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4.17 pm

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford): I do not know any more than anyone else whether this will be the last recess Adjournment debate before the general election, but, to take as a working hypothesis that the summer recess Adjournment debate will come after the general election, it is not a bad time to do a little stocktake on the past four years. I want to begin by doing a stocktake in my constituency.

My desire to do so was triggered by my visit last Friday to a sure start scheme in Overdale in my constituency--a scheme with which I was obviously already familiar. We are talking not about words or about speeches: we are talking about real bricks and mortar on the ground, and the provision of real facilities. To see in Overdale a brand new family centre, to see people employed there in a brand new nursery, with things such as toy libraries, to see the home-visiting facility for families who need the support, to have met the 100th mother who had, if you like, voted with her feet to join the scheme--none of these things is compulsory; people will benefit from them only if they want to do so--was a source of great pride to me: pride in both the Government and the Labour-controlled local authority.

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I was particularly proud because that scheme is not a one-off, out-of-the-blue scheme. It is consistent with a timeless principle: we should try to give all our children an equal chance. Although I am particularly proud of that achievement, there are many others. I should like to mention a couple of them.

Three or four weeks ago, at the Princess Royal hospital, we opened a brand new maternity unit. That national health service unit can bear comparison with maternity units anywhere else in the public sector or in the private sector in the United Kingdom and probably anywhere abroad. It has terrific facilities, including proper facilities for visiting children. Any Government, and certainly any constituency Member of Parliament, would be proud of that unit. There has also been a £650,000 refurbishment of the Princess Royal hospital's accident and emergency unit.

Those are real facilities and real achievements, not just politicians' words. Those improvements have been made not because someone in a focus group thought that they would be a good idea, but because they are consistent with the Labour party's timeless principle that health care should be available free at the point of need and on the basis of need, not the ability to pay.

I could cite many other examples of what has been achieved in the past four years in Telford. There has, for example, been a 73 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment in Telford. Unlike four years ago--bar one or two schools which have specific, local and good reasons why the objective could not be achieved--almost all infant classes now have fewer than 30 pupils. That is a great source of pride.

At the other end of the age spectrum, 9,500 pensioners in Telford are benefiting from the winter fuel payment, and 3,800 pensioners are benefiting from the free television licence. Those are both sources of pride. However, in terms of long-held views, perhaps the most important statistic of all--I do not have constituency figures, but I have figures for the west midlands--is the fact that an estimated 150,000 low-paid workers in the region will benefit from the proposed minimum wage increase.

Those are all real achievements. As the general election approaches, however, I have been puzzled by our opponents' reaction to them. Those achievements--in the health service, child care facilities and reduced unemployment--are not affecting only my constituency. They are not a unique moonbeam shining only on Telford but are affecting every constituency in Britain. What do our opponents say about those national developments? Do they say that they are opposed to them morally and on principle? I very much doubt that they could say that.

Presumably our opponents' only other line of defence to our achievements is to say, "All that would have happened anyway. They are part of an inexorable law of nature." However, they cannot say that either. I remind Conservative Members that they passionately opposed the national minimum wage on grounds of principle and thought that it was fundamentally wrong. They even presented what they thought was a coherent and principled argument against it. However, the national minimum wage was not achieved by accident.

Conservative Members reacted in precisely the same manner to the new deal and to decreasing youth unemployment. I leave it to them to decide, when the

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general election comes, on their own strategy for explaining those improvements in their own constituencies--[Interruption.]

Perhaps the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) does not want to talk about the improvements in his constituency, and I do not blame him for that. However, Labour Members' strategy is to say that those improvements have not simply happened--as some of our opponents like to say when they have nothing better to say--because of opinion polls or focus groups. The fundamental improvements in our health service are the result of the timeless principles on which the Labour party was founded and are building on the greatest achievement of any peacetime Government in the past century--the establishment of the national health service, in 1948, in the teeth of opposition from the Tories.

In the previous Parliament, in 1998, it was a matter of enormous pride to go to Lichfield cathedral to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that great achievement by a Labour Government--the establishment of the national health service. I do not know how many cathedrals have celebrated the 50th anniversary of a Tory Government's achievement, but so far I have not been invited to such an event. Nye Bevan would have been proud of the current modernisation of the national health service.

The national minimum wage also was not the consequence of the remarks of a focus group or the results of an opinion poll but was consistent with the timeless principles of the Labour party. I make no apology for mentioning that a national minimum wage was advocated by Keir Hardie. Indeed, last year was the centenary of the establishment of the Labour party. Who among the 129 delegates who were present--with no money and no resources--at the founding meeting of the Labour party, on 27 February 1900, would have believed that, in 24 years, Labour would be in government and that, at the turn of the century, it would form a Government with a majority that was greater than the total number of founding delegates?

As we set the ground rules and prepare the territory for the general election, I fervently hope that we compare not only Labour's record after four years in office with that of the previous Tory Government after their 18 years in office, but the values that inspire the two parties, how well they have stood the test of time and how well they have served their constituents. If the judgment is made on that basis, I have no doubt whatever about the outcome.

4.27 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The unfolding tragedy of the foot and mouth crisis clarifies a number of issues. The first is that it is abundantly clear that Ministers cannot be blamed for the outbreak of foot and mouth. In due course, if the Minister for the Environment is right, there will be a public inquiry into the outbreak. Indeed there should be a public inquiry; after such an event, we have to discover the lessons that can be learned. It is tempting to say--although I shall try to keep my remarks fairly narrow--that if Ministers had considered earlier the experience of the 1967 outbreak, they might have been able to avoid some of the mistakes that they have made.

I would be the first to say that I do not envy Ministers waking up one fine morning to discover that the foot and mouth crisis was breaking across the country. Those of us who have been in government, and those of my

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hon. Friends who aspire to it, realise that that was an appalling thing for Ministers to have to confront. I say that to set the scene. It would be quite unfair to use the foot and mouth outbreak to attack the Government. There are, after all, many other good reasons for attacking the Government.

In any crisis, however, Ministers have to remain accountable and be prepared to come to the House to answer the questions put to them. When an urgent situation arises in a constituency, Ministers have to be prepared to respond to it instantly. Ministers in this Government, like those in the previous Government, have been prepared to respond to hon. Members who write to them genuinely saying that they have a desperately urgent constituency matter that requires an urgent ministerial response.

The trouble is that that has not always happened in this crisis. One has had to go to the most extraordinary lengths to persuade Ministers to perform their basic function, which is to be accountable to the House and to answer legitimate questions put to them by hon. Members. Thus it was that, on 30 March, I discovered that a landfill site in my constituency would receive carcases from an infected area. One might have thought that I discovered that fact from a letter from a Minister, a telephone call from an official or from the National Farmers Union, but that is not how I learned of it. I discovered the fact from a media contact who said, "You are the local MP. You will obviously be able to tell us why the Government have decided to move carcases from an infected area into that uninfected area."

As that happened 10 days ago, before my innocence had not been entirely destroyed, I decided to try to contact the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, that did not work. Instead, I spoke to the media, the Environment Agency and to similar organisations. Eventually, during the course of the day, I began to piece together what might be happening.

I did not feel that the fact that I had been prepared to start making telephone calls, and to try to put together a picture of what was happening, constituted a sufficient response: I needed to tell my constituents what was going on. By the end of the day I had sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, telling him what I understood from my inquiries to be the position. What I understood was that carcases would be brought in from an infected area, but that they would be carcases that had resulted from the cull welfare scheme--in other words, carcases that were not infected.

Even that was bad enough, however. It would still mean that traffic was being promoted between an infected and an uninfected area. Although the carcases themselves had resulted from the welfare scheme, the situation was unacceptable. I made that point in an e-mail that I sent to the Minister of Agriculture on the same day, but I heard nothing. I heard nothing on the Saturday, or on the Sunday. On the Monday, I had still heard nothing.

I told the Ministry that if I had not received a response by Question Time on Monday, I would have to raise the matter on the Floor of the House. I think the record will show that, of the devices I am prepared to use in the House, the arguably bogus point of order is not one; but it must be said that on the Monday, the Tuesday and the Wednesday I had to make three points of order which I

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might describe as being of arguable validity, and which those who are less charitable might term thoroughly bogus. They consisted of my asking the occupants of the Chair whether they had had any indication that the Minister of Agriculture wanted to come to the House and confirm what was going on.

Finally, on the Wednesday, I received a letter from the Minister of State that purported to answer my points. I think that the letter was sent only because I was continuing to raise points of order. The letter--from which I will quote one paragraph--is chilling.

It is difficult for me--an aficionado of "Yes Minister", and one who has done some of this sort of stuff in the distant past--to decide whether to admire the subtlety of refusing to give the precise assurances that were requested, or to condemn the sheer brazenness of the assumption that anyone could be fooled for a moment. Following my request that I should be told whether it was true that the carcases would simply be those resulting from the cull welfare scheme, I was treated to this reply. I shall emphasise certain words, because the emphasis that they should receive would not otherwise be apparent.

The Minister of State told me:

That lack of assurance was completely at variance with everything that I had been able to discover locally. It also meant that when I attended a meeting convened specially by Teignbridge district council at the weekend--because the council wanted to find out what was happening--far from my being able to provide reassurance, I was unable to do anything of the kind.

As a result of that meeting, I sent a detailed message to the Minister of State pointing out that the assurances given flatly contradicted some of what MAFF officials were saying locally--not in letters to me, as the Member of Parliament, but in a circular letter to the chief executives of the various local authorities. I had never heard of a protection zone, and neither had the National Farmers Union.

Let me give an example. MAFF officials have said certain things in correspondence; meanwhile, we are told:

Again, what was implied by MAFF officials and what was said by the Minister were completely at variance.

By that stage, my confidence that I would receive a response from Ministers had disappeared. In a detailed letter that I sent to the Minister of State after the meeting on Friday, I wrote that I saw only one remaining opportunity to find out from Ministers what was going on. I told the Minister that she must ask a number of specific questions, and added that if she did not ask them I would raise them on the Adjournment.

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is present. On such an occasion, his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would normally say, "That is extremely interesting. It has nothing to do with me, but it is super to see you. I will refer your comments." It is a time-honoured formula, as is perfectly understandable.

I made it clear to the Minister of State that I was going to send a copy of my letter to the Leader of the House, containing specific questions, and that I would expect those questions to be answered today. I said, possibly more in hope than in expectation, that she might be more successful in getting replies out of her right hon. Friend than I had been.

These are the questions that I want the Parliamentary Secretary to answer today, as he is present. I want to know whether the order allowing the burial of cattle at Fosterville will be rescinded forthwith. I want to know whether the site at Deep Moor will be used for any subsequent disposals that would otherwise have been destined for Fosterville. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to make it clear that if a Fosterville site continues to be used--I strongly disapprove of that in any event--it should be used only for sheep and pigs in the livestock welfare disposal scheme, and that those animals should not have been exposed to any possibility of coming into contact with the virus. Finally, I want an assurance that in no circumstances will cattle be deposited at Fosterville.

Those are questions of which the Parliamentary Secretary, through his colleague, has had specific notice, and I think that they need to be answered today. It is bizarre that we should have to expect a Minister with no departmental responsibility to measure up to what should be expected of Her Majesty's Government; but if we do not receive answers to those questions today, the people of the west country will form their own impression of what this Government are really all about.

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