May I start by extending my congratulations to Paddy Tipping on his reappointment as Deputy Leader of the House? Earlier, my right hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin commented that it would be value for money, as the Deputy Leader of the House will not get an additional sum of money. The alternative view was summarised by the Leader of the House earlier today in business questions; he said that it was all being done for the pleasure of working for the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons.
It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. There have been many excellent speeches, which have covered a broad range of subjects, both domestic and international. The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware that there remains considerable concern about the absence of proper answers to written and oral questions, and given that Members have given up a lot of time to be in the Chamber today, I hope that if there are specific issues that he is unable to deal with today, he will pass them on to the relevant Ministers so that proper answers can be obtained. By all accounts, and given all the praise that I have heard today, I can be confident that that will indeed happen.
We started off with a contribution from my hon. Friend Mr. Gale, who rightly raised the absence of proper debate on the important issue of sexual orientation. The subject was recently dealt with in the House by means of a statutory instrument, rather than through primary legislation. As he rightly said, the issue was highly contentious, and there was enormous debate outside the House, but very little in it. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will take those strongly expressed views on board.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire covered a number of local points. He started off by discussing dairy farmers and the fact that they receive 18p per litre, which means that most of them are losing some 4p per litre. It is hardly surprising, given that those are the sorts of figures involved, that last year some 350 dairy farmers stopped operating, and that the trend is continuing. He rightly raised the issue of single farm payments, which has caused great anguish to farmers. The situation has not been helped by the fact that Ministers have made two contradictory statements. First, it was said that there were fewer than 200 farmers who had not received either their full payment, or the balance of the payment due. However, in a statement in February, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted that some 13,000 farmers were still awaiting payment. While an apology has been offered to the 200 farmers, it would go a long way if it were extended to the full 13,000 who are still suffering. It is ironic that the Minister responsible was promoted to the Foreign Office.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire said that farmers were the custodians of the countryside, which is a valid point that the farming community would like to be addressed more than is currently the case in the House. My right hon. Friend rightly said that farmers have been crippled by paperwork. It is a fair point that farmers are in the business of looking after their farms, rather than sitting behind desks filling in endless papers. He referred, too, to the peak district national park planning inquiry. I agree that when the issue is resolved a review should be carried out to assess whether or not the 10 years of legal fees and officers' time was justified. He said that the local school was the heart of the village, and I very much hope that his efforts to keep that school and, indeed, his efforts to keep the Darley Dale maternity unit continue. He is quite right that it is all very well to receive the Prime Minister's assurances when the reality is somewhat different.
My right hon. Friend's speech was followed by a contribution from Keith Vaz. In his typically ingenious way, he managed to bring in and promote Bhangra dancing, which will please his Sikh community. He raised, too, the tragic case of Rafiq Gorji and the death of his wife, Mrs. Ali. I am sure that Members present will share his concern at the lack of response from the Saudi authorities about obtaining the police report so that matters can progress. I noticed that the Leader of the House went to sit next to the right hon. Gentleman and I very much hope that as a former Foreign Secretary he can exert pressure to try to resolve the issue. In my own constituency, I am dealing with the case of Craig Alden, who is still trying to secure justice in Brazil. My efforts at dealing with the Foreign Office have not been particularly fruitful, so if there are any lessons that the right hon. Gentleman can give me, I would be happy to accept them.
The right hon. Gentleman complimented the Prime Minister on the Northern Ireland settlement, and I think it would be fair if the House acknowledged, too, the contribution by a previous Prime Minister, Sir John Major, in arriving at that settlement. That needs to be put on the record. The right hon. Gentleman rightly expressed concern about the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the whole House will agree that it is right that we should try to engage in dialogue, and that can only happen if there is a ceasefire. He spoke about Britain taking a leading role, and while I agree, I am mindful of the comments by the Minister for Trade in the statement on Zimbabwe that it is important that Britain does not continue its colonial past. There is a balance to be struck—while Britain may offer assistance to former colonies, that should be done delicately and sensitively.
I am pleased that Mr. Heath assured the House of the agricultural status of his constituency, and I am sure that his constituents will be pleased that that has been put on the record. He, too, referred to the plight of dairy farmers, and he said that some supermarkets have tried to address the issue of their not receiving enough money. My understanding is that at least three supermarkets have raised the price of the milk that they sell, with the intention that the increase will go directly to the farmers. It is important that that voluntary arrangement is properly monitored to ensure that the price increase goes to the farmers, and not to intermediaries or to the supermarkets.
It was interesting that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire made a comment about Stilton cheese being made in his constituency. In my constituency, there is the village of Stilton, where every year on a Sunday we have a Stilton cheese rolling carnival. As for the connection between the village in my constituency and the cheese manufactured in West Derbyshire, I leave that for another day.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome spoke about bovine TB, which is indeed a matter of concern. I understand that for the past two years it has been increasing in many herds, and the problem certainly needs to be dealt with. The hon. Gentleman referred to the farming industry being overregulated. Most of us who have farming communities in our constituency would echo the sentiment that it is time for regulations to be reviewed, with the aim of lessening them.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need for clear labelling. It is a scandal that products that are made overseas or animals that are reared overseas are brought into this country, processed, packaged and sold in British supermarkets and shops as British goods. That is largely a result of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. It is high time that the Act was revisited, with a view to ensuring that the British public have properly labelled goods.
My hon. Friend Angela Browning began her contribution unashamedly with a plug for the tourist industry of Tiverton and Honiton. She said that Devon was at its most glorious now and commended it for all of us to visit during the recess. She made a passing reference to pensioners surfing, but given the activities that pensioners engage in now, I would not be surprised if a large number of them were thinking of taking that up.
My hon. Friend made the serious point about the lower than average wages in her constituency, compared with the high property prices and council tax. She focused particularly on the massive hike in water rates in her area, which she attributed to regulations emanating from Europe. I would add that it may have something to do with the tradition of gold-plating undertaken by our civil servants. It would be interesting to know how many other European Union countries are as diligent in enforcing regulations as we are.
My hon. Friend spoke of the unfairness for small businesses that are charged water rates with reference to the rateable value of properties, regardless of the number of people who may use the water in a particular business. I hope she has joy in dealing with the issue of taxation arising when the disposal of a flat and shop at the same time by one of her constituents was judged by the Revenue to be the disposal of one asset, rather than two, particularly when for all other matters—council tax and so on—they are treated as two assets. The Chancellor of the Exchequer recently took on board my party's suggestion for a reduction in corporation tax, so I am hopeful that he will look favourably on the suggestion offered by my hon. Friend.
The contribution from my hon. Friend Mr. Amess was typically robust, as in previous Adjournment debates. He commented that he was rather saddened by the fact that when he entered Parliament, he was the only Member whose birthday was on
We were all delighted that my hon. Friend took part in yesterday's inaugural Lions club dinner, where we were heartened by the robust contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, who questioned whether there would be lionesses, too—I was pleased to learn that there will be lionesses, although they will not be called lionesses.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the more serious topic of Iraq, which concerns many in this House and around the country and which will continue to dominate discussion inside and outside this House.
I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the regulations on fishing, and I wish him well in trying to get a review of quota management in his constituency.
My hon. Friend mentioned the elderly community in his constituency. In particular, he commented on the centenarians of Southend, who have been formally recognised by "The Guinness Book of Records" at a gathering of 23 of them. He made some welcome comments about making sure that we have effective and proper quality of life for an increasingly elderly population. The young community were not left out, however, because he followed that up by praising members of the Young Men's Christian Association.
My hon. Friend Bob Spink is also a regular contributor to Adjournment debates. He discussed the balance of rights between badgers and humans and suggested that we need to strike a suitable balance for co-existence. He pointed out that he has managed to achieve that, because he has seven badgers in his garden.