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5.59 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): It is amazing that, of the last four speakers, I should be the most senior in terms of service, as I have been here for only four years. It is a delight to listen to maiden speeches, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) on a heartfelt and principled speech. Those qualities always add to the geographical and historical descriptions that we also enjoy. Unless the constituency of Midlothian has been redistributed, I believe that I have been there once. I visited the town of Balerno, but it may no longer be in his constituency.

I also enjoyed the two maiden speeches from Opposition Members. That of the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) was almost a model maiden speech. He expressed his view of the countryside and its importance well. I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). I do not know Henley, but I was intrigued by his geographical description. I now realise that it is just east of the Khyber pass, and I shall bear that in mind when travelling.

The speeches so far have been reasoned and well balanced. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) tends to go overboard in his condemnation of the Government. He is not

to quote the hymn. We need to take a more balanced approach to the position in agriculture and our rural communities.

Agriculture has always been in crisis. We could almost go back to biblical times and the seven fat years and seven lean years. Agriculture is subject not only to economic fluctuations but to those of nature, which are often beyond the control of man. In the past decade, agriculture in this country has suffered from BSE, classical swine fever—at least in East Anglia—and, lastly and most devastatingly, foot and mouth. On top of all that, economic factors, such as the decline of the markets in the far east and Russia, have proved pernicious to our export trade.

Agriculture has also been affected by the climate: in the past year, there have been floods and droughts. All those factors affect farms on the margins, especially farming communities in what used to be called marginal areas.

Further problems spread from agriculture to the rest of the rural community. Not enough people are engaged in agriculture. At the end of the second world war, approximately 1 million people were employed in agriculture. It was the equivalent of the mining industry. Agriculture and mining have suffered colossal decline in different ways. The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) made a fascinating maiden speech in which he told us about the unity between farmers in one part of his constituency and miners in the other. We must remember that town and country, industry and agriculture do not stand apart. They form a unity.

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The problem nowadays in rural areas is that so many people can no longer work locally. Many others move to rural areas because, as the descriptions of new Members often imply, they are idyllic havens—places where one wants to live. People live, or simply sleep or weekend, in those havens and return to London, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham or Cardiff to work. Consequently, the village store does not have customers to buy from it every day. The local garage cannot sell petrol because the commuter or weekender has bought petrol more cheaply at Tesco, Asda or elsewhere. The local pub is also affected for several reasons but mostly because the closely bound community, of which the pub, the chapel and the school were all part, no longer exists.

That has been happening for decades. Twenty-five years ago, I lived in a small village beneath the highest point of the Pennines. Before I lived there, it had a school, a chapel and a post office. The school had gone in the distant past, the post office had hung on until the proprietor retired, although no replacement could be found, and the chapel went after I left, so that village no longer has the essential ingredients of community life.

Rather than blame the Government or the previous Administration, we should consider the long-term trends that are causing great problems to our rural communities and we must devise a means whereby people who live in the countryside can work in the countryside. Part of it might take the form of Government schemes to encourage young people to enter farming. The average age of those in the farming community is even greater than that of members of the Conservative party and new people are not coming in. Also, it is difficult to take up farming at a young age because of the price of land.

The situation is absurd: commodity prices are low and profitability has been squeezed to the margin, but the price of the acres on which farming takes place is still ludicrously high, certainly in the south and the east. That involves elements of speculation, does it not?

Large organisations, banks and insurance companies buy agricultural land as a speculative investment. They have no real interest in the product that comes from the land and no real desire for the communities based on that land to thrive. They are interested in the price of the land and they will do everything by way of purchase or sale to keep the price high. That represents the investment, but it is one of the factors that make it so difficult for agriculture to survive.

At one time, many farms were rented, so the young farmer, or the son, nephew or niece of a farmer, could rent land to raise animals or grow crops. That is now unbelievably difficult and the only way to do it is to form a contractor company whereby people contract out their labour and work for others who own the land. The problem with that, which other Members may have experienced in their divisions, is that that system separates the occupation of the land from those who work on it.

I look to the Government to devise schemes whereby they encourage young people back to the land through either financial incentives or renting out state-owned land. Unless we get more people back in the countryside and working in agriculture, the crisis, if I may use that word, will go on for many more years. Eventually, the foot and mouth outbreak will end and I entirely agree with those who have said that we need an inquiry. What form it should take I do not know, but it should not be akin to that

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chaired by Senator Joe McCarthy. It should seek proper solutions to problems that have been discovered, and we must find out what happened. That issue can be addressed, but the long-term problems in agriculture require us all to think about how we can resolve them.

I should mention two more contemporary matters. The first is arable agrimonetary compensation. I do not trot along with the notion that we should go to Brussels and ask for the money and that Brussels should hand it over. We all know that most of it is our own money and that we are spending it among ourselves, but there is a case for making an application because the price of arable crops is some 70 per cent. of what it was a few years ago.

Secondly, I want to raise the renewal of the over-30-months scheme. Although there are alternatives such as the welfare schemes, difficulties were created by its suspension when the foot and mouth epidemic was at its height and farmers are experiencing great problems. That issue has links to the need to stimulate and support small slaughterhouses. Finally, it is universally agreed that we must be ever-vigilant to ensure that we do not allow contaminated food to enter this country by way of sandwiches, non-Cornish pasties or whatever and thereby put our livestock at risk.

I shall support the Government tonight because they are making genuine attempts to help to solve the problems in our rural communities. It behoves us all to work together to achieve those solutions.

6.10 pm

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech, and I am delighted to follow the maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire). If they think that they have the most beautiful constituencies in the United Kingdom, let me tell them that they have stiff competition from North Tayside. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton). We both have Scottish constituencies and we both have mining backgrounds, although unfortunately mine has been lapsed for two generations.

I am grateful to have been called to make my maiden speech in a debate about the countryside. My constituency consists almost entirely of countryside, being one of the five largest in the United Kingdom, and it experiences many of the issues and difficulties described so well today. Before I discuss those difficulties, however, let me say—like many maiden speakers before me—that in my humble opinion, mine is perhaps the most beautiful constituency in the United Kingdom.

North Tayside is a constituency of rivers and mountains, of market towns and open spaces. In the heart of Scotland is highland Perthshire, and around that beating heart flow the rivers of the Tay. They are the heart's blood of my constituency—rivers such as the Tummel, the Ericht, the Isla, the Strath and the Braan, which make up the largest river system in the UK, flowing ever onwards and outwards into the Tay estuary.

The western part of Angus is also in my constituency. There the River Esk flows down from the mountains that adorn the Angus glens. What can I say of the mountains? At the geographical heart of Scotland is Schehalion, hill of the fairies, the most striking mountain in the whole of

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Scotland. We also have Ben Lawers, Ben Aglow and Ben Vrachie, and Dreish and Mayer sit deep in the Angus glens.

Mine is also a constituency of estates and castles. I think that it must contain more noble Lords than any other constituency in Scotland. Deep in Strathmore is Glamis castle, perhaps the finest example of a baronial castle anywhere in Scotland. At the foot of the Tay is Scone palace, ancient home of Scottish kings and true home of the Stone of Destiny.

The thing that I do not like about my constituency—there always has to be one thing—is its name. "North Tayside" sounds like a council ward in some old Labour municipal council. Whoever came up with that name must have been up in the Library all night. I suggest that we find a name more in keeping with the constituency's natural beauty. How about Strathmore, Highland Perthshire and the Glens? There is a name worthy of its splendour.

I am grateful to the people of North Tayside for electing me to represent that beautiful constituency. I am, of course, aware of the responsibility involved. Let me also do what is traditional and pay tribute to my predecessor, John Swinney. John was elected to the House of Commons in 1997, and it is hard to believe that he served only one term, given the impact that he has made on Scottish politics since.

John transformed the constituency, turning it into one in which all constituents' concerns were addressed immediately. It is also hard to believe that he served two of his four years here with a dual mandate: that never stopped him from being a most effective Member of Parliament. Wherever I went during my election campaign, there was a good word about John Swinney, and a growing realisation—accompanied by pride—that this was a future First Minister of Scotland. I had to reassure my constituents that John was going nowhere, and would continue to represent their interests in the Scottish Parliament. I now look forward to working as part of an effective team with John to ensure in both Parliaments that all our constituents' concerns are addressed.

John has, of course, gone on to bigger and better things since becoming a Member of Parliament here in 1997. I am not referring to the fact that he is now convener of the Scottish National party, or even the fact that he is Leader of the Opposition in the Scottish Parliament but to the fact that he is now Scotland's most eligible male, as decided by Scotland on Sunday. That is an honour to which this Member for North Tayside does not aspire and from which, in any case, he is disqualified by reason of marriage.

Before John's incumbency, North Tayside was represented for 18 years by the Conservatives in the guise of Bill Walker. Bill is what is commonly described as a colourful character; I think that everyone involved in Scottish politics has a favourite Bill Walker story. He and his colleague the then Member for Perth and Kinross provided the House with an unforgettable double act that I am sure is sorely missed by some of our older Members.

It is surprising that tourism has been so little debated this afternoon. Tourism is a big issue for my constituency, given its natural beauty and scenery. Tourism is one of

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the major employers in North Tayside. It has struggled under the impact of foot and mouth disease, but it was in crisis in Scotland long before the latest outbreak. The high cost of fuel and the high value of the pound make a double whammy that continues to beat the countryside. We cannot underestimate the effect of the strong pound on deterring European visitors. That was clearly demonstrated to me when German friends told me that this year they would not make their usual annual trip to Scotland because it was too expensive. They could get two weeks of luxury accommodation in the Mediterranean for their two nights of bed and breakfast in Scotland. Moreover, they could be guaranteed all-day sunshine in that destination. The best that I could guarantee was that the weather was likely to be changeable.

Poor access to European airports from Scotland is another factor. For a nation of 5 million people, we have appalling access to European destinations. The services that exist are highly priced and infrequent. The extra cost of coming north from an English airport is an added disincentive to European visitors.

What of coming to Scotland by car? With our crazy fuel costs, we have started to enter the realms of the luxury holiday sector ourselves. We seriously cannot discount the high cost of fuel as a major disincentive to European and United Kingdom visitors to Scotland. Members on this Bench always ask, why has oil-rich Scotland got the highest fuel prices in Europe?

Agriculture, agricultural supplies and textiles are also major employers in my constituency. Food production is perhaps the main employer in Strathmore, where the world-renowned berry industry faces many severe difficulties. It is but a shadow of its former self. The berry-picking season is nothing more than a distant memory.

Even with all those activities, the main issue in my election campaign was local hospitals. I simply cannot equate the warm words of Labour Members with the reality of health service provision in my constituency. The service on Tayside is in chaos. There is no confidence in its delivery and staff morale is at rock bottom. We in Tayside are to be subject to a centralisation programme that takes no account of the geography of the area or the public's desire to retain popular local services.

The east of my constituency is served by the Stracathro hospital. Its acute hospital status will be lost with services centralised in distant Dundee. The western part is served by the Perth royal infirmary. The preferred option is to remove maternity and paediatric services once again to Dundee. That means that my constituents will face upwards of a 100-mile journey to receive the services. A service already seen as remote will now seem as though it were at the other end of the country.

I come before you, Madam Deputy Speaker, as the first Member of Parliament from the world of popular music. I am reliably informed that I am the first Member who has ever appeared on "Top of the Pops" in his own right, so you can imagine the onerous responsibility that that places on my shoulders. I find it staggering that no one before me has made the journey from the stage of the concert hall to the Floor of the House of Commons, given the historic association between popular music, popular culture and politics. We can see from history that popular culture has sometimes been expressed by musicians and artists and that that led and dominated political debate.

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In the counter-culture of the 1960s, there were those who rallied against unwarranted international aggression and those who championed and pioneered the rights of minorities and women. Music has so often been the soundtrack of political change. At times, music and song have even articulated it. Can any hon. Member imagine political change without the songs?

People and commentators ask me what are the differences between my previous profession and my new job in the House. I answer that it might be a different stage and even a different song, but that I will certainly not get an encore in this place.

Tonight's debate is entitled "The Countryside in Crisis". It is clear that the countryside ranks low in this Government's priorities and thinking. They come on the back of a Conservative Government who gave us the BSE disaster. It must have been the first incident that gave the feeling of crisis, from which the countryside has never recovered. We must also remember that it was the Conservatives who introduced the fuel tax escalator, which started the crazy spiralling of fuel costs in the first place.

My constituency consists almost entirely of countryside, and particularly beautiful countryside at that. Let us do what we can to promote it and ensure that we get the best from our most prized asset—our countryside.

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