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6.19 pm

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I begin by congratulating hon. Members on some excellent maiden speeches. I assure the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) that after he has won his second election victory he will come to love the name of his constituency. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on a tremendous maiden speech. I especially valued his comments about his predecessor, whom we all esteemed. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton) is himself a victimised miner; I know that his comments will have resonance on both sides of the House, and I hope that we will achieve justice for such miners during his time in this place.

I cannot begin my speech without mentioning the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), who gave us such an entertaining bird's-eye view of his constituency. I am convinced that he will uphold the tradition of dashing blonds in the House.

As my contribution to the debate, I lend support to those who urge the Government to work in Brussels for EU-wide fund switching under the common agricultural policy, so that this country is not at a disadvantage, and to ensure that sufficient resources are made available to allow much wider application, to most UK farms, of agri-environmental schemes, organic conversion, farm woodland development and so on. That will mean that agricultural practices can become more sustainable and can protect, rather than detract from, the natural environment and wildlife. I am confident that there will be public support for that sensible emphasis.

Consumers want quality, and they want safety. Most people have come to understand that the condition of the countryside concerns us all whether we live in the country or, like myself, represent an urban constituency. Many of my colleagues support the aims of the organic targets Bill, which would make 30 per cent. of land and 20 per cent. of food marketed in England and Wales organic by 2010.

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Perhaps one of my colleagues will make it their business to help the Bill to make progress, through one of the channels open to Back Benchers.

No one who has attended this important debate underestimates the scale of the current problems, and everyone knows that full recovery will take a long time. A document produced by the Countryside Alliance states that the lowest average weekly wages are in rural counties such as Cornwall, Northumberland and Shropshire; that seven of the 10 counties with a gross domestic product below the national average are rural; that total farm income is down from £6 billion in 1995 to £1.8 billion in 2000; and that the average farm income after expenses is £5,200 per farm. That is clearly unsustainable. The Countryside Agency estimates potential losses of £2 billion in the rural economy as a whole as a result of the terrible foot and mouth epidemic.

Before the election, I hosted an event in the House that brought together several rural interest groups and at which representatives of the Farm Stay UK Exmoor group took the opportunity to brief the then Minister for Tourism on the scale of their losses. I know that she had hoped to visit Exmoor to see for herself. No doubt her successor will want to strengthen such contacts.

The income from letting accommodation keeps many farms going. A small family farm with six bedrooms is currently losing between £500 and £600 a week. The Exmoor group will lose £25,000 a week as the holiday season progresses, and is looking at a loss of £500,000 if foot and mouth disease continues throughout the summer.

Even counties such as Dorset, with no FMD, have been badly affected. The English Tourism Council has pointed out that if there is a silver lining to the terrible FMD crisis it is that it has demonstrated to the Government, the business community and the public what the industry already knew: the importance of tourism to local economies. In some rural economies it is the main employer, and we could get far more from it in terms of growth and jobs. The council says that £4 out of every £5 spent on English tourism comes from domestic tourists, so it is they who need to be encouraged back. We need a wide-ranging review of the industry, and encouragement for certain ventures.

Before the election, I supported a proposal by Farm Stay UK to acquire Government backing for an integrated nationwide information and support service, as exists in France. Again, the then Minister was sympathetic, and I hope that the Government will revisit the issue in the light of the continuing crisis. There should be much more support for organisations such as LEAF—Linking the Environment and Farming—whose activities I have promoted on several occasions in the House, and there are others, such as the Farmers Conservation Group and the Farmers and Wildlife Advice Group. Perhaps there is a case for those groups to co-ordinate and work more closely together. We must also support new industries in rural areas.

Last week I was fortunate enough to secure a debate on environmentally friendly fuels, and I talked about liquid biofuels from farmland, which are important in my own region, as well as in others. Fears about climate change have increased this very week, and we know that the need to reduce greenhouse gases is urgent. The slaughter of more than 3 million animals during the terrible FMD

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epidemic has left much land under-utilised, and the set-aside scheme contributes nothing to our gross domestic product.

I understand that the European Commission is working towards a directive that would make it mandatory for member states to ensure that 2 per cent. of road transport fuel came from biofuels by 2005. In the United Kingdom that would involve some 300,000 tonnes of biodiesel and perhaps 400,000 tonnes of bioethanol. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has suggested a 20 per cent. rebate for biodiesel in the 2002 Budget. That is welcome, but it does not go nearly far enough.

A few thousand tonnes of recycled oil may be involved, but it is by no means certain that that fuel can meet the essential quality standards required under engine warranties without the addition of perhaps 10 times as much pure oilseed. I understand that the rebate will not be paid on fuel that does not meet the standard. No firm guidelines have been given for bioethanol. Research has been mooted, but it will be years before it can make any serious contribution to the rural economy and cleaner air.

Many issues have brought crisis to our countryside, and hon. Members on both sides of the House must work together in the spirit that has characterised this excellent debate. I am delighted to have heard such sensitive speeches from new Members on both sides of the House. I am also delighted that they have all contributed to the theme of this debate. We can work together, and I am confident that we will.

6.28 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I also thank all hon. Members who have kept their speeches short enough to allow me a brief innings tonight.

I thought that as the summer recess is fast approaching, I would take hon. Members on both sides of the House on a brief tour of a very green and pleasant land—or at least it was green and pleasant until the channel tunnel arrived. I was elected this year to represent the Faversham and Mid-Kent constituency—a creation of the 1997 boundary commission. I know that the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) knows it well.

My constituency comprises all the countryside between Sittingbourne and Maidstone on the western side and Canterbury and Ashford in the east. It rises in the north on the north Kent coast and sweeps over to Faversham—originally a cinque port and a well known mediaeval market town, which is now famous as the home of the oldest family-owned brewery in the country, Shepherd Neame.

My constituency continues beyond Faversham, across the north downs—an area of outstanding natural beauty, criss-crossed by many ancient pilgrim routes to Canterbury. Beyond that to the south is the rolling countryside of the weald, to the west of which are the prosperous suburbs of Maidstone. However, it would be wrong to try to argue that all that part of the world is prosperous. At the eastern end of Maidstone are two of the most deprived housing estates in Europe. As Members will imagine, it is from there that much of my postbag comes.

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The town, however, has the accolade of being home to three former Members of the House: Sir Roger Moate, Andrew Rowe and Sir John Wells. Indeed, it is the current home of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe).

Over the past few weeks, a number of people have grappled with the question of how to talk about their predecessors. I have no such problems. Andrew Rowe was universally regarded as one of the most diligent and popular constituency Members. After I was selected, I was very struck by how many people said to me what a difficult job it would be to follow him as the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent. I have been amazed since my arrival at the House by just how many people have said to me how sad they were to see him go. There may be some irony in that. Mr. Speaker told me that Andrew Rowe would be an extremely hard act to follow, and at the end of my first month here, I am just beginning to understand exactly what that means.

I am sure that all Members of the House, knowing that Andrew Rowe was not well in his last few years here, will join me in wishing him a long, happy and well deserved retirement, and will hope very much that the disease that blighted his final few years in the House will finally be laid to rest. He was indeed a credit to the House.

I asked to make my maiden speech today because in many ways, the countryside defines my constituency. Not for nothing is it known as the garden of England. However, as with the many other parts of the countryside that Members have mentioned, my constituency is in crisis. Incomes and the number of people employed in rural industries are falling and many of the orchards that so characterise that part of England are being grubbed up.

The reasons for that are many and varied. They include low prices, because farmers receive a falling share of the retail price; cheap imports from abroad with which we cannot compete; poor weather; regulation; and most critically, surprisingly enough, the labour situation. Many of my constituents tell me that they simply cannot get their fruit picked. The answers to the problem are also many and varied, but it is interesting that none of the farmers directly wants any form of state handout. All they want is the security to run their farms as businesses, free from interference and over-regulation.

Fruit farmers ask for three things in particular. The first is fairness in competition; they want to compete on a level playing field. The second is honesty in labelling. They would like consumers to know accurately the country of origin and the means of production—a point that the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) touched on earlier. Above all, they want more flexible labour arrangements. They want to employ casual labourers at the national minimum wage. During the election, I spoke to a fruit farmer who, sadly, had had to lay off all the local workers because he simply could not tackle the regulations involved in taking them on for short periods.

Fruit farmers also want an increase in the seasonal agricultural wages scheme so that they can access more nationals from countries joining the European Union. I met some Polish 17 and 18-year-olds who, having left school, are over here to pick our fruit and to learn something of our culture. They were also learning English and they were having a marvellous time. It is an extremely good scheme and I commend it to the House.

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I have been asked to be brief, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I am particularly fortunate to represent a constituency in an area where I was born, educated and brought up. Farming in general, and horticulture in particular, is the one industry that affects the whole of my constituency. In Kent, the fate and the future of the countryside is the single biggest issue for most of my constituents, and I believe that it will be best safeguarded by promoting a living and working countryside.

The horticulturists whom I represent are keen to produce high quality food in a healthy environment and to preserve Kent's beautiful countryside. I, as their MP, am very keen to help them do that. I ask for the help of Members on both sides of the House to help them achieve their aim.

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