempt. That has been the case at times, and it continues to be so. However, ways of remedying that lie in our hands as Members of the House. We, too, often hold the House in contempt. Members are often not here to listen to debates. Prima donnas waltz in to give their speeches and do not have the courtesy to wait for the next speech before going on to their next engagement. We have also failed to address the problems of Select Committees. We need to consider who serves on them and what powers they have.
If we want proper public services, as mentioned in the amendment, we need parliamentary structures that hold the Government to account to maintain them. We do not have those. Our structures lack the spontaneity to enable us to do that. We talk about things that are outside our control, but we often fail to talk about things that are under our control. We talk about the need to ratify treaties without appreciating the fact that that power is not within our grasp. The House can only deal with legislation that follows from a treaty obligation; the responsibility for ratification lies elsewhere.
The House has to take its responsibilities more seriously. We must make the Executive understand that, unless the House is seen as relevant and is able to hold them to account for providing the services that our constituents need, we are failing in our duties. The public will not respect the House for that and will show their displeasure in the ballot box, as they did at the general election.
South Derbyshire had eight foot and mouth cases earlier this year. Restrictions have only recently been lifted. Indeed, the footpath that runs across my property has only just opened to walkers. The outbreak had a profound impact on the rural economy and the life style in a large part of my constituency.
The outbreak clearly exposed the extremely poor preparation that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had in place to deal with such a disaster. It would not be reasonable to retort that it could hardly have predicted a disaster on that scale, because we had experienced foot and mouth before. Although a substantial report was written about the last outbreak, the Ministry was, sadly, unprepared for the process that lay ahead. It showed a poor initial grasp of the scale of the crisis and did not bring to bear all the resources that could have been available to control it early enough. Members of the Select Committee on Agriculture in the previous Parliament had the opportunity to question scientific advisers on the management of the disease and their advice about it. I was surprised at the time that elapsed before the key scientific minds who could forecast the path of the disease were engaged in the task.
There are clearly some substantial issues to address and I welcome the fact that there will be a full inquiry into the origins of the outbreak and its handling. I shall want to see what can be learned, and, to be fair, where the criticism should be directed.
One small silver lining was that my constituency received a visit from the Prime Minister. Three farmers in my area, the Archer family--there are Archer family farms in South Derbyshire as well as on the radio programme--the Salts and the Smiths, all had the opportunity to express their views about the way in which the disease had been handled. They complimented the Ministry on some aspects of its handling of the matter locally, as well as handing out some brickbats regarding delayed payments and later, after the outbreak, confusions that had arisen in relation to blood tests, to which my hon. Friend Mr. Brown referred. Such tests were a necessary part of clearing the disease from our area but were handled slowly, with several mistakes being made.
In many ways the exercise was a test of how public services work in extremis, which brings me to public services in general and how they may be improved--matters which are questioned in the Opposition's amendment. The focus of the Queen's Speech was correctly on the delivery of public service commitments, and that was the focus of the message given to me by my constituents in South Derbyshire during the election campaign. They expect to see more commitments and they expect them to be delivered more quickly. My task in this Parliament is essentially to help to ensure that that comes about.
Listening to the Queen's Speech and examining in more detail some of the tasks that lie ahead, I had some doubts about how easy some of those changes would be. With regard to NHS reforms, we must recognise that centrally set targets and government by directive have rightly been questioned as the correct way to deliver improvements. They have been shown to be inefficient and demotivating to key workers within that core service.
I regularly meet health service professionals who, while recognising the extra resources which they are starting to see reach front-line services, bitterly resent being told precisely how to spend money and being set targets which they do not regard as the most relevant for their area. We must allow greater discretion for quality services to be established in a local area on the basis of the judgment of local management.
Peeling away some of the layers of NHS management appears to be necessary, but we must recognise that the long drawn-out processes that usually follow understandably absorb far too much of the time and energy of many key managers. That means that the deconstruction of regional health authorities and the health authorities that currently continue to manage many of the financial issues in the health service, and the transfer of those tasks to primary care groups and then to primary care trusts, is a process that will naturally absorb a great deal of energy which perhaps could be devoted to improving public services rather more rapidly. One must also question whether transferring complex negotiations and the management of complex services to primary care trusts, which are, as yet, nascent bodies of limited experience in delivering such key decisions, is a task that will be achieved without significant error and delay.
We need robust processes that will transfer responsibilities rapidly, but we must also be aware that one of the goals is to make savings. Most of those working in the health service are cynical about the savings it is claimed can be made from the reduction of large bureaucracies.
My experience of working in the private sector for a large public company suggests that all large bureaucracies tend to behave like primitive organisms: when a limb is severed at one point, a replacement grows elsewhere in the organism, sometimes at rather greater cost and inefficiency. Flatter management, while a laudable goal, cannot be achieved painlessly or without extremely skilled management. Given that it does not appear that such experience can be found within many of the public service bodies and Ministries that will be managing the process, one has to voice some concern about that change.
We must re-engineer the way in which we deliver our services. Some useful innovations have already been made, for example, the ONE service in delivering benefits and employment support. However, many parts of our public services continue to operate within the confines of byzantine procedures. We have repeatedly failed to integrate the use of information technology into modern public service. When I visited a hospital just outside my area, I was shown software that was, it was claimed, on the leading edge; but five years ago in my own business, I would have regarded it as the most basic of database tools. That gives some measure of how slowly IT has been absorbed into a key public service. I noted the gentle reproof from our e-envoy regarding using high-level targets for public access to IT instead of focusing on the big issue of transforming key public services through the use of IT.
In education, while commending the development of specialist schools, I would argue that we need to strengthen networks between local schools. To give a local example, I cannot understand why in Swadlincote, a town in my constituency with three secondary comprehensives but only one sixth form, allowing competitive specialties would be harmful.
To return to the putative subject of today's debate--the establishment of the new Department--we must review the top management of our public service. The new Department must break the cracked mould of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: it will be alarming if the new adopts the culture and leadership of the old. Our rural economy needs new strategies based on markets, customers, quality and environment, not on the legacy of the previous Ministry.
It is appropriate for me to participate in the debate on rural communities and transport in the context of the Queen's Speech. I want all those who have not yet done so to travel into Ulster, because it is more likely than not that they would fly into the international airport in my constituency, which lies at the heart of Ulster. They can take the airline of their choice because there is such a good selection of them--I prefer British Airways, which still does a fair job, even though it is not quite the airline it was when Lord King and I were running it.
I shall stop the aircraft 30,000 ft up and take a look around my constituency, because it is an attractive place, as is the whole Province. It is a big rural constituency with considerable industry and commerce, which lies 10 miles from Belfast lough. To the west at Toome, the River Bann--a great salmon river--runs out of Lough Neagh, where most of the eels that are eaten in Europe come from. The area is an untapped tourist attraction, but it is totally underdeveloped, so I intend to work on that one for the community of South Antrim and, indeed, for all of Northern Ireland.
Move eastward, through Randalstown and Antrim to Ballyclare, and turn south to Mossley, one of two big local government areas. Our local government headquarters are in Mossley Mill: local councillors did not, as they sometimes do, knock down the old and build a new and disgusting office block; instead, they took an old 19th-century mill and turned it into the headquarters of Newtownabbey council. That is something that I like.
Move further south and, on the fringes of the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Donaldson is the legendary Dundrod circuit. Dundrod, with the mountain course on the Isle of Man are two of the great road circuits in the history of autosport, now road motor cycling.
Beside Dundrod is Nutt's Corner, which is in my constituency, where there is a small race track, which I hope, in co-operation with Members of the Assembly, we will develop as a centre for motor sport excellence in Northern Ireland. I would like it to be named the Joey Dunlop memorial circuit since Joey Dunlop came from my home town of Ballymoney in County Antrim. Up with Mike Hailwood, he is the greatest motor cycle road racer of all time. He died in Estonia last year.
I turn to my predecessors. I thank the Rev. William McCrea for looking after the interests of South Antrim in the eight months since he defeated me at the by-election; I won at the general election. I thank him for his service, as I am sure the House does. Willie still holds many public positions in Mid-Ulster, including in the local council. He has stood for many constituencies. I do not know where he will pop up next, but no doubt he will.
I go further back. I have known the past four hon. Members for South Antrim, including Sir Knox Cunningham. I met him at a small meeting in Ormeau park in the early 1970s--it was small by Ulster standards: about 100,000 people were in the park. He was a big man, as all the Cunningham family were, and are. A boxing champion at Cambridge and an impressive man on the platform, he had presence.
Sir Knox was succeeded by someone who older hon. Members should know well: Jim Molyneaux, who is in the other place now. For many years, Jim represented the old big constituency, which we still call--we are a bit old fashioned--the imperial constituency of South Antrim. He is a great parliamentarian. When the constituency was split because of increased representation, Jim went to Lagan Valley and Clifford Forsythe succeeded him.
Clifford was the quiet man of the Ulster Unionist party. He was well known in the House and highly respected. He was a great footballer in the 1950s. He played for Linfield at Windsor Park and for Derry City at the Brandywell. In modern terminology, that would be called parity of esteem. He served South Antrim very well. Unfortunately, he died--it surprised us all--at the age of 70, leaving a widow, Lillian.
I have many things to say about the big issues in Ulster: the agreement and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I will bide my time. It is a great honour to make a maiden speech. I am not really a career politician. I tried to win the by-election, when we failed, but we won the seat back against the trend at the general election.
I will be a Member of Parliament who represents the local issues in my constituency. In the Chamber, I will try to represent, with my colleagues in the Ulster Unionist party, the needs of Northern Ireland. We are not Protestant Sinn Fein. We are the Ulster Unionist party and we will regain and strengthen our position as the leaders of Ulster Unionism.
I will also speak on and debate subjects in the House that affect the whole of the United Kingdom because I am a Unionist. There are Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Ulstermen, Irishmen--they choose the term depending where they are--but we are all Unionists and the unity of the kingdom means a great deal to me.
Let me first explain that my normally robust Salford voice is somewhat weaker this evening, as I carried out my duties last night as the manager and chief cheerleader of the House of Commons tug-of-war team, which achieved a magnificent victory over the House of Lords team for the first time ever.
I congratulate the hon. Members for South Antrim (David Burnside), for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) on their maiden speeches, which they have made while I have been in the Chamber. They articulated their concerns and their vision for their constituencies with clarity. That bodes well for their advocacy on behalf of their constituents in the future.
I wish to confine my comments to transport. I was very pleased to serve on the Committee that considered the Transport Act 2000, under which concessionary fares for the elderly were introduced nationwide. In my area, the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority amended its travel concession scheme, with effect from
The Strategic Rail Authority was established under the Transport Act 2000, so I wish to say in passing that I hope that the authority will, when deciding which company should run the new trans-Pennine express franchise, heed the words to me of one of the new Under-Secretaries of State, who said that the authority must:
"be satisfied that the successful bidder has the vision to bring about a step change in quality and the capacity to deliver, whilst offering better value for money".
I hope that the SRA also gives due weight to the views of the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority on that matter.
There have been a number of public transport improvements in my constituency, Eccles, in the past few years, including the Metrolink extension and new quality bus corridors. The Greater Manchester passenger transport authority has planned further improvements for the local public transport network. I have been working closely with the authority on those improvements, and I shall do whatever I can as a Member of Parliament to support and advance the authority's work.
People want affordable and reliable public transport--and, of course, they want it to be safe. The conclusions of the Cullen report on track and signal maintenance and on the need for effective training and induction programmes for drivers must be heeded.
I want to refer briefly to bus services. The Greater Manchester passenger transport authority is concerned about bus service provision. In recent years in some areas, there has been a reduction in the level of service and an increasing tendency to withdraw services from areas and estates designated as suffering from anti-social behaviour. That is a problem in my constituency, where some estates have had their bus services withdrawn. I accept, however, that buses have been stoned on some occasions on one estate. I do not expect drivers to be put at risk of injury, but bus companies should not delete services without consultation with local communities or relevant agencies. We must all work together to find a solution. It is not a transport problem with social implications; it is a social problem with transport implications.
If social inclusion is a national aim, bus companies have their responsibilities. Labour legislation introduced quality bus partnerships and other important measures, but we must be flexible and consider other measures that may be necessary to deliver quality bus services for old and young alike.
The Opposition like to paint themselves as the motorists' friend, but Labour is investing in both roads and the local environment. Labour has enabled the Highways Agency to improve the safety and the environment of families in my constituency, who have lived with noise and accidents on the M602 for too long. Changes to regulations introduced by the Labour Government mean that work can be done on more sites that are seriously affected by noise. For example, work is well under way to erect a noise barrier where the motorway crosses Parrin lane in the village of Winton, and it should be completed in July.
There is a debate to be had on the quality and substance of protection on motorways that is afforded by barriers. Should the barriers be made of current materials or should they be made of concrete? The debate should take place because there are pros and cons. Current materials allow cars and other vehicles to go through the barriers. In the Parrin lane area in my constituency, for example, over the past two years cars have gone off the motorway and fallen on the road below on three occasions. There has been danger to life and limb.
In policy terms, should the Government decide to use concrete barriers, which would force cars and other vehicles back on to the motorway? There is no easy answer to such issues and there needs to be further debate in the House.
I first raised the issue of the Cadishead Way bypass in my village of Cadishead and Irlam in my maiden speech in 1997, and I have raised it regularly with different Ministers since then. Transport Ministers had quite a high turnover in the previous Parliament, and a number received promotion. I hope that I shall shortly be meeting the newly appointed Minister for Transport, my hon. Friend Mr. Spellar. I hope that he will be the last Minister for Transport that I have to meet on the matter.
The Tories failed to deliver a Cadishead Way bypass after 18 years of government. Labour is committed to improving our transport infrastructure and is putting up the money to make a real difference. Last year, the Government's 10-year transport plan promised a £180 billion package of public and private investment. We are investing in rail, local transport and roads.
I am very pleased that Salford council and the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities have given the Cadishead Way bypass a high priority in their new transport development plan. Perhaps this year its time has come. If not, I shall be boring the House again this time next year. 8.54 pm
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I tend to the view that representing a constituency such as Orkney and Shetland, I can probably lay a better claim than many hon. Members, if not most, that mine is truly a rural constituency, and one that by virtue of its geography gives rise to more transport issues than can really be properly addressed in a 10-minute speech. There will, of course, be future debates in which those issues can be raised, and I give the House fair warning that I fully intend to do so.
It is traditional in this House to pay tribute to one's predecessor. It occurs to me, having observed the debate on the Queen's Speech over the past few days, that this is perhaps a tradition which it is open to some hon. Members to observe through gritted teeth and with their fingers crossed behind their back. I consider myself particularly fortunate to have had two Liberal predecessors--which makes me unique as a Liberal MP in this House--to whom I can pay fulsome and handsome tribute.
The late Lord Grimond of Firth, or Jo Grimond, as he was better known in the House and the constituency, served as the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland between 1950 and 1983. He was leader of the Liberal party for 11 of those years, and the fact that he remains a substantial figure, regarded in the communities of Orkney and Shetland with great respect and affection, is an eloquent tribute to the many great statesmanlike qualities that he possessed.
I am acutely aware that Jo Grimond joined a parliamentary party of five Liberal Members in this House, and that it is my privilege to be a member of a parliamentary party of 52. It was Jo Grimond who really started the long, slow haul back for Liberalism in Scotland. Of course, that was not an event but a process, and in 1983 the mantle of that process was handed on to my immediate predecessor, Jim Wallace.
Jim Wallace served the constituency of Orkney and Shetland with remarkable diligence and distinction for the past 18 years. I consider myself particularly fortunate still to have readily available to me his active participation and counsel, as he remains the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Orkney, as well as being its Deputy First Minister and Minister for Justice.
When Jo Grimond made his maiden speech in the House, he described our constituency of Orkney and Shetland as
"two little worlds of their own, far away between this country and Norway, very different from each other even in their own land and their own economic affairs, but certainly very different from things down here."--[Hansard, 10 March 1950; Vol. 472, c. 626.]
That is as true today as it was in 1950.
Our staple industries remain farming and fishing, and they face many of the difficulties that are born well beyond Orkney and Shetland. Again, there will no doubt be future occasions when I shall be able to discuss those difficulties in the House. More recently, we have seen a much greater dependence on the oil industry, with the substantial oil terminal facilities at Sullom Voe and at Flotta. In recent years, we have also seen the growth of aquaculture in the constituency.
Many hon. Members have no doubt enjoyed holidays in either Orkney or Shetland. They will be aware of the warmth of the welcome that the people offer, and the spectacularly, sometimes breathtakingly, beautiful scenery that our islands have to offer. I urge those hon. Members who have not yet availed themselves of the opportunity of visiting my constituency to do so as soon as possible. I ask them not to be put off by air fares that might take them to the other side of the world, should they be inclined to go there.
I also ask hon. Members not to be put off by the fact that planes travelling to and from Orkney and Shetland have a nasty habit of "going technical"--as the ground staff have to put it--suspiciously often when only three or four passengers are booked to travel on them. Hon. Members should also not be put off by the fact that when they get there, they will be charged an extra 10p to 15p a litre of petrol compared to the cost on the mainland. I assure hon. Members that these are all mere distractions that we shall resolve in time, and that it is worth taking the trouble to get there.
I approach this speech today with an acute sense of my part in a long history of radical Liberal tradition from Orkney and Shetland. In the 19th century, we suffered, like so many parts of the highlands and islands, at the hands of landlordism--landlords who exercised draconian powers from a great distance with no consideration for the needs or wishes of the local communities. For many people, that caused tremendous hardship and suffering that ended only with Gladstone's Crofting Act 1886, which introduced security of tenure and shifted the balance from favouring the landlord to favouring local people.
As we enter the 21st century, there seems to be a clamant need for a new Crofting Act, but this time a Crofting Act of the sea bed. Hon. Members who are students of history will find disturbing echoes of 19th-century landlordism in the Crown Estate Commission's treatment of the sea bed and the surrounding communities who rely on it. The words "remote, imperious, unresponsive and having no regard for islanders' wishes" spring to mind.
It is expected that, this year alone, the Crown Estate Commission will take £1 million from the fish farming industry in Shetland alone. Fish farmers in my constituency and elsewhere face a levy that is based, uniquely, not on area but on production. It has made the difference between a business breaking even and a business going into the red. It is a payment for which no service is given in return.
Another example of such unfairness is the project currently being promoted by the Shetland Islands council charitable trust to lay a fibre optic cable from Shetland through Orkney to the Scottish mainland. Such a cable would allow my constituents proper access to the electronic communications that the constituents of other hon. Members undoubtedly take for granted and would immensely benefit my constituency. Hon. Members can therefore imagine our frustration at discovering that our operating costs of £100,000 annually are likely to be increased by no less than another £64,000 annually, simply for the privilege of laying the cable on the sea bed. There is something profoundly obnoxious and objectionable about a system that allows the extraction of money from island communities for the right to use the sea bed. Although we, with our need for piers and harbours, cannot exist without that sea bed, it is of no use to anyone else.
In the general election campaign there was a great deal of talk about stealth taxes, but I believe that the Crown Estate Commission's levies and rents are the oldest and most obnoxious form of stealth tax. They are a relic of our feudal past and the time has come for them to go.
It is my privilege to represent in the House a constituency that is independently minded and deeply self-reliant. I have not been sent here to ask for any special favours, and I am not here to beg for any handouts; I am here merely to ask that my constituents be allowed the same opportunities to develop the potential of their communities that are given to other hon. Members and their constituents in the rest of the country. It is a case that is based on simple fairness and equality of opportunity. It is my devout hope that any case so based will always be well received.
May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the elegant maiden speech by Mr. Carmichael? He has a long line of illustrious predecessors to live up to, but everything that he said, and the way in which he said it, indicates that he too will make a very significant mark in this place.
It was good to hear about the delights of Orkney and Shetland and South Antrim. Every speech I make in this place tends to be a travelogue about Lancaster and Wyre, which is the most glorious constituency in the land. However, it is good to know that if I did not have an imminent date with a hot Greek beach very early in August, I would have two such excellent alternatives for holidays. Orkney and Shetland and South Antrim will have to go down for future breaks.
It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate because Lancaster and Wyre is a very rural constituency--the 44th most rural in the country, according to the Library. I am the first Labour Member of Parliament ever to be re-elected for any part of the constituency where the boundaries have changed considerably, certainly not to Labour's advantage, over recent decades. It is good to be back representing such a rural constituency.
Let us not beat about the bush. Our rural areas and particularly our agriculture industry have faced the hardest of hard times in recent years. The Government came in in 1997 with the appalling legacy of BSE. Since then, farmers have had desperate times; they have seen very low prices, huge falls in prices and difficult times. Now we have the dreadful occurrence of foot and mouth disease.
My constituency has had two cases of foot and mouth disease, which have been devastating for those concerned and their neighbours, but the whole area has suffered from the restrictions that have been put in place. At the moment, the area lives in what can only be described as fear, given the proximity of foot and mouth in the Ribble valley. No human being who has come into contact with people involved in farming in recent years could fail to be moved by the distress of that community. It is a strong community, but it is facing appalling times.
In that context, how did a Labour Member come to be re-elected in a constituency where Labour has not been strong in the past and where that rural community has faced such difficult times? It is instructive that the rural area that I represent has benefited from the Government's investment in education and village schools. Kirkland and Catterall school in my constituency received £500,000 only a few months before the election to deal with major repairs and redevelopment that had originally been plotted in 1976. In 1997, that school finally got the money.
There is also the horrendous problem of the moss roads in my constituency--roads built across the marsh, which have been neglected for years and are in danger of being closed, cutting off rural communities. Under the Government's investment in highways, we now have a three-year, £4 million plan to reconstruct and redevelop those roads, relinking rural communities and rural businesses.
We also have the Garstang Super 8, the future of rural public transport--flexible and accessible. A minibus based in Garstang, it covers the rural area to the east and west in a figure of eight and supplies an excellent service six days a week to villages that had been completely denuded of public transport during the 18 years of the previous Government.
During the Government's first term, there was a lot of scaremongering from the Opposition about the future of parish councils. My opponent at the general election told people that they were about to be abolished. That is not going to happen--instead, the role of parish councils will be strengthened in terms of planning and developing, and in terms of transport improvement, finance and support.
Pilling, in my constituency, is one of the largest villages in England. Local people have developed the Pilling appraisal--their own planning document which, as well as being an interesting and powerful record of what Pilling is like in 2001, will be an important tool for planning in the future.
We have great hopes for the future in Lancaster and Wyre. Myerscough college is one of the major agricultural colleges in the country. The area has also seen the development of farmers markets, co-operatives and farm shops, with people selling produce over the internet. The future of quality produce is very good.
We have the possibility of developing sports facilities in Over Wyre as a result of the Government's neighbourhood programme. We also have the possibility of developing the facilities of Garstang as a market town. Important initiatives are coming from the north-west region, such as regional planning guidance and rural development programmes. However, there are still real difficulties in farming. Only yesterday I was at Claughton Green farm, talking to Mr. Alf Noblett, one of my constituents, and some of his colleagues. It is instructive that they are not asking for more money from the Government. They recognise that the Government have made a huge investment in farming over the past four years. However, I would second their wish that we should be more robust about the future of British farming, the quality of British produce, some of the strictures from Europe and regulations on imports. They want us to be particularly robust in relation to supermarkets and dairy companies. I do not believe that British farmers and the farmers of Lancaster and Wyre get a fair deal. It is essential that the Government stand up for them.
Lancaster is a great, historic city with a wonderful economic future, but it is bedevilled by transport problems. It needs a sustainable integrated transport plan. We need substantial investment in a bypass, park-and-ride schemes, public transport, a range of facilities to improve safety in home zones, and many other measures to reduce car parking. We need to take a radical approach to enhance the city of Lancaster and its advantages of art, culture, history and economic development with the safe, sustainable, clean and green transport system that it deserves.
For an institution that is meant to be held lower and lower in public esteem, tonight has been remarkable for the number of speeches by people who have been prepared to take ever lengthier steps to attain office in this House.
I pay tribute first to my hon. Friend Mr. Duncan, who ably made his maiden speech. He gracefully paid tribute both to his Scottish National party predecessor and to Ian Lang, who is now my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Lang. My hon. Friend described his constituency as "Scotland in miniature". I know that part of the kingdom well, having often visited relations and cousins there. From his personal form and substance, I think that he will be representing Scotland at large from the Conservative Benches. Clearly, he has much to contribute and I commend his confidence that he is the advance party for many more Conservative Members from that great nation of Scotland.
We heard many other maiden speeches, for example from Ms Munn, with her pleasant toothy smile. Her self-deprecating humour belied the seriousness of purpose with which she approached the subject of adoption. We look forward to hearing more from her.
John Mann also made a maiden speech, as did Dr. Taylor, who brings to the House an authentic voice that is a challenge to us tired old clapped-out professional politicians--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I notice that that remark got the most authentic cheers from the Liberal Democrats. We look forward to hearing more about what the hon. Gentleman represents. He is a lesson to us all.
We also heard maiden speeches from the hon. Members for Angus (Mr. Weir), for Ynys Mon (Albert Owen), for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). There was a spate of speeches from the Province of Northern Ireland--from the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), for South Antrim (David Burnside) and for North Down (Lady Hermon).
We had extra, sub-maiden speeches from other hon. Friends. My hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell is best remembered for the advice that he took about seconding the Loyal Address himself, when he was told that it was always proposed by some clapped-out old has-been and seconded by some oily young man on the make. He did not tell us which category he now fits into.
I regret missing the speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Hendry, but I gather that he was among many hon. Members who mentioned foot and mouth disease. It is incumbent on the Secretary of State, who opened the debate but is not in her place--
I know the reason why and I certainly do not denigrate the right hon. Lady for that. I ask the hon. Gentleman to forgive me if he misunderstood me. However, I hope that she will take on board the fact that the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) and for Wealden all raised concerns about the effects of foot and mouth on farming and the rural economy.
It is not satisfactory for the Government to continue to dismiss the demands for a proper public inquiry into why it happened and how it was dealt with. It is not sufficient to explain that because the Conservatives did not clamour for an inquiry into BSE, there should be no inquiry into foot and mouth. That is the worst sort of tit-for-tat politics, which does this place no good.
I had hoped to begin the debate by welcoming the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to his new post. The papers were quick to report last week that, unlike his predecessor, he does not drive two Jaguars--in fact, he does not drive at all, as he does not have a driving licence. We have gone from two Jags to a man who travels on two feet. Personally, I favour two wheels, but I look forward to debating with the new Secretary of State when he has the courage to appear at the Dispatch Box.
Instead, I welcome the new Minister for Transport. It is a pleasure to see him. I owe him a great debt as he arranged my pair--not that it has been much use in recent years. He comes from the Ministry of Defence, where he was Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I fear that after a few weeks in his new post he will hanker for the halcyon days in the Ministry of Defence, which will seem like a charmed life compared with the mess that he inherits in this Department.
In a pre-election audit of the Government's record, Anatole Kaletsky in The Times gave the Government nought out of 10 for transport and his was not the only voice to attack their record. In January, the Prime Minister's environmental adviser said:
"I think it is fair to say we really aren't moving forward in transport policies; we are probably moving backwards."
The normally pro-Labour commentator Polly Toynbee wrote:
"What the people who voted Labour for the first time in 1997 cared most about was better public services. Expectations had been raised, only to be dashed when nothing much happened or, as with transport, things evidently got worse."
The normally obedient Lobby fodder raised dissenting voices. Barbara Follett said in January:
"The bit where I am probably most disappointed is like the rest of the country--transport. I think we needed to address that early."
Mr. Grogan said in March:
"I think that if there is to be a second term of Labour Government, we have to get public transport right. I think we have been given the benefit of the doubt over the railways so far but I don't think that will be the case in the second term."
The Minister would do well to heed those words. That is the problem facing him as he gets to grips with his new portfolio.
The Government have been given a second chance. They said that they needed more time, but now they must prove that they are worth their second chance. They must face the obligations that fall on them, and there can be no more excuses.
The amendment makes reference to the fact that specific measures to improve transport are noticeable by their absence from the Gracious Speech. It also states that the Prime Minister promised, before the general election, that Labour was committed to creating "world-class public services". I wonder whether the fact that transport was downgraded in the reshuffle reflects the Government's anxiety about their ability to deliver on transport.
Labour's first four years do not inspire much confidence. As the Minister is new to his job, perhaps I can remind him of the Government's record. Few people would be brave enough to say that the Government made much progress towards a world-class transport system in their first term. In 1997, a litre of petrol cost about 59p, and it costs 80p now. The amount of tax taken from road users has increased by £9 billion over the past four years.
What the travelling public get for that extra tax? Annual investment in roads is down. It touched the 1997 level of £1.4 billion in only one of the past four years. Between 1992 and 1997, the Conservative Government averaged investment of £1.78 billion a year. None of our major competitors invests so little in roads as Britain. Britain now has the worst traffic jams in Europe, and our roads are in their worst condition since the mid-1970s.
Labour's roads policy has hardly been consistent. The Government were elected in 1997 on a wave of anti-roads sentiment. The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State, who was then responsible for transport, gleefully slashed more than 100 schemes and bypasses from the national roads programme in England and Wales. By the end of the previous Parliament, the Labour Government were trumpeting their intention to deliver 100 new bypasses as part of their 10-year transport plan.
Labour's roads policy is a conundrum. Urgent schemes such as the A3 at Hindhead were scrapped, but they are now back in the programme. Before there are too many cheers, I should tell the House that its construction is not now due to start until 2007, which is after the expiry of this Parliament. Is that because the Government have wasted their first four years in office?
There is similar chaos in the policy on motorway widening schemes. When they were first elected, the Government dubbed such investment "motorway madness", and scrapped all such schemes. As the system ground to a halt, business cried out for investment. When the Confederation of British Industry complains about the costs of congestion, it is champing not for cuts in the roads programme but for increased investment in it.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his speech is a pretty poor recycling of his election speech and that the country has passed judgment on that? Would it not be far better to move on and come up with something positive?
I do not think that 2 million fewer votes for the Labour party was much of a positive endorsement.
Why does the Minister not simply answer the questions? What specific widening schemes and by-passes are outlined in the transport plan? When will they commence and when will they be completed? The Government cannot say because they have so few firm plans, even after four years in government.
The chaos in policy on the roads is all the more obvious on the railways. The Government allowed public support for the railways to decline from £2 billion in 1996-97 to a mere £1.5 billion last year. At the start of the last Parliament, it was reported that the Prime Minister told his colleagues, just days after the 1997 election:
"the railways are not a priority."
The House can hardly complain that the Government failed to deliver on that promise.
The Government inherited a railway industry that had reversed the decline in passenger numbers and rail freight, and doubled annual investment. Moreover, the figures show that punctuality and reliability had improved. The industry was poised for what Ministers themselves claimed would be a "railway renaissance". Today, the industry's morale and financial confidence is in a state of collapse, and it is crying out for additional Government support. The solution is that the Government be positive about what has every potential to be a dynamic, exciting and growing industry.
Let us hope that we have seen the last of a Secretary of State behaving like a spoilt child, stamping all over his train set in a tantrum every time something goes wrong. What industry could possibly function under the constant political barrage from Ministers and regulators to which the railway industry has been subjected? The last thing that the industry needs is for Labour to start giving in to its left-wing friends in the unions and the Liberal Democrats who long for renationalisation of the railways.
It is all about the politics of blame. In the comments of the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the old left's insatiable appetite for the politics of blame lives on. What has all that blame achieved? The Government should end the policy of blaming and shaming the rail industry. They should promote a positive and favourable climate for the rail industry. They should help it make the changes that are needed instead of criticising from the sidelines, and should promote the financial confidence of the industry instead of gloating over its demise.
The Government have made a grave and irresponsible error in allowing the debate about rail safety to become a vehicle for political point scoring. I commend the first part of the Cullen inquiry into Paddington to the House. It is brutal in its analysis. It pulls no punches and provides no comfort for those who want to blame safety failures on privatisation. Lord Cullen's criticisms go far wider than Railtrack. He lists failures of procedures, training, communication and culture. That includes the railway inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive, and goes back far beyond the date of privatisation.
The track layout and signalling was designed and laid out before privatisation. It was approved by the HSE and the railway inspectorate, which had not been privatised. Let the debate be free of political prejudice. Civil aviation is a private, competitive, fragmented, profit-driven industry yet no air accident has for decades led to the ideological dispute that we have seen since Paddington. Part II of the Cullen report will offer structural and methodological reforms of rail safety that are likely to take much from aviation. So I welcome the one mention of rail in the Gracious Speech--the Government's commitment to implement Cullen's recommendations.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the privatisation of the rail industry was well handled by the previous Tory Government?
I am happy to quote the words of the former Transport Minister, the hon. Member for Streatham, who talked about dramatic improvements in customer focus, an explosion of innovation and the growth of investment, and I am very happy to quote the former Secretary of State, who made it absolutely clear that he was not going to turn the clock back. I suggest that the Minister start explaining that to his Back Benchers and to the trade unions; otherwise, the industry will continue to go down the plughole and he will have to take responsibility for that.
Only when this debate is free from political prejudice can Labour hope that the money allocated for the railway in the 10-year plan will be well spent. Can the Minister otherwise explain, if he is listening, how it will be possible to raise the £35 billion of private money outlined in the 10-year plan while Railtrack's share price dives out of the FTSE 100?
I have just one central question for the Minister about railways. What are the Government going to do? It is no longer a string and sealing-wax operation to get them through the general election; the rail recovery plan was just that. We can no longer have a Minister sitting in Railtrack house once a week, trying to keep the trains running on time. It is time for the Government to have a strategy for rail, and that is obviously what they do not have.
Let us consider tonight's Evening Standard: "New crisis on railways as industry chief says he will quit". That headline refers to the Government's own appointed director of the Strategic Rail Authority. The article says:
"Sir Alistair used his announcement at a rail industry conference in London to attack the Government for hindering his efforts by not providing sufficient funding. He said the 'Whitehall machine made a serious mess'".
That is an indictment not from someone whom a Conservative Government appointed, but from someone whom this Government appointed to help with the future of the railway.
But nothing more dramatically demonstrates Labour's transport failure than the failure of transport in London. The Conservatives completed the Victoria line and the docklands light railway. We initiated the Jubilee line extension, the docklands light railway extension, the Heathrow express, Thameslink 2000 and the Croydon tramlink, but what has Labour done in its first four years?
How many projects did Labour start, let alone complete, in its first four years? Can I tell the House? Not one. While the Conservatives put new trains on the Central and Northern lines, refurbished many others and completely renewed the Central line, what has Labour done for the tube? How many new trains under Labour? Not one. How many refurbished trains under Labour? Not one. Not a single line upgrade, not a single refurbished train. The tube is the crowning failure of Labour's transport policy.
What will happen in this Parliament? Perhaps the Minister would like to tell the House. Four years were wasted on the failed public-private partnership. It was due originally in March 1999, and then it was meant to be signed in April 2000, and then in April 2001, and now in September 2001, but industry sources now say that it will not be completed until April 2002. So when, if ever, will the PPP be completed?
The future of Mr. Bob Kiley is now at stake. First he was denigrated by the Government in a briefing war. Then he was appointed and put in charge of the negotiations with the contractors for the PPP. Now he is the victim of off-the-record briefings from the Government about his failure to complete those negotiations. What is his future, and what was the outcome of his meeting with Ministers last week?
Does the Minister accept that the PPP that he has inherited is widely regarded across academic circles, business, industry and the transport industries as botched, and will he work with Transport for London to deliver a sensible plan for a modern underground, instead of against the elected representatives of Londoners, whom the Government themselves put in place to carry out the function of running the underground? What will the Government do about the rising level of strikes, not just on the underground, but on public transport as a whole? Will the Minister take a tougher line with the militants than his RMT-sponsored forebears?
We do not shrink from congratulating the Government on their fresh majority. I congratulate them--[Interruption.] Show some grace. I congratulate them all the more on the silent contrition with which they greeted their victory. Their embarrassed silence spoke volumes. Labour knows that it failed to deliver. Its first term was blessed with opportunities rarely, if ever, enjoyed by a new Administration, not least a golden economic inheritance, a massive mandate from the electorate and the continuing good will of the electors.
The Government wasted their first term, however, squandering the opportunities that they were given four years ago. Though they have been given a second chance, they have a lesser mandate and the public are less trustful than before. All politicians must be concerned at the low turnout at the election. The ruthless raising of expectations followed by an abject failure to deliver has created a new despair about the process of politics in our nation. Transport is one of Labour's great failures. The Government have promised to make it a great success; we shall hold them to that promise.
Rather than make ungracious comments such as those of Mr. Jenkin, I wish to convey to the House the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As Members will be only too well aware from her introductory speech, she has a serious problem with her throat and, quite properly, has left to take medication. I am sure that the House will understand.
The hon. Member for North Essex kindly referred to my previous incarnation as a Defence Minister. Indeed, I was an Opposition defence spokesman for two years, so I spent six years with the brief. As I said to the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen conference, I am coming to terms with meeting people in uniform who do not salute me. There are other differences. One is that I am never short of free advice on how to handle the portfolio.
The debate has been interesting, not just in terms of the subject, but because we have heard some excellent contributions from almost a tide of new Members. However, new Members should always be cautious about those who offer them congratulations on their speeches. No doubt they will have notes of various shades of effusiveness put in their pigeonholes, including, "The greatest speech since Bevan, Lloyd George or Churchill." Delete where necessary.
Indeed, in the current climate, Conservative Members who make maiden speeches will definitely receive a flood of such notes. Given the track record of the hon. Member for North Essex, he probably sends notes before Members have made their speeches, so that they receive them on time.
We heard a good range of contributions and I took a slight hint from the hon. Gentleman regarding the future of Mr. Duncan, who made an excellent contribution about his constituency. He may be promoted to shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, a post for which he is almost uniquely qualified on the Tory Benches.
My hon. Friend Ms Munn referred to her predecessor, Bill Michie, who is well remembered by those of us in the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union group as the chairman. Inevitably, the combination of his name and the trade meant that he was known as Metal Michie. Another welcome addition to the AEEU ranks--my hon. Friend John Mann--was head of research for the engineers when I was with the electricians. He drew attention to the unique qualities of his predecessor and provided many interesting details of his constituency. Mr. Weir drew us into the subject of the debate by mentioning rural transport, which was also welcome.
My hon. Friend Albert Owen also contributed to the debate. Although it is extremely good to have that constituency back in the Labour column, it is with a touch of sadness that we must acknowledge that our long-standing colleague, Cledwyn Hughes, did not live long enough to see that.
Then we had the retreads. Mr. Mitchell followed the great tradition of Sutton Coldfield MPs by denying that he has anything to do with Birmingham. He was equally in denial about the fact that a Conservative Government put them there in the first place when they tried to gerrymander the boundaries to win control of Birmingham and other cities in the metropolitan authorities. Mr. Hendry rightly referred to his predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, who made a considerable contribution to the House, especially as a stalwart of defence debates.
The hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) and for South Antrim (David Burnside) spoke strongly and passionately on the interests of their constituents. Although I was not present, my colleagues told me about the fine and well-judged maiden speech by Lady Hermon. She was the first woman to be elected from Northern Ireland in 30 years and will bring a rational and considered contribution to the problems of Northern Ireland and to our debates.
I do not have enough time to go into detail on the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). Mr. Carmichael mentioned several capital investment programmes. My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy was uncertain whether that was a bid for Government funds or an announcement of how Shetland district council will be spending the great pot of money that it has in its own right.
Some hon. Members in this combined debate on the environment and rural affairs dealt with rural matters. Mr. Evans talked at considerable length about foot and mouth problems. He made some valid points and my colleagues at the relevant Department will want to take them up. My hon. Friend Mr. Brown also made observations on foot and mouth.
Miss McIntosh mentioned footpaths and drew our attention to the success of her campaign on the basis of her local pledges, which highlighted the difference between that and the success--or otherwise--of the Conservatives' national pledges. Her colleagues are in her debt.
Mr. Heath gave the usual talk about the relevance of Westminster, which will be enormously improved when he and his colleagues turn up on a more regular basis.
There were limited speeches on transport. Mr. Horam rightly drew attention to the considerable worries of commuters in his constituency, where I began my political career as a local councillor.
I was worried to hear about the difficulties that my hon. Friend Mr. Drew encountered in arranging meetings with Railtrack. He and other hon. Members will know that in my previous incarnation as Defence Minister, I operated an open-door policy. Subject to the constraints imposed by the legalities of planning matters, I am more than keen to continue that arrangement, and I want relevant agencies and officials to do the same. I hope that he will provide me with details so that we can improve matters.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hurst mentioned school transport. We have invested money to draw up plans for schools, hospitals and industry so that we improve transport patterns. We look forward to working with hon. Members and local authorities to achieve that. My hon. Friend Ian Stewart rightly drew attention to safety on public transport and the need to protect people from anti-social behaviour so that they feel safe. No matter what the authorities do to improve transport or how much money is invested, we need to have a deterrent in place so that people do not feel at risk when they use public transport.
Last but not least, my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody rightly stressed that passengers must be at the centre of policy and come first. That has to be the focus of all travel authorities when they provide a service. They must bear in mind the expectations of the average person waiting for a train, bus, light railway or tram.
I come now to the broader transport issues. Mr. Jenkin will not want to hear this, but I want to remind him of our inheritance. It has been said many times, but it bears repeating, that many of the transport problems that we are experiencing today are the result of decades of under-investment and 18 Tory years of a boom-bust economy, and the impact of that on public investment.
We are now suffering from the results of an ill-thought-out, rushed privatisation of the railways, which split the industry into a hundred separate parts with no sense of direction or co-ordination. I understood that, to try to clear the ground, the hon. Gentleman had conceded that the privatisation had not been particularly well handled, but I notice that he did not take the opportunity to do so tonight. No one will trust the Opposition on the railways until they can see that, in order to put money into their coffers before the 1997 general election, they botched the privatisation, for which the industry and passengers are suffering.
We are also still living with a legacy of bus deregulation and privatisation, which again led to fragmentation and ignored the need for investment and partnership to provide quality public transport. Mr. Yeo demonstrated yet again that the Opposition have selective and convenient amnesia in that regard.
That was under a Labour Government. My point is that the industry's fragmented nature contained the seeds of its problems. It would have been easier to have developed the industry had there been a better structure. That is not just the view of Labour Members; it is the view of most people in the industry. Even the hon. Member for North Essex has conceded as much previously. Conservative Members need to examine that. It does not mean that the whole structure must be turned over, but we need to consider how to develop that structure. We do not want another two years of turmoil and disruption. We need to work with the structure, but we could be doing a lot better had we not had that inheritance.
I think that we can put the debate on to a more positive footing. It is notable that the hon. Gentleman has not explained how he will put the matter on to a more positive footing. The Government have been in office for four years and he does not have a clue what to do.
That is not right and I shall come to it later.
Those sorts of problems cannot be turned around overnight, or in four years. That is why, in the previous Parliament, we set our sights on the longer term through our 10-year plan for transport. In this Parliament, we shall deliver on the ground.
In the past four years, as we heard earlier from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we have begun to deliver change. The M60 Manchester orbital motorway has been completed; 17 new railway stations have been opened and more than 2,000 stations improved; 30,000 new buses have been registered; there have been new or extended light rail lines in Croydon, Manchester and London Docklands; we have had more than 1,800 new or enhanced rural bus services in England; and public transport use overall was up by 7 per cent. by 1997 and 2000. That shows the balanced approach of our programme.
During 2000, road traffic increased by only 0.4 per cent. on the previous year--a much lower rate than previous years and certainly lower than during previous years of comparable sustained industrial growth. That is only the beginning. We shall continue to deliver during the next five and 10 years. We are delivering solutions that will improve the lives of all sections of the community. By that I mean more and better public transport--trains, buses and light rail systems, with light rail having been proven to achieve modal shift from the car. We shall also deliver less congested and better maintained roads and better information for all road users--better not only for motorists, who are important, but for bus users, pedestrians, motorcyclists and cyclists.
Local highway authorities now have local cycling and walking strategies. We are working with them and the voluntary and commercial sectors to ensure that pedestrians can move around in far greater safety, to deal with problems of graffiti-ridden and somewhat smelly underpasses, and to make sure that pedestrians and cars are not in conflict. That will be good for vehicle users and for pedestrians. By creating the right conditions for walking, we encourage people to adopt a healthier life style. We must use available planning powers and encourage highway authorities to take advantage of them--[Interruption.] Many Conservative-controlled local councils are examining those issues, but we do not expect a similarly mature approach from some Tory Back Benchers.
An area that has been mentioned, but unfortunately not developed sufficiently, is rural transport, which is extremely important to the maintenance, preservation and regeneration of rural economies and societies. We are committed to sustained long-term investment to improve local transport in urban, suburban and rural areas. The 10-year plan for transport envisages a £59 billion investment in local transport of which £19.3 billion is public capital--a doubling in real terms of the figure for the previous decade. The local transport capital settlement announced in December provided an £8.4 billion package for the next five years. Every region in England will benefit from that investment in integrated and public transport schemes and in local roads.
What cheek--it was the Conservatives who introduced the automatic fuel duty escalator and the Labour Government who stopped it. In the last Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a package of measures that will benefit motorists in rural areas, including the reduction in duty on low-sulphur fuels, a freeze on vehicle excise duty until next year and an increase in the small car threshold for VED on cars. The latter measure should benefit those who live in rural areas who have a slightly larger car for travelling longer distances. We have done all that, so Mr. Evans does not have to ask for such measures.
The White Paper "Our countryside: the future" published last November sets out our vision for rural areas and explains how we intend to promote, improve and extend public transport. We recognise that people living in rural areas are often less well served by public transport and can suffer disadvantage in accessing employment, services and shops. That is why we have targeted more resources to improve transport for all in rural areas. In addition to the boost in capital spending, we are investing £239 million over the next three years in rural transport services--an increase of 54 per cent. on 1998 to 2001.
Schemes that we introduced in 1998 to support rural bus services have proved a success. The bus subsidy grant has supported more than 1,800 new or improved routes in England carrying 16 million passenger journeys a year--[Interruption.] Some Conservative Members might not be interested, but their constituents certainly are. More than 150 innovative schemes, including demand-responsive and community bus projects, have been approved under the rural bus challenge. We are expanding those schemes still further. Our measures will increase and improve rural bus services and contribute to achieving the target in the 10-year plan of increasing the number of rural households within about a 10-minute walk of a bus service that is hourly or better.
That must be seen in the broader context of roads policy. We recognise that roads are a key element of the country's transport system and will continue to be so. More than 90 per cent. of passenger journeys are made by road and almost two thirds of freight traffic travels by road. That is why our 10-year plan provides for investment of £59 billion in roads.
That does not mean that we are embarking on a massive, environmentally damaging programme of new road building. We remain committed to the principles for protecting the environment set out in "A New Deal for Transport". In particular, there remains a strong presumption against new or expanded transport infrastructure that would adversely affect environmentally sensitive areas, such as sites of special scientific interest. However, we recognise that there will be cases where the overriding public interest will allow such development to proceed.
In fact, some 70 per cent. of planned spending on roads will be directed to maintaining and making better use of existing roads, which we know is of importance to drivers. That includes provision of £31 billion by 2004 for maintenance of local roads to halt the deterioration in their condition and to eliminate the backlog of maintenance that has built up because of serious under-investment under the Conservative Government in the mid-1990s. Our investment will contribute to road safety and to ensuring that we meet our target to reduce by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson, will pay particular attention to that.
We have taken the hon. Lady's point about the A1(M). [Interruption.]
We recognise the role that business, particularly the construction industry, will have in ensuring delivery of an integrated transport system. One of the big opportunities that the plan presents to the construction industry and other industries is the opportunity of jobs. With that comes the challenge of addressing--[Interruption.]
With that comes the challenge of addressing the associated skills shortages and the ageing of the work force. The Government will work with industry, trade unions and others to ensure that the skilled work force required are available.
We shall be deeply concerned with the rail industry, too. Rail safety is at the heart of our policies on revitalising the railways. They are safe, but we must never be complacent. It is a matter of continual improvement. We have asked the Health and Safety Commission to ensure that the Cullen report recommendations are acted upon and to report to us in six months.
The complexities of railway operation mean that we should expect not a sudden transformation, but a steady improvement in punctuality. When the Secretary of State and I met the key players in the rail industry last week, we made it clear that we would work together to achieve a steady improvement in performance over the next few years. After safety, performance will be the top priority for Britain's railways.
We are committed to delivering the increases in passenger rail use, bus use and rail freight that were outlined in the 10-year plan, and to ensuring that transport makes its proper contribution to meeting Government targets on air quality and reducing greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions.
By 2005, what will that mean? It will mean completion of 25 trunk road improvement schemes under the targeted programme of improvements, including the A1(M); 100 smaller schemes tackling congestion and safety problems; a traffic control centre giving up-to-date information about traffic conditions on the strategic network; the first phase of modernisation of the west coast main line, enabling trains to travel at 125 mph; new rolling stock for the inter-city west coast service; new light rail lines in Nottingham and Sunderland; and more than 80 projects supported under the urban bus challenge.
Our drive is to ensure that the system works--that the projects work. A lot of money has gone into transport. Under the 10-year plan, there is a lot more to come. We must ensure delivery steadily and relentlessly. At the election--it has been reiterated tonight--the public got it right. They knew that neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats had the ideas, commitment or realism to achieve that. We have, we can and we will.
Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question, to add:
"But humbly regret that the Gracious Speech makes no reference to agriculture and the countryside, contains no proposals to assist farming, tourism and the rest of the rural economy to recover from foot and mouth disease, does not include any commitment to establish an independent public inquiry into the origins and handling of the epidemic, and does not explain how the new Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, from whose title agriculture is regrettably excluded, will protect the countryside and the environment without changes in planning policy to prevent excessive development on greenfield sites, to the detriment of balanced development of the inner cities; regret that specific measures to improve transport are notable by their absence from the Gracious Speech; and have no confidence that the Government will achieve the world-class public services that they promised prior to the general election.".