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Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech. I tend to the view that representing a constituency such as Orkney and Shetland, I can probably lay a better claim than many hon. Members, if not most, that mine is truly a rural constituency, and one that by virtue of its geography gives rise to more transport issues than can really be properly addressed in a 10-minute speech. There will, of course, be future debates in which those issues can be raised, and I give the House fair warning that I fully intend to do so.

It is traditional in this House to pay tribute to one's predecessor. It occurs to me, having observed the debate on the Queen's Speech over the past few days, that this is perhaps a tradition which it is open to some hon. Members to observe through gritted teeth and with their fingers crossed behind their back. I consider myself particularly fortunate to have had two Liberal predecessors--which makes me unique as a Liberal MP in this House--to whom I can pay fulsome and handsome tribute.

The late Lord Grimond of Firth, or Jo Grimond, as he was better known in the House and the constituency, served as the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland between 1950 and 1983. He was leader of the Liberal party for 11 of those years, and the fact that he remains a substantial figure, regarded in the communities of Orkney and Shetland with great respect and affection, is an eloquent tribute to the many great statesmanlike qualities that he possessed.

I am acutely aware that Jo Grimond joined a parliamentary party of five Liberal Members in this House, and that it is my privilege to be a member of a parliamentary party of 52. It was Jo Grimond who really started the long, slow haul back for Liberalism in Scotland. Of course, that was not an event but a process, and in 1983 the mantle of that process was handed on to my immediate predecessor, Jim Wallace.

Jim Wallace served the constituency of Orkney and Shetland with remarkable diligence and distinction for the past 18 years. I consider myself particularly fortunate still to have readily available to me his active participation and counsel, as he remains the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Orkney, as well as being its Deputy First Minister and Minister for Justice.

When Jo Grimond made his maiden speech in the House, he described our constituency of Orkney and Shetland as

That is as true today as it was in 1950.

Our staple industries remain farming and fishing, and they face many of the difficulties that are born well beyond Orkney and Shetland. Again, there will no doubt be future occasions when I shall be able to discuss those difficulties in the House. More recently, we have seen a much greater dependence on the oil industry, with the substantial oil terminal facilities at Sullom Voe and at Flotta. In recent years, we have also seen the growth of aquaculture in the constituency.

Many hon. Members have no doubt enjoyed holidays in either Orkney or Shetland. They will be aware of the warmth of the welcome that the people offer, and the

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spectacularly, sometimes breathtakingly, beautiful scenery that our islands have to offer. I urge those hon. Members who have not yet availed themselves of the opportunity of visiting my constituency to do so as soon as possible. I ask them not to be put off by air fares that might take them to the other side of the world, should they be inclined to go there.

I also ask hon. Members not to be put off by the fact that planes travelling to and from Orkney and Shetland have a nasty habit of "going technical"--as the ground staff have to put it--suspiciously often when only three or four passengers are booked to travel on them. Hon. Members should also not be put off by the fact that when they get there, they will be charged an extra 10p to 15p a litre of petrol compared to the cost on the mainland. I assure hon. Members that these are all mere distractions that we shall resolve in time, and that it is worth taking the trouble to get there.

I approach this speech today with an acute sense of my part in a long history of radical Liberal tradition from Orkney and Shetland. In the 19th century, we suffered, like so many parts of the highlands and islands, at the hands of landlordism--landlords who exercised draconian powers from a great distance with no consideration for the needs or wishes of the local communities. For many people, that caused tremendous hardship and suffering that ended only with Gladstone's Crofting Act 1886, which introduced security of tenure and shifted the balance from favouring the landlord to favouring local people.

As we enter the 21st century, there seems to be a clamant need for a new Crofting Act, but this time a Crofting Act of the sea bed. Hon. Members who are students of history will find disturbing echoes of 19th-century landlordism in the Crown Estate Commission's treatment of the sea bed and the surrounding communities who rely on it. The words "remote, imperious, unresponsive and having no regard for islanders' wishes" spring to mind.

It is expected that, this year alone, the Crown Estate Commission will take £1 million from the fish farming industry in Shetland alone. Fish farmers in my constituency and elsewhere face a levy that is based, uniquely, not on area but on production. It has made the difference between a business breaking even and a business going into the red. It is a payment for which no service is given in return.

Another example of such unfairness is the project currently being promoted by the Shetland Islands council charitable trust to lay a fibre optic cable from Shetland through Orkney to the Scottish mainland. Such a cable would allow my constituents proper access to the electronic communications that the constituents of other hon. Members undoubtedly take for granted and would immensely benefit my constituency. Hon. Members can therefore imagine our frustration at discovering that our operating costs of £100,000 annually are likely to be increased by no less than another £64,000 annually, simply for the privilege of laying the cable on the sea bed. There is something profoundly obnoxious and objectionable about a system that allows the extraction of money from island communities for the right to use the sea bed. Although we, with our need for piers and harbours, cannot exist without that sea bed, it is of no use to anyone else.

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In the general election campaign there was a great deal of talk about stealth taxes, but I believe that the Crown Estate Commission's levies and rents are the oldest and most obnoxious form of stealth tax. They are a relic of our feudal past and the time has come for them to go.

It is my privilege to represent in the House a constituency that is independently minded and deeply self-reliant. I have not been sent here to ask for any special favours, and I am not here to beg for any handouts; I am here merely to ask that my constituents be allowed the same opportunities to develop the potential of their communities that are given to other hon. Members and their constituents in the rest of the country. It is a case that is based on simple fairness and equality of opportunity. It is my devout hope that any case so based will always be well received.

9.4 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): May I say what a pleasure it is to follow the elegant maiden speech by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael)? He has a long line of illustrious predecessors to live up to, but everything that he said, and the way in which he said it, indicates that he too will make a very significant mark in this place.

It was good to hear about the delights of Orkney and Shetland and South Antrim. Every speech I make in this place tends to be a travelogue about Lancaster and Wyre, which is the most glorious constituency in the land. However, it is good to know that if I did not have an imminent date with a hot Greek beach very early in August, I would have two such excellent alternatives for holidays. Orkney and Shetland and South Antrim will have to go down for future breaks.

It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate because Lancaster and Wyre is a very rural constituency--the 44th most rural in the country, according to the Library. I am the first Labour Member of Parliament ever to be re-elected for any part of the constituency where the boundaries have changed considerably, certainly not to Labour's advantage, over recent decades. It is good to be back representing such a rural constituency.

Let us not beat about the bush. Our rural areas and particularly our agriculture industry have faced the hardest of hard times in recent years. The Government came in in 1997 with the appalling legacy of BSE. Since then, farmers have had desperate times; they have seen very low prices, huge falls in prices and difficult times. Now we have the dreadful occurrence of foot and mouth disease.

My constituency has had two cases of foot and mouth disease, which have been devastating for those concerned and their neighbours, but the whole area has suffered from the restrictions that have been put in place. At the moment, the area lives in what can only be described as fear, given the proximity of foot and mouth in the Ribble valley. No human being who has come into contact with people involved in farming in recent years could fail to be moved by the distress of that community. It is a strong community, but it is facing appalling times.

In that context, how did a Labour Member come to be re-elected in a constituency where Labour has not been strong in the past and where that rural community has faced such difficult times? It is instructive that the rural area that I represent has benefited from the Government's

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investment in education and village schools. Kirkland and Catterall school in my constituency received £500,000 only a few months before the election to deal with major repairs and redevelopment that had originally been plotted in 1976. In 1997, that school finally got the money.

There is also the horrendous problem of the moss roads in my constituency--roads built across the marsh, which have been neglected for years and are in danger of being closed, cutting off rural communities. Under the Government's investment in highways, we now have a three-year, £4 million plan to reconstruct and redevelop those roads, relinking rural communities and rural businesses.

We also have the Garstang Super 8, the future of rural public transport--flexible and accessible. A minibus based in Garstang, it covers the rural area to the east and west in a figure of eight and supplies an excellent service six days a week to villages that had been completely denuded of public transport during the 18 years of the previous Government.

During the Government's first term, there was a lot of scaremongering from the Opposition about the future of parish councils. My opponent at the general election told people that they were about to be abolished. That is not going to happen--instead, the role of parish councils will be strengthened in terms of planning and developing, and in terms of transport improvement, finance and support.

Pilling, in my constituency, is one of the largest villages in England. Local people have developed the Pilling appraisal--their own planning document which, as well as being an interesting and powerful record of what Pilling is like in 2001, will be an important tool for planning in the future.

We have great hopes for the future in Lancaster and Wyre. Myerscough college is one of the major agricultural colleges in the country. The area has also seen the development of farmers markets, co-operatives and farm shops, with people selling produce over the internet. The future of quality produce is very good.

We have the possibility of developing sports facilities in Over Wyre as a result of the Government's neighbourhood programme. We also have the possibility of developing the facilities of Garstang as a market town. Important initiatives are coming from the north-west region, such as regional planning guidance and rural development programmes. However, there are still real difficulties in farming. Only yesterday I was at Claughton Green farm, talking to Mr. Alf Noblett, one of my constituents, and some of his colleagues. It is instructive that they are not asking for more money from the Government. They recognise that the Government have made a huge investment in farming over the past four years. However, I would second their wish that we should be more robust about the future of British farming, the quality of British produce, some of the strictures from Europe and regulations on imports. They want us to be particularly robust in relation to supermarkets and dairy companies. I do not believe that British farmers and the farmers of Lancaster and Wyre get a fair deal. It is essential that the Government stand up for them.

Lancaster is a great, historic city with a wonderful economic future, but it is bedevilled by transport problems. It needs a sustainable integrated transport plan. We need substantial investment in a bypass, park-and-ride schemes, public transport, a range of facilities to improve safety in

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home zones, and many other measures to reduce car parking. We need to take a radical approach to enhance the city of Lancaster and its advantages of art, culture, history and economic development with the safe, sustainable, clean and green transport system that it deserves.

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