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5.55 pm

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on his extremely interesting maiden speech, which held the rapt attention of all Members of the House. His detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the national health service will enable him to make an important contribution to the deliberations of the House in the years ahead, but for only four years, I hope. I was also impressed by the other Members who made their maiden speeches this afternoon--my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn) and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan), all of whom will make valuable contributions.

I want to say a word or two about the formation of the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I welcome that development, as the abolition of the

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Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was long overdue, and the Ministry had few friends as foot and mouth disease took its course. The decision will also enable the Government to make the linkages between agriculture, food production and environmental policy that much tighter, which I welcome.

On the other hand, there are dangers, because environmental policy may come to be considered as entirely an issue of the countryside and be defined rather softly as involving protection of green fields, tree planting, making small changes to agriculture and protecting rural villages. It would be unfortunate if we allowed that to happen, because, essentially, environmental policy should deal with the hard and important questions of waste management, the sustainability of our natural resources, the quality of life in urban and suburban areas, the nature of our transport systems and energy supply.

I therefore ask the members of the new Department's ministerial team, who are working in a Department that ties environment and agriculture together more closely, not to forget their responsibilities to ensure that the work of other Departments is scrutinised and influenced in terms of its environmental impact. I call on Ministers to take a particular interest in the work of the Treasury and fiscal policy and the work of the Department of Trade and Industry as well as matters of transport and local government.

I want to make a brief point about foot and mouth, which has dominated the debate. My constituency of Bury, North is largely urban and suburban, but it contains a small agricultural interest. Thankfully, the farmers in my constituency have not suffered directly because of foot and mouth, but many businesses in urban and suburban areas have been affected. Therefore, when the Government consider the consequences of foot and mouth and, in particular, the compensation payable to its victims, will they please pay attention to urban businesses that have suffered because of what has happened in the countryside?

We tend to think entirely in terms of farmers and rural businesses, which is a worrying tendency that I want to check, because I know of businesses in my constituency that have gone through an extremely difficult period over the past six months. They need some attention, too.

I welcome the fact that there will be an inquiry and I understand the Government's desire to hold it urgently and quickly rather than have it drag on for years and years. That is understandable, and we need to learn the lessons of how the disease has been managed and gradually brought under control. However, in focusing on the disease itself and in trying better to equip ourselves to cope with a future outbreak, we are missing the bigger picture. It is difficult to say this when so many farming communities have been stricken by foot and mouth, but the bigger picture is that many aspects of the intensive industrial agricultural practices to which we have become used for half a century are unsustainable. Indeed, some are revolting and need to be challenged and banned.

I hope that the Government will not only conduct an inquiry into the management of foot and mouth to learn lessons for the future, but hold a wider debate on the nature of food production. The consumption of less meat would have enormous advantages for the economy of the countryside. Its impact on human health would improve

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the quality of people's lives. Biodiversity would also be enhanced. I want an inquiry to take place about moving away from intensive industrialised agriculture.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should also consider consumption? What this country lacks is an effective food policy.

Mr. Chaytor: I agree completely. We should also consider how four large supermarkets control the supply of food and most people's diet. There are wider issues than disease management.

On climate change, it is interesting that we have a new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but that, according to the Order Paper, the debate does not cover the environment. Although the Opposition's amendment makes a passing reference to protecting the environment, the most profound issue that every country faces is the threat posed by climate change. All the excellent policies in the Queen's Speech and the Government's achievements of the past four years will be as nothing if we do not get the policy on climate change right.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) make encouraging remarks about the importance of climate change. He said that his party recognises the problem, but the Conservatives said nothing in their four years of opposition and did nothing in their 18 years of government to acknowledge the threats posed by climate change. That must be seen in the light of the new intransigence of the Bush Administration in the United States and new scientific evidence.

The second report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change, published in January, revised upwards its assessment of global warming. In the past few days, Nature published research by Scandinavian scientists on what impact the melting ice floe in Greenland might have on the Gulf stream. It could lower the temperature in the United Kingdom, which would have an impact on agriculture. We must get to grips with that. It is no good simply saying that it is a good point; the Government have to continue to be prepared to take the hard decisions to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, which the Opposition have resisted.

The Government announced yesterday a serious review of energy policy. That is overdue, but welcome. The country is at a crossroads. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw was concerned about the price of diesel. We can continue to delude ourselves that we can burn off fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow and that the supply of coal, gas and diesel is infinite, but we cannot sweep under the carpet the fact that the price of diesel and other fossil fuels needs to increase if we are to reduce consumption. The difficulty is that there is huge public resistance to that--they have not made the connection between burning diesel, petrol and oil for heating and the impact that that has on climate change.

I call on the Government to think more seriously about how they can raise the consciousness and understanding of the public. They need to conduct a major information programme on the link between burning fossil fuels and the impact of climate change. I hope that the Minister will assure us that he will not sit back and rest on the laurels of the achievements of the past four years, and that he intends to make great progress on climate change policy.

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6.5 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): In my maiden speech to the House, I should like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Andrew Welsh, who served the people of Angus so well for so many years. Andrew was first elected to the House in 1974 for the constituency of Angus, South. He then served as Member for Angus, East and, since 1987, for Angus. In all those years, he effectively pursued, with single-minded determination, the interests of his constituents and of Scotland. I am delighted that Andrew continues to serve the people of Angus as our first Member of the Scottish Parliament and as convenor of its Audit Committee.

Angus is a constituency of small towns and villages with a large rural area comprising the eastern part of Angus, small parts of Dundee and the villages of eastern Perthshire. It also includes my home town of Arbroath, where the first declaration of Scottish independence was signed in 1320 and where we look forward to hosting the signing of the next.

Angus is a beautiful part of our country, but it is not without its problems. In his many years in the House, Andrew Welsh fought for the future of health services in Angus and, to coin a phrase, that work goes on. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) told us about the situation in his constituency. That is all too familiar to the people of Angus. One of the greatest problems facing rural areas in Scotland is the centralisation of services. Last week, the Prime Minister and other Labour Members talked about improvements in the health service, but that is not the experience of my area and many other rural areas in Scotland.

The health trust in Tayside has possibly the biggest deficit in the country. It cannot even tell us its exact size. It has embarked on a policy of centralisation of services, with disastrous consequences for my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) and for Perth (Annabelle Ewing). Stracathro hospital--the only hospital between Dundee and Aberdeen to offer acute services--is under threat of closure. Services, including acute medicine, are being removed to Dundee. In the past two years, we have suffered cut upon cut. Tayside health board undertook an acute services review to examine the health service in Tayside and make recommendations. Yet before its report was considered, the health board announced the removal of acute medicine from Stracathro.

In the Prime Minister's speech last week, he mentioned staff morale in the health service. On Tayside, it is at rock bottom. They do not know from one week to the next what is to happen to their hospitals or jobs. It has become a vicious circle: staff leave to find security, but new staff cannot be attracted because of the uncertainties of the future. We are told that a new hospital in Angus will replace Stracathro hospital. Perhaps it will form part of the biggest hospital building programme since the war that the Prime Minister mentioned. However, the new hospital will not have anything like the range of services that are provided by Stracathro. Services that are removed to Dundee are unlikely to return to Angus.

We have been told that no cuts have been made to public services, but if services are removed and a hospital provides lesser services, what is that if it is not a cut in services to a community? As we have heard, Angus is not alone in that.

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In the Queen's Speech we are told that patients will be given greater influence over the health service. The people of Angus want an end to the ruinous rundown of services and the crazy centralising agenda that will leave no acute services between Dundee and Aberdeen. Those who have driven up the A90 may have seen the sign for the cafe at the entrance of Stracathro which says:

That may well turn out to be the epitaph of hospitals in rural Scotland because many of my constituents will have to gang faur and may fare waur, if they can ever get there in the first place.

There is a difficulty at the heart of the Government's programme for the NHS. They talk about the health service in rural areas and the private finance initiative, but how many private finance companies will invest in small rural hospitals or schools? They will be looking for the big projects in urban areas.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be aware that the provision of health services in Scotland is a devolved matter, but, ultimately, funding is decided by this House. In the course of the debate on the Queen's Speech, former Ministers on both sides of the House have called for a re-examination of the Barnett formula. But hon. Members should be aware that that formula will produce a squeeze on Scottish spending of some £2 billion during the next three years, of which some £400 million will come from health.

How do the Government believe that the Scottish health service can be improved in that situation? The continual squeeze can lead only to more closures and poorer services for patients in Tayside and throughout Scotland. There is, of course, an answer to the question, and that is to give the Scottish Parliament the full fiscal autonomy that would allow us to invest Scotland's wealth in Scotland's health and other services. I am sure that we shall hear a lot more of that argument in this House.

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) mentioned the level of petrol tax. The Chancellor's refusal to concede any ground on the level of fuel duty imposed on our motorists causes great hardship in rural areas, particularly in rural Scotland. A one-size-fits-all policy designed to ease traffic congestion in the cities does not work in rural areas where, in many places, there is no realistic alternative to the private motor car. It is impossible for someone to get from the top of Glen Isla to hospital in Dundee by public transport. High fuel prices hit everyone in rural areas, particularly the less well-off. A litre of petrol in the Angus towns is already significantly more expensive than in city areas, and it is even more expensive in the few rural petrol stations that have managed to stay afloat. The people of rural Scotland face the double whammy of centralisation of services and increased travel costs.

The provision of good health and other services is essential to maintain rural communities. The removal of such services will inevitably lead to a lower standard of life and economic decline. If we cannot even provide good health services, how can we attract new employers to our rural areas? We should not concentrate purely on agriculture. Many small towns in our rural communities are suffering greatly from the current economic situation.

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The need for new investment was graphically illustrated in my constituency in the past fortnight with GlaxoSmithKline's announcement that it was putting its Montrose factory up for sale following yet another merger. That announcement was made to the stock exchange in London before it was made to the work force or to the people of Montrose. It was a complete shock to the town, causing great distress and anxiety to the work force and townspeople, and it was not helped by some of the sensationalist reporting on the extent of possible job losses.

That factory is by far and away the biggest employer in Montrose and the surrounding area. Any rundown will cause great economic hardship. That example shows how the actions of large companies can decimate communities. There may be grounds for cautious optimism that the situation in Montrose may not be as bad as first feared, but the future hangs in the balance and the workers and their families face anxious times. The Government wish to

But there is nothing in the Queen's Speech about consulting the workers. The Government have recently signed up to the European directive on consultation, and I hope that the regulations made thereunder will have real teeth.

If the Government's central objective is really

they must look clearly at the need to encourage industry and industrial development in rural areas such as Angus--

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