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19 Nov 2002 : Column 581—continued

8.2 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): Two aspects of the Queen's Speech cause me major concern, one of which affects the whole nation and the other Northern Ireland specifically. The most depressed economic sector of our society is the farming community. I am old-fashioned: I call people farmers, not sectors of the rural economy. The farming community is going through a worse crisis, economically and personally, than any other sector of our society.

Twenty or 30 years before the price support structure of the European Union was put in place, some sectors of farming would always be doing well while others were doing badly: pigs, barley and beef would be good, but dairy would be bad. Under a more fixed farming system, fortunes went up and down. As a Member from Northern Ireland, I support the present price support system because our farming community needs it, but it is not right and it is not working. Unless the Government face up to what appears to be a continuation of the system of production-led price support cobbled together by the French and Germans, we will never have a highly profitable and successful farming industry.

It is disappointing that the Queen's Speech proposes no help for the farming industry, especially when the Government can find time for a vicious little Bill to repress a minority sporting interest—a countryside pursuit called hunting with dogs. I do not hunt, but I fish and shoot and I understand the strong personal views on hunting with hounds. The House should not consider wasting its time acting as an elected dictatorship to force through legislation to repress a minority interest. The countryside and the farming community have much more pressing needs.

Mr. Edwards: Does the hon. Gentleman regard the hunting of badgers as a minority interest? Does he think that that should have been abolished?

David Burnside: The hon. Gentleman obviously knows very little about the countryside. I assume that he wishes to protect the foxes, but if the House pushes

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through the Bill on foxhunting, more foxes will be shot, wounded and killed by the farming community, so his objective will not be achieved.

The second aspect concerns the government of regions. I suppose that Northern Ireland is a region, although we traditionally call ourselves a province. It is disappointing that the Queen's Speech refers to the further implementation of the Belfast agreement. We do not have regional government in Northern Ireland. The powers of the 26 councils are minuscule and we do not have a form of devolution at Stormont for one reason: the Government are not prepared to introduce legislation to expel terrorist-led political parties from the executive government of Northern Ireland. The democrats are being punished. We cannot have devolution because Sinn Fein-IRA is not prepared to give up its two-pronged approach to politics—democracy during the day and terrorism and criminality at night. We all suffer. We do not have accountable local government. I hope that the regions of England will get accountable, strong local government, not some super-tier of regional government that means nothing.

The Government have, however, found time for legislation on the further reform of policing. We have had reform of policing—we had the Patten report—and sometimes reform is not reform. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, a highly respected, strong police force that dealt with terrorism and crime, was ripped apart, demoralised and reorganised for political reasons, not for sound policing reasons. Crime has increased and the threat of terrorism continues, but the Government promise us more police reform in this Session.

I hope that the elected dictatorship in this House will realise that the Unionist, law-abiding, pro-democratic parties in Northern Ireland—although we have only a small minority voice here—will not go along with reforms that bring terrorists on to the district police partnerships in the Province. If that is what the Government plan, it will be a rough Session, because the Unionists and the democratic parties in Northern Ireland will not participate in the other institutions of the agreement that still exist. If the Government can find time only for more concessions to republicanism, it says little for their respect for those of us who are trying to be democrats in Northern Ireland and who want widespread cross-community consensus with our Catholic and nationalist neighbours in an institution at Stormont that works. At present, we feel marginalised because the only people who get concessions from the Government are those who use the threat of force.

I hope that the Government will give some time to the farming community. It is not big in numbers or votes. Perhaps it does not fit in to the focus groups of new Labour, but it is an essential part of our society.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley): My hon. Friend mentions the farming community, but he will be aware of the serious risk to the fishing industry in Northern Ireland as a result of the severe limitations on cod fishing. Our colleagues in Scotland share our concern. Will he join me in urging the Government properly to protect the interests of the British fishing industry, especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

David Burnside: My hon. Friend is right. The white fish industry in the Irish sea catches cod and similar fish.

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It will be destroyed if the scientific report is implemented, as will the communities of Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass, and the great fishing industry in Scotland. It is time for the Government to stand up for the national interest, as decommissioning can go only so far in our fishing industry. After that, there would be nothing left—no ships, and no people working in the ports. I agree completely with my hon. Friend.

We want accountable government in Northern Ireland. The Government should give priority to working with the democrats in Northern Ireland to achieve something that is workable and accountable. I hope that the English regions also get accountable and powerful local government, and not some quango super-tier of nothingness.

8.10 pm

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I do not know enough to get involved in an argument about Northern Ireland with the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside), but I believe that most people there want a peaceful future. It is the responsibility of the House to support all those who want a peaceful future in Northern Ireland, and all those who want to achieve it through democratic means. I disagree with many of the points that the hon. Member for South Antrim made, although I know that he feels strongly about them. However, I hope that we can achieve peace in the Province—or the region, as the hon. Gentleman called it.

The hon. Member for South Antrim mentioned the Bill to ban hunting with dogs, about which I strongly disagree with him. The Government should bring forward a simple Bill, as the people of this country believe that it is time to reach a decision. The more quickly we take that decision, the better.

I support the Government in introducing further controls on fireworks. The season gets longer and longer, and fireworks intended only for display purposes now get into the wrong hands. They are a growing nuisance for many people and animals, and many consider that it could soon be time to allow fireworks to be sold for display purposes only. That might be regrettable in some ways, but we must consider the option carefully if we cannot control or remove the nuisance in any other way.

Antisocial behaviour is another issue on which I shall support any measures that the Government may introduce. Such behaviour has become a common and growing problem throughout the country, and it is right that we should take steps to ensure that a minority are not allowed to destroy the lives of the majority. Regrettably, that is what is happening at the moment.

I have long been a supporter of regional government. Introducing it is the right thing to do, and I have seen what the regional development agency in my area has achieved. Just over a year ago we had the bad news about Michelin, but the RDA has acquired the site and taken matters forward. An elected and accountable regional assembly would be able to do even more to deal with issues of strategic importance, such as transport, investment and employment, and I strongly support the proposal.

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I am glad to say that Burnley borough council also strongly supports a regional assembly, and there has been a meeting of all local authority leaders in the area. The leader of the county council and the chief executives of the two unitary authorities attended, and they backed the proposal that Preston should be the main town in the north-west region. I advocated that 10 years ago, so I am glad that some people agree that Manchester or Liverpool should not be the automatic options. Putting the assembly in Preston, which has good communications, would prevent us from having to choose between those two big cities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said that we should not isolate local government reform from the question of the regions. I agree; I believe that unitary authorities represent the best way forward. The Conservative Government failed to deal with the local government problem, and the Banham commission and local authorities, too, failed to seize the opportunity to tackle it. It is important that we tackle it now.

In Lancashire, there are many opinions about how the county council has handled the future of old people's homes. Another difficulty in the area involves secondary high schools. Some parents have set up what they call a do-it-yourself school in Burnley, because they do not consider that the places provided for their children are acceptable. There are no easy solutions to such problems, but a unitary authority would be much closer to the people. That is why I strongly support the proposition.

Local government finance is another issue that the Government must deal with this year. In a letter to the Burnley Express last week, a constituent called R.M. Carruthers asked why Burnley did not get a fairer grant. The letter recounted how, before the 1997 election, I had spoken about the inequality of the local government grant allocation, and about what a Labour Government would do about it. Mr. Carruthers asked why nothing had been done—but I believe that action on the matter will not be long delayed.

A recent report from Burnley borough council stated:

The report then refers to the Green Paper published in 2000, and says that Burnley borough council is getting less in grant, 11 years later, than it was when the present local grant system was first introduced. Taking into account inflation of about 25 per cent., that means that we are considerably worse off now. Changes need to be made, and I hope that a fairer system can be devised. People do not understand how, although a district authority collects the council tax, some 80 per cent. of it goes to the county.

My final point concerns housing problems in Burnley, about which I receive letters every day. I received two letters today alone, and the first described how the writer lived in fear every day and night that her house was going to be vandalised and set on fire. That is a real problem. There are 4,500 empty houses in the area, more than 10 per cent. of the housing stock. The writer says:

The writer said that the problem was also affecting the lives of the other people in her family. Another correspondent wrote to tell me that a copy of the

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document XYour Housing Update" had arrived, but that his area was not covered in the next group action scheme. The writer said that he would have to sell his house, at 25 per cent. of its value.

That is typical of the problems that so many people encounter. There are many empty houses, and many people whose houses have lost their value. I get two or three letters on the subject every day, and people come to my advice surgeries every week with similar stories. People are living in a nightmare of fear because the council is unable to tackle the problem.

My noble Friend Lord Rooker, the Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who has responsibility for housing, planning and regeneration, wrote to me to say:

Burnley is one of the pathfinder project areas for housing renewal. We received #2.66 million, but we need hundreds of millions of pounds—#670 million in east Lancashire—if the problem is to be solved. We need a commitment over 10 years, and I believe that we are getting very near to that. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will announce good news for Burnley and east Lancashire in January.

However, because of the time needed for appropriate preparations, the news announced in January will come some months before any programme can be implemented, so I urge the Government to accept that they have a responsibility to the people of Burnley and east Lancashire to do something now, before it is too late. People are desperate, and cannot wait any longer for Government action.

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