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Alun Michael: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is a little repetitious on that topic. Will he acknowledge that it was courteously explained to him on a number of occasions that the topic does not fall within my portfolio of responsibilities, and that he was directed instead to the Minister with that responsibility, who responded to him exhaustively and conclusively on the topic?
Mr. Winterton: I am afraid that the Minister did not reply exhaustively, and certainly not to my satisfaction. The Minister for Rural Affairs is aware that the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), when there was a slightly different departmental structure in Government, had agreed to meet me, even during the general election campaign. Unfortunately, that did not prove convenient for the Minister for the Environment or me. When I sought to follow up the matter immediately after the election, it was initially dealt with by the Minister for Rural Affairs, but perhaps conveniently for him, the responsibility was transferred to the Minister in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I must repeat that I am afraid that, as a senior Member of the House, I would have expected a Minister to meet me at my request
Mr. Winterton: I am grateful for your intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have now regained my breath in my ferocious attack on the Minister. When I rightly had to resume my seat, so that you could carry out the procedures of the House, I was saying that, although the responsibility for meeting me and dealing with the matter was passed to a more junior Minister in another Department, that Minister was not prepared to meet mea senior Member of the Housemy hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and the chief executive of the borough council. I believe that, if Ministers are seriously requested to meet Members of Parliament who have an important issue to raise on behalf of their constituents, they are beholden to find time to do so. I say to the Minister that even the Prime Minister of our country, speaking today from the Dispatch Box, agreed to meet me on a matter that relates to my constituency. I must say that if the Prime Minister, for whom I have the highest regard, is prepared to meet me, I should have thought that a junior Minister would be prepared to meet any Member of the House.
Alun Michael: I can answer robustly for the reason why I referred the hon. Gentleman to another Department: it was not merely another Department, but the correct one. The Minister whom he says declined to meet him did so
Mr. Winterton: I am afraid that that is the very matter that I am now discussing, as I am dealing with the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic on Macclesfield borough council, whose area includes the constituency of Tatton. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, who has advanced a brilliant case in this debate, myself and the chief executive of the borough council, who could have given an accurate breakdown of the costs in the Macclesfield borough under rate relief, wanted to present the case on behalf of the borough of which Tatton is a part.
Mr. Bacon: I, too, have read on my Order Paper that this debate is about the impact of foot and mouth disease in Tatton. I am wondering, therefore, whether the right Minister is present to respond. Is it correct for the Minister who is present to respond to the debate, or is this another DEFRA cock-up?
Mr. Winterton: It is a governmental cock-up. Unfortunately, responsibilities for dealing with this matter lieI shall give the Minister credit for thiswith two Departments. There is no doubt that the impact of foot and mouth on Tatton relates also to the Government's ability or willingness to assist an area that has been badly hit because of restrictions on movement imposed as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak.
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is paying a lot of attention and giving a lot of time to one specific topic. He referred a moment ago to the wish of the chief executive of the borough council to provide knowledge and expertise to the Minister at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and that that Department was losing out by not taking up his invitation. Can he therefore explain why the borough council did not respond to the request made by the Local Government Association for information on the number and extent of applications for hardship rate relief in relation to foot and mouth disease when those matters were being discussed between the Local Government Association and that Department?
Mr. Winterton: I can explain that very simply. My borough council and its chief executive, Mr. David Parr, were dealing at the time with my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton and me. The borough council believedwrongly, it now appearsthat we had more direct access to Ministers than local government organisations did. As the information that would have been given to the local authority concerned had been provided to my hon. Friend and me, why would there be any wish to duplicate it? I believe that I have given the right answer.
I still hope to this day that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will be prepared to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, the chief executive of Macclesfield borough council, Mr. David Parr, and me to discuss this matter, even at this late stage. Perhaps,
I hope that the Minister has heard the last part of my speech, and I hope that he will deal with it when he replies. I want to give him sufficient time to reply on this important matter relating to the Tatton constituency and other areas of our countryside, so I shall say only that this is an important issue. Farmers are still suffering, and in Tatton, they still have severe cash flow problems. As my hon. Friend rightly said, those few farmers who had their herds of livestock culled are in a much better position than those who did not, and who have had no cash flow at all because of the restriction on livestock movements. That relates not only to the Tatton constituency but to many others, and particularly to the adjoining constituency of Macclesfield, which I have the honour to represent.
Please will the Minister accept that, although there may not have been an outbreak in this country for some two months, the financial problems and the trauma of what those farmers have experienced still face the farming industry, particularly the livestock sector that dominates the constituencies of Tatton and Macclesfield? At this late stage, will the Minister be understanding of that, and positive in what he is about to say in response to this debate?
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I shall be brief, to allow the Minister the maximum time to reply to the large number of serious points that have been made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on his speech. He spoke for more than 45 minutes on the plight of farmers in his constituency, and expressed polite but firm frustration at the situation there. Having heard him, I must say that that situation sounds very difficult, not just for the farmers, but for the other businesses which rely directly or indirectly on the farming community for their livelihood. My hon. Friend performed a good service on behalf of his constituents this evening, and I hope that when the Minister replies, he will do so in a manner that fully and properly acknowledges that.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing this debate, and on the style with which he introduced it and occupied the considerable amount of time that was rather unexpectedly available to him. I shall explain why I disagree with a great deal that he said, but I accept that he made his points reasonably, and I shall respond in a like manner. His approach obviously had a positive effect on the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), which made the debateso far, at leastpleasurable as well.
The hon. Member for Tatton confessed to association with the farming policies and method of presentation of Ministers in a Conservative Administration, which took the edge off his more general criticisms. I had hoped that his experience would lead to restrained references to the officials who serve the Government and the public. I pay tribute to the enormous commitment and dedication shown by the hard-working staff who not only serve the
The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he questions the ethos of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As he served there, he is better placed than I to comment, but I hope that he agrees that that question mark does not hang over the dedication and hard work of individual civil servants or their willingness to serve the public.