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7.38 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I am grateful to have been called to participate in this debate, and delighted to follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller). I am pleased that the debate has been of such a high standard.

I am delighted to have been returned for a second term to represent Vale of York. I might not be No. 3 like my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), but I am one of the dirty dozen. I had one of the 12 best results for the Conservatives, with an increased majority and a larger share of the vote. I take this opportunity to thank those who voted for me, and I shall continue to represent those who did not to the best of my ability over the next parliamentary term.

I would like to place before the House my interests in this area. I am a member of the public policy committee of the RAC Foundation and, with my brother, a co-owner of a smallholding in Teesdale in the north of England. I hope that that qualifies me to speak. In addition, I represent a largely rural, but partly urban constituency.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities in the Department. The jury is still out as to whether the Government were right to create a new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I regret the absence of farming in the title and I lament the split of responsibilities--environment and planning have been separated, which could lead to great difficulties for the present Administration. It is not merely a case of changing the brass plate and the Department's title. What we really need, and what was lacking in the previous Government, is the necessary political direction in particular in the midst of the farming crisis, to which I will return.

As I said, we had a successful campaign and I confirm that campaigning is fun. One reason why we did so well is that our local pledges were relevant to the electorate in Vale of York. My first pledge was to obtain a fair deal for farmers and the countryside. My second was to support local pensioners. My third was better standards in schools and hospitals. My fourth was to boost enterprise and services in rural areas, such as transport and rural post offices, and my fifth was to obtain more police to fight rural and street crime.

I am disappointed that farming is not the Government's first pledge. In the past two years in particular there has been an unprecedented crisis in farming. Incomes have

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fallen to their lowest levels, the number of jobs lost and people leaving farming is unprecedented and those problems are compounded by foot and mouth disease. Farmers in Vale of York told me that they had never felt so humiliated or neglected as under the Labour Government in the previous Parliament.

Farming and industry related to farming, including rural tourism, are the largest employers in Vale of York. I am delighted and relieved to say that as I speak, although the disease is all around us and presses on every frontier, as yet we have not had a direct outbreak of foot and mouth in Vale of York.

The repercussions for farmers, for those living on the land and for connected industries such as tourism, are unprecedented. The Government must come up with some strategy for recovery in the countryside, not least on business rate relief. I live in Hambleton district and I am appalled. The Government have paid lip service to extending business rate relief to farms and rural businesses, but they must appreciate that district councils such as Hambleton--and, indeed, your district council of Uttlesford, Mr. Deputy Speaker--will already have committed their budgets for this year and are in receipt of no national funds to pay for that largesse. I ask the Government to reconsider and to make such funds available.

I question the Government about why a public inquiry was so pressing after BSE but not equally pressing to investigate how foot and mouth disease started. Perhaps the Minister would like to respond in his reply. The Government have failed to make any reference to farming or the countryside in the Gracious Speech or to produce a strategic recovery programme. They have produced the 20-day standstill rule and, for the second time, I urge them not to implement it. It is most likely that foot and mouth disease emanated from meat that came from abroad. The Government should tackle the need to improve controls on meat and live animal imports. I hope that they will take the opportunity this evening to say that they will do so.

I regret the pressure put on local authorities such as North Yorkshire county council by the Government during the recent general and county council elections to reopen footpaths. The priority must be to eradicate foot and mouth disease. As the Secretary of State said last week, we must prevent any contact between animals and human beings if the disease might spread. I regret the unprecedented and unwelcome pressure that the rural task force put on councils such as North Yorkshire to open footpaths, which is a measure that the Government may yet live to regret.

At the heart of rural life and services are quality of life and the sustainability of the countryside. Rural post offices in Vale of York and elsewhere have been closing at an unprecedented rate. Those post offices offer a lifeline to rural communities. We can only keep rural sub-post offices by enabling them to retain the payment of benefits and pensions after 2003, as 40 per cent. of their income is derived from paying benefits across the counter.

The Secretary of State promised extra police. I challenge her and her deputy who is to respond to the debate to explain who will pay for the extra police. Police numbers will be restored to the levels of 1 May 1997 only by the end of March 2002. Who will pay those salaries when the rural police grant expires after the first year? Answer came there none.

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Fuel prices have also been at unprecedented levels. We have the most expensive fuel in Europe and yet we remain a major net producer. The on-costs to businesses, to mothers doing the school run, to pensioners and to the delivery of goods and services in rural areas must never be overlooked.

The Government must deliver on their promises. They must improve journey times and the availability of public transport alternatives. Some 68 per cent. of the electorate are motorists and 20 million of us are car owners. I support the RAC call for a road watchdog to ensure that we speed up the introduction of quieter road surfaces, in particular the Sowerby bypass. I urge the Minister to consider that. We also need better quality road signs and street lighting.

Local authority road maintenance funding should be ring-fenced for that sole purpose. I challenge the Minister who will respond to ensure that the detrunking programme that the Government will introduce from 2003 will attract additional funds to the local authorities that must implement it. I hope that we will receive an answer this evening.

We must have better safety management. Railways must be put on the same basis as air traffic with independent rail safety investigations, as is the case for air disasters. I also submit a plea to the Minister to renew Great North Eastern Railway's franchise for the east coast rail route.

In conclusion, I regret the absence of any reference in the Gracious Speech to agriculture and the countryside. I regret that my No. 1 pledge on a fair deal for farming and the countryside is not a pledge that the Government share and also that there are no proposals to assist farming, tourism or the rest of the rural economy to recover from foot and mouth disease. I fear that that bodes ill for the farming community, the countryside and the sustainability of our environment for future generations. I will not cease to remind the Government of their duty to my farmers.

7.48 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It is always a great pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), even though I do not agree with a word that she says. I also pay tribute to the maiden speeches that we have heard today, which have been very good. Hon. Members have kept to the point and I hope that they enjoy this place and will get a warm feeling from their constituents, who are no doubt making a beeline towards their doors at this moment.

I am fortunate to be able to speak in this part of the debate because it covers two of the areas in which I am most interested--those covered by the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and transport. I make no apology for focusing on the first subject covered in the amendment tabled by the official Opposition, but I will conclude by saying a little about transport. The Opposition amendment mentions those matters, but does not give a true reflection of what the Government did, nor of what they intend to do now that they have been re-elected with a massive majority.

The Government achieved many good things in respect of the environment. That has not been reported fairly, and the Government have not received the credit that they

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deserve. It is an example of what I call the law of reverse spin, which states that the less said about a matter, the more the Government have achieved. The Government stood steadfastly behind the climate change demands placed on all Governments in the western world. The stance taken by the new American President shames the developed countries. It behoves Labour Members and the Government to do something about what might be the biggest peril facing the world. The Government's efforts on the environment will affect other sectors, such as renewable energy, transport strategy and farming and food production.

I could devote my speech to foot and mouth, and the matter has been referred to by several other hon. Members. The old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was not fondly regarded in many places, and its passing has not been mourned. The new Department is an exciting new hybrid, but I should like to pay tribute to the MAFF officials who worked so relentlessly in the most difficult circumstances when the outbreak was at its height. The temporary veterinary inspectors went out day after day to deal with people in heart-rending difficulty. They did so without reward, and they were given little support by the wider populace, who were reading the inaccurate and emotive headlines in the media. Those headlines did not portray what was really happening, although we know that the outbreak caused great difficulty.

I welcome the announcement that there will be an inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak. I am happy to include my name among those who support a full and public inquiry which, as well as looking at what happened in practice, should also examine the cause of the disease, and its transmission.

After classical swine fever and bovine tuberculosis, the foot and mouth outbreak was one disease too many. We must learn from the mistakes that have been made in the practice of agriculture and in the funding mechanisms that are available. Those mechanisms cause people to do daft and illegal things, which is why I hope that we will get access to all the background information, including the intelligence reports that have been compiled. That information will enable us to know what caused this dreadful series of events.

I hope that the upshot will be a movement towards establishing a food policy. I have spoken many times in the House about the need for such a policy, and I think that we are moving in that direction. A food policy would not just be about producers, processors and retailers, but about consumers too. It would make clear what consumers should be able to expect, and what they could put back into food production strategies. I hope that consumers can be encouraged to seek higher quality produce of more local origin, even though it might cost more.

I have always said that some of our food is too cheap. I am a Co-operative as well as a Labour MP, and I believe that the best way to take the process of consumer involvement forward is through co-operation. I believe in the principles of co-operation, and the food chain is an ideal arena in which they could be applied successfully and effectively.

I am pleased that the new Department encompasses rural affairs, and I am sure that it will do so in more than name when it gets going. We need to debate the real rural issues that matter to people in rural Britain. That debate

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goes far beyond foxhunting. I managed to secure an increased majority at the general election because I talked to local people about what mattered to them rather than about what other people think is important. I talked to my constituents about transport, schools, health and rural poverty--the issues that affect people's everyday lives. We will be missing a golden opportunity if we do not encourage the new Department to get stuck in and deliver what needs to be delivered.

We must tackle the question of how to improve rural services, and work out how to keep shops and other services in place. I was at a meeting in North Nibley in my constituency last night, where villagers are threatened with losing both their shop and post office. It was good to see people in that community coming together to decide whether they could keep those premises open on a voluntary basis. Representatives of the Village Retail Services Association, the voluntary shop movement that has done so much sterling work around the country, were at the meeting. Although running a local post office on a voluntary basis represents a big commitment, we are beginning to see how village people can fight back to ensure that their services remain intact.

Finally, I want to mention transport, the issue around which most of the problems in rural Britain are concentrated. If we can resolve the transport dilemma, much else will follow in train. We must ensure that good quality services are provided in the more deprived rural areas and encourage people of all dispositions to use public transport systems. The Government have done much for rural bus services, but more will have to be done. I support the extension of half-price bus passes to groups other than pensioners, and we must ensure that services are kept running and, in time, improved and made more widely available.

In my constituency, Stagecoach is the dominant provider. I wish that we had more drivers and service administrators. We are putting so much money into those services that we are entitled to expect an improvement. We hear a lot about the public-private business relationship, but it is important that the private sector, as well as receiving the money, should be seen to deliver.

The railways are at the core of the transport links that keep rural communities in communication with each other. I hope that the Government will put much more pressure on Railtrack. For about nine months, I have been trying to arrange a meeting with Railtrack officials. I want to get a local line in my area reopened and improved, but so far I have met with nothing but failure. I hope that the Government will begin to put pressure on Railtrack to deliver in rural Britain--as it should be delivering in the rest of the country.

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