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Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): The hon. Gentleman has just outlined a package of financial measures, which he would like to be put in place to assist the countryside. He has told us many times in recent weeks that his party could identify savings worth £8 billion in the Government's Budget. Why did he not propose putting that £8 billion into some of those measures, rather than proposing to spend on tax cuts the sum that he believed could be saved?
Mr. Yeo: I am sure that it will be a comfort to the Government Whips to tick off another box to show that one of the questions that they planted has been asked. [Interruption.] I am quite happy to answer the question because I set out my view many times before the general election. The answer is that we believe and hope that this epidemic is a one-off crisis. It is a proper use of the Government's contingency reserves to meet the costs of a one-off crisis. That is precisely the purpose of the reserves. The expenditure commitments that I have outlined, which are precisely those that I outlined before the general election and during the campaign, would be met by a claim on the reserves.
Farmers whose cattle pass the age of 30 months experience a fall in the value of those animals that can never be recovered. Before foot and mouth disease, those animals would have been moved off the farms and sold. Given the foot and mouth disease restrictions in many parts of Britain, farmers were not able to sell the animals but received no compensation.
At the request of the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I set out on 5 April in a letter seven categories of loss caused by foot and mouth disease which the Opposition believe should be compensated for from public funds. Will the Secretary of State comment on the proposals in that letter? If she has not seen it, I suggest that she speaks to officials and asks for a copy of it. As eventually the Government have had to do nearly everything that the Opposition have suggested, she may find it helpful and a saving of time if she studies the proposals that we have already sent to her Department.
Will the right hon. Lady say whether she agrees with the response of the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 26 April on the specific issue of over-30-month old cattle? When she responds, will she say whether she expects the review to which the right hon. Gentleman referred to be completed?
The fourth aspect of the epidemic that I wish to highlight is vaccination. I think that the Secretary of State indicated on Radio 4 this morning that vaccination is once again under consideration. Why is that the case if the Government have made the progress in overcoming foot and mouth disease that the Prime Minister claimed? Setting aside the mystery of why an option that was examined as a possible solution when the crisis was at its peak should be reconsidered now, nearly two months after the Prime Minister said that the Government were in the home-straight, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what circumstances have changed to lead to the reconsideration.
Since the Government rejected vaccination in April, is there scientific evidence available that points to a new need for the process? Has the disease become endemic in some areas, or is it that with the election out of the way the Government are no longer afraid of the National Farmers Union? Will the right hon. Lady say what the purpose of vaccination now would be? Can she or her advisers answer the three questions that I have posed since March when vaccination was first seriously considered?
First, would vaccination reduce the number of animals that have to be slaughtered? Secondly, would it speed up eradication of the disease? Thirdly, would it bring forward the date on which Britain regains its disease-free status? I have asked these questions each time that vaccination has been discussed. I have said throughout that if the answer to at least two of these questions is yes, the Opposition will support vaccination, but I am still waiting for the answers.
I move on to the environmental issues. Yesterday's announcement, characteristically made by the Prime Minister outside Parliament, that the Government are to review energy policy raises the issue of climate change. Can we be clear who is now responsible for this area of policy? Is it the Secretary of State or is it the Deputy Prime Minister? Or has the Prime Minister abandoned hopes of achieving joined-up government and essentially decided on this issue, which so clearly has both domestic and international dimensions, to institutionalise muddle and possibly conflict within the Government ranks?
Is it the diplomatic skills for which the Deputy Prime Minister is so famous that qualify him to continue handling sensitive international negotiations? What steps do the Government propose to take to try to persuade the United States to respond more positively in the wake of its regrettable decision not to ratify the Kyoto agreement? What roles will the Secretary of State play, if any, in the Government's review of energy policy?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that Labour's dogmatic decision to block the construction of 15 new gas-fired power stations has had a damaging effect on the UK's carbon dioxide emissions, and that allowing those power stations to be built would have cut carbon dioxide emissions by almost three times more than the total included in the Government's package of energy taxes?
The Government's disregard for sustainability extends beyond their approach to climate change to the whole area of planning and development. It is sadly obvious that the way in which the new Department has been set up downgrades consideration of environmental concerns in planning decisions. For the first time for more than a generation, planning policy is now under the control of a Department that has no environmental remit at all.
Will the Secretary of State exercise any influence over planning policy and decisions in future? Does she recognise that current Government policy involves using up greenfield sites at an unsustainable rate? When will the Government stop ordering local councils to build thousands of houses on greenfield sites in defiance of local wishes? Is not it time to give local communities a bigger say in planning decisions?
Why is Labour using regional planning guidance to force more than half the regions in England to review the green belt? Has not Labour already destroyed enough of the green belt in the past four years, without inflicting even more damage? Does the Secretary of State understand that once they have been developed, the green belt and the greenfield sites outside the green belt never return to their previous uses, and that whole areas that once enjoyed silence during the day and darkness during the night are lost for ever? Does she recognise that giving the go-ahead to bulldoze yet more greenfield sites and to concrete over yet more of our green and pleasant land simply reduces the incentives for developers to tackle the urgent tasks of regenerating our run-down urban areas and of re-using more previously developed sites?
Labour's planning policy of environmental vandalism is not only disastrous for the countryside but hurts the towns by denying them the chance to benefit from the regeneration to which the private sector would undoubtedly devote more effort if Labour did not make it so easy for them just to develop greenfield sites.
The countryside is threatened not only by bulldozers. Peaceful areas such as the Stour valley in my constituency, part of the Dedham vale area of natural beauty which extends to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), are also threatened by noise pollution from aircraft. I recognise that new air routes may be needed as the number of flights increases, and that extra airport capacity is likely to be required, but the best way to make that environmentally acceptable is to encourage quieter aircraft. I wonder whether the Government have a strategy to that end.
Mr. Bercow: Given the frenetic spread of mobile telecommunications masts, often in worryingly close proximity to schools, homes and hospitals, would my hon. Friend care to say something about the desirable revision of planning policy guidance on that subject? Will he also agree with me that it is imperative that the Secretary of State should do so this afternoon?
Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend raises a matter that is of great concern to people all over the country, particularly to many parents who are worried about the presence of, or proposal for, a mobile phone mast close to a school where their children are studying. The concern about these masts is widespread and very real, and I very much regret that the Government have been dragging their feet over toughening up the planning regime for them. Conservative Members have been making clear, strong proposals on this matter for a considerable period. I hope that the Government will lose no time in responding to these suggestions. Any delay in taking action by the Government will simply provoke greater anger in urban and rural areas, and may also increase the health risks that may result from badly sited mobile phone masts.
The Government's hostility to the countryside in the past four years has sadly not been confined to their neglect of agriculture. Resources have been systematically switched away from rural areas. Shire counties lost an estimated £700 million in funding in the previous Parliament, and Labour's reluctance to extend the limited reduction in business rates already introduced for some village shops, post offices and pubs threatens the survival of many businesses that are the life-blood of their rural communities. I urge the Secretary of State to take up another of our suggestions and cut another £1,000 off the business rate bills of vulnerable rural shops, post offices pubs and garages.
The countryside is at risk from other threats. Labour's obsession with pressing ahead with genetically modified crops regardless of the environmental consequences could threaten Britain's wildlife and jeopardise the livelihood of many farmers. Will the Secretary of State give an unequivocal guarantee that no commercial planting of genetically modified crops will be permitted until their environmental impact is fully understood and advisers such as English Nature and others have confirmed that it is environmentally safe for such planting to take place? Will she also ensure that no genetically modified crop trials are authorised on sites within cross-pollination distances of organic farmland, and will the Government fulfil their obligations under the biosafety protocol to introduce liability legislation on damage that may arise from the environmental release of genetically modified organisms?
Finally, will the Secretary of State say whether, under the new Whitehall structure, she will chair the rural affairs Cabinet Sub-Committee? What will be the role in future of the rural advocate? Will the Government follow the practice of their predecessor and publish an annual update of the rural White Paper?