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9.45 pm

I rang up the Inland Revenue's famous hotline and was told that his case could not be dealt with until July. I would like to take the hon. Member for Rotherham to meet that farmer. I would like him to meet the farmer's four children and his wife. I would like him to meet some of the other people who are afflicted and distressed by this most terrible scourge.

I have a very high regard for the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), not least because my son stood in the Scottish parliamentary election in his constituency. He is a chivalrous gentleman, who is rightly admired by his constituents. That was quite apparent when we walked around the constituency. He has an understanding of both the urban and the rural communities.

The hon. Member for Rotherham should be thoroughly ashamed of himself: he should be cringing as I speak. All over this country, in Devon, Cumbria and Staffordshire--

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where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) knows, there are 44 cases of foot and mouth--there are people whose lives' work is being burned before their eyes. There are people whose families do not know where the next bread will come from. There are people in rural communities whose businesses--some third, fourth or fifth generation--are collapsing.

Mr. MacShane: What about the election?

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is because there is some recognition of this plight that the Prime Minister--belatedly, I believe--came round to the view that it would be an insult to those people to go to the country with any sort of election on 3 May. The Prime Minister's decision is entirely right and has the wholehearted support of the Conservative party.

Mr. Gapes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I should just like to develop this point and then perhaps I will.

I tabled an amendment in Committee that was very similar to this new clause. It could not be debated because there was not enough time, Mr. Speaker, and you know why. You were very kind and said that manuscript amendments could be accepted on Report, which is why we are having this debate now. We have tabled the amendments to tell the Prime Minister that we welcome what he has done but do not think that he has recognised quite what a crisis this is. He is saying that the disease is not under control so that we cannot go to the country, locally or nationally, on 3 May. We are simply asking how he can be so certain that the disease will be under control on 7 June.

Mr. Gapes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack: Just a minute. If the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), who made a brief but sensible speech, had said that we ought to have gone for a date in July or September, Conservative Members might well have been content with that. We are not worried about the results of the county council elections, because every poll predicts that we shall do extremely well. That is not what concerns us. However, we are extremely worried that the country may still, in whole or in part, be in the grip of this dreadful disease on 7 June. If so, it would be as improper to go to the country then as it would on 3 May.

We are seeking to build some flexibility into the Bill, so that, by affirmative resolution, Parliament can move a date either for the whole country or for those parts of the country in which the disease is still rampant.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does my hon. Friend share my suspicions that the Government are beginning to believe their own rhetoric? Is he aware that MAFF inspectors are saying to Members of Parliament--perhaps they are saying it to him, as they are certainly telling me--that they believe that the position in Staffordshire now is as it was in Cumbria three and a half to four weeks ago?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend has to say that. He is right: we are all worried

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in Staffordshire. In one village in my constituency 10 days ago there were piles of dead and rotting sheep for three days, waiting to be disposed of in five or six fields. Some people were going to look at them, taking their dogs to look at them and doing all sorts of other macabre and stupid things. Yes, it does worry us.

I hope that the disease will be under control by 7 June. I hope that there will be no need for further movement of the election date, but anyone who attended the presentation that the Minister of Agriculture kindly arranged in the Grand Committee Room today must have come away feeling worried by some of the things that we heard. If those predictions are right, it would be grossly improper to go to the country.

Mr. Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman is arguing that 7 June may be too soon, but if they feel that, would it not have been better for the Opposition to have tabled an amendment that named a single alternative date rather than an amendment that leaves it to the Government of the day to decide the date, which could be months or, technically, years ahead?

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman knows that it could not be years ahead. It could be the autumn--I do not know. We believe that it should be reasonably open ended because of the severity of the outbreak, which has now topped 1,000 cases.

Mr. Gapes: Was the hon. Gentleman in favour of an immediate general election last September, as called for by his leader, when my constituents were suffering from the effects of the blockades that were encouraged by the Opposition?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I was not in favour. I am on the record as not having been in favour of an election in February 1974 or June 1987. This is the one issue on which I agree this evening with the hon. Member for Rotherham. I personally believe in fixed-term Parliaments.

I am not in favour of setting in stone a date that may well be wholly unsuitable when the countryside is still bleeding. I finish where I began, with the hon. Member for Rotherham. I hope that he will look not just at the statistics but at the human misery behind those statistics. I hope that he will have real cause not to grin like an inane nonentity but to appreciate just what a crisis the countryside is in.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Foot and mouth disease is indeed harrowing for those farming areas that are directly affected. I represent a rural area, and yesterday animals were being culled in my area of Warwickshire. However, it is not just a local issue for those farming areas directly affected. It is a national problem. It is important that parliamentarians can come together to express support for those in the farming and tourism industries who are most directly affected. The Government have been careful in seeking to balance the need to ensure that Ministers and the Prime Minister can focus on foot and mouth disease and the need to ensure that people have a chance to vote for their local representatives. It is a serious matter to postpone elections.

Mr. Hawkins: In the light of what he has just said, responding with appropriate seriousness to the matter,

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will the Minister take the opportunity publicly to dissociate himself from the disgraceful remarks made by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)?

Mr. O'Brien: Hon. Members will have heard my expressions of concern about foot and mouth disease and can draw their own conclusions. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is someone who adds to debates in the House, is often controversial, and expresses views which others may not dare to express. That is what the people of Rotherham elect him to do--to speak out and say what he thinks. He does so with great care for the people of Rotherham. I commend him for speaking in that way, but I also have my own views which may not always agree with his.

We need to ensure that we treat these matters with care. Parliament indicated that it wanted certainty as to the date of local government elections; the legislation will set out that certainty.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way; we have limited time and I have a series of points to make. I have been generous in taking interventions on previous occasions.

Our judgment on the balance between the democratic right of people to vote for their local representatives and the need to recognise the concerns of the farming community especially, but also of the tourist industry, has led us to the conclusion that we need a postponement of the 3 May elections. I am pleased with the general support in the House for that.

We also believe that there is a need for certainty as to the date on which that election will take place. The amendments and new clauses all seek the same objective: to remove the fixed date till which the local elections have been deferred.

There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to leave that date open. First, we should carefully consider the interpretation that would be placed on the decision to delay indefinitely the local elections on people who may be considering visiting the United Kingdom from abroad, or indeed on our home-grown tourist industry. It is in the interests of every citizen--town and country dwellers--and not least of those farmers who have diversified into other areas of business that rely on the tourist trade, that we restore confidence in our tourism as quickly as possible.

New clause 1, which would allow the elections to take place on different dates in different counties, is particularly unfortunate in that regard. Hon. Members should imagine the message that would go out to potential tourists from abroad: "You can go to Dorset, but not to Wiltshire which is still closed. Somerset will open next month." That would do nothing to restore confidence in this country as a destination.

Secondly, we must take into account the position of councillors who intend to stand down at the next election. Although it is reasonable to expect most of them to accept a short delay, it most certainly is not reasonable to expect them to continue in office with no idea of when their term of office will cease, leaving them unable to make plans for the future.

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Of course, a councillor may resign his office at any time, and the Government are grateful in the expectation that most councillors will accept a short extension of their term of office--as envisaged in the Bill. However, it would be quite unfair to prevail on their good will, as an open-ended deferral of local elections would do.

The third reason relates to democracy. Given some of the past actions of the Conservatives in abolishing democratically elected local institutions, it is no surprise that democracy may not be at the forefront of their minds. However, it is not right for the political make-up of councils to be determined by the vagaries of carrying unfilled vacancies, so that local people have no idea when they can restore the council that they have chosen, or choose a different one. They will have no certainty as to the date when they could do that. That would be wrong. A councillor might die or retire; the balance of the council would change, contrary to the will of the electorate, but nothing could be done for a prolonged period--until all the conditions set out in the new clause were met. That is not the right way to proceed.

All the points that I have set out illustrate the importance of certainty as to when local elections will be held. Those hon. Members who have put their names to the proposal to postpone the elections until specific conditions for controlling and eradicating foot and mouth disease are met on an area-by-area basis are proposing a recipe for local government chaos. I make that point in sadness: Parliament would regularly have to turn its attention needlessly to when a local election could take place in a given locality. That is not a serious way to proceed.

Certainty is what Parliament called for in local elections; certainty is what our Bill will provide. I therefore ask the Opposition to withdraw the new clause; or if they do press it to a Division, I would ask my hon. Friends to vote against it.

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