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12.19 pm

Tony Cunningham (Workington): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my first speech in the Chamber. It is indeed a privilege to be making it at a time when so many excellent maiden speeches have been made. Like other new Members, I have been inundated with requests to join various groups in the House. May I suggest that we form a new one, the Friday the 13th club, and we could celebrate the date in the future?

I was advised to read some of my predecessors' maiden speeches to give me an idea of what to say. I was not aware that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page), who is one of my predecessors, would be sitting on the Conservative Bench opposite me. The speeches reminded me why the by-election took place in 1976. The sitting MP, Fred Peart, formerly a Leader of the House, was called into Downing street by the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, who said, "Fred, I'm going to have to move you upstairs to another place because I require your seat in the Cabinet for a younger Member." Fred said, "But Jim, you're older than I am", to which Jim said, "Yes, but I'm the Prime Minister." I have learned that lesson.

I am only the fourth Labour MP for Workington since 1918. Looking at the speeches by Tommy Cape, which he made immediately after the great war, and Fred Peart, which he made right after the second world war, it is clear that they came from a different age. However, what shines through and links them with my immediate predecessor, Dale Campbell-Savours, is the desire for social justice, for which I shall continue to strive.

Dale Campbell-Savours has been an inspiration to me and many others. He is greatly admired and respected, not just in the House, but by thousands of his constituents, because he is a fighter and a campaigner. No cause was too large or too small. If people needed help, he was there for them. He will be missed in the House and I wish him well in his new role in the other place. I also pay tribute to his secretary, Joan Gyles, who was with him for more than 20 years.

My best story of Dale was one that he told me about being here in his early days as an MP when the House often sat into the small hours of the morning. If he wanted an issue reported on Radio Cumbria the following morning and the station was closed because it was 11 or 12 o'clock at night, he used to ring up and put questions to the answering machine, which he would answer himself. I said, "Dale, don't you think that that's cheating a little bit?", to which he replied, "No. I used to ask myself difficult questions"—and he did.

I am proud to represent the Workington constituency. It is where I was born, grew up and have spent most of my life. It is a beautiful area, with its lakes and mountains

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and stunning coastal scenery. The town of Workington has a strong industrial heritage and is known for its famous visitors. The Scots among us might be interested to know that Mary Queen of Scots spent her last night of freedom in Workington hall. Maryport has a Roman history and links with Hadrian's wall. I remind hon. Members that the wall did not stop at Bowness. A turf wall was built down the west Cumbrian coast, perhaps as an early attempt to deal with the West Lothian question.

We have the beautiful seaside resort of Silloth, with its famous golf course, and Aspatria, which is an old mining and old market town. Cockermouth is the birthplace of William Wordsworth and Keswick is a famous holiday destination for generations of people. When all that is combined with friendly, hard-working people, it is easy to understand why it is such an honour to represent the constituency.

No matter how beautiful the constituency is, however, if people do not have jobs and do not share in its prosperity, the beauty is not so obvious. Small businesses are important. Although unemployment in the constituency is lower than it has been for 30 years and more jobs are being created than lost, especially by small and medium-sized enterprises, I have two pleas. West Cumbria used to be dominated by coal mining, the iron and steel industries and shipbuilding. Rails marked "Made in Workington" can be seen all over the world, in Australia, India, Brazil, Mexico and the United States. What we have left is a steelworks that rolls railway lines. Unfortunately, it has come under threat in recent times.

Following the terrible Hatfield disaster, the work force at the steelworks toiled round the clock to produce thousands of tonnes of rails to repair and upgrade the rail network. Now that that crisis is over, Railtrack is placing orders for rails in Italy, Austria, Sweden and other European countries. I say this to Railtrack: "If you are taking British taxpayers' money, then for heaven's sake spend it in Britain." Workington is the only plant in the country that makes rails. It is of national strategic importance. It is vital that the plant stays open—to the people who work there and their families, and to the nation.

Those who remember the 1966 World cup final will surely remember the remarks of the commentator, Kenneth Wolstenholme, at the end of extra time: "They think it's all over—it is now." I am sorry, but when it comes to foot and mouth in my constituency and its impact on small businesses, it is far from over. The farming communities have undoubtedly suffered and are still suffering. I call for a full inquiry in order that we may learn lessons for the future.

One group of small businesses has been devastated by the outbreak: tourism and related businesses. Anyone with a hotel or guest house, a caravan park or a holiday cottage, anyone who is a joiner or a plumber who normally works in the tourism industry, and anyone who runs a leisure or outward bound business in the Newlands or Borrowdale valleys can be 80 or 90 per cent. down on normal trade. Small businesses are struggling, and unless there is continued support, it will be a very long winter for many of my constituents.

I should like to recount just one story. A married woman in my constituency who has two small children sold her house and invested in a small guest house. Business is very difficult. She said to me, "Remember,

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this is not just my business; this is my home as well and that is under threat." I have a series of suggestions that I shall pass to the Minister, but I want to make it perfectly clear that many in my constituency desperately need help. Although I welcome the money that the Government have already given, we need more, and for some time to come. What is really needed, however, is the return of visitors to one of the most beautiful parts of the world. I appeal to Members and people outside the House to come to my constituency, where they will be given a tremendously warm welcome and have a fantastic holiday.

I spoke at the outset about social justice. Recently, two great stalwarts of my local Labour party, George Robinson and Mary Graham, died. I pay tribute to them and the hundreds of others in my constituency who have spent their lives campaigning for social justice. I assure the people of Workington that I will continue that fight.

12.28 pm

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): I should like to thank and praise the hon. Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), for Dagenham (Jon Cruddas), for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who have made their maiden speeches this morning. The hon. Member for Workington made a witty and passionate speech, and his constituency well deserves that passion. I, too, will be speaking about foot and mouth disease and its impact on my constituency, particularly on small businesses.

As the son of a small business man and the older brother of one who has been hounded out of his business by red tape and regulation, such that he is now happy to work for a firm alongside 25,000 other employees, it would be fair to say that I know a little about small businesses. We have some big businesses in my constituency, but they are more the likes of Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway. The number of people employed by the county council and Taunton Deane borough council takes them beyond the size of small and medium enterprises.

We have some Government agencies, such as the Charity Commissioners and the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office, as well as some private sector concerns that employ fewer than thousands: those include Avimo in Taunton and Relyon and Swallowfield in Wellington. After that, the size of employer rapidly decreases, which is hardly surprising given that Taunton is a county town, albeit one that has prospered in the past decade, as has Wellington.

The local unemployment rate is only 2 per cent., but I sense that we are at the top of the economic cycle. Ridiculous house prices have been recorded in Somerset. I heard a worrying story about that the other day. A local auctioneer told me that a house with some land attached just outside my constituency had been valued at £325,000, but that to get it away at auction, it had been put on at £275,000. In open auction, that property went for £605,000. To a former stockbroker, whose job was to spot market trends, that really rings the bell that the economy has peaked.

Hon. Members will have been sent Barclays bank's quarterly small business survey, which provides a depressing overview of the sector. Business starts in England and Wales are down 9 per cent. Business starts

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in the catering and hotels sector—crucial to my constituency and to any rural part of Britain—have declined 28 per cent., with leisure industry starts down a depressing 49 per cent. In his opening remarks, the Minister said that businesses were set up and run by enterprising individuals, but added that it is the Government who shape the environment. I do not know whether that environment is being shaped by a pasta machine or a mangle, but I do know that Barclays and my constituents all see the same thing: that today's issues are access to finance, bank charges and the well known red tape.

I know a business woman—a young lady in whom I wish to declare an interest—who runs her own business, in which I have no interest to declare. She considered doubling the number of workers in her firm—increasing that number by one, so that there would be two—but when she looked at the large book of complicated regulations issued by some Department or other, she shuddered at the thought of having to read through one and a half inches of closely typed pages and concluded that it was not worth the effort to hire people when she could subcontract instead.

Let us compare and contrast that with the Government's attitude to other contractors, namely those affected by IR35. The Government have forced people to work for bigger businesses than themselves with the aim of ensnaring more people in PAYE and other tax arrangements, but on the other side of the red tape and regulations, the Government's policy of pushing people out of subcontracting is forcing smaller companies to subcontract. That is a shame. It is good when people can employ others, but not so good when small companies are forced to use subcontractors as a first stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) described the impact of foot and mouth on his constituency and on small traders. The same is true in my constituency, where several of this year's agricultural shows have been cancelled. Barclays recognises the impact of foot and mouth, as does everyone in my constituency—especially the impact on small businesses.

Small businesses throughout my constituency have been hit by foot and mouth. The lessons were immediately apparent to those businesses at the heart of the outbreak; sadly, however, no one outside that core appears to have taken any real notice. The Government have offered extra money in the form of expensive loans, but that is not what is wanted. What people on Exmoor—of which the Taunton and Bridgwater constituencies form two thirds—want is for the disease to be eradicated swiftly. They also need immediate help to mitigate the problems that foot and mouth has caused. In short, Exmoor has not had foot and mouth; it has not been infected, but it has been affected.

Earlier this year, the Government produced a small firms package, which the Federation of Small Businesses was quick to praise in part. However, it was also disappointed that the Government had, once again, widened the fiscal gap between incorporated small businesses and unincorporated sole trade concerns. The policy unit chairman of the federation said:

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He went on to say:

More importantly, if someone is making no money, they pay no tax anyway. That is particularly true of the problem on Exmoor and indicative perhaps of the difficulties throughout the rural parts of my Taunton constituency. Sadly, it is beginning to affect the town itself; there is a knock-on effect, although it has not manifested itself properly in the town. We are now in July, five months after the start of the biggest crisis to hit Somerset in decades, but not one penny of aid has yet been handed over to any small business.

The South West of England regional development agency and Business Link have not given away any of the money that they promised. Just two days ago, they said that the money is still two weeks away. They said that they have made checks and counter-checks and are now making checks to counter the counter-checks on the original applications for help. Sadly, small businesses are the real losers. Fortunately—I hope that this is true also in Cumbria—they have a champion in a new group called Living Exmoor, chaired by the charming and fearless Judy Carless who, throughout the recent election campaign, managed to doorstep every single national party leader. She asked each of them in turn what they would do for Exmoor.

If only such forthrightness were obvious elsewhere. From a standing start, Living Exmoor now has several hundred members: from the Tantivy and Wiggys in Dulverton to the Royal Oak at Withypool and the White Horse at Exford. That is real self-help. Government agencies, such as South West Tourism, cost the taxpayer a fortune. The Under-Secretary said that the Government and their agencies should think small first. A member of Living Exmoor asked me why, if the agencies were well funded by the taxpayer, they were missing many obvious tricks. Last week, tourists could not get a coach in Spain. Why did South West Tourism not say that there were coach operators and hotel rooms going begging on Exmoor, as I am sure they were in Cumbria, so that those tourists could have a holiday in Britain? Why were public relations operations not promoting Britain to those poor tourists stuck at Gatwick? It is important that Government agencies do more to help small businesses.

As the hon. Member for Workington said, tourism is important; my part of Britain is as beautiful as his, and farming is just as important there. It is worth pointing out again and again that farming is a small business and that many people are engaged in it; many small businesses are run by farmers. Farming may account for only 1.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product but, nationally, farmers look after 80 per cent. of our landscape and even more in Somerset. Farming and tourism go hand in hand on Exmoor and throughout most of Taunton Deane.

The real problem is not the impact that foot and mouth has already had on businesses in my constituency, but the impact that it will have. The second quarter figures for businesses failing and going bust in the south-west are worrying. The fact that bank managers have withdrawn funding for small businesses—mostly tourism businesses—in the second quarter of the year is extremely scary. That quarter is the beginning of the tourism season, when those businesses expect an enhanced and increased

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cash flow. For bank managers to pull the plug means that they can see no prospect for recovery in the summer and the autumn.

As small businesses go into the autumn, they will have no fat to survive the winter. That means that banks will pull the plug more quickly than they would have done in the past. They will do that throughout the summer, autumn and winter. The problem will become worse both in rural areas and in the town.

To be added to that is the possible late start to the traditional hunting season. Hunting may not please all Members, but eight hunts add considerably to the tourism business going into and on to Exmoor. It is important to remember what the hunts provide for the area, both for small businesses and as suppliers of tourists, whom I would call sporting pursuits tourists.

Where are the Government agencies and local councils in this context? The Minister referred to Business Link as having a ruthless customer focus. Business Link may be trying hard down in Somerset, but why is it thanking Living Exmoor, the voluntary self-help group, for doing its lobbying? The self-help volunteers are helping the so-called professional guys, who are sitting around in suits navel gazing, as it might seem to the people on Exmoor. The House must remember that not one penny in aid has yet been handed over.

Living Exmoor is disappointed with the lack of help from agencies, and also from Somerset county council. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who was a former leader of that council, will be able to help me in getting across to the council that small business men on Exmoor cannot understand, when political control has not changed, sadly, following the county council elections, and when the officers have not changed, the excuse that it was the county council elections that created a hiatus. That is given as one of the reasons why aid has not yet been given to businesses on Exmoor.

Before the election and since the election, my party has been asking for help for small businesses affected by foot and mouth. We have asked for the speeding up of VAT refunds to help cash flow. Much more money could easily have been given in the form of interest-free loans for the affected areas. There could be a more flexible reassessment of income tax liabilities. As the hon. Member for Workington said, "They think it's all over, but it isn't yet." He is right. There should be a full inquiry, and I would add that it should be a full public inquiry.

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