Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.21 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate; when the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) said that he was reaching his final, final, final point, my hope rose that I might get the

24 May 2002 : Column 536

opportunity to do so. I am particularly delighted because in these debates one is unrestricted by the need to be relevant—a restriction which, most Members feel, usually limits their capacity to wax lyrical on subjects that affect their constituency and—dare I say it?—the wider world.

I do not want to engage in the habit that has taken hold in the Chamber from time to time of relating a travelogue around my constituency, less still around Lincolnshire, but there are one or two pertinent matters which preoccupy my constituents, and which therefore preoccupy me, to which I should like to draw the attention of the House.

The first, which will strike a chord with many hon. Members, is the state of agriculture. My constituency, as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is deeply rural and very agricultural. A high proportion of people employed in my constituency are employed in agriculture or agriculturally related industries such as the food industry and haulage. I was lucky enough to meet farmers in my constituency recently and they raised with me three specific matters which I should like briefly to rehearse.

The first matter is the increasing number of imported foodstuffs. That is an issue in itself because it changes the balance between what we grow and produce and sell locally and what we buy in, but it also raises serious questions about standards of food safety, human safety and animal welfare. I hope that the Minister will address the matter when he sums up. If he cannot address it—I do not expect him to be the fount of all wisdom, so he may not be able to—I hope that he will pass it on to his colleagues.

The farmers tell me that, particularly in respect of the pesticide residue in foodstuffs, imported products are not required to reach the standards that domestically produced ones are. The standards are set by the country of origin, not the country of receipt, which poses real questions about healthy eating and healthy living in this country as the proportion of imported products grows.

That observation brings me to the second matter relating to agriculture, which is the power of the supermarkets—I would go as far as to say, the pernicious power of the supermarkets—over producers. I believe that supermarkets are commercially capricious. They know no loyalty to most of their suppliers. Of course the suppliers cannot say so because they would be talking about their customers, but I can say it. I do not hold a candle for anyone except my constituents, for whom I hold a very large candle.

The truth is that supermarkets have distorted the relationship between producer, retailer and consumer. They have done more than any other agency to damage the business of local supply. Although traceability will go some way to re-establish confidence between local consumers and producers, unless the Government, and perhaps the next Conservative Government when they come—sooner rather than later, I hope—face up to the issue of the unaccountable power of a handful of retailers, we shall not address the problems of the relationship between producers and consumers, or re-establish in the consumer base a degree of market intelligence.

I suggest that supermarkets produce undiscerning consumers. When my mother bought foodstuffs when I was a boy—in the recent past, I hasten to add—she did so with a high level of knowledge not just about their

24 May 2002 : Column 537

origin, but about their quality. She knew good meat, bread and cheese from bad. She bought food from a local supplier, who knew her well.

I once made a speech along those lines and said that my mother had a relationship with her butcher, which caused some hilarity among the audience, until I qualified it by saying that the relationship was entirely commercial—but it may explain why we got cheap meat, of course. The fact of the matter was that my mother knew the butcher and he knew that, if he supplied her with products that were not up to standard, word would travel in the locality, which would jeopardise his business; and that he needed to ensure that his customers were consistently provided with good-quality products.

Frankly, if someone goes to a supermarket, buys something that is a bit dodgy and complains about it, what does the supermarket care? That person is one of numerous customers, and they can come and go largely as they please. We are simply numbers to the supermarkets; we are simply anonymous characters among many other anonymous characters. I suggest that the supermarkets have produced a situation where people know neither the price nor the value of goods. That needs to be addressed by this Government—or by a Government—as soon as possible.

The third matter on agriculture that I wish to raise is drainage, which is critical in the fens. I say agriculture; perhaps I should have said the countryside, because most of my constituency would be under water if it were not for drainage. Some hon. Members might celebrate that fact—it would clearly mean that I would no longer be here—but I certainly would not celebrate it, and I hope that the majority of my constituents would not either, not purely as a matter of my self-interest, but as a matter of their survival, too.

Drainage in the fens is managed by internal drainage boards. Those boards do an excellent job of ensuring that the fens are saved from flooding, and they have done so for a long time. They are models of the relationship between the local communities and themselves, delivering a product efficiently. That was noted by the Select Committee on Agriculture when it considered those matters a few years ago, when I was a member of the Committee, yet there is a real possibility—again, the Minister may want to address this in summing up—that the regionalisation of those responsibilities will lead, at very least, to a downgrading in the IDBs' role. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will assure us that that will not take place. Even their continued existence may possibly be threatened.

I make the case in favour of the IDBs because they are lean, efficient, effective organisations, rooted in the community, doing a first-class job, as Governments of all hues have recognised. They deserve a champion on the Opposition Benches and, I believe, among Ministers. This is a real opportunity for this promising young Minister to become that champion.

Moving swiftly on, I just want to say a word about the delivery of public services in rural areas, such as the constituency that I represent. Other hon. Members will recognise that problem, too, because they also represent rural constituencies. For instance, the difficulties of providing access to good-quality health care in a sparsely

24 May 2002 : Column 538

populated area such as my part of Lincolnshire are profound. They will not be solved easily by any Government—this is not a party political remark—but we need to devise innovative solutions to that problem.

Part of the problem involves recognising sparsity and rurality more significantly in funding public services; part of it involves the method of delivering local services. Perhaps we need to be more imaginative about that. There are imaginative solutions—I think particularly of the SHARP project in Spalding, which works with people to ensure that they can return to their own homes after illness. Many elderly people, rather than getting stuck in a hospital—bed blocking, as it were—can regain their independence with the right kind of support, guidance and education within a project that combines the services of the local authority, the health authority and other agencies. I believe that such solutions can provide part of the answer.

Part of the answer also comes, however, from an acceptance that the decentralisation of power—devolving power, decision making and the services themselves to localities—is important. I suspect that we shall return to the view that smaller-scale local services provided in and delivered by the local community are the right way forward. Cottage hospitals spring to mind. I do not want to become too romantic about this, but I guess that that is the way we shall end up going. We will resist the idea of centralisation, but not before it is too late for a whole generation of people. Perhaps we can examine that in relation to my constituency and many other rural parts of Britain.

I also mention in passing similar difficulties with policing. I pay tribute to the good work done by the police force in my area. They do sterling work in my constituency but trying to police a very large rural area is not easy. Again, we need to consider innovative ways of delivering high-quality law and order services. Policemen do a fine job but they are under-resourced. I suspect that they have been under-resourced by successive Governments, but worst of all by this Government—the House would expect me to say that—and that needs to be considered carefully.

As the Minister will understand, part of the problem is that funding police forces on a crime-led basis—the more crimes, and the more serious those crimes, the more money and the more police an area gets—reduces non-adversarial policing work, which, ironically, is what most law-abiding citizens want. That is rightly regarded as an important aspect of policing—policemen being present, high-profile and known to the community, and anticipating crimes before they take place. I know that the response will be, "Yes, but it is more important that we react to serious crimes." Of course I understand that; this is not a one-way argument. However, we need to look at ways of funding non-adversarial policing, which is rooted in the community, sensitive to local needs and would engage the support of the law-abiding majority.

As the House will hear in a moment, these local matters are not what I have really come to speak about—they are the prelude to the main act, the B-picture before the A-film comes along shortly—but I want to say a few words about overhead power lines. We are anticipating a power station in Spalding. There are mixed views about that in the local area; I make no bones about it. Some believe that siting a power station in a small, rural market town such as Spalding will have a devastating effect on

24 May 2002 : Column 539

the aesthetics of the town, which we should not ignore, but it will also create jobs, directly and indirectly, which is good for the local economy. I shall not go into those arguments now.

What I shall address—I hope that the Minister will refer this to his colleague who gave permission for the power station, as he may want to consider it again—is the issue of the power lines to this new power station. We are being presented with a scenario in which, in a flat, fenland landscape, 15 enormous pylons will carry power lines over a relatively small area. That will have a dramatic effect on that sparse, rural landscape. I have had a meeting with the national grid and the developers of the power station, along with local parish councillors, and have asked them to consider this proposal again. The Government could assist in that regard.

It does not seem inconceivable that the power lines could be put underground. I know that that is more expensive for the developer, but not only would it have a beneficial effect in aesthetic terms—with a knock-on effect on local tourism and other interests to which the Minister will be sensitive in an economy that is suffering because of the crisis in agriculture—but it would allay some of the health fears, some rational and some irrational, that exist in the local community.

I was disturbed when I met a chap from the national grid. He said that, although national and international research showed that there was no causal link between overhead power lines and general health problems, there may be some association between the lines and the electromagnetic fields that they produce and certain types of childhood leukaemia. He said that that could not definitively be ruled out. He said that in front of many people at a meeting with the parish council. It was not a private meeting, and I quote his remarks, because I asked him to confirm that that is exactly what he said. His comments will undoubtedly arouse fears and exacerbate them when they already exist.

I hope that the Minister will consider how the Government can support the suggestion for power to be supplied underground to the new power station. It is a genuine, local, all-party campaign. It is not a partisan issue, and I know that the Minister with his typical and almost legendary diligence will want to draw the matter to the attention of his relevant colleague.

I did not however come here only to talk about such parochial matters, important though they are to my constituents and passionately though I feel about them. I have come to speak about human happiness. I intend to conclude my remarks in about five minutes, so I have got to say a lot about human happiness in a short time. Oscar Wilde said:

We could apply that remark to colleagues in the House. In fact, we could apply it to those who are sitting in the Chamber, but it would be discourteous and make me unpopular if I were to single out any individual, given the few Members present.

Next Section

IndexHome Page