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I welcome the creation of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It will enable the Government to reform the food chain, to promote a more diverse system of agriculture and to regenerate the rural economy. These are issues that concern us all, whether we live in town, as I do, or in country. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs said in the Western Mail of 18 June,
In all these matters, as many Members have said this afternoon, it is vital that we engage with public opinion. Most people are not concerned only with the cost and quality of their food. They can appreciate the wider environmental issues. There needs to be a wider debate, and perhaps the sort of debate that we have had today. I appreciated the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who spoke so movingly about foot and mouth disease.
There is a case for interests to come together to collaborate on getting things right rather than wrong. Producers and the National Farmers Union, for example, should be involved. Supermarkets, consumer groups and tourism interests are clearly vital, as are groups such as the Countryside Alliance, which is not only a hunting lobby. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds should also be involved.
The average net farming income is about £5,200 per farm in England. That is not sustainable. The common agricultural policy and a producer-dominated Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not deliver, and I am glad that MAFF has gone. There is no simple answer, but part of the solution must involve a progressive shift in subsidy payments from commodity and volume production support towards rural development, farm diversification and investment.
The then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), secured some progress on the so-called modulation of the CAP a couple of years ago. That is good, but we must go much further. Integrated farm management, as promoted by Linking the Environment and Farming, whose activities I have been delighted to promote in the House, and organic farming require support while they become more established in the marketplace.
A major underlying problem in rural areas--we have heard about this from hon. Members on both sides of the House--is a lack of public transport, which leads to a dependence on cars for those who have them and to isolation or restricted social work and education opportunities for those who do not. The previous Government announced substantial funding to promote rural bus services, and we look for real and solid improvements on the railways, taking account of a full debate in the House. There is no quick fix.
Car numbers are likely to increase, with all the environmental problems that will ensue. At the least, we must ensure that that does not contribute to global warming through increased emissions. The House knows that I have long advocated--partly through my work on the Select Committee on Environmental Audit--incentives for environmentally friendly road fuel gases. The Chairman of the Committee made a distinguished contribution to the debate earlier.
The Government have responded to the need, not least in the most recent Budget, in which road fuel duty was cut by 40 per cent. In response, the liquefied petroleum gas industry is investing significantly in pumps, but so far mainly in urban areas. The various benefits of road fuel gas availability should be delivered to rural areas. The Scots have an initiative to encourage the installation of LPG pumps and tanks in rural areas in the form of the Scottish rural petrol stations grant scheme. The scheme should be extended to cover rural areas in England and Wales. Taiwan and Japan also subsidise the installation of LPG filling points for environmental reasons.
In the United Kingdom we have used the tax system to incentivise a shift to environmental goods from environmental bads. Let us use the system creatively in the same way to help the countryside. Transport is now part of another Department and I hope that that will not mean that we lose sight of environmental considerations. We must remember the pledge of the previous Government to make such considerations central to policy making. I am concerned that the decisions on some of the proposed new road schemes, such as the Hastings by-pass, will not take a sufficiently long-term, integrated view.
Departments that are too big can, of course, be unwieldy--I shall mention no names, of course--and changing situations require changing departmental boundaries. However, other means can and should be used to ensure that policy making continues to be joined up and take into account all the strands of truly proper development. As colleagues in all parties will agree, that involves having concern not only for producers and profit but--if I may, as a former English teacher, be excused a continuing alliteration--for people and planet, too.
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Like all the other new Members who have already spoken, I feel very honoured to have been elected as a Member of Parliament. I feel a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude to those who have shown trust in me. I also feel an additional honour,
I know that it is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor, but I wanted to do that in any event. David Prior was the Conservative Member for North Norfolk for four years. Despite that relatively short period, he built up a reputation for assiduous hard work on behalf of his constituents. He was on the liberal wing of the Conservative party. I think that, in modern Conservative parlance, he was a mod as opposed to a rocker. He was brave enough to initiate a debate in the previous Parliament on the reform of our drug laws, which was impressive for a new Member. I am therefore very happy to pay tribute to his contribution in this place.
One of the great privileges of this job is to work with so many unsung heroes beavering away in their own local communities, often without much credit being given to the work that they do. I am thinking in particular of some of the wonderful wardens of sheltered housing schemes whom I have met, and of the people who keep voluntary community projects such as nurseries going in the North Norfolk area. I am also thinking of the carers who look after loved ones in their own homes, and of the many teachers working with a real passion for the benefit of the children in their schools.
I want to pay particular tribute to the achievement of Hickling first school, Colby primary school and Fakenham high school, all of which achieved the honour of beacon status last week, and Cromer high school--also in my constituency--which achieved language college status last week. Those are great achievements for those schools.
North Norfolk is a wonderful constituency to represent. I shall resist the temptation to give the House a tourist's guide to our wonderful coastline, but I shall just mention three villages: the village of Little Snoring, which is, inevitably, larger than the neighbouring village of Great Snoring, and the village of Sloley. One might get a false impression of the pace of life in North Norfolk from the names of those villages.
I want to say a few words about the decline in rural services--in particular the network of rural sub-post offices. A real threat hangs over those businesses in rural areas, and it is not only a future threat. The threat of the loss of benefit payments through sub-post offices means that the value of those businesses is declining dramatically now. Any sub-postmaster or mistress who wants to retire or move on is finding it very difficult, if not impossible, to sell their business. This crisis must be addressed, and it must be a priority for the Government.
The rural transport network, and especially bus services, have been decimated in constituencies such as North Norfolk. Some interesting initiatives now exist, such as the dial-a-ride scheme, which I thoroughly endorse. However, we need more investment in the rural networks and more integration between the services provided by rival companies and between bus and rail services.
It is environmentally nonsensical that, over the years, school transport should have declined dramatically, resulting in endless extra car journeys. It seems so much more sensible to allow children to travel to school by bus, particularly in a dispersed rural area such as North Norfolk. It is also wrong that students over the compulsory school leaving age have to pay for their transport to school, as that is a positive disincentive to children from poor families to carry on their education.
I also want to mention the state of our health service. Constituents have come to see me who are having to wait a year for an appointment with a specialist about their hip, which might be causing them real pain throughout that whole period. That is unacceptable. It takes them a year to get on to the waiting list for the operation. People talk about concerns over creating a two-tier health service, but it is here already. Anyone with money can opt out of the health service here and now. Those on low incomes, particularly pensioners, are left having to wait an unacceptably long time for treatment.
Finally, I want to mention the growing concern about the disengagement of young people from the political process. We have heard a lot about turnouts over the past few weeks, but the concern over young people's voting patterns is the greatest of all. We have a duty to make politics much more relevant and to behave in a way that will rebuild people's trust in the political process. It is incumbent on us to modernise the way in which we carry out our business, and to open this place up to young people. I admit to being excited at being here, and I hope that I can do my best to repay the trust that has been placed in me.