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4.58 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan). He follows a long line of distinguished hon. Members representing that constituency. I found his speech very entertaining, although it contained a sombre note because, like mine, his constituency has been struck with the dread contagion of foot and mouth disease. He said that he was an ambassador for his constituency. He carries a heavy burden because, for the Conservative party, he is an ambassador for the whole of Scotland. I suspect that there will continue to be a small advance party after the next general election, but I wish him well.

I want to confine my remarks to foot and mouth disease. My constituency of Pendle has now been touched by the disease; it struck just after the general election. Before then, it was held in the so-called Settle-Clitheroe rectangle. The A59 was the firebreak. We were all keeping our fingers crossed that the disease could be contained on the Ribble valley side, but, on 9, 10 and 11 June, that firebreak was breached and three infected farms and 16 contiguous farms were culled out. Those farms lie in a horseshoe around Barnoldswick, the town where I live. Five further farms have been culled out--the farms contiguous with infected farms that lie outside the Pendle boundary. We have also had dangerous contact cases in Barrowford, as well as near Colne, but fortunately there have been no funeral pyres. All the animals have been taken away because the rendering capacity now exists, and people have been spared the torment of the black smoke and the odours of animals being burnt in those dreadful pyres.

Feelings have been running high in my constituency. Many accusing fingers have been pointed at the Government and others. I was gratified to learn that the Secretary of State had accepted an invitation from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) to meet farmers at Gisburn. Yesterday, I took some farmers from the Pendle area to meet the Secretary of State, and they told me afterwards that she had handled the meeting very well. There was a lot of praise for her straightforward handling of the questions and she impressed the farmers, but some of the concerns that came out of the meeting still have to be addressed by the Government full square.

At the centre of the concerns was whether British farming had a future after the disease had finally been stamped out. If the farmers take the compensation and restock, will there be a cap on numbers? Several farmers said that the 20-day movement ban would kill the industry. I do not know what the answer is if we want to prevent foot and mouth taking hold and spreading again, but there were real concerns about that. There were concerns about foot and mouth being endemic in the deer population, and I know that the Minister will want to comment on that in the winding-up speech.

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Concerns were expressed by people in the agricultural supply industry whose businesses were reeling. The number of bad debts in farming made it very difficult for the people who supply the farmers to carry on. It was suggested that people in the agricultural supply business could do some of the work that former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials are doing at present in advising farmers, on disinfecting, and so on.

There was much concern that compensation was not reaching farmers quickly enough. That is clearly critical, because farmers, like the rest of us, cannot survive on fresh air, and they need to know when they will get their money. That is not an exhaustive list of the issues that the farmers raised, and there was an expectation that an inquiry will take place.

It sticks in my throat when I hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who speaks for the Conservative party, banging on about an inquiry, given that it took the Labour Government to hold an inquiry into BSE. Why could the Conservatives not have held an inquiry into BSE during their long period in office? They had to wait for us to win the 1997 election to have an inquiry. However, I do not want any inquiry to be like the Phillips inquiry, which took two years to complete. It would take a week to read the entire Phillips report, which runs to 15 volumes. Life is too short for that; I want an inquiry that will be focused, that will not take for ever and that will supply the answers to some of the questions that have been posed.

Outside the meeting, farmers also expressed other concerns, which, for reasons best known to them, they did not raise directly with the Secretary of State. Some people were anxious that the vets themselves may have spread the disease--I do not know the answer to that. Another criticism was that vets with a background outside farming were brought in from overseas. A farmer told me that a vet from Florida who did nothing but treat exotic animals came over to deal with foot and mouth disease.

This is a case in which the Government are damned if they do and damned if they don't. The state veterinary service had 220 vets, which was clearly not enough. We needed to bring vets in to deal with the outbreak, and the number increased to 750 or 800 vets. Clearly, there is always someone who is prepared to mock or sneer and say that the vets brought in did not have a perfect command of English or whatever, but the important factor was that the vets could identify the disease and recommend the proper action to take.

There were concerns about lorry loads of carcases being removed from the infected area in Pendle along country roads through areas that were not infected. I am not aware of the logistics involved in getting the animals to the renderers, and I invite the Minister to comment on that.

There was a separate meeting about the state of the rural economy. I was told--it is a shocking statistic--that £1.2 billion was lost to the north-west economy as a result of foot and mouth disease. I, and many others, are still waiting for the list of successful towns that bid for help under the market towns initiative. That information should have been made available on 12 June, and I am still waiting.

There are many angry people in Pendle who have pressed the case for vaccination. They set up a small group, the Heart of Britain foot and mouth action group,

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which managed to persuade Pendle borough council to back a resolution calling for the introduction of protective vaccination in areas immediately threatened by the disease, and mass vaccination in areas that rely on tourism. That could mean the entire country outside urban areas. It seems that the question has not been properly thought through. I agree with the Government's position, which is that vaccination should be held in reserve. It is possible to vaccinate rapidly if the situation becomes completely out of control.

I advise those who have written to me about these matters to refer to the remarks of Jim Scudamore, the chief vet, in his contribution to the inquiry undertaken in the last Parliament by the Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. On 21 March, Mr. Scudamore persuasively set out the arguments for vaccination, as well as the huge downside involved in taking that route.

The Liberal Democrats' policy should be put on the record. At a public meeting in my constituency, the Liberal Democrats gave people the impression that their party's position was to vaccinate everything that moved in the farmyard. That was not the position. On 14 June, the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on these issues, said that it was not the time to move away from slaughter and disposal.

How extensive is the foot and mouth epidemic? I have only two more minutes. Many think that it is endemic in the upland sheep and the deer populations. During the BBC's "World at One" on 12 June it was reported that MAFF had referred to a programme of testing upland sheep. Of the 60,000 sheep tested, it was found that 15,000 were carrying the foot and mouth antibody. I should like--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

5.9 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I am delighted to be the first Conservative Member to be able to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) on his maiden speech. It was a pleasure to hear a good Scottish accent on the Opposition Benches--my mother is half Scottish--and one that I could understand. There was no need for translation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) made a typically eloquent and forceful contribution to the debate. Perhaps that is not a genuine compliment because I know that he is not standing for leadership of the Conservative party.

Mr. Yeo: There is time yet.

Mr. Horam: Indeed.

I agreed with my hon. Friend when he said that he was pleased that the Gracious Speech included a reference to tackling climate change and making a reality of sustainable development. I am strongly of that view. If the Government really wish to take that approach, after making their declaration in the Gracious Speech, they could reincarnate the Select Committee on the Environmental Audit. I see two distinguished Labour

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Members who were members of that Committee, but I do not think that any Opposition Members present in the Chamber sat on it. Were it in existence, we would be harrying them, as much as we did in the previous Parliament, to commit themselves to tackling climate change, to making a reality of sustainable development and to making those issues the heart of their policy in government.

As a matter of fact, by a peculiar quirk of our procedures, there is no impediment to that Committee being set up immediately. Unlike all other Select Committees, apart from the Public Accounts Committee, we do not have to be set up by the Committee of Selection. The Whips could get together and reach an agreement today to reincarnate the Committee, and I have mentioned this to a Government Whip and to the Whip who is talking away on my own Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). Let us get on with that, so that we can have a real debate about sustainable development instead of the good but token remarks in the Gracious Speech.

Obviously, the main theme of the Gracious Speech--or perhaps I should say the main priority; we are getting into semantics here, but I understand the difficulty that the Government are in--is improvement in our public services. Few of us would quarrel with that--it was certainly the theme of the general election--and that applies across all the public services, including the police, health, schools or whatever.

I want to concentrate on transport and to drag the debate away, if I may, from the concerns of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who rightly spoke about agriculture, BSE and so forth. I want to concentrate on my own concerns as the Member for Orpington and a Member for our great capital city. Transport is a real problem in the capital city today. Many of my constituents commute into London to come to work. Indeed, many of them work at the House of Commons and I know of the problems first hand, because they complain to me regularly about the nature of the commuter services that they have to undergo daily.

First, commuters have to get to the station and find a car park; the buses are not always reliable. The trains are often late when they get there, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) mentioned. A recent commuter watch by the Evening Standard found that 25 per cent. of the trains going from Orpington to central London on the Connex South Eastern line were late. When commuters get on the trains, they habitually find them overcrowded.

Overcrowding is the problem that people complain about most often in my constituency. Indeed, some of the staff members here have complained that, in this hot weather, they have almost fainted while going home after a day's work in the House of Commons. The fact that they are packed, like sardines, into an overheated old carriage makes me wonder about safety. If something went wrong, what would happen? That is clearly on people's minds since the recent accidents, which we are all very sad about.

When commuters get to London, they have to face the underground, where the gates are frequently closed because no more people can be accommodated on the platforms. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has said of facing the horror of an

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evening's journey home in temperatures of 90 deg F that it would not happen to animals. Human beings should not be allowed to be carried in that fashion legally.

There are huge problems. It is not only that the present situation is so bad. There is also very little light at the end of the tunnel, which itself seems a long way off. Even Ken Livingstone, the Mayor, said the other day that it would be at least five years after the next election for Mayor--fortunately for him--before we should see any significant improvements in transport in London. Similarly, Sir Alastair Morton said only yesterday, I think, that it would be at least five years before we saw any major improvements in the railways. That is a very long way off when one is sitting in a packed train going to work.

I remind the House that London is the great engine of economic growth, and we cannot afford to have more dispirited people turning up for work. I look to the Minister to say something about how the situation on my own commuter line can be improved. I want practical measures to be introduced, for example, to deal with the problems of overcrowding. There should be some reasonably affordable short-term solutions, such as platform lengthening, signalling replacement, and dealing with bottlenecks such as the infamous Borough market junction, which could lead to some improvement to the commuter line that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and I share. Such measures would allow people to carry on with some hope that something will happen, not just in the long-distant future, five or 10 years from now, but in the foreseeable future.

The beginning of a Parliament is a good time not only to think of immediate concerns of that kind--important though they are to my constituents--but to stand back and examine the Government's approach. It is essential, in relation to the new Departments in particular--whose creation at least shows a recognition of the need for a fresh Government approach--that there should be clear thinking and clear-cut decisions. In that respect, I welcome the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research--not a Conservative think-tank, but one that is more oriented towards new Labour--which had some sensible things to say. In particular, it made the point that we should drop the dogma. How often have we exchanged dogmatic views of "public right, private wrong" or "private right, public wrong" across the Chamber or in a general election? We have had our fill of such exchanges in the past few weeks and should try in the interests of our constituents to drop as many of them as possible. We should also recognise that different solutions are appropriate in different circumstances.

I certainly recognise that the Government's transport inheritance from their predecessor was not perfect. The privatisation of the railways, for example, was overcomplex and made a signal error--sorry about the pun--by splitting track management from train operations, organisation and management. My view is not that of hindsight; to the horror of the then Government Whips, I expressed it on Second Reading of the Railways Act 1993. I have always felt that that separation was a fundamental error in our privatisation plan.

Nevertheless, privatisation has some advantages, an important one being that, to some extent, it has removed the Treasury's dead hand from investment. It has also made the railways more customer oriented.

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I therefore accept that, because of their transport inheritance, the Government have been constrained in their transport decisions. However, despite all its obvious faults, Ministers have undoubtedly made matters worse by dumping all the blame on Railtrack after the recent accidents. Consequently, Railtrack is now not the vehicle for raising private capital that it was originally envisaged to be. That is a serious problem for those trying to attract extra investment to the railways rapidly, so as to give relief to constituents such as mine.

The Government have a serious choice to make about whether they are going to support Railtrack, so that its share price increases and it is able to attract investment and private capital, or whether--as the hon. Members for Bath (Mr. Foster) and for Crewe and Nantwich were saying--to restructure Railtrack. I would not be averse to the latter option. Railtrack is so subsidised by taxpayers' money that there is case for saying that we should take the equity for that and thereby make Railtrack effectively a renationalised company.

Subsequently, bits of Railtrack could be leased out to the operating companies and management of the operating companies could be reintegrated with management of the rails. We might then have a sensible and less complicated system. It would be a fitting finale if we called the new organisation the British railways board, as Simon Jenkins humorously suggested the other day. That is the type of process that we need.

The Government have only themselves to blame on the underground; they cannot blame their predecessors. Ministers not only created the underground public-private partnership of their own volition, they recreated all the mistakes that had been made in the Conservative Government's privatisation of the railways. The PPP is too complex. Even Bob Kiley says that he cannot understand it, and I should think that he has studied it far more than anyone else has. It also envisages splitting rail from track as happened in the railways privatisation.

The Government have some clear decisions to make on the underground. Should they--

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