|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I want this matter raised, please. And I want an assurance that when the Foreign Secretary talks to her Saudi Arabian counterpart about all the arms that she is selling to Saudi Arabiaof course we sell them armsshe will raise Mr. Gorjis case. I also want it raised by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
when he sees his Saudi Arabian counterparts. I want Mr. Gorjis name to be on the lips of every British Minister until we receive the police report on the death of his wife, and I will not stop harassing my newly promoted hon. Friend, or the Leader of the House at business questions, until that happens.
That is only the start. My constituent still has not visited his wifes grave in Saudi Arabia. She had to be buried, according to Muslim rites, almost immediately after she died. He wants to go there, and I want the help of the British Government to ensure that he can do that. Let us be caring of British citizens who face problems such as these abroad, and let us do something about this. I would be grateful to my hon. Friend for a response. He is sitting there very calmly and not intervening. I am not having a go at him; he knows that. However, as the Conservative Chief Whip said, this debate is our opportunity passionately to put forward a cause.
My second subject concerns the problems being faced by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, which I last raised at Prime Ministers Questions on 14 March. Daily, hundreds of Tamils are having to leave their homes because of the activities of the Sri Lankan Government. Over the past 15 months, 4,000 have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Recently, the military airport in Sri Lanka was bombed by those who support the Tamil cause.
My hon. Friend the Minister was parliamentary private secretary to the Leader of the House when he was at the Foreign Office, and he will know that this is an issue that Britain needs to be involved in, because we are partly responsible for it. Britain gave Sri Lanka independence 60 years ago and, as we did in so many parts of the world, we drew the borders. We created this situation, and we have a responsibility as honest brokers to help. In 2002, the Norwegian Government brokered a ceasefire which was agreed by both sides: the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
In response to my question on 14 March, the Prime Minister asked for an immediate ceasefire, so that a dialogue could be resumed. I am utterly in awe of what the Prime Minister has done in Northern Ireland. As a parliamentarian, I do not expect to use terms such as historic and in my lifetime, even though 20 years is almost a lifetime for some. It is certainly a long sentence on certain criminal tariffs. In the 20 years I have been here, the achievements in Northern Ireland have been profound, and I congratulate all those involved, including the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the fact that two Members of this Houseeven though one of them has not taken the Oathhave been able to sit down together at a table, engage in a dialogue, and agree to share power and form a Government. What a message that is for the United Kingdom to sell to the rest of the world!
I am asking for British involvement in the Sri Lankan issue, to ensure that the two sides get together. Like other hon. Members, I have Tamil people living in my constituency. Some came here as refugees, and some have settled here. They are British citizens whose communities have a hinterland abroad. The continued violence against the Tamil people has to stop. I ask the
British Government to do something about it, and to make a statement calling for a ceasefire so that the killing can stop, so that people do not have to leave their homes, and so that we can have peace on that beautiful island.
I have arranged a meeting on 2 May with the Minister for the Middle East, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), and many right hon. and hon. Members wish to be there to support what I am saying. A year from now, Sri Lanka will celebrate 60 years of independence. I am not asking the United Kingdom to apologise for what it has done, but we have a responsibility as the former colonial power. Let us please get involved to bring the two sides together. We all know that the Prime Minister is stepping down. Being a peacemaker in Sri Lanka would be a great role for him. I have not put it to him yet, but I will drop him a note to suggest that he take it on if he is pushed for things to do after he goes.
We had a statement today about Home Office reorganisation. I favour the creation of a ministry for justice, and I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) scolding the Home Secretary over that, because it is Liberal party policy.
Mr. Heath: To clarify, we have always advocated a ministry for justice, and want to see one, but we are unconvinced by the Home Secretarys desire to have a sort of anti-terrorism tsar, which we think is a role best played elsewhere.
I am in favour of a ministry for justice, which should have been introduced four years ago, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) put a stop to it because he felt that it would cut into his empire. I give the Home Secretary full marks for giving up part of his empire without squealinghe has said, Here is my portfolio; please have it.
I want the Home Office to concentrate on sorting out the immigration and nationality directorate, because it is still a complete mess, as will be shown by the number of people who come to my surgery tomorrow. Letters go unanswered, passports go missing and decisions are not made. Asylum seekers are told that the reply is in the post. Four years later, they are settled with families. That is what happens sometimespeople come to this country, fall in love and get married, and even the Government cannot legislate against that yetand as a result, they are settled people. After four years, however, they are told that it is time to go, and that is why they come to see us as MPsthe Government have cut legal aid, so they cannot go to see solicitors. The focus on that area deserves a hooray.
I am concerned, however, about the position of the Attorney-General. We have a good Attorney-General, and some of the burden placed on other Departmentsrelating to human rights and others issuesshould be transferred to his Department. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), is considering that point. If
we come up with a better solution to the carve-up of the Home Office, I hope that Ministers will consider it carefully. The issue will not go away and I hope that we will have an early statement from a Constitutional Affairs Minister about the effects. I realise that the Lord Chancellor has made a statement in the other place, but we want to ask questions on the matter here.
Listening to the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) speak earlier, I felt that there must be some sort of spiritual affinity between his constituency and mine. My contribution could easily repeat all the issues that he covered. I intervened on him to refer to the resurfacing of the A303, which is a serious issue in my constituency because of the effect of that road on the environment of many villages and on the people who live there. He also mentioned quarrying, and I represent the biggest quarrying area in the countrythe east Mendips. I wondered whether he would refer to our concerns about the aggregates levy, and the use of funds raised by it. The levy was set up to alleviate the disbenefits of the quarrying industry, but those funds will now apparently be distributed across the country to areas that do not suffer from such disbenefits, which is entirely contrary to the original intention of the levy.
We have an opportunity today, however, to discuss a matter that hardly ever gets properly debatedthe point on which the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire startedwhich is agriculture. Agriculture has been airbrushed out of parliamentary debate. Ever since the foot and mouth disaster, we have not had the opportunity to debate in Government time the difficulties faced by agriculture, which is a significant industry in West Derbyshire.
Agriculture is also a significant industry in my constituency, but that will come as a surprise to the Home Office, because in a written answer that I received from it last week, in reply to a question about passport interview centres, I was told that Somerset is not a rural county. I invite the Minister responsible to put on her wellies and stand in a field in Isle Brewers, Kingsbury Episcopi, Leigh-on-Mendip or Rudge, among the cows, and then say that Somerset is not a rural county. Because of our settlement pattern, however, with lots of small villages only about two or three miles apart, and without big empty spaces, we are not deemed to be a rural county. I reassure the House, however, that we are very much a rural county, and that agriculture, particularly dairy farming, is still very important to both the environment in which we live and the enterprises that underpin our way of life. Although agriculture employs far fewer people than it used to do, nevertheless, as we saw during the foot and mouth restrictions, it is fundamental to a lot of downstream industry.
I start off with dairying because it is the predominant mode of agriculture in my county. The
dairy industry is still in desperate trouble, as the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire said. Farmers are still only getting about 18p a litre for milk, and that farm-gate price does not allow for any sort of profitabilityquite the reverse. It means that farmers are making a loss on the raw material that they produce. If primary producers are making a loss, that is not sustainable. Dairy farmers are going out of business every week because they conclude, rightly, that there is little point in continuing a business that is very hard workwhen they can otherwise realise their often substantial capital assetsif they are making a loss.
Effectively, there is a classic oligopoly on the buying side: the big supermarkets take 50 per cent. of the liquid milk in the country, apply a limit to the amount that they are prepared to pay, maintain high profitability in the supermarket through the retail price of milk, but do not pass that on to the primary producers, who are in a much weaker bargaining position. I hate to be apocalyptic, but until we address that, it will be hard for dairy farming in this country to have a future. We are exporting the industry abroad. Once dairy farms are lost, they will not be reconstituted.
That does not just mean the loss of liquid milk production, but of all the higher-value dairy products. I am proud that my constituency makes some of the finest cheese in the worldI do not dispute that other good cheeses are made around the country, but that is a fact. Why would this country want to run down one of our most effective, efficient and best industries and export it abroad? That, however, is happening.
Mr. McLoughlin: I agree with the hon. Gentlemans comments. To carry on with the coincidences relating to his and my constituency, the king of cheeses, Stilton, is made in Hartington in my constituency. Farmers are disturbed that while they are getting 18p a litre for milk, it is being retailed at 52p. Where is that difference going?
Mr. Heath: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will not get into a quarrel with him on the relative merits of Stilton and Cheddarthey are both very good, and we can enjoy them. As he says, it is not the primary producers who are making the profit.
Even the supermarkets have not thought the situation through. I have never been convinced that consumers buy milk on the basis of price when confronted with a supermarket shelf of milk. They buy a volume of milk and they pay the price. Therefore, if supermarkets must maintain their current profit levelwe all know the great profits that they are capable of makingit would be sustainable for them to do so by increasing the retail price of milk. There are some small signs that that is beginning to happen, at least from the assurances given by supermarkets. However, we have had those assurances before, and they have not been sustained. I am afraid to say that I do not believe that that will be achieved by voluntary arrangement. At the end of the day, there will have to be Government intervention in what is effectively a false market in milk. That is why everyone is waiting with bated breath for the outcome of the Competition Commission report, although I am not entirely optimistic about that. We saw what it did last time
when, as the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, it examined vertical integration in milk in the context of Milk Marque. We saw then what it said about the relationship between the producer and the supermarkets. If we ask the wrong questions, we get the wrong answers. The fact that it is saying that it does not have evidence of a distorted market when the distorted market is there for anyone to see in the price of milk, does not fill me with confidence.
Nevertheless, we will have to go beyond a voluntary code of conduct into something that is on a firmer basis if we are ever to see the rescue of the dairy industry. Some people would be happy for the dairy industry to contract and, in their eyes, be made more efficient by the 1,000-header herds owned by an agricultural conglomerate, but the traditional dairy farm run by a family is the building block of British agriculture. It is what is best for this country in terms of both produce and our environment. I want it to be maintained.
The second issue in farming is the ongoing problem with Mycobacterium bovistuberculosisin cattle. The Government are ducking the problem. They have consulted, and the consultation has finished, but they are still not prepared to come to a decision. I know it is a difficult decision to make. It will be very unpopularalmost any decision that they are going to take will be unpopular. However, we cannot have a continuing growth of the spread of TB among the bovine and badger populations. The welfare of cattle is important; the welfare of badgers and other wild species that carry the bacterium is important. We need swift decisions on what is to be done. How do we attack the reservoir of infection effectively? We must also deal with the corollary issuethe profitability of farms. It is devastating when a herd tests positive for TB. It is even more devastating if the recompensethe table valuationsdoes not recognise the actual value of the stock that is culled. That needs addressing.
There are also opportunities in agriculture. Climate change should provide a massive opportunity for diversification into new crops and new ways of doing business, yet I do not see any joined-up thinking between those who are involved with agriculture, with the environment and with trade and industry, in particular those who have the energy brief. I see no evidence that they understand how those are linked and how we can open up new opportunities for agriculture.
I do not see the incentives for young farmers to come into the industry. That is a serious problem. Farms in my countyI am sure that this is typical of many parts of the countryare often run by people in middle-age to late middle-age whose children are not interested in carrying the farms on. Younger people cannot see a future in farming and are leaving to do other things. That is their right, but we need those who want to make their living from the land to have the opportunity to come into the industry. That is not available to them.
Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con):
Is not part of the problem with farming that many young people who are set to inherit farms realise that it is so difficult to make money out of farming that it is far better,
although less desirable, to sell that farm on to a City stockbroker who simply wants an amenity farma sort of leisure centre?
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right. That happens. Farmhousesdetached substantial buildings in the countryside with nice viewsare sold off as houses without land. There is an increase in horsey-culture. There is nothing wrong with horses, but the more prime agricultural land that is sold as pony paddock, the less there is available for farming. It worries me that if agribusiness takes over all the land, it will be run entirely on a balance sheet rather than with any consideration for the land and the communities on that land. If the profitability is down, the agribusinesses will leave and reinvest elsewhere. That is a worrying possibility.
A further common problem is over-regulation. The farming industry is still massively over-regulated, with far too much red tape. I welcome the Davidson review of over-implementation of EU regulations. It is a continuing problem. In addition, we have duplication of inspection. There is the view that the man from the Ministry is always around the corner, trying to find fault with what the farmer is trying to do. It is a one-way street: the farmer makes one mistake and he loses out; the Department can make any number of mistakes and they are rectified in the next month. We need ways to allow organisations to share information so that we do not have duplication. We need more straightforward implementation of regulation and far less paperwork.
Regulation is important. We know that from the experiences of the epidemics of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and foot and mouth. However, it must be done in a way that is constructive and supportive of the industry. It should not be put in place in ways that appear to make things difficult.
We need clear labelling. It is one of the long-standing problems in this country that people cannot identify good British food produced by good British producers from the labels, which are often grossly deceptive in terms of foodstuffs that are produced abroad, repackaged in this country and sold as British produce. That cannot be right.
There are many other things that I could say on farming, including the cuts in scientific research, which are concerning. To meet its budgetary requirements, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has cut back massively in the veterinary science organisations for which it is responsible, which could have a disastrous effect. However, my last point is about the Rural Payments Agency. We cannot ignore what the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said today about the RPA. It has produced a devastating report. The overview says:
This was a catastrophe for some farmers, and a serious and embarrassing failure for Defra and the RPA. A key part of the Governments sustainable farming policy was in collapse.
This is not the first time that a major public sector business change or IT project has failed.
A culture where ministers and senior officials can preside over failure of this magnitude and not be held personally accountable creates a serious risk of further failures in public service delivery.
The RPA has been a disaster for the Government, but even more of a disaster for those working in agriculture who have found themselves in extraordinary difficulty because of the failure to deliver what is rightfully theirs in terms of payments over such long periods. As we heard, the problems of two years ago and last year are being repeated. We still have difficulties with the administration of rural payments. Those difficulties will continue until the Government get to grips with them.
I agree with the Committee: heads should have rolled. It is not satisfactory that Ministers can walk away from a fiasco like this and be promoted as a result, rather than taking ministerial responsibility. It is not good enough, and it must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
There are many other issues in agriculture, but this is not the time to go through them all. I can only leave the House with the thought that there ought to be an opportunity for us to debate both agriculture and rural issues regularly in the Chamber, with a Minister with responsibility on the Bench to listen. That does not happen. It is left to individual Members to secure Adjournment debates. I have initiated two such debates on the dairy industry in recent years, but debates are not held in Government time, although the issue affects huge swathes of our country and our countryside and, without such debates, goes unremarked.
The problems of agriculture are just one symptom of the malaise in the countryside. We could talk about post offices, rural services, transport and the difficulties of maintaining a decent standard of living in many of our rural areaswhich means decent housing over our heads, the ability to work, the ability to find medical treatment and the ability for small schools to be maintained. Those are all important issues; the problem is that we do not have enough opportunities to debate them. This is one such opportunity, and I have taken it today.
I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to ensure that some of my comments, and those of others, are clearly communicated to the Ministers responsible. They have to hear what people in the countryside are saying, and what they are saying is that things need to change.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|