The Countryside

– in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 12 July 2001.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:15, 12 July 2001

I beg to move,

That this House
deplores the Government's neglect of the continuing crisis in the countryside;
condemns its failure to produce any programme for the recovery of agriculture and its refusal to accept the need for a full independent public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic;
further deplores the absence of policies to maintain adequate services in rural areas, including post office and shops, and its failure to address public concern about rural crime;
and regrets the pursuit of tax policies which are especially damaging to rural communities and the unsustainable planning policies which continue to threaten greenfield sites.

This debate is probably the last chance that Parliament will have for more than three months to examine the crisis in the countryside. Many of the problems are in need of urgent attention and are likely to get worse by the time that the House returns in October unless action is taken in the meantime. In welcoming the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box, let me say that I hope that she has recovered her voice and that she will set out the action that the Government propose to take to deal with the crisis.

I am sorry that the right hon. Lady's name does not appear among the principal six names attached to the Government amendment to the motion. It is a matter of concern—this is not merely a House of Commons point—that the Government appear to believe that it is more important for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to appear among those who tabled the amendment, ahead of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

The extent of the problems in the countryside is well known. There was already a serious crisis before foot and mouth disease struck. Farm incomes have fallen every year since Labour came to power and they are now less than a third of the 1997 level. Jobs in agriculture are being destroyed at a rate of more than 400 a week, and the number has been falling at that rate for the past two years. Many sectors, such as dairy farming, are running at a loss. Last November's report by the Government's better regulation task force stated:

"Farming has been subjected to a considerable increase in regulatory obligations over recent years."

Foot and mouth has made that situation worse not only for farming, but for tourism, which has also been devastated. The number of overseas visitors to Britain is down. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has warned that 250,000 jobs in tourism are at risk. The British Hospitality Association has estimated that the domestic tourism market is in decline by £2 billion. What a pity that Ministers spent the spring claiming falsely that foot and mouth was under control, instead of concentrating on eradicating the disease, which would have been the right way to help the tourism industry.

To revert to the subject of agriculture, the Secretary of State must understand that many people in the countryside now believe that the Government do not care whether farming survives as a substantial British industry. Many fear that Labour would be happy for British consumers to eat nothing but imported food, even though the Government's own Food Standards Agency has admitted that it is sometimes hard to police the safety of such food. The Government's refusal to introduce honesty in food labelling and to apply the same standards to food imports as to home-produced food, as well as their reluctance to claim the help available to farmers from the European Union, encourage fears that they are not concerned about the future of farming. The action, as well as inaction, of Ministers in the past four years has made the crisis worse, not better.

My hon. Friend Mr. Paice will later deal with agrimonetary compensation in more detail. I shall deal with the foot and mouth epidemic, and in particular with three aspects of it. First, there is a need for a proper recovery plan. If the enhanced farm business advisory service to which the amendment refers, and a bit more rate relief, are all that the Government are going to propose, their actions are ludicrously inadequate. If other measures are on the way, when they will be published? They are needed today.

When will the Government reach a decision on compensating some of those who have suffered irrecoverable losses because of foot and mouth disease? It is more than three months since I wrote to the former Minister of Agriculture at his request, setting out precisely the categories of loss in respect of which compensation should be provided. Those in need of compensation include farmers who have been unable to sell cattle before they reached the age of 30 months. Does the Secretary of State intend to answer my letter? Apart from compensation, what other steps will the Government take to ensure the survival of many rural businesses, including the remaining small abattoirs, for example?

Will the Government withdraw their unworkable proposal for a 20-day ban on livestock movements? I trust that the Secretary of State is aware of the truly devastating prospects in the near future, particularly for the sheep sector but for other sectors of the livestock industry as well. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will deal with those issues in greater detail later.

What strategy, apart from hope, do the Government have for eliminating foot and mouth disease entirely? Do they expect to eradicate it from the United Kingdom before the weather turns colder? What is the latest scientific assessment of the future trend of the disease? It is now more than two months since the Prime Minister claimed that the Government were on the home straight. When will the end of this very long straight heave into sight?

Many questions arise in the wake of the devastation following the epidemic, all of which point to the need for an inquiry. So far, the Secretary of State has refused to acknowledge that a full, independent public inquiry will be held. However, the Government's handling of the epidemic has so lost the trust of rural communities that confidence can now be restored only by such an inquiry.

I have already published the terms of reference that we propose for such an inquiry: it must examine the origins of the disease; it must make recommendations for a future prevention strategy; and, crucially, it must analyse the extent to which delays and mistakes by Ministers in the vital few weeks after the first case was discovered on 19 February caused the epidemic to spread much more widely than would have happened if Ministers had paid attention to the lessons of the 1967 epidemic, or acted on the advice that I gave in the House at each stage of the unfolding crisis.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is another category of investigation that needs to be included in that inquiry? That is an analysis of the degree to which incorrect evaluations were made of the presence of the disease, causing whole areas to be closed down for specious reasons. Does he agree that a proper objective analysis of the methods used to diagnose the presence of foot and mouth is a crucial element in the inquiry for which he rightly calls?

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman is right. The inquiry will have to be wide ranging. It will not have to be lengthy, because the science is relatively simple, compared, for example, to that involved with BSE. The inquiry should indeed deal with the aspect to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

The country needs to know just how many millions of animals could have been saved if the delays and mistakes by Ministers had not occurred. How many businesses might have been preserved? How much money might the taxpayer have saved? The Secretary of State should announce today the Government's commitment to holding an inquiry, even if she is unable to set a date for it to start. Any continued refusal to acknowledge the need for a full independent inquiry will suggest that Ministers are hoping to get away with a whitewash.

I shall now move on to other aspects of the crisis in the countryside. While the decline in agriculture is weakening the whole rural economy, services are also disappearing or being run down as a direct result of Government policy. Let us take the example of post offices. I recognise that village post offices have been closing for many years, but the closure rate has accelerated alarmingly in recent times. Up to 350 post offices a year closed during Labour's first term of office. That rate has increased to more than 500 in the past 12 months. According to figures supplied by the Countryside Alliance, 333 post offices have closed in the past six months alone. That is more than a dozen every week.

The viability of up to 8,000 post offices now depends on the business generated by the payment of social security benefits. However, the Government's decision to axe the previous Government's benefit payment card project has now jeopardised the future of every one of those post offices, and postmasters and postmistresses have made it clear that the Government's proposal for a universal bank is simply no substitute.

We welcome the business rate reductions announced in the last Parliament, but we believe that the threat to the remaining shops, pubs and post offices is so acute that further rate reductions are needed, and that another £1,000 a year off the business rate for vulnerable enterprises in rural areas should be funded by central Government. Equestrian businesses, too, should be exempted from business rates. The Labour party continues its obsession with its wish to ban hunting, but one in 12 of our riding schools closed down in 1999.

It is not only services that are in decline. Rural areas also suffer discrimination over funding. Shire counties lost an estimated £700 million in taxpayer support during the last Parliament because of changes to the local government funding formula made by the Labour Government. As the Labour group of rural MPs pointed out, country people

"are now paying disproportionately more in tax for less services."

The council tax for band D taxpayers in the shire counties rose by an average of £234 a year over the past four years. Inner-London local authorities spend £1,326 per head of population, compared with only £787 per head in the shire counties.

Transport is another source of acute difficulty. Reliance on high fuel taxes as the main instrument of transport policy is uniquely damaging in rural areas, where there is no alternative to using cars for normal social, domestic and business life. As the AA has pointed out, three out of four rural journeys are made by car. As for the Government's much vaunted integrated transport policy, it simply ignores the countryside altogether. Ministers boast of £180 billion in transport spending over the next 10 years, but as the Countryside Alliance has pointed out, of every £1,000 of that spending, just 16p will go to the rural transport fund for expanding rural bus services. That is another reflection of the appallingly low priority that Labour attaches to helping the countryside in its time of need.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

To be fair to the Government, we should recognise the fact that in many local authorities, a lot of the lunatic anti-car policies are the brainchild of the Liberal Democrats who control so much of our countryside. Is my hon. Friend as astonished as I am that the best that they can come up with in their amendment is to urge the Government to take action to establish an advisory commission? That is typical. Is that, perhaps, why the majority in constituencies such as mine went up so much, and the Liberal vote went down? Is that why the Liberal vote went down in the seat next to Romsey, and why they lost control of my district council to the Conservatives in the middle of the election campaign? Hooray!

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

In the spirit of fairness that my hon. Friend invokes, and in line with the new reasoned approach to debate, to which my hon. Friends and I are publicly committed, I willingly agree with every word that he has said.

Crime, and especially fear of crime, are big threats to the quality of life in the countryside. Last year the NFU Mutual insurance company reported a rise of more than a quarter in thefts from business premises in rural areas. The BBC's "Countryfile" reported that more than half of all farmers had been burgled. More than one in five had suffered arson. Neither the Labour nor the Liberal Democrat amendments refer to crime as part of the crisis in the countryside.

Neither amendment shows any interest in the constructive suggestions that we have made for parish constables, or for improving police accountability by encouraging police use of premises such as shops or village halls. Law enforcement is also a special concern in the areas in which the minority of travellers who are lawbreakers are to be found. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that one third of travellers interviewed had committed benefit fraud, but the Government are reluctant either to enforce existing laws or to assist in the eviction of illegally camped travellers.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

My hon. Friend will be aware that in the rural county of Suffolk, levels of crime have risen in the past four years by 20 per cent., and that levels of crimes of violence have risen by fully 60 per cent. in the past three years. In comparison with the effects of crime in urban areas, the dramatic ripple effect of attacks on sub-post offices and village shops causes huge problems of morale, and difficulties and tensions that are unique to rural communities.

Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend, who is a notable champion of those with anxieties in the county of Suffolk, is absolutely right to raise the hideous problem of rising crime, especially violence, in our county, whose crime record is, historically, below average. That issue is raised with me more frequently than any other. The problem is the result of four years of a Labour Government in London and a Labour-Liberal Democrat administration in county hall.

I repeat the question that I asked the Secretary of State two weeks ago about planning. What influence will the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have over planning policy? Is it not extraordinary that something described as a Department for the Environment is not responsible for planning? Does the right hon. Lady understand that the decision in last year's rural White Paper to remove protection for the best and most versatile farmland reinforced the fear that the Government do not regard the survival of farming as important to Britain's future? [Interruption.] I am citing the White Paper. I realise that the Minister for Rural Affairs was absent from the Government for several years. However, he could have used the time usefully by studying their publications.

Labour's policy of destroying the green belt and bulldozing greenfield sites ignores the wishes of local communities. Ministers ride roughshod over the views and decisions of elected local councils. The regeneration of inner cities is ignored as long as developers get the go-ahead to build on greenfield sites. The Government's approach to planning is unsustainable. By the time they admit that, much irreversible damage will have been done. That is a tragedy.

Few aspects of policy divide the Government more sharply from the Opposition than the countryside does. Few communities have experienced more Government hostility than those in rural areas. Few industries experiencing serious slump have been treated with less sympathy by the Government than farming has. Few generations have seen more of Britain's green and pleasant land go under the bulldozer than the current generation. Few Governments have displayed more contempt for rural traditions than the Labour Government have. Four more years of those attitudes, policies and decisions will inflict terrible damage on our countryside. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:32, 12 July 2001

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

"supports the Government's key priority to eradicate foot and mouth disease as quickly as possible;
regrets that the Opposition has failed to notice the Government's recent announcement of an enhanced Farm Business Advisory Service which encourages farmers to develop new income opportunities and an extension of the rate relief scheme to ensure further financial support to businesses in rural areas suffering most from the impact of FMD which will help councils to grant 100 per cent. rate relief to eligible small businesses up to the end of the year, as well as continuing other measures to help the rural economy to recover from the crisis;
endorses the Government's commitment to rural communities as set out in the Rural White Paper and the England Rural Development Programme;
applauds the Government's wider record on public service delivery in rural areas;
and calls upon the Government to continue pursuing a strategy based on long term policies to regenerate British agriculture, improve rural services and revitalise the rural economy as a whole."

My Department is strongly committed to achieving sustainable development, dealing with economic, social and environmental issues together, and encouraging policies such as re-using and recycling materials. However, there is a balance to be struck, and I regret the Opposition's proclivity for re-using and recycling motions and debates in the House. It is precisely 10 sitting days since we held a debate in the aftermath of the Queen's Speech on a motion that raised almost exactly the same issues, in almost the same terms, that Mr. Yeo raises today.

The Opposition cannot sustain the argument that they have raised the matter again because nothing has changed in those 10 sitting days. Since the earlier debate we have launched a fresh campaign to remind everyone of the need for proper biosecurity. It has been spearheaded in regions of continuing outbreak by visits from multidisciplinary teams led by my Ministers. We have taken steps to tighten the precautions by consulting stakeholders in the farming community and hauliers and others who were involved in movement on and off farms.

During the debate on 26 June, we were urged to consider afresh any steps that could assist other businesses because of the deadline and the criteria for existing schemes such as rate relief. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced the Government's response this week. We accepted the need not only for continuing schemes of support but for wider eligibility criteria, for which there were calls in the debate.

Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced concrete plans for an extended scheme of business advice for farmers who are affected by the disease but beginning to plan for their future. Today, the Scottish Executive and Welsh Assembly Agriculture Ministers and I anticipate receiving advice from the Rural Payments Agency that the over-30-months scheme will be restarted on 23 July in Scotland, where rendering capacity will be free earliest, and a week later, on 30 July, in England and Wales. There are still some details to work out and throughput will inevitably be slow, especially in England, but it is welcome news to those who have been waiting for the resumption of the scheme.

As we tackle those issues, we continue to bear down on the disease and to focus with stakeholders on the shape of a sustainable future for agriculture in the context of a wider rural economy, which is beginning to experience the benefits of our rural development programme.

For the reasons that I have outlined, there is no valid justification for the Opposition's knee-jerk use of "neglect" to describe the Government's response. Even if no further steps had been taken in the short time since our previous debate, such criticism would be invalid as the Government have already committed some £800 million to £900 million to those farms where a cull has been necessary. In addition, some £300 million is being made available to other rural businesses. If that is neglect, what name should we attach to the previous Government's programme?

Listening to Conservative Members, one would believe that Britain's rural areas were a paradise of prosperity until the wicked Labour Government were elected only four years ago. What about all the schools, shops, bus services and post offices that disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s? Were people in the rural communities to blame for that? Did they fail? Is that the Opposition's argument? Unless they argue that individuals and communities whose businesses failed are to blame, how do they have the gall to charge us with neglect?

Between 1983 and 1997, an average of 30 village schools closed every year, post offices closed in rural and urban areas alike, a third of all villages were left with no local shop and three parishes in four with no daily bus service; yet the hon. Member for South Suffolk says, "It's terrible that there are such poor bus services because of the high fuel taxes imposed by the Government." Who instigated the high fuel taxes? The Conservative party.

In contrast, in the past year two village schools closed and a £40 million small schools support fund was established to raise standards in schools with fewer than 200 pupils. The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that the mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief has been extended to all village food shops as well as to all sole village pubs and petrol stations and new, small-scale, non-agricultural enterprises on farms. Other steps have been taken to protect post offices. There is an obligation to prevent the closure of rural post offices unless it is unavoidable. We have set out a rural development programme under the rural enterprise scheme.

Money and support are also available for agri- environmental and farm woodland schemes. Again, the hon. Member for South Suffolk suggested that not enough had been done, although the Government whom he supported and in which he briefly served took no advantage of such schemes. As for rural public transport, some 2,000 new or improved rural bus services have already been provided. The hon. Gentleman made remarks about brownfield and greenfield development. The Conservative party reduced the greenfield sites available in their last year in office, whereas, under the Labour Government, some 30,000 hectares—an area three times the size of Bristol—have been added to the green belt.

We have nothing for which to apologise to the Conservative party, and I have outlined only the record of delivery so far.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, whom I welcome back to the House.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is kind of the right hon. Lady, and I appreciate it. If she is not in the mood to apologise for the matter that she mentioned, is she aware that in the previous Parliament the number of press and publicity officers in Whitehall Departments increased so that they now outnumber police officers in Bedfordshire? The number of police officers there fell in the last Parliament. Is she prepared to apologise to my constituents for that?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have some respect for the hon. Gentleman's past record. I hope he appreciates that I shall want to check his figures before I comment on them. Let me take a slightly different example, where I am familiar with the figures—I am not familiar with those that he cites. Conservative Members often claim that the number of civil servants in Whitehall has soared. The number of those who deal with the Government has fallen, whereas the number of police officers, customs officers, immigration officers and those who detect social security fraud has soared. Those people carry out policies that the Conservative party claim to support.

I have described our record and what we have already achieved. Of course, there is more to come: investment in the post office network, investment in the renewal of market towns under the rural White Paper, investment in affordable homes and investment not only in more transport, including rural bus services, but in a programme of support for the police. In a variety of ways, we are working to deliver a more prosperous future for the rural economy.

Photo of Colin Challen Colin Challen Labour, Morley and Rothwell

If the Opposition want to bandy figures around, perhaps they can discuss the £20 billion of cuts that they proposed at the election, which would have cut a swathe through all the services that we are developing in rural areas.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Indeed, when the hon. Member for South Suffolk demanded expenditure on this, that and the other, it struck me that in the run-up to the general election the Conservative party complained we were extravagant and investing too much public money. As ever, that does not apply to any scheme that at any given moment it claims to support.

While we believe that we have the plans and the investment in place to deliver a more prosperous future for the rural economy in the longer term, there remains the pressing need to carry on fighting the disease outbreak, which continues to blight much of our countryside. I want to tell the House of the intensified campaign that we plan in order to bear down more heavily on that disease.

A campaign targeted on disease hot spots is under way, led by Ministers and supported by vets and scientists. It highlights the fact that biosecurity is crucial in bringing the outbreak to an end, not only for farmers but for the supply trade and those working for the Government on disease eradication.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Conservative, Leominster

The campaign that the Secretary of State has touched on is welcomed by my constituents, but they are deeply concerned that the farmers who need the help are not the ones who are already disinfecting. Those who did not disinfect have been through the disease and now have the money, but, going forward, the welfare of the stock will be left to people who do not have the money. Would it not have been better if the money had gone to the farmers who have stock remaining?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and the concerns that are felt across the countryside. Depending on people's circumstances, they are differently affected and I understand the case he makes. Nevertheless, few if any of those farmers would want to have suffered an outbreak of disease or to have lost their flocks, and I know that that is not what he was suggesting.

We have taken steps to link biosecurity standards with the granting of livestock movement licences. We have agreed new arrangements with local authorities, which will be introduced from tomorrow, on requiring licence applicants to certify that they understand and will comply with the cleansing and disinfection rules and on issuing formal warnings where bad practice is found, leading to the withholding of licences if necessary. Local authorities will also seek better targeting of their enforcement efforts.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If hon. Members will forgive me, I want to finish this section of my speech because the House will be interested to hear about the impact.

We are imposing tighter movement controls around new cases of the disease, focusing restrictions on the 10-km area around new cases and bringing movements in those areas to the absolute minimum for 30 days. I have more to say, but I give way first to Mr. Tyler.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Does the Secretary of State recognise that, although it was understandable in the early days that responsibilities were confused, we are so many weeks into the crisis that it is inexcusable that trading standards departments and her Department seem to have different criteria for their disinfecting and movement licensing responsibilities? How can better co-ordination be ensured?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I was not aware that such disparities were continuing. I say to the hon. Gentleman and every Member that, on this or any other issue that arises in observing biosecurity and treating the outbreak, my Department will be only too pleased to hear concrete examples of difficulties that Members believe are continuing to arise. We shall pursue and attempt to deal with them.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

On movements, can the Secretary of State clear up a problem? Some time ago, she announced that movements from controlled to non-controlled areas would be relaxed, which meant that animals could be taken to more distant abattoirs. One problem with that is that her officials require that the vehicles involved should not stop on the journey. Drivers' hours regulations mean that they have to stop after four and a half hours, so, effectively, the relaxation is helping no farmers in the north-east of England.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am slightly surprised to hear that because that is a substantial amount of time. Again, if the hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to give my Department details of particular cases that have come to his attention, we shall certainly consider the issue that he raises.

We shall seek the continued assistance and support of the National Farmers Union and other such groups to improve co-operation between the Department and farmers locally in carrying out culling on contiguous premises as quickly as possible. We are keen to continue to provide farmers with as much information as we can on what they need to do to have the best chance of continuing to avoid the disease and, in the unfortunate event of stock having to be destroyed, how they can help to protect their neighbours by working with the Department's staff at all times.

Looking further ahead, I am also examining ways to improve the incentives for farmers and others to maintain good biosecurity standards. The system that applies in the Netherlands, where levels of slaughter compensation are conditional on farm hygiene standards and other criteria, could not be introduced here immediately because it would require changes to the Animal Health Act 1981. However, it is an interesting idea that I want to consider and discuss with the farming industry and others as a possibility.

In the same context, I want to examine the arrangements for cleansing and disinfecting infected premises. We need to find ways to ensure that farmers and all who come on and off farms have an incentive to maintain high biosecurity standards. It is not entirely clear that the present system, whereby the taxpayer automatically picks up the entire cost of the cleansing and disinfection operation, is the best way to achieve that. I would like to discuss that with farming industry leaders.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into the case of my constituent, Mr. Lewis, who was told by her Department that he could move his cattle and apply for a licence? He was then told by the local vet that the Department was wrong and then told by a trading standards officer that the Department was right. Now the Department has admitted that it was wrong. Is it not vital that the Department gets the information right when it is dealing with people's livelihoods in a desperate crisis?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. It is important that people try to give correct information and I fully appreciate that nothing spreads more difficulty and confusion than people getting a conflicting story. Again, concrete examples brought to the attention of my Department will help to ensure that that happens as rarely as possible.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If the hon. Gentlemen will forgive me, I must give way briefly as I am mindful of time and this is a short debate. I give way first to Mr. Cameron.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

Will the right hon. Lady and her Department give careful consideration to the implications of foot and mouth for zoos and wildlife parks, such as the Cotswold wildlife park in my constituency? The park was badly affected by foot and mouth and had to close. It was not told exactly what to do when the disease broke out. It wanted a decision about vaccination, but no decision was made. It had a meeting with Ministers—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Ainsworth has now departed—but nothing seems to have been done.

I know that these issues are small in comparison with the farming industry as a whole, but they matter to wildlife parks and zoos. Should they not be considered, not only by the right hon. Lady's Department but in the full independent public inquiry that the Government ought to establish?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I think that, for the sake of good order, the Secretary of State should deal with the first intervention now, and perhaps respond to the hon. Gentleman later.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall do so if that is your preference, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that it is sometimes convenient for a couple of interventions to be dealt with together.

I have taken on board the point made by Mr. Cameron. If we can add anything to what has already been said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will deal with it—but this is exactly the kind of issue that we need to look at in the future, irrespective of the form taken by examination of these events.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

May I ask the right hon. Lady to ensure that there will be no further confusion between officials from the Department and officials from the devolved Administration in Cardiff? It has been the devil of a job to obtain correct information, and the problems have been exacerbated by the Department's saying that this is a devolved matter while those in Cardiff have said that it is a matter for the Department. The right hon. Lady's predecessor could not answer a number of the questions either. I am not sniping; I am genuinely asking the right hon. Lady whether the lines of demarcation can be made clear, so that the problems are not exacerbated further.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I assure the hon. Gentleman that our aim is always to maintain clear demarcation lines, clear understanding and clear agreement between us and the devolved bodies. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister is an expert in these matters. He will certainly encourage productive liaison and relationships.

The farming industry and other sections of the rural economy are likely to face further severe difficulties in the autumn, when traditionally there are a large number of livestock movements. However successful we are in bringing the tail of the outbreak to a halt in July or August, there will still be a need for substantial controls over movement of livestock in the autumn and winter to ensure that we keep a grip on the disease, given that undisclosed disease could still be present in the national sheep flock at that time. The more speedily we eradicate the disease, the sooner we can consider greater flexibility of movement.

The Government are working hard with industry representatives to plan for the autumn, to establish what movements could take place without an unacceptable increase in disease risk. I hope to be able to say more later this month. At the same time, we are assessing the implications of the likely restrictions in autumn livestock movements for support arrangements in the livestock sector and have had preliminary discussions, which are continuing, with farming leaders.

We shall be using the increased capacity available for serological testing of sheep to continue to the staged clearance of infected areas, alongside a planned approach to testing in disease hot spots. That is designed to help us obtain a better picture of the level of disease in sheep in particular ahead of the autumn livestock movements, and also to make it easier for us to demonstrate to our European Union partners, in due course, that we have a basis for the phased resumption of exports.

Let me say in parentheses that although much is said in the House about how the Government have not done enough or not done it fast enough by those who wish solely to impute blame to the Government, enormous credit is due to all involved in the hugely increased capacity for serological testing, given its scope for tackling the disease. I speak from memory, but I believe that when the disease broke out we had the capacity to run about 400 tests a week. We have now reached the 100,000 mark or thereabouts, and are heading for a target of between 140,000 and 180,000 by the autumn, probably by October. As I have said, enormous credit is due for that, but it has not always been forthcoming.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping Labour, Sherwood

My right hon. Friend has just looked forward to the autumn. Will she look forward a little further? Given the crisis in agriculture that has been happening over a number of years, and the hunger for change that this particular crisis has caused stakeholders in the countryside, can she say a word about the independent commission on food and farming that is currently envisaged?

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can say a word, but it will not be much more than that. I can certainly confirm that the Government have every intention of setting up such a commission and are in continuing discussions about it. I agree that there is a hunger for a more sustained and thorough look at the long-term prospects for the countryside and the agriculture industry, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are more than anxious to foster the debate that is taking place.

We are working closely with our European partners, especially the Commission. Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, and David Hunter, director of the departmental agriculture group, will be in Brussels tomorrow to update the Commission on what we are doing to eradicate the disease, and to discuss the difficulties that we shall face in the autumn.

Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I really ought to finish as this is a very short debate.

We have always said that there will be an inquiry when the outbreak is over and that it will be thorough but not long drawn out. We all want to get at the facts and to identify what could have been done better, but also to identify what was handled extremely well—although the exact nature and form of the inquiry remain, as ever, a matter for the Prime Minister

Without prejudice to the issue of an inquiry, we have also always said that there are lessons to be learned from the epidemic, including on disease control policy for future outbreaks. We need to consider the case for better animal identification, especially for sheep, improved movement records, the possibility of controls on the movement of cattle and sheep, as there are already for pigs, and stronger controls on the import of meat. My Department is already co-ordinating a cross-Whitehall initiative to improve activity in this regard. In the longer term we need to look at better biosecurity by markets, dealers and farmers. The Commission has announced a review that will cover some, if not all, of these issues and we are helping to organise a conference in Brussels in the autumn to provide a forum for discussing future foot and mouth disease policy options, including vaccination.

I acknowledge the real problems in rural areas, from the immediate consequences and aftermath of the disease to the long-standing deterioration in rural services over which the Conservative party presided with so much complacency for so long. We are not complacent. We are determined to work with all who have real concern for rural areas to deliver real, long-term improvement. It is on that, not on the empty rhetoric of Opposition Members, that in time we shall be prepared to be judged.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:56, 12 July 2001

I am sorry that the Secretary of State could not give way, but I appreciate the time pressures. I have a number of questions to ask and I certainly hope that the Minister for Rural Affairs, will endeavour to answer them in detail.

As the debate is entitled "The Countryside in Crisis" we can acknowledge that the fact that the countryside has been in a near permanent state of crisis in recent years is why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had to go. Unfortunately, so far—I stress, so far—there is little evidence that the new super-Department has yet undergone a cultural transformation. Indeed, wherever I go people tell me that, under a new name, MAFF lives. Most of us want to see it die. Crisis management remains the over-riding characteristic.

The tragedy is that after the disasters of BSE, the collapse of the pig market and lower grain prices, farming was just beginning to get back on its feet when it was hit by the foot and mouth epidemic. We cannot avoid facing up to the fact that for many years under successive Governments we have dangerously lowered our defences against monitoring and controlling the spread of disease. So far we have had only crisis response to deal with the situation.

The number of vets in Government service has undoubtedly been reduced. The independence of much of the advice available to Government has been compromised because most of the institutions have been forced to bid for commercial contracts alongside their Government work. As a result it is extremely difficult for those in pursuit of commercial contracts always to give advice that might be required but could prejudice their ability to attract new contracts. I hope that the new Department will address that.

In a crisis an urgent response is needed. Farmers everywhere are understandably becoming anxious about the scale of livestock movement restrictions. The Secretary of State gave some indication of changes to the restrictions, but also made it clear that the restrictions would continue into the autumn and winter. What honest prospect does she have of a timetable for reopening export opportunities? If that does not happen in a few months, we shall have to address yet another crisis. Ministers must be aware that a general 20-day restriction on movements is unworkable for many farms and a more flexible approach is needed.

I hope that in the inquiry the Government will not only look at movement restrictions and vaccination options, but will also consider the possible role of quarantine in dealing with animal disease. There is scope for building that into a system in a way that we have not done to date.

Right now, many sheep farmers face ruin if the ban on sheep exports remains in force during the autumn. In my part of the UK, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent. of the lambs produced are dedicated for export, mainly to France. I am sure that Ministers will understand that, despite the fact that we in the north of Scotland have, to date, remained a foot and mouth free zone, if that market is closed the consequences will be disastrous. Will Ministers consider the introduction of a welfare scheme for unmarketable ewes and lambs? Will they also seek private storage aid for the thousands of tonnes of lamb that currently have no market? At the start of the outbreak, I suggested that such measures would be necessary and, as the months go by, they become more and more urgent. I am concerned that Ministers do not yet appear even to have opened discussions. I hope that they will do so.

The area that I represent is also a major pig-producing region: half the pigs raised in Scotland are produced in the north-east of Scotland. Like areas throughout the country, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of pigs due to the market difficulties, although they were just beginning to resolve themselves when the crisis struck. Indeed, some operators had got back into profit for the first time in two or three years only a month or two before the disease struck.

At the start of the epidemic, the market for cast sows was inevitably lost, because 90 per cent. of them went to the plant where the outbreak was first discovered. The problem is that there is no effective market for cast sows. Will the Government consider a welfare scheme for culled sows? It will be urgently needed.

The House will realise that I represent a quality livestock area, so there is no livestock sector that is not important to the north-east of Scotland—as is the case in many parts of the UK. I was pleased by the Secretary of State's announcement of the reintroduction of the over-30-months scheme on 23 July in Scotland and on 30 July in England and Wales. That will remove one uncertainty that has been worrying many producers. It may be a forlorn question, but will the Minister for Rural Affairs tell us whether there will be any consideration of the extra costs incurred by those farmers who have to retain cattle for several months? They have to feed cattle which have no productive use, so it would be proper to expect additional compensation to be allowed for animals which have—to use a colloquialism—been eating their heads off.

We have been living with the effects of BSE for a long time. My strong concern is that the beef export regime is unworkable and that it is unfair to British producers. I have raised this matter in the House previously: technically, we have lifted the ban, but, practically, we have not. As the number of BSE cases in the UK continues to decline, while it is still rising on the continent, it is time for the Government to press for a standard EU-wide regime that will at last enable prime British and Scottish beef once again to reach tables throughout the world. Let us not deceive ourselves: that is not happening at present.

I pray in aid a lady who deals in meat in northern Italy; she rejoices in the name of Francesca Piccolini. She said that throughout the period of the beef export ban she had scoured the world looking for beef of the quality that she had imported from Scotland, but that she had conspicuously failed to find anything of such quality. We can still produce that quality beef and get it on to the table—even in the House of Commons, where the beef supplied is produced in my constituency. However, we cannot put beef of that quality on the table of foreign purchasers because the regime does not allow us to do so. That is absurd and must be addressed. I hope that Ministers agree.

Of course we require a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak. I agree with Mr. Yeo that we must press the Government hard on that point. I remain dissatisfied when I am told that we have to leave it to the Prime Minister, who will ensure that there is a proper inquiry—whatever that is—when the outbreak is over, even though we do not know when that will be.

I understand the argument that an inquiry cannot be started perhaps until the outbreak has finished, but it would help if we knew what kind of inquiry it will be, that it will be public—we have had no such assurance—and who may submit evidence to it. I find it odd that the Government do not recognise that that is probably in their own interest, given the rumours circulating that suggest that there is even Government complicity in the spread of food and mouth disease—nothing that I accept, but Ministers must know that it is being said. Surely it is in the Government's interest to make it clear now what form the inquiry will take.

The catalogue of disaster clearly shows that a fundamental review of our approach to disease control is required. Our defences have been lowered under successive Governments, and we need to address the extent to which the reduction in the number of vets, the compromised research institutions and the cuts in customs control have contributed to the increasing problems of disease, and to find out what needs to be done to put it right.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The hon. Gentleman refers to disease control, but what is the official Liberal Democrat policy on vaccination? He will be aware that Lord Greaves, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats in the other place, has called for immediate vaccination, but I am not entirely sure if that is the hon. Gentleman's policy.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It might be Lord Greaves's policy. The policy on vaccination has been recognised; it is an agreed international policy, to which we have signed up. Indeed, I have said on several occasions that the policy cannot be changed half way through a crisis. I certainly think that vaccination should be considered, but it would have been quite wrong to change the policy mid-term. I have also said that the role that quarantine could play should be considered. A public inquiry should look into those issues—that is what it is for.

Common sense tells me, and it should tell the House, that the rundown in the quality, availability and volume of advice for the Government has been a factor in our problems, and we should consider what we need to do to raise our defences once again, to ensure that we can monitor and control disease penetration into this country. Frankly, our ability to establish public confidence internally and any significant export operations in the long term depend on our being able to reassure people that we have the matter under control, and we patently have not had it under control for the past 10 years or more.

I want to press home a point made by Paddy Tipping, who asked the Minister—he did not get much of a reply—about the rural commission. It was a Labour manifesto pledge. It was set out as though it was a radical cultural change and, indeed, a justification for the creation of a new Department. Six weeks have passed since the election and we are getting no information—

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Not only has nothing been done, but we have not been told how and when it will be done and who will be involved. There is plenty of speculation outside the House about the rural commission. One such speculation is that it will be entirely an internal Government commission, that it will not involve outside consultation, that it will be by Lord Haskins and that it will report by the autumn. If that is not true, will the Government tell us what is true, and then we shall all know what we are working with. In the interests of the Government who say that they wish to engage, how on earth can Opposition politicians or those in the wider community contribute to such an operation if they do not know its format and timetable? Why are the Government so coy? It would be helpful if Ministers would give us a little more information than they have so far.

Some useful experience is emerging from Scotland, which has had a Rural Affairs Department—at the Liberal Democrats' insistence—for two years. In the past two weeks, my Liberal Democrat colleague, Scotland's Minister for Rural Development, Mr. Ross Finnie, has produced a useful forward strategy for Scottish agriculture that contains some valuable pointers. Particularly welcome is the rebalancing of £70 million in recognition of the fact that farmers need to diversify their income base. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary jeers, but his own party endorses and supports those proposals, which could usefully be adopted by a new Department.

The suggestion is that farmers should be able to apply for funding to support not just farming operations, but environmental management, tourism and other business projects that can generate income and employment opportunities. That approach has also been reinforced by Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament in their review of the common agricultural policy. Co-ordination and clarification of the relationship between the Department headed by the Secretary of State and the Departments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be helpful.

I shall give a constituency example. A rendering plant in my constituency operates to a rather poor standard and that generates many complaints and much trouble. However, when we complain to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, we are told that it is powerless to enforce controls because it has been told by DEFRA that the overriding responsibility is to process and render the consequences of foot and mouth. That may be the case, but environmental standards should not be compromised at the same time. Who is calling the shots? Why cannot we have both effective rendering management and good environmental standards?

The Scottish strategy also recognises the need for UK-wide and EU-wide initiatives on livestock movements, which I have mentioned; on a scheme for establishing traceability in sheep, which is clearly difficult but desirable; on eradicating scrapie; on reducing the number of transactions involving live animals; and on buy-out schemes for farmers approaching retirement. They are all useful initiatives and I hope that they will be the subject of genuine debate. A commission could usefully consider them, and practices being developed in Scotland could inform that process.

If we are considering a holistic approach to rural services and to the rural economy—something that the hon. Member for South Suffolk was anxious to stress—more vision will be needed. We tabled an amendment to the motion, because simply cataloguing the problems does not take us very far. It is important that we find ways of moving forward.

It is true that post offices continue to close and are doing so at an accelerating rate. Transport services are also under threat. The Secretary of State said that 2,000 new bus services had been introduced, but I presume that she meant in England or in England and Wales. In Aberdeenshire, 1,600 services were withdrawn last month because Stagecoach, which is suffering from the losses on the railways, felt unable to sustain them and the local authority was quite incapable of finding the money to keep more than a fraction of them going. We are not moving forwards, but back.

Community hospitals in rural areas are under review and, in many cases, rural authorities do not have the resources to pick up the pieces. The Secretary of State also said that there had been only two school closures—presumably in England—but there was one in my constituency in the last 12 months. It took place under a Labour chair of education and was approved by a Labour Education Minister despite the highly dubious case made.

When services are cut and closures take place in rural areas, no one takes responsibility for the transfer costs to the citizens living in those areas. Agencies say that they cannot sustain the cost of a service, so they close it down and they pass the cost to people in rural areas to pick up. The Government should consider requiring any agency to capitalise that cost and for it to be taken into account before any closure goes ahead. That might very well alter many of the decisions made.

The irony is that more and more people are moving into the countryside when services are diminishing. That is madness. We need a moratorium on the reduction in services and we need—I hope that we will get it—a radical approach in the new Department to rural policy and services. However, it would help if Ministers could provide us with some answers before the House rises for the summer

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West 5:13, 12 July 2001

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words in the debate and I very much welcome the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The new Department can successfully bring together countryside interests in a forward-looking way and an environmentally sustainable way. Both aspects are important. The new Department should certainly see agriculture as part of the wider rural economy and in the wider context at regional, national and European levels. That is vital if agriculture is to recover from the foot and mouth disaster.

I do not intend to concentrate on the foot and mouth crisis, however. That is not because I do not consider it serious, because it obviously is; nor is it because I am not prepared to defend what my colleagues and I did in the previous Ministry. Indeed, I welcome the inquiry and believe that some of its findings will place the Department in a good light. However, given the scale of the disaster and the stark differences between the recent outbreak and that of 1967, about which I have spoken several times, it will certainly be true that not everything was handled perfectly,

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Farmers in my constituency are usually very critical of Ministers, but they have paid tribute to the work of the right hon. Lady and Mr. Brown while they were office. I thank her for meeting my constituents during the outbreak to discuss their problems and remind her that at such a meeting she expressed sympathy for those who had to experience the burial of carcases in vast quantities at Widdrington. She said that the Government needed to recognise their contribution when forming future policy. Is she still of that view?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

Indeed I am. The right hon. Gentleman's constituents made a strong case. That site is located in a part of the country that has experienced many environmental problems over a long period. I thank him for his kind words. It is my experience that one is paid more compliments on leaving government than as a Minister in government. None the less, I am grateful for his comments.

I want to consider the future of farming and agriculture. By contrast with Mr. Yeo, Labour Members are of the view that farming has an important future. Food production is agriculture's role first and foremost. I believe that the British farming industry can supply a good proportion of our food requirements, and that applies both to meat products and to the fruit and vegetables that are produced by our horticulture sector. No doubt we will continue to import products that we cannot produce ourselves, but I hope that we can rebuild our export markets.

Labelling is important and I do not accept the Conservatives' criticisms of the Government on that. Country of origin labelling, which exists for fruit and vegetables and some meat, is an important aspect of giving consumers information and allowing them to make an informed choice. I hope that Ministers will continue the work of the previous Department in stressing concerns about labelling at a European level and by increasing the amount of clear and accurate information that consumers across the single market can expect.

Marketing schemes are important to help farmers add value to their products. As a Minister, I was struck by some of the successful marketing schemes, such as the fell-bred marketing brand in the Lake district. Successful work on branding has also been carried out in Scotland, Wales and parts of England. Those schemes help to build consumer loyalty to brands and often help them to buy regional and local produce, which is often a good trend.

I was also much taken by the growth in the regional and speciality food market. I pay tribute to some of the regional food organisations, in particular Taste of the West, which has a good record in promoting regional foods in the south-west and winning markets much further afield. Co-operation along the food chain is important, and for that reason I hope that the code of practice, which will mean that supermarkets treat their suppliers reasonably and fairly, will work. I am sure that those of us who are interested in these issues will be keen to monitor its operation in the weeks and months ahead.

The role that agriculture plays in countryside and environment issues must be taken fully into account. When we are looking at the relationship between farming and the environment, we must consider things like support for organic farming. I believe that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr. Morley, has been taking part in a debate on organic farming in Westminster Hall. I know that he personally has a long-standing commitment to that sector, and that the Government have considerably increased the funding for organic farming.

Happily, the Government have expanded the countryside stewardship schemes, which go back several years, and it is important that they continue to do so. We must recognise that there are parts of conventional farming that are much more environmentally sensitive than they used to be. I think of the programme linking the environment and farming—known as LEAF—and of the fact that much modern farming equipment is able, even when it is applying pesticides, to target crops much more sensitively than in the past. Developments in conventional farming are making it more environmentally benign. All those issues will continue to be important.

I strongly believe that the regional dimension is important to the future of agriculture in our country. That is why I welcome the fact that MAFF, now DEFRA, has appointed staff to the Government regional offices to ensure that agriculture is fully factored into regional economic strategies. We need to consider the role that agriculture can play in exploiting and developing the economic potential of the different regions. I hope that the regional development agencies will give full weight to agriculture in their strategies and exploit as effectively as possible the links between rural and urban areas and between farming and food industry jobs. Regional economic growth and jobs will depend on such initiatives, which will be enormously helpful to the future of agriculture.

No speech about the future of agriculture would be complete without a reference to the common agricultural policy, and indeed Malcolm Bruce referred to it in his contribution. The policy is still in need of profound change, but the prospects for that change are better than they have ever been. The CAP is not appropriate in the present circumstances, because it supports certain agriculture sectors and not others.

The policy has been slow to reform, so it has tended to be backward looking and only with great difficulty can it withstand pressures from the World Trade Organisation and enlargement of the European Union, as well as pressures for greater compatibility between environmental protection and agriculture policies. As I said, however, the prospects for change are greater than ever before; certainly, a helpful start was made with the development of the second pillar of the policy, the rural development regulation. That has allowed the introduction of schemes that are more flexible in their support of agriculture sectors and more forward looking on the subject of how farmers can add value to their products.

The changes agreed, especially at the time of the Berlin summit, are helpful, and we have seen in the European Council of Ministers that an increasing number of Europe's Agriculture Ministers take a more forward- looking and reformist approach to the common agricultural policy; the change in Germany is particularly positive. During my last months as a Minister at MAFF, I was aware of the growing number of allies that the UK Government were gathering in relation to agricultural reform.

It will be important that the UK Government protect British interests and make sure that any new rules that emerge from the proposed changes do not give unfair advantage to one party or another. However, I believe that the UK Government are excellently placed to build alliances with like-minded countries, so I conclude by wishing my colleagues every success in that important task of reform.

Photo of Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Conservative, Henley 5:25, 12 July 2001

It is a great pleasure to follow Joyce Quin and my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo, and to speak in a debate briefly attended by my old comrade Mr. Jones, who has now left the Chamber. He defeated me soundly in 1997, so living up to his nickname of "Jones the Vote", and it is a great honour to share the Chamber with him now.

As is conventional in maiden speeches, I pay tribute to my predecessor. As many in south Oxfordshire and elsewhere have not hesitated to point out, Michael Heseltine is a hard act to follow, so I approach this moment with much the same sense of self-doubt as Simba in "The Lion King". For the benefit of those who have not seen Walt Disney's film, there is a poignant moment when Simba, following Mufasa across the veld, compares his own paws with the vast pawprints left by that great beast; such are my feelings today. I have no arboretum in south Oxfordshire, merely a sort of lop-sided laurel. I struggle to run one magazine, whereas Michael told me that at the last count he had 267. He served the people of south Oxfordshire well for 26 years and in that time he was one of the biggest figures on our political landscape.

As Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael liberated millions from the captivity of state-owned and state-controlled housing. When some Members of Parliament were unilateralist, he stood out against a Soviet menace that is now almost forgotten and played his part in the end of the cold war. He worked tirelessly in the 1980s for the people of Liverpool and other deprived areas, and in so far as there is a Canary wharf—Hezzagrad, as people call the great city that has arisen in the docklands—it is thanks to his energy and drive. It is fair to say that we did not agree on every detail of European policy, but far more united us than divided us. Even when Michael was Deputy Prime Minister, he was, it is acknowledged everywhere in south Oxfordshire, an excellent constituency Member of Parliament—and what a constituency it is.

There might be some present who are under the impression that Henley is merely the town of Henley, so it might be helpful if I give them a little guided tour. Suppose one is travelling on the M40; just before junction 6, one suddenly comes to that dramatic cutting—the Khyber pass of the Chilterns—where ahead, spread out like a land of dreams, is the plain of south Oxfordshire. That, roughly speaking, is my constituency. That is the view that Jude the Obscure saw when, on that spot, he dreamed of education: far in the distance on a clear day one can just make out the spires of the ancient university town, now in need of some protection from senior figures in the Labour Government. Away to the south, one sees the Whittenham clumps, which were famously painted by Constable, and the towers of Didcot power station, which were not.

If, unlike Jude, one turns south at junction 6, one comes to the small town of Watlington, with its first-rate fish and chip shop and venerable town hall. One would not want to have a car crash in Watlington because, apart from anything else, the Government have closed the local cottage hospital—a fate that has befallen many cottage hospitals throughout the country. Labour Members will of course be delighted to know that the hospital is now likely to be rebuilt, thanks to an enormous concerted private initiative taken by the people of the area. I do not know whether that is in accordance with Government policy these days—it is hard to tell—but let us hope so.

Even if one were not injured in that car crash, one would certainly not want one's car to be out of action for very long in Watlington. One might have an urgent appointment in Thame to the north but not want to stump up for the petrol. Let us not be under any illusions—many of my constituents find it very difficult to afford petrol these days, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk was saying. Someone might want to use the bus. I have news for the House: one can get a bus from Watlington to Thame only on Tuesdays and come back only on Saturdays—but let us suppose that, one way or another, one succeeds in doing so.

People will find in Thame a vibrant town that holds regular busy farmers' markets of the kind that the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West was describing—and wonderful events they are. The farmers will say how badly affected they have been by foot and mouth, how fast their incomes have been falling and how much they depend on such occasions to market their produce. They will also say, I am afraid to report to the House, how disappointed they are that there was not more in the Queen's Speech about rural affairs than the promise to ban hunting.

Armed with some produce from the farmers' market, one might meander south. Let us suppose that one gets a bit lost. If one is lucky, one will end up at a place called Ewelme—it has a claim to be the centre of English literature and language, as Chaucer's niece is buried there—where a wonderful pub called the Shepherd's Hut, selling very good ale and food, is to be found. It is doing very well, unlike many other pubs in the area that are not so lucky and, as hon. Members will know, have been closing in great numbers.

One reason for such closures is that people are of course worried about drink driving and the punitive measures taken by the police. I of course support all measures to deter reckless driving, but want in my maiden speech to make one legislative proposal. The Chancellor, who I am disappointed to say is not present, should offer a tax break to Brakspear's 2.5, which is a newly developed beer that I have sampled and which I assure the House is utterly delicious. One can drink three pints of it without coming near exceeding the limit. It would be very good if it were taxed at an appropriate rate, thereby encouraging sobriety when driving and helping local pubs that are otherwise closing at such a rate. Those who have the Chancellor's ear may be inclined to pass that on to him.

Thus fortified, one passes through many scenic villages in south Oxfordshire. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk has pointed out, such places have already suffered the closure of post offices and many varieties of unsuspected rural hardship. Eventually, one arrives in Henley, the town that gives its name to my constituency. It is of course famous for its regatta and bringing back a great haul of gold from the recent Sydney olympics, thereby doing something to redress the Chancellor's recent wanton disposal of bullion on the markets. Henley is of course also this week the scene of a most wonderful festival, which I commend to all Members.

Not everywhere in my constituency is as lucky as Henley. There are pockets of genuine deprivation, problems of poverty and problems of prosperity. For every affluent estate agent in south Oxfordshire—and there are quite a few—there are dozens, if not hundreds, of young people who cannot afford housing in the area and whose needs must be attended to.

I want to explain why I am in politics and sought election. We always say in our pious way that we want to make a difference, to do out bit for our country. Of course that is true; I hope that the House will not mind if I offer it that piety. It is perhaps especially true for someone who spent a lot of time sitting in the Press Gallery—I am not supposed to mention that place; I hope that hon. Members will forgive the solecism—as a journalist. I do not condemn those who have taken the socialist view—I do not know whether they are still socialists—and do not condemn those who have believed in socialism. I can see why they do, and why they are motivated to root out injustice and build a better a society. However, I think that Conservatism offers a better and broader understanding of human nature, which is why it has been so successful over the past 200 years and why it is now sedulously imitated.

There is a hidden wisdom in old ways of doing things. If you get the state off people's backs and allow them to get on with their lives, not only will they be more contented, broadly speaking, but they will generate more of the wealth that society will always need to help the poorest and those who genuinely cannot help themselves. That is one-nation Toryism; it is a wholly reasonable creed. If I have one criticism of the framing of the motion—of course, I do not—it is that we have talked too much as if there is a great insulation between the crisis in the countryside and metropolitan England and London. The simple fact is that yesterday's newspapers show that musicals are closing in London because of the foot and mouth crisis.

The crisis in the countryside affects everyone. I make that point for the first time in the House as Member for Henley; I am proud to be given the chance to make it again, as I shall on behalf of all my constituents in the months and years ahead.

Photo of David Hamilton David Hamilton Labour, Midlothian 5:36, 12 July 2001

I do not intend to attempt to try to follow the entertainment that we have just had, but, as a socialist, I congratulate Mr. Johnson on his contribution and his tribute to his predecessor. If I remember rightly, his predecessor closed 32 pits throughout Britain and had a hairstyle not unlike that of the hon. Gentleman. I shall see with interest how we can work together on a number of issues over the next four or five years.

I shall make one or two observations about comments that have been made about the countryside in crisis, before going on to the main part of my maiden speech. As a councillor in Midlothian—there are 17 Labour members on the council and one Liberal Democrat—I had meetings with farmers and others, as I represented a semi-rural area. It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we all need to work together. We rise and fall together; it is not about one community as opposed to another community. Foot and mouth has highlighted that in many ways.

I have recently been meeting farmers, who have raised the same issues as those raised by the Opposition. Mr. Yeo talked about how high council tax is; a tenant farmer who lived in a big mansion complained to me that he had to pay council tax, but never had the opportunity to own the house because he was a tenant farmer. Such complaints are made, but we should remember that the Government helped badly paid farm workers by establishing the minimum wage, giving them some of the biggest increases that they have ever had. We should remember that it is not just about the farmers, but the farm workers who reside in the countryside and have to look after farms.

In addition, I am pleased that we work well with people from the borders. We shall work with hon. Members from the borders to promote the Waverley line, which is extremely important in opening up the countryside. It is important that we start to look at developing the countryside's economic base.

It is a great honour to speak in the House as a representative of my home county of Midlothian, the place of my birth and, of course, the constituency of a man whom some may remember, W. E. Gladstone, Midlothian's most prominent politician to date, who made his mark in Parliament. Since its early years Midlothian has undergone many changes in size and population. Since the war there have been four Labour Members of Parliament: David Pryde, James Hill, Alex Eadie and, of course, my predecessor, Eric Clarke. They all had one thing in common: they were all from a mining background. Alex Eadie will be remembered by some in this place as Under-Secretary of State for Energy between 1974 and 1979. He spent 21 years in the House and did not forget his roots. He was followed by my predecessor, Eric Clarke.

As it is the custom of the House, I shall say a few words about Eric, who came to this place in 1992. I believe that his contribution was a good one, and not only because he successfully introduced a private Member's Bill or because he was a junior Whip for a period. I believe that being a Whip would have suited him. He was commonly thought of as rather a grumpy person, but having known him for more than 30 years I can assure the House that Mr. Grumpy had a soft centre. Indeed, in the last Prime Minister's Question Time of the previous Parliament, I saw the then hon. Member for Midlothian thanking all Members for their friendship, and that was sincere. I hope that the House will join me in wishing Eric a long and happy retirement.

The House will remember that Eric raised the question of a group of workers, and I to pledge to carry the banner forward. I refer to victimised miners—an issue that is still a running sore after 17 years. I believe that the Government have made some progress with the repeal of parts of trade union legislation. They have made major changes to enable thousands of workers to claim industrial compensation, having recognised the contribution that they made over the years. They are the first Government to do so.

Workers, including miners, and their families have been able to claim. They have received benefit for vibration white finger. Thousands of miners and widows and their families are receiving millions of pounds through chronic obstructive pulmonary restriction funding, although it has taken too long for some of the payments to be made. That is a major change and a major improvement to the lives of many people throughout Scotland and, indeed, Britain.

Good people such as Alex Bennet, James Hogg, Robert Hogg, Michael Hogg, Arthur Blackhurst, Billy Anderson, George Laing, Jimmy Lennie and George Purcell are only a few of the 206 Scottish miners who were sacked during the 1984–85 strike. Many have returned to work. Unfortunately, all too many did not get the opportunity to do so. It is already too late for some, such as my good friend Dyett Murdoch, who has since passed away, but their families are still looking for justice.

There were many casualties during the dispute. There have been 17 long years for Britain's sacked miners and their families. They lost not only redundancy payments but, more importantly, some of them lost their pension rights. If Members are wondering why I feel so strongly, it is because I am one of the sacked Midlothian miners—there were 46 at Monktonhall colliery, 36 at Bilston Glen colliery and five at Newbattle workshops. I am proud to be a victimised miner, and to be the first to enter Parliament. The phrase "down but not out" comes to mind when I say that. I am proud also to carry the banner on behalf of miners and their families.

I hope that the House will agree that 17 years is long enough. We should have a cross-party agreement to right the wrong. I remind Conservative Members that even after the dispute up to 10 Tories signed petitions to the effect that the miners should have been reinstated after the dispute.

On a more upbeat note, over the last decade mining has declined and Midlothian has changed dramatically. Thousands were employed in only a dozen industries, and now dozens are employed in 1,000 industries. That shows that small micro industries have developed throughout the area.

The old industries may have gone, but they still play a significant role. An example is Monktonhall, the colliery where I used to work. The council has commissioned studies into the use of warm water from old mine workings to provide energy for 4,000 houses and industrial units in the largest greenfield development site in Scotland. Essentially, a mine water heat pump would pump water that had been geothermally heated from the bottom of the mine. The water would then be circulated to consumers and returned to the mine, where it would be reheated. If the heat pumps were operated using a green source of electricity, the heat delivered would be truly renewable energy without any greenhouse gas emissions. This renewable energy requires a capital investment, perhaps from one of the funds that have been announced by the Government, and a commitment from the developers to provide the appropriate infrastructure.

Finally, one of the most exciting challenges in Midlothian comes from biotechnology. Hon. Members will have heard of Dolly. We are in the process of combining research and manufacturing in Midlothian with the development of the Gowkley Moss land acquisition, to which I look forward. As a councillor, I have asked the director of education to work closely with our six secondary schools and the local college and universities to support employment opportunities in biotechnology, which now employs more than 1,000 people in the locality.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for the kindness shown to me as a new Member. I have no doubt that that will be shortlived, thanks to the Opposition and some of those on the Government Front Bench, when I start to express my views. I have been given a great privilege by the people of Midlothian, and I shall do everything in my power to repay that privilege.

We are at the beginning of a new millennium. As we meet the new challenges, I hope that we will not forget the values for which many of us came into politics—free education, a free health service and support for the weak in our society, for those who are disabled and for our elderly. I feel sure that when we say that we are the fourth largest economy in the world, those people will benefit, along with all of us, and not just a few.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Conservative, East Devon 5:45, 12 July 2001

It may seem presumptuous for me, as I am about to make my own maiden speech, to start by congratulating David Hamilton and my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson on theirs—two excellent speeches, giving in their own way a vignette of their parts of the world, which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will clearly represent so ably in Parliament.

Anyone with political aspirations has rehearsed the moment of their maiden speech many times over. I am sure that I can rely on the indulgence of the House in making mine. The full terror of the occasion crosses the political divide.

It is the custom in a maiden speech to refer to those who have gone before. Even if that were not the case, I should anyway want to start my speech by paying tribute to my predecessor, Sir Peter Emery, who is well known to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to others in the House.

Sir Peter's political career, which was lengthy, began with the ritual blooding of fighting so-called unwinnable seats—in his case, Poplar, which he contested in 1951, and Lincoln in 1955. Unsuccessful but undeterred, like so many of us, he went on to win Reading by 3,942 votes from Ian Mikardo. He represented Reading from 1959—incidentally, the year in which I was born—until 1966, when he lost to John Lee by just over 4,000 votes. In 1967 Sir Peter succeeded Robert Mathew in a by-election as the Member for what was then the Honiton division, with a majority of 16,000. In 1997, following boundary changes, the major part of that seat became East Devon, which Sir Peter represented until the election.

Sir Peter's record is one of unstinting service to his constituents and to the House. He was, I believe, an important influence on the Modernisation Committee, and I know that the House found his advice, based on many years of parliamentary experience, to be of enormous help. His retirement is truly a loss to the House.

The House's loss is my gain, and I stand here humble and honoured to have been chosen as Sir Peter's successor to represent East Devon, which can lay claim to be one of the most beautiful parts of our countryside. From the River Exe in the west to the borders of Dorset in the east, it includes the coastal resorts of Exmouth, whose foundations lie in Roman times and which was originally a busy fishing village but is now more of a tourist resort; Budleigh Salterton, which takes its name from the salt pans that were used to collect local salt for preserving by the monks at nearby Otterton priory; and Hayes Barton, birthplace of that great Elizabethan explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh who, I suppose, in his own way did so much for the tobacco industry and who, if alive today, would almost certainly have just returned from an overseas trip promoting his product. Incidentally, I hope that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will support me in my ambition to relocate his statue from Raleigh green in Whitehall to his birthplace in East Budleigh.

The charming seaside town of Sidmouth, near which I live, with its Regency terraces and villas, was immortalised by Sir John Betjeman. The small village of Beer was once famed for fishing and smuggling. The waiting women made lace there and so contributed to the foundation of the Honiton lace industry. Seaton, where the Romans landed and the Fosse way started, and nearby Axmouth, which is thought to be the site of the major Roman station of Uxelis, and from which until the late 19th century trading vessels sailed regularly to and from London, are also situated in the area. Those towns, together with a largely rural hinterland, including the towns of Axminster, which is famous for the synonymous carpet factory, and Colyton, represent my constituency.

East Devon, which is so rich in history, is not only about landscape and coastline, although I shall return to those aspects shortly. In Lympstone, we are proud to have the training camp of the Royal Marines. Exmouth, our largest conurbation, is home to one of the country's biggest secondary schools, which is also the country's largest community college. That contrasts with Colyton grammar school, which always scores highly in Ofsted reports and has just achieved long overdue beacon school status.

If I am guilty of anything this afternoon, it is that I may have depicted East Devon as a place from an England of yesteryear rather than of today. To an extent, that is truthful. Mercifully, we do not suffer from some of the problems and tensions that have been seen in other parts of the country. Although crime is a recognisable problem, it is not out of control.

Beneath that bucolic veneer, however, lie some all-too-real problems, one of which is rural poverty. My hon. Friend Mr. Yeo articulated the problems of farmers yet again today. Throughout the foot and mouth crisis, he has articulated the suffering of my farmers better than anyone whom I can think of. Our farmers and suppliers are desperate in the wake of foot and mouth, although to date we have been relatively lucky in having had only one reported outbreak. Our local magistrates courts in Axminster and Exmouth have been closed. Our infrastructure, roads, local shops and post offices, all of which people in the countryside depend upon, are under constant threat, just as our countryside itself is threatened by over-development.

A great number of my constituents are on fixed incomes. Some 27 per cent. of the population of East Devon consists of people aged over 65, which puts a strain on the health service. In some parts of the constituency, more than 6 per cent. of the population is over 85. Although our cottage hospitals are as good as any in the land, the pressures on our privately run care and residential homes are now truly worrying.

In my constituency, the income of our four main coastal towns is based mainly on tourism-related employment. We have an extraordinary opportunity ahead of us if the bid to give world heritage status to the east Devon and Dorset coast is successful. We will learn the result in December. The United Kingdom currently has 20 world heritage sites, 11 of which are situated in England and one of which is the Palace of Westminster, together with the abbey and St. Margaret's church.

The proposed world heritage site is the 88 miles of coastline between Orcombe point near Exmouth and Old Harry rocks in Dorset, with some exceptions of coastline that do not exhibit important geological or geomorphic features. My hon. Friend Mr. Letwin has been campaigning vigorously along with my predecessor for world heritage recognition. The geomorphology of the coast is of global importance. There is a complex spectrum of every combination of landslide-forming rocks of the Triassic, Jurassic and cretaceous periods, which together provide an extraordinary teaching laboratory comparable to similarly important landslide areas to be found in New Zealand and the Black sea.

World heritage site status will lead to new opportunities for tourism, but we must address them in advance. It is vital that the gateway towns to this proposed new site do justice to it. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to providing funding for the restoration of Seaton Hole and the Alma bridge at Pennington Point, which have suffered as a result of coastal erosion and landslides. Their current condition is a source of great local concern.

We must ensure that the tourism industry offers suitable training, first-class accommodation and, indeed, sufficient accommodation. We must reverse the trend that we have seen recently in Sidmouth, for example, of losing hotel beds to residential development. We must improve access by road, which will mean improving the A303, the A30 and the A35. We must improve access by plane, which will involve a controlled expansion of Exeter international airport. We must also improve our train services on both the Paddington and Waterloo lines as a matter of urgency. None of this can be achieved without commitment and funding.

In today's world, agriculture and tourism are interlinked. People come to our part of the world and marvel at our landscape. Unlike our coastline, it has been man-made over the centuries by landowners and farmers. It looks as it does because it has been farmed, and it must continue to be farmed. The Government must recognise that, above all.

I urge the Government also to recognise that tourism in my part of the world will not recover of its own accord. It desperately needs help. The total revenue generated by tourism in the United Kingdom during 2000 was around £64 billion. Of that, £6 billion was spent by tourists and visitors to the south-west, which amounts to 10 per cent. of the gross domestic product of the region. However, investment by the Government in the English Tourism Council, which includes the allocation to the council and to the regional tourist boards, was £11.7 million, or 20p per head of the population, compared to £3.77 per head in Scotland and £4.03 per head in Wales. Moreover, none of that money can be used for marketing. The report published by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in May 2001 states:

"These figures leave no doubt that there has been a sustained problem of under-funding by the public sector in tourism that has affected English tourism in particular."

I urge the Government to provide at least £3 million so that we can develop a professional and effective campaign aimed at our home and near-overseas markets. I urge them to reconsider the inequalities in funding to which I have just alluded. I also urge them to take up South West Tourism's plea to set up an independent competitiveness review of the costs and profits position of the United Kingdom's tourism business, compared with our overseas competitors, so that we can best judge how to increase what is, after all, the fourth largest industry in the country.

I make no apologies for promoting my part of the world. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members who have not finally settled on their summer holiday destination will now think favourably of the south-west, but with one caveat: that none of my colleagues bring a leadership campaign down there. I can guarantee right hon. and hon. Members who come to the south-west a memorable holiday; I can equally guarantee them welcoming and appreciative hosts.

Photo of Mr Alan Hurst Mr Alan Hurst Labour, Braintree 5:59, 12 July 2001

It is amazing that, of the last four speakers, I should be the most senior in terms of service, as I have been here for only four years. It is a delight to listen to maiden speeches, and I congratulate my hon. Friend David Hamilton on a heartfelt and principled speech. Those qualities always add to the geographical and historical descriptions that we also enjoy. Unless the constituency of Midlothian has been redistributed, I believe that I have been there once. I visited the town of Balerno, but it may no longer be in his constituency.

I also enjoyed the two maiden speeches from Opposition Members. That of Mr. Swire was almost a model maiden speech. He expressed his view of the countryside and its importance well. I congratulate Mr. Johnson. I do not know Henley, but I was intrigued by his geographical description. I now realise that it is just east of the Khyber pass, and I shall bear that in mind when travelling.

The speeches so far have been reasoned and well balanced. Mr. Yeo tends to go overboard in his condemnation of the Government. He is not

"slow to chide and swift to bless", to quote the hymn. We need to take a more balanced approach to the position in agriculture and our rural communities.

Agriculture has always been in crisis. We could almost go back to biblical times and the seven fat years and seven lean years. Agriculture is subject not only to economic fluctuations but to those of nature, which are often beyond the control of man. In the past decade, agriculture in this country has suffered from BSE, classical swine fever—at least in East Anglia—and, lastly and most devastatingly, foot and mouth. On top of all that, economic factors, such as the decline of the markets in the far east and Russia, have proved pernicious to our export trade.

Agriculture has also been affected by the climate: in the past year, there have been floods and droughts. All those factors affect farms on the margins, especially farming communities in what used to be called marginal areas.

Further problems spread from agriculture to the rest of the rural community. Not enough people are engaged in agriculture. At the end of the second world war, approximately 1 million people were employed in agriculture. It was the equivalent of the mining industry. Agriculture and mining have suffered colossal decline in different ways. Adam Price made a fascinating maiden speech in which he told us about the unity between farmers in one part of his constituency and miners in the other. We must remember that town and country, industry and agriculture do not stand apart. They form a unity.

The problem nowadays in rural areas is that so many people can no longer work locally. Many others move to rural areas because, as the descriptions of new Members often imply, they are idyllic havens—places where one wants to live. People live, or simply sleep or weekend, in those havens and return to London, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham or Cardiff to work. Consequently, the village store does not have customers to buy from it every day. The local garage cannot sell petrol because the commuter or weekender has bought petrol more cheaply at Tesco, Asda or elsewhere. The local pub is also affected for several reasons but mostly because the closely bound community, of which the pub, the chapel and the school were all part, no longer exists.

That has been happening for decades. Twenty-five years ago, I lived in a small village beneath the highest point of the Pennines. Before I lived there, it had a school, a chapel and a post office. The school had gone in the distant past, the post office had hung on until the proprietor retired, although no replacement could be found, and the chapel went after I left, so that village no longer has the essential ingredients of community life.

Rather than blame the Government or the previous Administration, we should consider the long-term trends that are causing great problems to our rural communities and we must devise a means whereby people who live in the countryside can work in the countryside. Part of it might take the form of Government schemes to encourage young people to enter farming. The average age of those in the farming community is even greater than that of members of the Conservative party and new people are not coming in. Also, it is difficult to take up farming at a young age because of the price of land.

The situation is absurd: commodity prices are low and profitability has been squeezed to the margin, but the price of the acres on which farming takes place is still ludicrously high, certainly in the south and the east. That involves elements of speculation, does it not?

Large organisations, banks and insurance companies buy agricultural land as a speculative investment. They have no real interest in the product that comes from the land and no real desire for the communities based on that land to thrive. They are interested in the price of the land and they will do everything by way of purchase or sale to keep the price high. That represents the investment, but it is one of the factors that make it so difficult for agriculture to survive.

At one time, many farms were rented, so the young farmer, or the son, nephew or niece of a farmer, could rent land to raise animals or grow crops. That is now unbelievably difficult and the only way to do it is to form a contractor company whereby people contract out their labour and work for others who own the land. The problem with that, which other Members may have experienced in their divisions, is that that system separates the occupation of the land from those who work on it.

I look to the Government to devise schemes whereby they encourage young people back to the land through either financial incentives or renting out state-owned land. Unless we get more people back in the countryside and working in agriculture, the crisis, if I may use that word, will go on for many more years. Eventually, the foot and mouth outbreak will end and I entirely agree with those who have said that we need an inquiry. What form it should take I do not know, but it should not be akin to that chaired by Senator Joe McCarthy. It should seek proper solutions to problems that have been discovered, and we must find out what happened. That issue can be addressed, but the long-term problems in agriculture require us all to think about how we can resolve them.

I should mention two more contemporary matters. The first is arable agrimonetary compensation. I do not trot along with the notion that we should go to Brussels and ask for the money and that Brussels should hand it over. We all know that most of it is our own money and that we are spending it among ourselves, but there is a case for making an application because the price of arable crops is some 70 per cent. of what it was a few years ago.

Secondly, I want to raise the renewal of the over-30-months scheme. Although there are alternatives such as the welfare schemes, difficulties were created by its suspension when the foot and mouth epidemic was at its height and farmers are experiencing great problems. That issue has links to the need to stimulate and support small slaughterhouses. Finally, it is universally agreed that we must be ever-vigilant to ensure that we do not allow contaminated food to enter this country by way of sandwiches, non-Cornish pasties or whatever and thereby put our livestock at risk.

I shall support the Government tonight because they are making genuine attempts to help to solve the problems in our rural communities. It behoves us all to work together to achieve those solutions.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 6:10, 12 July 2001

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech, and I am delighted to follow the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire). If they think that they have the most beautiful constituencies in the United Kingdom, let me tell them that they have stiff competition from North Tayside. I am also pleased to follow David Hamilton. We both have Scottish constituencies and we both have mining backgrounds, although unfortunately mine has been lapsed for two generations.

I am grateful to have been called to make my maiden speech in a debate about the countryside. My constituency consists almost entirely of countryside, being one of the five largest in the United Kingdom, and it experiences many of the issues and difficulties described so well today. Before I discuss those difficulties, however, let me say—like many maiden speakers before me—that in my humble opinion, mine is perhaps the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom.

North Tayside is a constituency of rivers and mountains, of market towns and open spaces. In the heart of Scotland is highland Perthshire, and around that beating heart flow the rivers of the Tay. They are the heart's blood of my constituency—rivers such as the Tummel, the Ericht, the Isla, the Strath and the Braan, which make up the largest river system in the UK, flowing ever onwards and outwards into the Tay estuary.

The western part of Angus is also in my constituency. There the River Esk flows down from the mountains that adorn the Angus glens. What can I say of the mountains? At the geographical heart of Scotland is Schehalion, hill of the fairies, the most striking mountain in the whole of Scotland. We also have Ben Lawers, Ben Aglow and Ben Vrachie, and Dreish and Mayer sit deep in the Angus glens.

Mine is also a constituency of estates and castles. I think that it must contain more noble Lords than any other constituency in Scotland. Deep in Strathmore is Glamis castle, perhaps the finest example of a baronial castle anywhere in Scotland. At the foot of the Tay is Scone palace, ancient home of Scottish kings and true home of the Stone of Destiny.

The thing that I do not like about my constituency—there always has to be one thing—is its name. "North Tayside" sounds like a council ward in some old Labour municipal council. Whoever came up with that name must have been up in the Library all night. I suggest that we find a name more in keeping with the constituency's natural beauty. How about Strathmore, Highland Perthshire and the Glens? There is a name worthy of its splendour.

I am grateful to the people of North Tayside for electing me to represent that beautiful constituency. I am, of course, aware of the responsibility involved. Let me also do what is traditional and pay tribute to my predecessor, John Swinney. John was elected to the House of Commons in 1997, and it is hard to believe that he served only one term, given the impact that he has made on Scottish politics since.

John transformed the constituency, turning it into one in which all constituents' concerns were addressed immediately. It is also hard to believe that he served two of his four years here with a dual mandate: that never stopped him from being a most effective Member of Parliament. Wherever I went during my election campaign, there was a good word about John Swinney, and a growing realisation—accompanied by pride—that this was a future First Minister of Scotland. I had to reassure my constituents that John was going nowhere, and would continue to represent their interests in the Scottish Parliament. I now look forward to working as part of an effective team with John to ensure in both Parliaments that all our constituents' concerns are addressed.

John has, of course, gone on to bigger and better things since becoming a Member of Parliament here in 1997. I am not referring to the fact that he is now convener of the Scottish National party, or even the fact that he is Leader of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament but to the fact that he is now Scotland's most eligible male, as decided by Scotland on Sunday. That is an honour to which this Member for North Tayside does not aspire and from which, in any case, he is disqualified by reason of marriage.

Before John's incumbency, North Tayside was represented for 18 years by the Conservatives in the guise of Bill Walker. Bill is what is commonly described as a colourful character; I think that everyone involved in Scottish politics has a favourite Bill Walker story. He and his colleague the then Member for Perth and Kinross provided the House with an unforgettable double act that I am sure is sorely missed by some of our older Members.

It is surprising that tourism has been so little debated this afternoon. Tourism is a big issue for my constituency, given its natural beauty and scenery. Tourism is one of the major employers in North Tayside. It has struggled under the impact of foot and mouth disease, but it was in crisis in Scotland long before the latest outbreak. The high cost of fuel and the high value of the pound make a double whammy that continues to beat the countryside. We cannot underestimate the effect of the strong pound on deterring European visitors. That was clearly demonstrated to me when German friends told me that this year they would not make their usual annual trip to Scotland because it was too expensive. They could get two weeks of luxury accommodation in the Mediterranean for their two nights of bed and breakfast in Scotland. Moreover, they could be guaranteed all-day sunshine in that destination. The best that I could guarantee was that the weather was likely to be changeable.

Poor access to European airports from Scotland is another factor. For a nation of 5 million people, we have appalling access to European destinations. The services that exist are highly priced and infrequent. The extra cost of coming north from an English airport is an added disincentive to European visitors.

What of coming to Scotland by car? With our crazy fuel costs, we have started to enter the realms of the luxury holiday sector ourselves. We seriously cannot discount the high cost of fuel as a major disincentive to European and United Kingdom visitors to Scotland. Members on this Bench always ask, why has oil-rich Scotland got the highest fuel prices in Europe?

Agriculture, agricultural supplies and textiles are also major employers in my constituency. Food production is perhaps the main employer in Strathmore, where the world-renowned berry industry faces many severe difficulties. It is but a shadow of its former self. The berry-picking season is nothing more than a distant memory.

Even with all those activities, the main issue in my election campaign was local hospitals. I simply cannot equate the warm words of Labour Members with the reality of health service provision in my constituency. The service on Tayside is in chaos. There is no confidence in its delivery and staff morale is at rock bottom. We in Tayside are to be subject to a centralisation programme that takes no account of the geography of the area or the public's desire to retain popular local services.

The east of my constituency is served by the Stracathro hospital. Its acute hospital status will be lost with services centralised in distant Dundee. The western part is served by the Perth royal infirmary. The preferred option is to remove maternity and paediatric services once again to Dundee. That means that my constituents will face upwards of a 100-mile journey to receive the services. A service already seen as remote will now seem as though it were at the other end of the country.

I come before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the first Member of Parliament from the world of popular music. I am reliably informed that I am the first Member who has ever appeared on "Top of the Pops" in his own right, so you can imagine the onerous responsibility that that places on my shoulders. I find it staggering that no one before me has made the journey from the stage of the concert hall to the Floor of the House of Commons, given the historic association between popular music, popular culture and politics. We can see from history that popular culture has sometimes been expressed by musicians and artists and that that led and dominated political debate. In the counter-culture of the 1960s, there were those who rallied against unwarranted international aggression and those who championed and pioneered the rights of minorities and women. Music has so often been the soundtrack of political change. At times, music and song have even articulated it. Can any hon. Member imagine political change without the songs?

People and commentators ask me what are the differences between my previous profession and my new job in the House. I answer that it might be a different stage and even a different song, but that I will certainly not get an encore in this place.

Tonight's debate is entitled "The Countryside in Crisis". It is clear that the countryside ranks low in this Government's priorities and thinking. They come on the back of a Conservative Government who gave us the BSE disaster. It must have been the first incident that gave the feeling of crisis, from which the countryside has never recovered. We must also remember that it was the Conservatives who introduced the fuel tax escalator, which started the crazy spiralling of fuel costs in the first place.

My constituency consists almost entirely of countryside, and particularly beautiful countryside at that. Let us do what we can to promote it and ensure that we get the best from our most prized asset—our countryside.

Photo of Ms Helen Clark Ms Helen Clark Labour, Peterborough 6:19, 12 July 2001

I begin by congratulating hon. Members on some excellent maiden speeches. I assure Pete Wishart that after he has won his second election victory he will come to love the name of his constituency. I congratulate Mr. Swire on a tremendous maiden speech. I especially valued his comments about his predecessor, whom we all esteemed. My hon. Friend David Hamilton is himself a victimised miner; I know that his comments will have resonance on both sides of the House, and I hope that we will achieve justice for such miners during his time in this place.

I cannot begin my speech without mentioning Mr. Johnson, who gave us such an entertaining bird's-eye view of his constituency. I am convinced that he will uphold the tradition of dashing blonds in the House.

As my contribution to the debate, I lend support to those who urge the Government to work in Brussels for EU-wide fund switching under the common agricultural policy, so that this country is not at a disadvantage, and to ensure that sufficient resources are made available to allow much wider application, to most UK farms, of agri-environmental schemes, organic conversion, farm woodland development and so on. That will mean that agricultural practices can become more sustainable and can protect, rather than detract from, the natural environment and wildlife. I am confident that there will be public support for that sensible emphasis.

Consumers want quality, and they want safety. Most people have come to understand that the condition of the countryside concerns us all whether we live in the country or, like myself, represent an urban constituency. Many of my colleagues support the aims of the organic targets Bill, which would make 30 per cent. of land and 20 per cent. of food marketed in England and Wales organic by 2010. Perhaps one of my colleagues will make it their business to help the Bill to make progress, through one of the channels open to Back Benchers.

No one who has attended this important debate underestimates the scale of the current problems, and everyone knows that full recovery will take a long time. A document produced by the Countryside Alliance states that the lowest average weekly wages are in rural counties such as Cornwall, Northumberland and Shropshire; that seven of the 10 counties with a gross domestic product below the national average are rural; that total farm income is down from £6 billion in 1995 to £1.8 billion in 2000; and that the average farm income after expenses is £5,200 per farm. That is clearly unsustainable. The Countryside Agency estimates potential losses of £2 billion in the rural economy as a whole as a result of the terrible foot and mouth epidemic.

Before the election, I hosted an event in the House that brought together several rural interest groups and at which representatives of the Farm Stay UK Exmoor group took the opportunity to brief the then Minister for Tourism on the scale of their losses. I know that she had hoped to visit Exmoor to see for herself. No doubt her successor will want to strengthen such contacts.

The income from letting accommodation keeps many farms going. A small family farm with six bedrooms is currently losing between £500 and £600 a week. The Exmoor group will lose £25,000 a week as the holiday season progresses, and is looking at a loss of £500,000 if foot and mouth disease continues throughout the summer.

Even counties such as Dorset, with no FMD, have been badly affected. The English Tourism Council has pointed out that if there is a silver lining to the terrible FMD crisis it is that it has demonstrated to the Government, the business community and the public what the industry already knew: the importance of tourism to local economies. In some rural economies it is the main employer, and we could get far more from it in terms of growth and jobs. The council says that £4 out of every £5 spent on English tourism comes from domestic tourists, so it is they who need to be encouraged back. We need a wide-ranging review of the industry, and encouragement for certain ventures.

Before the election, I supported a proposal by Farm Stay UK to acquire Government backing for an integrated nationwide information and support service, as exists in France. Again, the then Minister was sympathetic, and I hope that the Government will revisit the issue in the light of the continuing crisis. There should be much more support for organisations such as LEAF—Linking the Environment and Farming—whose activities I have promoted on several occasions in the House, and there are others, such as the Farmers Conservation Group and the Farmers and Wildlife Advice Group. Perhaps there is a case for those groups to co-ordinate and work more closely together. We must also support new industries in rural areas.

Last week I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on environmentally friendly fuels, and I talked about liquid biofuels from farmland, which are important in my own region, as well as in others. Fears about climate change have increased this very week, and we know that the need to reduce greenhouse gases is urgent. The slaughter of more than 3 million animals during the terrible FMD epidemic has left much land under-utilised, and the set-aside scheme contributes nothing to our gross domestic product.

I understand that the European Commission is working towards a directive that would make it mandatory for member states to ensure that 2 per cent. of road transport fuel came from biofuels by 2005. In the United Kingdom that would involve some 300,000 tonnes of biodiesel and perhaps 400,000 tonnes of bioethanol. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested a 20 per cent. rebate for biodiesel in the 2002 Budget. That is welcome, but it does not go nearly far enough.

A few thousand tonnes of recycled oil may be involved, but it is by no means certain that that fuel can meet the essential quality standards required under engine warranties without the addition of perhaps 10 times as much pure oilseed. I understand that the rebate will not be paid on fuel that does not meet the standard. No firm guidelines have been given for bioethanol. Research has been mooted, but it will be years before it can make any serious contribution to the rural economy and cleaner air.

Many issues have brought crisis to our countryside, and hon. Members on both sides of the House must work together in the spirit that has characterised this excellent debate. I am delighted to have heard such sensitive speeches from new Members on both sides of the House. I am also delighted that they have all contributed to the theme of this debate. We can work together, and I am confident that we will.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 6:28, 12 July 2001

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also thank all hon. Members who have kept their speeches short enough to allow me a brief innings tonight.

I thought that as the summer recess is fast approaching, I would take hon. Members on both sides of the House on a brief tour of a very green and pleasant land—or at least it was green and pleasant until the channel tunnel arrived. I was elected this year to represent the Faversham and Mid-Kent constituency—a creation of the 1997 boundary commission. I know that Mrs. Brinton knows it well.

My constituency comprises all the countryside between Sittingbourne and Maidstone on the western side and Canterbury and Ashford in the east. It rises in the north on the north Kent coast and sweeps over to Faversham—originally a cinque port and a well known mediaeval market town, which is now famous as the home of the oldest family-owned brewery in the country, Shepherd Neame.

My constituency continues beyond Faversham, across the north downs—an area of outstanding natural beauty, criss-crossed by many ancient pilgrim routes to Canterbury. Beyond that to the south is the rolling countryside of the weald, to the west of which are the prosperous suburbs of Maidstone. However, it would be wrong to try to argue that all that part of the world is prosperous. At the eastern end of Maidstone are two of the most deprived housing estates in Europe. As Members will imagine, it is from there that much of my postbag comes.

The town, however, has the accolade of being home to three former Members of the House: Sir Roger Moate, Andrew Rowe and Sir John Wells. Indeed, it is the current home of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe.

Over the past few weeks, a number of people have grappled with the question of how to talk about their predecessors. I have no such problems. Andrew Rowe was universally regarded as one of the most diligent and popular constituency Members. After I was selected, I was very struck by how many people said to me what a difficult job it would be to follow him as the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent. I have been amazed since my arrival at the House by just how many people have said to me how sad they were to see him go. There may be some irony in that. Mr. Speaker told me that Andrew Rowe would be an extremely hard act to follow, and at the end of my first month here, I am just beginning to understand exactly what that means.

I am sure that all Members of the House, knowing that Andrew Rowe was not well in his last few years here, will join me in wishing him a long, happy and well deserved retirement, and will hope very much that the disease that blighted his final few years in the House will finally be laid to rest. He was indeed a credit to the House.

I asked to make my maiden speech today because in many ways, the countryside defines my constituency. Not for nothing is it known as the garden of England. However, as with the many other parts of the countryside that Members have mentioned, my constituency is in crisis. Incomes and the number of people employed in rural industries are falling and many of the orchards that so characterise that part of England are being grubbed up.

The reasons for that are many and varied. They include low prices, because farmers receive a falling share of the retail price; cheap imports from abroad with which we cannot compete; poor weather; regulation; and most critically, surprisingly enough, the labour situation. Many of my constituents tell me that they simply cannot get their fruit picked. The answers to the problem are also many and varied, but it is interesting that none of the farmers directly wants any form of state handout. All they want is the security to run their farms as businesses, free from interference and over-regulation.

Fruit farmers ask for three things in particular. The first is fairness in competition; they want to compete on a level playing field. The second is honesty in labelling. They would like consumers to know accurately the country of origin and the means of production—a point that Joyce Quin touched on earlier. Above all, they want more flexible labour arrangements. They want to employ casual labourers at the national minimum wage. During the election, I spoke to a fruit farmer who, sadly, had had to lay off all the local workers because he simply could not tackle the regulations involved in taking them on for short periods.

Fruit farmers also want an increase in the seasonal agricultural wages scheme so that they can access more nationals from countries joining the European Union. I met some Polish 17 and 18-year-olds who, having left school, are over here to pick our fruit and to learn something of our culture. They were also learning English and they were having a marvellous time. It is an extremely good scheme and I commend it to the House.

I have been asked to be brief, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I am particularly fortunate to represent a constituency in an area where I was born, educated and brought up. Farming in general, and horticulture in particular, is the one industry that affects the whole of my constituency. In Kent, the fate and the future of the countryside is the single biggest issue for most of my constituents, and I believe that it will be best safeguarded by promoting a living and working countryside.

The horticulturists whom I represent are keen to produce high quality food in a healthy environment and to preserve Kent's beautiful countryside. I, as their MP, am very keen to help them do that. I ask for the help of Members on both sides of the House to help them achieve their aim.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 6:34, 12 July 2001

I remind the House of my interest which is properly listed in the Register of Members' Interests.

Although the debate was rather short, it was marked by a succession of excellent maiden speeches by hon. Members on both sides of the House. They commenced with that of my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson who, as well as rightly paying tribute to Michael Heseltine, demonstrated that his wit in literature is repeated in his speeches. His light-hearted tour of his constituency enshrined some serious concerns. He is lucky to hold such a grand constituency and the House is fortunate to have him. He came here with a reputation—that can often be a millstone around new Members' necks, but he demonstrated that that will not be so for him.

My hon. Friend Mr. Swire rightly paid tribute to Sir Peter Emery whose wise words we miss. He, too, took us on a tour of his constituency from Roman days, through Raleigh and Betjeman, to its problems today. He presented a shopping list for his constituency, and I hope that when he stands for re-election he will have ticked off some of the items that he has come here to obtain.

My hon. Friend Hugh Robertson continued the trend of using breweries as part of the route map around a constituency, which in his case is in the garden of England. He succeeded Andrew Rowe, a true gentleman whose mild manner concealed strongly held views. My constituency also grows much fresh produce and we, too, have the problem of obtaining enough labour, to which my hon. Friend referred.

We also heard maiden speeches by David Hamilton, who used strong words to describe his mission here, and Pete Wishart, who even I have to admit represents a truly beautiful and historic constituency. However, if he is worried about hospitals in his area, it is no use coming here because the House no longer deals with such matters in Scotland.

All the maiden speeches were fluent and clearly argued. The new Members bring a great deal of varied knowledge and experience to the House. They are all welcome and we look forward to their contributions.

When the Secretary of State replied to my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo, she criticised him for repeating some of the points that he made in the debate on the Queen's Speech. That was churlish because she could not reply to him at the time because of her voice, and it was right that he should repeat them.

We strongly welcome the right hon. Lady's announcement that the over-30-months scheme will restart. Farmers in many parts of the country have pressed for that. However, a large number of cattle are over 30 months only because they could not be moved off their farms as prime beef. We await a Government decision on whether those farmers will receive compensation.

The right hon. Lady also referred to the green belt and produced a lot of statistics, but it is not size that matters with the green belt. It is no use expanding the green belt on the outside if we allow it to be eaten away on the inside, because it then ceases to protect villages and city centres, for which the green belt is important.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

No, I shall not. We have tried hard to fit in a number of maiden speeches.

The development of the green belt and greenfield sites is a problem in my constituency. I do not understand why it is necessary for the Government to impose housing figures on local authorities. We have been told that we must have 2,800 new homes a year in the Cambridge sub-region, which is a higher figure than either the county council or district councils believe is necessary. The consequences of possibly creating a new town in the area are causing many people much heartache.

I deal now with agriculture, and agrimonetary compensation which was mentioned by Mr. Hurst. Much of the debate has been about the livestock sector and my later remarks will deal with that, but we must not ignore the arable sector, which is also suffering. Last week, the figures for this year's area payments were fixed, as a result of the exchange rates during June. For cereals, the payment rate went up by 26 euros per hectare, but translated to sterling, the rate, including the penalties for over-production and the modulation, is at a standstill. That is another example of the increasing difficulties that British farmers are experiencing in trying to be on the same playing field as their continental competitors. I hope that the Minister can give an undertaking on agrimonetary compensation.

As for livestock, an order on the fishmeal ban was laid before the House last week. It will have considerable cost implications for farmers and feed manufacturers. Of course we support the ban on meat and bonemeal, but it has been banned in this country for many years, whereas in the rest of Europe the ban is very recent, so we already have systems to control and authenticate fishmeal to ensure that there is no risk of contamination by meat and bonemeal. I understand that the Food Standards Agency's advisory committee on animal feedstuffs has said that the new proposal is unnecessary, so why is DEFRA continuing with that further cost increase for farmers?

I want largely to deal with the situation in our hills and uplands, to which the Secretary of State briefly referred. I look forward to what she will say when she considers the matter later this month, as she has promised to do. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Agriculture Minister said that the sheep industry was two months from meltdown. Does the Secretary of State share that refreshingly honest opinion? The reason for the crisis is that large numbers of lambs will be finished in the next two or three months and many of them, as hon. Members have said, would normally go to the Mediterranean trade and are not appropriate for the UK market so there will be a huge surplus of those animals.

In addition, between 5 million and 7 million lambs and draught ewes would have been sold at auctions throughout the country from August to October. That includes store lambs for further finishing in the lowlands, and ewe lambs and draught ewes bought for further breeding. On top of that, some 800,000 cattle would normally change hands in the autumn.

I have several questions for the Government. First, will they confirm that there will be no changes in the provisionally free area system? Will they allow any live sales to take place in provisionally free or at-risk areas? Will they clarify whether slaughtered-out farms can be restocked from within the infected areas with some of the lambs that I have mentioned? Will they amend the licensing rules, which at the moment allow movement only for breeding purposes, to allow movement for further growing and fattening? What is the Government's attitude to the Meat and Livestock Commission's protocols for various alternative trading options to try to assist with the problem? Will store lambs and cattle that do not find a market be eligible for a welfare scheme?

Will it be possible to designate corridors through infected and at-risk areas to provisionally free areas so that sheep from the highlands of Scotland, to which Malcolm Bruce referred, can come down into English at-risk and provisionally free areas? The Government are already allowing transport to slaughter outside infected areas, so they appear to have accepted that the process of transportation carries minimal risk. I ask them to look carefully at the idea of designating corridors, perhaps just motorways or dual carriageways, along which sheep can be transported.

Finally, I turn to the issue of farmers putting the sheep that they would normally have sold out to other farms. As many hon. Members have said, the problem is that farmers have very little money with which to do that. Can we have an advance of the sheep annual premium, or something similar, so that farmers will have some cash to pay for over-wintering in the hope that those animals can be sold in the spring?

None of those ideas or questions are new. The industry has been pressing the Government for answers for weeks, but no decisions or guidance have been forthcoming. The concern voiced in Westminster Hall last week is that in the absence of information all sorts of rumours abound—and that, coupled with the Government's suggestions about buying back quota, leads farmers to believe that the Government want many of them to go out of business. I hope that that is not true, but farmers' fears are understandable in the absence of information to the contrary.

That view was intensified by reports of comments that the Prime Minister made to the chairman of the National Farmers Union of Scotland—apparently, the right hon. Gentleman said that farming was not one of his top 15 priorities—and exacerbated by the delay in producing a recovery plan. I have been looking back on the issue of a recovery plan. On 27 March, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said:

"any recovery plan—we are working on such a plan with the industry—must take into account"—[Hansard, 27 March 2001; Vol. 366, c. 845.]

and so on and so forth. A month later, he said:

"We . . . intend to work in partnership with farmers and others to identify ways of assisting the recovery of the farming sector."—[Hansard, 26 April 2001; Vol. 367, c. 459.]

On 3 May, he said:

"We are in discussion with the devolved Administrations and the farming unions".—[Hansard, 3 May 2001; Vol. 367, c. 1004.]

The current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said on 26 June:

"Work is in hand on a farm recovery plan".—[Hansard, 26 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 524.]

Three and a half months later, we are still waiting. All we have had is this week's announcement of £10.5 million of business advice.

We need information now. The farmers of this country want to know how to get through the crucial sales periods in the coming months. Three and a half months to produce a recovery plan is too long. It is time to stop considering, reviewing and listening; it is time to act and to make decisions.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:46, 12 July 2001

We have covered a lot of ground this afternoon, from the Angus glens to the rolling countryside of East Devon. We have also covered a great deal of ground in terms of substance: serious issues have been raised by Back Benchers, including my hon. Friend Mrs. Brinton. Some require a more detailed response than there is time for at this stage of the debate, when there is little time left; in such cases, I shall respond in writing.

I must start by commenting on the maiden speeches made today. I have particular sympathy with Hugh Robertson who experienced that awful moment towards the end of a debate when one waits to see whether one will be squeezed out. I pay tribute to colleagues on both sides of the House for making sure that he had time to speak. The hon. Gentleman succeeds Andrew Rowe, a delightful man who was a great champion of charities and the voluntary sector; he will be difficult to replace. There is a vacancy for someone who engages with the sort of issues in which Andrew Rowe took a strong interest.

I congratulate Mr. Johnson on his maiden speech, which was a passionate promotion of the pubs of Henley. He was confident, assured and entertaining—the very qualities that inspire jealousy among listeners in the Chamber. It was the sort of speech that demanded the heckling and interventions that are forbidden during a maiden speech but that will, I am sure, occur on every future occasion that he rises to speak. Incidentally, I have to point out that it is the Government's policies on the countryside—and almost everything else—that are clear, whereas it is impossible to know what the Conservative party stands for. None the less, I look forward to many meanderings and excellent speeches in future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend David Hamilton whose style was wholly different. Serious and thoughtful, his comments were rooted in his own experience and knowledge of the needs of people living in a rural area with a mining background, such as the area where he was born and which he is now proud to represent. He gave a mature and worthy speech in which he showed a sense of humour combined with decency.

In another first-rate speech, Mr. Swire rightly emphasised the link between farming and tourism. I agree with the link that he made and with the need to boost tourism. I have been involved in that for some 28 years. The issue is not just one of cash but of people having a sense of vision and direction. It is also about partnership between the different bodies and levels of government that can do something to promote the issue. I am certainly happy to accept his invitation to visit his region.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made available £3.8 million for national and regional public relations and marketing in tourism—a subject he emphasised. That timely action did much to restart the domestic tourism season. We also pledged additional funding of £14.2 million. That was supplemented by another £2.1 million which was redeployed by the British Tourist Authority from previous plans. The BTA sought that amount for 2001 after full consultation with the industry. The point about needing to kick-start and promote tourism is well made but one with which the Government are already very strongly involved.

Pete Wishart demonstrated a nice style and a sense of humour. Standards are improving in the humour stakes in this House. He seemed, however, to have some problems with travel. I can only commend to him consultation with the Minister of State, Scotland Office, my hon. Friend Mr. Foulkes, who is one of Labour's many rural MPs, a source of good advice and quite an entertaining companion.

Listening to the debate, it is difficult to know why the Conservatives chose the subject of the countryside as they had nothing new to say. We had hoped to hear something constructive, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was hardly churlish to criticise the opening speech of Mr. Yeo, given that it was a rather pathetic attempt to promote the old myth that the Conservative party is interested in the countryside.

I must point out that it is Labour that has a practical and positive engagement with the needs of rural communities and the rural economy. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may mock, but they should look at the results of the general election, at which Labour Members were again returned in force to represent rural areas. Conservative Members should consider the work undertaken by Labour Back Benchers in making constructive proposals to the Government. I look forward to engaging with many of my colleagues in promoting the Government's positive programme. The hon. Member for South Suffolk posed a string of questions on which he had clearly not done too much homework. The arrival of foot and mouth merited maturity and responsibility on both sides of the House. It has been disappointing to see how the Opposition have responded.

Our priority has been to eradicate foot and mouth disease—not easy, given the devastating nature of the outbreak in comparison to the previous experience in the country—then to alleviate the immediate impact on farmers and rural businesses and communities, and then to assist longer-term recovery. I am finding chairing the rural task force a most positive experience; we are dealing with difficult issues. All stakeholders have shown maturity and a willingness to engage, as they do in the stakeholders group in which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes part, and that is extremely positive.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall follow the example of Mr. Paice in trying to respond to the debate. The hon. Lady has not been with us this afternoon.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the outset, we must learn the lessons of the outbreak. There is an attempt to make mischief by suggesting that the Government should respond by setting up an inquiry. We have made it clear that we want to learn the lessons and to be as open and inquiring as possible, but that we must do so in a way that enables us to move forward rather than delay learning those lessons.

It is important to look at longer-term trends and policies, to which some Members have referred. For some 20 years, rural communities have suffered a long-term decline in services. I must tell one or two Opposition Members who referred to the decline in some services in rural areas that they declined faster in the Conservative years than in any other period. The position is now the reverse: improvements in the past four years seek to make sure that small schools survive; we are putting more money into rural transport; and we are trying to make sure that shops survive in rural areas and that the Post Office engages with the need to provide services in rural areas.

Some of those things are not just about an individual service, but involve looking laterally at how to combine the needs of the community with commercial reality. I visited Waters Upton at the beginning of the week and saw just such an example: people had recognised the need for a small shop, information technology and broadband access in a rural community. They also recognised the need for mothers seeking to return to work to obtain training, and combined all those things in a project that certainly benefits from planning gain but will be advantageous for the rural community. The number of village halls has increased. The Government have therefore stopped the decline in services as far as possible, but we have much to do to create a secure and sustainable future for rural communities. The rural White Paper was published last November and we shall certainly take account of foot and mouth in its implementation; it provides a framework in which we can progress.

I point out to Opposition Members that, in looking at recovery, we have already provided £10.4 million to extend the facilities provided by the farm business advice service, which enables farmers directly affected by foot and mouth to apply for five days of free business advice rather than the three days provided under the previous scheme. That is vital, as statistics show. A survey of businesses in the west midlands showed that 80 per cent. of those which identified themselves as being directly affected by foot and mouth had not sought help or advice, and 60 per cent. did not decide to make any change in their business or its marketing, whether it was farm- related or another rural business. That is worrying, because there is a need to adapt and change. We must help, but industries must work with us if we are to achieve those changes.

I was surprised that Opposition Members raised the issue of crime. As a Home Office Minister, I set in train research into rurality, which led to additional money going to rural police forces to tackle the problem. We are providing extra resources—an additional £15 million last year and £30 million this year—and more officers can be recruited from the ring-fenced crimefighting fund. This year, we have seen the build-up to the second round of crime and disorder reduction strategies, which provide rural communities with a voice and engagement with the police and local authority in every area of the country. If adopted positively, that will create a partnership between people living in those communities, the police and local authorities to tackle and reduce crime. That is an appropriate response to rural areas and their experience.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Joyce Quin, who made a well informed contribution and was involved in the work leading to the White Paper, which seeks to provide a framework for delivering our aim of thriving rural communities in a protected and accessible countryside. We need to help people in rural areas to access key services, and have set in train moves that will give them that benefit. We must provide greater access to affordable new housing and support for farmers and rural business; we must make local government in the countryside more responsive; and, across government, we must engage with the needs of the countryside. The Government care about the countryside and will work with all who do to ensure that it has a sustainable and thriving future.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 188, Noes 277.

Division number 24 The Countryside

Aye: 188 MPs

No: 277 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House supports the Government's key priority to eradicate foot and mouth disease as quickly as possible; regrets that the Opposition has failed to notice the Government's recent announcement of an enhanced Farm Business Advisory Service which encourages farmers to develop new income opportunities and an extension of the rate relief scheme to ensure further financial support to businesses in rural areas suffering most from the impact of FMD which will help councils to grant 100 per cent. rate relief to eligible small businesses up to the end of the year, as well as continuing other measures to help the rural economy to recover from the crisis; endorses the Government's commitment to rural communities as set out in the Rural White Paper and the England Rural Development Programme; applauds the Government's wider record on public service delivery in rural areas; and calls upon the Government to continue pursuing a strategy based on long term policies to regenerate British agriculture, improve rural services and revitalise the rural economy as a whole.