Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I listened very carefully to what was said yesterday. I have borne it in mind and will continue to do so. Work is in hand on a farm recovery plan and also on longer-term developments for the countryside for which, as he will appreciate, his constituents and others present called yesterday.
Mr. Bercow: I congratulate the Secretary of State warmly on her appointment and wish her success. Given the flow of imports into this country that satisfy neither the meat hygiene nor the animal welfare criteria that we rightly demand of our own produce, will she undertake to introduce new honesty in food labelling legislation so that consumers can know the country of origin and the method of production of food and thereby make a free and informed choice about what to buy?
Margaret Beckett: It was the Labour party that supported improved labelling for foodstuffs when the Conservative party opposed it. As for some of the specific requests of Conservative Members, not only have they been illegal since the previous Government signed up to an agreement under the Single European Act, but the National Farmers Union is on record as saying that they would be both illegal and counter-productive. This country has billions of pounds worth of exports from the food and drink industry, and the measures proposed by the hon. Gentleman and his party could jeopardise them. We will do everything that we can to protect British consumers, subject to the rule of law and to taking action that is not counter-productive.
Crucial in the context of rural services as a whole--this is a commitment that the Conservative party never even thought of giving--is the pledge in the rural White Paper to set a rural services standard. That will be a statement of what services rural people are entitled to expect and it will be independently audited every year. All major Government policies will be assessed for their impact on rural communities when they are drawn up. We shall set up national and regional rural sounding boards to give rural stakeholders a voice at the heart of government.
What all that shows--not in words from a party that had 18 years to deliver, but in concrete examples of delivery from this Government and concrete commitments to follow them up in future--is that we have laid out our commitment to investment and reform in rural areas as much, and perhaps even more so, than in the country as a whole.
Since being appointed to the new Department, with its crucial focus on sustainable development, which requires us to consider the economy, social issues and the environment together, everyone to whom I have listened in rural areas--not least in the farming community--has expressed a desperate desire for a renewal of hope, ambition and prosperity in Britain's countryside. The constituents of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) did so yesterday. That is not only an ambition
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment to the new Department and wish her well. I also congratulate her on contributing to the debate today despite her difficulties with her voice. I hope that she will be better soon. Despite the brevity of her contribution, she said rather more about her aspirations for the new Department than we heard in the Gracious Speech.
Many of us will have read with considerable interest the press release that the new Department put out on 14 June and will share the new Secretary of State's ambitions for her Department. In it she states:
The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that many other issues, such as the need to improve health, education and transport and the fight against crime, are as vital in rural as in urban areas. I agree, but her Department will not deal with those matters. We are pleased about the dismantling of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the establishment of the new Department, but what is it going to do?
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) rightly and properly mentioned farming. We know that the foot and mouth crisis has resulted in the slaughter of 5.5 million animals and the payment of £1 billion in compensation already. Sadly, we still hear of new cases almost daily. There was no reference to that crisis in the Gracious Speech or, more particularly, to any Government plans to set up a full and independent inquiry into foot and mouth and their handling of the crisis. The House and the country at large will want to know, for example, what impacts the common agricultural policy and the Government's management of the rural economy have had. What has been the impact of the gradual decline of the end-use price that farmers now receive on the way in which livestock is moved around the country, and on the spread of foot and mouth disease?
Only by means of a full inquiry, along the lines of the Phillips inquiry into BSE, will we discover what are the lessons that we urgently need to learn. I strongly urge the Secretary of State to say more than that there will be an inquiry: she must state categorically that it will be a full, independent and public inquiry, with the widest possible remit.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there must be a full inquiry into the circumstances of the foot and mouth epidemic and its consequences for the wider economy. Does he agree that it should also examine how the disease was contained so effectively in those continental countries where outbreaks occurred, and why the containment of isolated cases in this country was so unsuccessful?
Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is right. We need to look more widely into the matter. Indeed, I suspect that the inquiry should also look at how the rather different regime that exists in Scotland handled the crisis.
As he has done before, with the support of Liberal Democrat Members, the hon. Member for South Suffolk rightly raised the issue of consequential losses. He said that there was a need to look at the compensatory framework in relevant cases, and I very much agree with his remarks. The Government have already introduced a number of measures in connection with that matter, but they have not said for how long those measures will apply. Many people will be interested to know what the Government's plans are in that respect.
However, we hope that the new Department will look at other issues beyond the public inquiry into foot and mouth. Other hon. Members have already mentioned the protection of the green belt. We argue that the Government should look urgently at the possibility of introducing a greenfield development tax to make it more difficult to build on green fields. It is an obscenity that there are 150,000 homeless households in this country, and yet there are a staggering 750,000 empty houses. Before we start talking about building new houses on the green belt, we should look at measures to redress that ridiculous imbalance.
Mr. Gray: Corsham in my constituency is not far from the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The Government's proposal to build 850 houses on a brand-new greenfield site has been endorsed and permitted by the Liberal- Democrat controlled North Wiltshire district council. Does he agree with that or oppose it?
Mr. Foster: I do not know the full details of the case, so I shall not be drawn on that question. However, local authorities are being placed in a difficult position by the imposition of housebuilding targets by central Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in trying to persuade the Government to change their approach. Local authorities should have a much greater say in setting such targets in their areas.
The Government should also consider a variety of other measures. For example, action should be taken to strengthen opportunities for farmers' markets in different parts of the country. That matter is especially close to my heart, as the first ever such market in this country was established in my constituency.
The Department should introduce measures to tackle the huge regulatory burden placed on people working in agriculture. Reference has been made already to the gold-plating of EU legislation, but other measures that need to be introduced include the establishment of one-stop shops where people working in agriculture can obtain information about the various farming support payments that are available. Perhaps the Government should also consider establishing a parliamentary ombudsman for those who work in agriculture.
The new Department also covers the crucial issue of the environment. The Labour Government have not shone on that issue in the past four years. They appointed Jonathon Porritt as their environmental adviser. In The Daily Telegraph on 16 October last year, he said:
In the past four years, under a Labour Government, the use of renewable energy has remained static at only 2 per cent. of the UK's primary energy, and targets to reduce soot and dust--the so-called PM10s--have been downgraded. In rural areas, air pollution is now at its worst for 10 years. Plans to tackle fuel poverty have been downgraded by the simple expedient of changing the definition. One million households have allegedly been taken out of fuel poverty by that means.
Under a Labour Government, we have had one of the lowest recycling rates in the EU. Sadly, even plans to reduce car use and increase cycling have been downgraded. It has not been a happy record. The Government could do a lot. They could take measures to boost recycling, make greater use of renewable sources of energy and increase the penalties on polluters. As the hon. Member for South Suffolk said, the Government could introduce rules of corporate environmental responsibility.
I agree that the Government need to take action not only in this country but elsewhere, not least in respect of the recent decision by President Bush on the Kyoto protocol. He has thrown down the gauntlet on action to deal with climate change. It is one thing to seek renegotiation of the protocol; it is another to repudiate it in the way that he has. I hope that the Government will recognise that it is debatable whether President Bush has a mandate for the line that he has taken. It is certainly debatable whether in the medium term the American economy can be sustained unless action is taken to minimise energy use. I hope that the Secretary of State and, even more important, the Prime Minister, will take the lead with our European partners in putting pressure on President Bush to rethink his disastrous decision.
It was a great disappointment that there was little evidence that the Prime Minister talked to President Bush about the Kyoto protocol during the summit last week when he had the opportunity to do so.