Easter Adjournment

Part of Deferred Division No. 85 – in the House of Commons at 4:32 pm on 29th March 2007.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary 4:32 pm, 29th March 2007

It is a great privilege to be able to respond to this debate. I am delighted by the very generous—perhaps over-generous—comments that hon. Members have made and thank them for doing so.

There has been a lot of talk about birthdays. I was delighted to attend the 50th birthday party of my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz—a big bash. Mr. Amess had a significant birthday last week. I have some prescience and know that my hon. Friend Shona McIsaac has her birthday next week.

One of the things that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East talked about was about dancing. When I last did this job, I learned that one has to be quick on one's feet. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes talked about recycling. I feel that I have been recycled into this job; after six years, perhaps I am a bit rusty.

We heard 10 speakers cover a wide range of subjects, including international issues such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Europe. We also heard about the smaller but important question of the quality of local cheeses. I am not going to get into that, nor will I get drawn into a discussion about whether one should have jugs of water or bottled water at a restaurant. With regard to the comments of Angela Browning, I am interested in what happens to all the plastic water bottles. One of the big issues in recycling is how we can make better use of those bottles. That is being considered by the Government agency, WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme. The message must be that we should drink from the jug rather than buy the bottle.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton extolling the virtues of Devon. I know its countryside, and for a moment I wanted to walk out of the Chamber to see the banks of primroses.

I also know Donna Nook. For Members who have not been there, it is worth taking visitors in the early part of the year, when it is cold and ferocious, to see the newborn seals. Mr. McLoughlin reminded us that he has a daughter, who is now an adolescent. Adolescent girls can be difficult but my adolescent girls enjoyed their trip to Donna Nook, which I highly recommend. I commend the British tourist industry and, like other hon. Members, I took part in last week's event. Tourism is important to new investment and new jobs, especially in rural areas.

Rural communities were a strong theme throughout the debate. Hon. Members referred to agriculture, the environment—including the marine environment—and climate change. Noise pollution was also mentioned. I believe that that will become increasingly important, especially on concrete roads. That affects local residents and I believe that the local environment will increase in political significance in future.

The landfill tax was also mentioned. I am delighted that the Budget increased the landfill tax by £8 a tonne. It is important to divert waste from landfill and move towards recycling.

Let me deal with the specific comments that hon. Members made. I shall start with the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, first, because of his significance in the Conservative party—he is one of the most powerful men in the Chamber—but secondly, because I know his constituency well and visit it often. I often use the A50 to get there. He is right to remind us of the position of dairy farmers, which Mr. Heath also mentioned. There is no doubt that dairy farmers face an extremely difficult position and that something needs to be done.

I look forward to the Competition Commission inquiry. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I am not holding my breath because I have been here before. It is the third Competition Commission inquiry into the power of supermarkets. The hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the call for evidence from farmers and producers. It is vital that people rise to the challenge and give genuine evidence to the Commission of abuse that takes place.

There should be more honesty and transparency in the supply chain in the milk industry. There is hostility between the producers, the processors and the retailers. Although I examined the matter in some depth at one time, I never really sorted out the cash flows and where the profit came in. There is a supply chain working party and we need to try to get some answers to people.

I am pleased that the report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Rural Payments Agency has been mentioned. I have read it—it is belligerent in tone and shows the difficulties of trying to make management changes while not being clear about policy. The report uses strong words. The new Secretary of State has been diligent in coming to the Chamber, apologising and ensuring that the House is kept up to date with developments. My noble Friend Lord Rooker holds regular surgeries—I have used them—which colleagues can attend to seek advice on individual cases. That is important because the payments for 2005 are not yet resolved. We are in the middle of the payment window for 2006, and 2007 is not far away. We must resolve the outstanding issues before we get into the third payment window. We need to do a great deal and there is a lot to learn from the report.

I know Longstone Edge, which the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire mentioned, the scar on the ridge and the history, which I shall not recount. However, I believe that it would be excellent if we could make arrangements with aggregates extractors not to work in national parks. I do not think that we shall achieve that, but I look forward to the result of the planning inquiry. I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman was present at the public inquiry, looking extremely smart in his country clothes. My noble Friend Lord Hattersley appeared in casual wear, and I know who had the most effect.

Stoney Middleton school is important. The rate of small village school closures has declined dramatically over recent years. Consultation exercises need to take into account the social value of educational establishments, and such considerations should also apply in the campaign for the Darley Dale maternity unit. A consultation is taking place on that at the moment. There is a debate about choice in the health service, and the Government need to be clear that if we offer choice, there will, almost by definition, be increased costs. One of the issues relating to the Darley Dale maternity unit involves costs, but there are also clinical issues involved. The unit is highly regarded, but it is also relatively small, and that needs to be taken into account in the consultation.

I liked the point that the right hon. Gentleman made about the management of primary care trusts and, indeed, of the NHS. I sometimes feel that the non-executive board members of some of those organisations tend to be out of touch with local people. I suspect that that issue will be raised again in the House, and it is one that we should examine.

I would like a debate on agriculture, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome suggested. It would give us the chance to talk about common agricultural policy reform, in which a lot has been achieved, but more needs to be done. It would also give us an opportunity to celebrate the fact that, today, at last, the English rural development programme has been announced, and that £3.9 billion has been allocated for the period from 2007 to 2013, which is double the amount for the last payment period.

We need to make decisions about the contentious issue of bovine tuberculosis, but that is not easy. In the long term, we all aspire to a solution involving vaccination, but for as long as I have been in the House, vaccination has always been 10 years away and it never seems to get any closer. One of the puzzling things is that the incidence of TB has declined, but now appears to be rising again slightly. We need to look closely at the science. There is a case for culling, but there is also an argument that culling migrates the problem. This is not an easy issue, but the hon. Gentleman is telling us to make our minds up, and he makes a strong point, of which the Secretary of State is well aware.

Biofuels offer opportunities in the countryside, and the hon. Gentleman made a case for joined-up thinking between all the Departments involved, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Treasury. I am conscious that we have not always done that as satisfactorily as we might have done.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton spoke, as all MPs from the south-west do, about water and sewerage charges. I was with representatives of South West Water earlier this week, and I know that the charges are a hot issue in the south-west. Having such a long coastline means that it is not easy to clean up areas of sewage pollution. There are also real issues of affordability in the south-west, where water bills are relatively high compared with those in other parts of the country. As the hon. Lady knows, South West Water has a trust fund for cases where there are difficulties, and it is also involved in an affordability project. We need to come forward with some proposals on that fairly quickly.

It is important to listen to consumers' voices on water charges, and that is happening increasingly often. One of the questions that I have heard involves marginal increases in water quality: is it worth paying for that little bit extra? There is a real debate to be had in the water industry on that issue. There is also a debate to be had and completed on unadopted sewers. I have argued for many years for the adoption of unadopted sewers. The Government have finally announced that they will do it, but there will be a further period of consultation in which the issue of increased cost, which the hon. Lady rightly raises, will be discussed yet again.

I was also interested in the hon. Lady's important point in relation to water costs and business premises, and I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment to that. The case of Mr. E also deserves attention. I do not want to say too much about it because, as she rightly said, it might become a test case, and might come before the courts. If I can help in any way, however, I would be delighted to try to do so.

Bob Spink rehearsed the arguments that he was going to make at the public inquiry, which, I thought, were compelling. He knew what he wanted to tell the inspector. Clearly, local people also knew what they were going to tell the inspector. I am delighted that, as he puts it, they will fight tooth and nail at the public inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of what planning guidelines will be taken into account by the public inquiry, and I am delighted that my Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is in the Chamber to hear that point. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, planning guidance will change in future to allow quicker processing of big infrastructure projects. He and his constituents need to know, when they go to the public inquiry, on what set of rules they are fighting. I will make sure that he receives a reply on that. He also referred to the recent inappropriate use of flood barriers. He deserves a proper reply, and I will make sure that he receives one.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the NHS, and I am pleased that he recognised the extra £8 billion going into the NHS next year. He is right that we must move away from investment in acute services towards investment in preventive services. To try to achieve that, a big change programme, and an education programme, need to take place in the NHS.

It is a long time since I have replied to the hon. Member for Southend, West in one of these debates. I was sorry that he did not mention the Palace theatre in Southend, which has been a running issue for many years. I hope that that matter is now resolved.

I also hope that progress can be made on the issue of east coast fishing. Looking to the future, how we control, conserve and pursue economic activities in the marine environment will become increasingly important. The House will debate the marine environment on the Thursday after it returns from recess, and a White Paper on the marine environment is out. The Government have a manifesto commitment to bring forward proposals to manage better the marine environment. Therefore the hon. Gentleman is on a winning wicket. I shall make sure that he gets an appropriate reply to the points that he raised.

I was also pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned buses. The Department for Transport is consulting on how local authorities can work more closely with bus companies on a more strategic overview of routes. At present, basically, bus routes are planned through market forces, which does not make sense for local consumers, especially vulnerable elderly people. I am pleased that the Department for Transport is consulting on the matter, and it has been indicated that there will be legislation when—as they say—parliamentary time allows.

Mr. Gale did the House a great service by raising the issue of the sexual orientation regulations. As he put it, there are strong, deeply and honourably held opinions on the matter. He will know, as he has been in the House for many years, that there are different views on different sides of the argument. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has proved difficult to reconcile those views. However, I accept his point that outside the House there was a feeling that we did not deal with the process, which he described properly and in some detail, as well as we might have. In the Government's defence, I have to say that there were discussions between the usual channels, but I accept that many hon. Members, myself included, have strong views on the subject and missed the opportunity to vote on it because the vote was early. We did ourselves a disservice by not handling the matter better.

I think that I am the only hon. Member in the Chamber who has been involved in the actual adoption process. Adoption is vital. It is important that we remember the law—that the needs of the child are paramount. We lost sight of that in the discussion, although I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is determined to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies survive into the future. It will not be easy, but I know the valuable work that they do and the difference that they have made to many children's lives. It would be criminal to see them go out of business.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East used his tremendous expertise at the Foreign Office to raise the case of Mr. Gorji and his wife Mrs. Ali. He has been pursuing that vigorously and I have heard him raise it on several occasions in the Chamber. I assure him that he will get maximum help from the British embassy in Saudi Arabia. There is already a recognition from the Saudi Government that there need to be new and better regulations on drivers. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East will pursue vigorously the point that my right hon. Friend raised about releasing the accident and police report.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned Sri Lanka, where the situation is extremely difficult. He will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on 7 March and talked about the importance of establishing a peace process. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East keeps a close watch on such matters, he will know the significance of the role of the Norwegian Government in that regard. It may well be that that is the best avenue for making progress.