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8.38 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): I welcome the hon. Member for Maidstone to her new role—[Hon. Members: "Maidenhead."] I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I welcome the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) to her role, and welcome her recovery from compulsory laryngitis. I look forward to having detailed debates with her about environmental issues when she has been able to engage with them a little longer and understands what this Government have done to protect the environment from a local to an international level. I also thank all hon. Members who

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have spoken in tonight's debate. I will not be able to do justice to all the detailed issues that were raised, but I hope to respond to the main themes.

One of the clearest tributes to the attractiveness of the programme set out in the Queen's Speech, which is designed to improve the quality of life for people in this country, came from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who was clearly so satisfied with the speech that he said very little about it, and nothing about the topics of the debate, but focused on reform of the House of Lords. It was not entirely helpful to the Government, but he made it clear where his mind was focused.

He was honest enough to say that he opposes the Government's approach to higher education funding and is happy to abandon the idea of increasing the number and proportion of our young people who are able to study for a degree—an opinion with which many Members on the Government Benches would disagree passionately. The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) have also disagreed with that view.

I want to focus on today's topics of local government, environment and transport. I found it significant that it was not until 5.46 pm that my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) made the first serious contribution on the environment—I shall return to that in a few minutes. In fact, the debate in general shows that there is real meat in our programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) addressed the challenge of legislation on houses in multiple occupation and the licensing of landlords, which is good news for those of us who have dealt with housing issues at a constituency level over many years.

I was surprised that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who spoke for the official Opposition, sought to rubbish the idea of a package to protect house purchasers. I have to say that he is out of touch with the reality of buying and selling houses, and that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has got it right with his proposals for the sellers' pack. I was even more surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman abandon his promise to discuss what is in the Queen's Speech to demand that regional assemblies in England be given the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) took a different view: he was critical of the regional dimension in government, appearing not to realise the extent to which regional government existed by 1997, when the Government were first elected. We have made regional government more effective, coherent and accountable. This is a Government with a policy for regional government—a Government who are giving people the choice on making regional government accountable to their elected representatives. I would say to Conservative Members that it behoves none of us who were elected to talk down the importance of accountability to an electorate.

Mr. Curry: In relation to accountability, the Government have clearly said that regional assemblies will have a very small number of elected representatives—the figure of 30 to 35 is quoted. As I understand the Government's proposition, some of those members will be elected by proportional

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representation and some by constituency. There are 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humber. Can the Minister tell us how accountability will be enforced and improved by removing district councillors, who represent a few hundred—perhaps a few thousand—electors, in favour of regional assembly representing 250,000 people?

Alun Michael: The right hon. Gentleman ignores the fact that the increased accountability at a regional level is for a level of government that is already there.The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings made a series of detailed and constructive points on housing issues, particularly in relation to disabled people. I am sure that they will be returned to when the Bill is before the House.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said little about the big issues of the environment or the needs of rural areas, which the Government are addressing. In describing the district council as the elected level that is closest to the people, he completely ignored parish and town councils, which increasingly provide real local leadership in rural communities. I am pleased to report that there has been a good response from around the country to the quality parish and town councils scheme that is being promoted jointly by DEFRA and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. On Wednesday, I shall present certificates to the first clerks to complete the professional qualification that is a key element in quality status. However, it is not just about qualifications. I commend the National Association of Local Councils and the Society of Local Council Clerks, several of whose regional conferences I have attended in recent weeks. They were lively and enthusiastic and have moved further in a year or so than I expected in four or five years.

The future of rural communities depends on a whole range of issues. Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs outlined her vision for rural England based on sustainable development and the right balance of economic, social and environmental considerations. We are refreshing rural policy, reviewing the rural White Paper and focusing on delivery and the needs of local communities. That is complemented by the vision in the Queen's Speech that was spelled out by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and which is focused on issues that matter to people. Often, policy is spelled out nationally, but delivered locally by local government and other regional organisations.

In that context, I was interested and encouraged to hear several hon. Members stress the need for not only legislation but public engagement. Engaging people and creating a new "localism" fits well with the powerful sustainable development theme that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) appears to have missed. Indeed, his response to an intervention by an Opposition Member brought him closer to the Government's view than he may care to admit.

In making a point about public engagement, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) underlined the need to get to grips with people's behaviour. He was wrong to suggest that the Government focus only on legislation. We need an underpinning of legislation to

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deal with antisocial behaviour and there is scope for simplifying, clarifying and strengthening the law. However, there is a continuum of action that involves the engagement of the public, public bodies, business and voluntary organisations—the community and the individuals who make it up—as well as a lead from the Government.

I have always believed in a continuum from low level antisocial behaviour, such as graffiti, litter, fly posting, fly-tipping, rudeness and incivility to theft and violence. The broken windows theory is that the feeling of, "No one cares around here" quickly leads to, "It doesn't matter how I behave." That continues to hold true. Let me give an example of how we can make a difference. I recently launched a voluntary code to engage businesses, local government and the public in dealing with fast-food litter. It is not wishful thinking, but based on what has worked. Places that measured fast-food litter reported a 12 per cent. deterioration, but a 20 per cent. improvement in areas that have piloted the partnership approach.

I hope that all hon. Members will commend Environmental Campaigns—ENCAMS—for its work and note the file that I have distributed to it recently. It shows what each of us can do in our constituencies. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell, who showed that environmental issues stretch from local environmental quality, through national policies to international challenges and our contribution to improving air quality and tackling global warming.

It is worth remembering that two important environmental Bills recently completed their passage. The Waste and Emissions Trading Act 2003 enables the United Kingdom to face two of the biggest environmental challenges—climate change and the need to move towards more sustainable waste management. The Water Act 2003 builds on existing legislation to further the sustainable use of water resources—a current issue—and strengthens the voices of water consumers, increases the opportunity for competition in the supply of water and promotes water conservation.

Several hon. Members raised specific issues, which I hope we can pick up. For example, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks referred to consumer credit. The Department of Trade and Industry has been reviewing the Consumer Credit Act 1974 and will set out its conclusions in a White Paper that is to be published shortly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Lyons) mentioned school transport. I am sure that he will pursue the way in which we deal with that subject with colleagues in the Scotland Office and the Scottish Parliament. He asked why we needed to tackle the issue. School transport costs £0.5 billion a year and has an impact on rural authorities. It therefore needs to be addressed. The excellent report on transport and social exclusion, which the social exclusion unit undertook and led, challenges us all to think more flexibly about transport in general, including education provision, health transport, community transport, the use of bus subsidy and so on. I support colleagues in the Department for Transport who are trying to open up the debate and those in the Department for Education and Skills who ask us all to engage with issues of cost and necessary service.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead concentrated on transport in the first part of her contribution and referred to congestion and its impact on business. She

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should welcome the opportunity that the traffic management Bill offers to debate the subject in detail. The Government recognise that traffic congestion costs our economy billions of pounds and believe that it is up to us to identify the causes and do what we can to manage them. We have therefore introduced the Bill. Lectures do not sit well when delivered by members of a party that wrecked the rail system and failed us on the environment locally and globally.

In contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised a series of transport issues, drawing on her deep knowledge as Chair of the Transport Committee. That promises the House a lively year on transport.

Like several Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), I welcome the effort being made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to update and modernise the planning system. That is never easy. I chaired Cardiff city council's planning and development committee for a time, so I have to confess that I have form. Planners and planning committees are always an easy target. They are attacked by people whose applications are turned down and by those who see things built that they did not want in their local area. Neither believes that there can be any merit in a decision that went against their particular view.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has no intention to throw out the baby with the bath water in enabling local authorities to come to the right decision on those issues, but I welcome the recognition of the need, for instance, to diversify the rural economy. Planning needs to keep pace with change, although that is not easy. I yield to no one in my enthusiasm to protect our national parks, but I do not want our protected landscapes to be turned into museums of the landscape. Our protected landscapes and our countryside generally need to be living communities, which means that planning considerations must look not only at the protection of the environment but at the social and economic needs of the communities that live in them.

In that context, I particularly welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I visited the world heritage site in his constituency. It is a good example of landscape that is of enormous international importance, and which is therefore protected, and yet is a driver for the local economy. I agree with the balance that he struck in his contribution.

My hon. Friend also rightly emphasised the work of firefighters and the importance of the legislation set out in the Queen's Speech. He is also right to emphasise the importance of legislation on animal welfare and the complexity of much of our existing legislation. I have to say to the hon. Member for Maidenhead that I will not take lessons on animal welfare from a party that has neglected that issue so consistently over the years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said, work is going on to prepare legislation. There is a lot of engagement with the animal welfare organisations, but legislation is not ready. In any event, we want to deal not only with current issues, although we are getting on with many of the current challenges. I cite the example of live exports of horses, which we are addressing. The Ragwort Control Act 2003 has, with

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our support, just completed its passage through both Houses and we are preparing for an animal welfare Bill, which, when it comes before the House, will be seminal. The Conservative party voted against the regulation of fur farming and all sorts of other things—it has little to teach us on those issues.

It is a pleasure to refer to a variety of issues that represent the mainstream of work for me and for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who takes the lead on animal welfare generally. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) demanded action to bring an end to the interminable debates in the House on the issue of hunting. I simply confirm to him that, as the Prime Minister made clear last week, the issue will be dealt with in this Parliament. We have a manifesto commitment to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on it and we will keep that commitment.

The hon. Gentleman went on to refer to the marine environment. I can assure him that the Government have not lost sight of the need to protect it, but I am pleased that he acknowledged the work that has been done on the wider protection of our natural heritage and the encouragement of biodiversity.

I echo the welcome given by my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) to the communities plan approach, which is about creating an effective and flexible system to deal with the long-term needs of urban or rural communities. I commend my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for striking a clear balance between the social, environmental and economic needs of any local community. That is as true for my hon. Friend's London constituency as it is for constituencies in any other city or in rural communities.

I am pleased to say that there is an increasing sense of a team approach to the needs of rural communities. Not only are we the first Government to create a departmental leadership for rural communities, but it is the Labour party in government that has become the first political party to establish a national conference on rural policy—now part of Labour's mainstream programme.

I was present in the city of Newport for the launch of the "big conversation" at the end of last week, and it has already started in rural communities, including the rural policy seminar that we held in September and the seminar on rural housing held by the powerful group of Back-Bench Labour rural MPs. Conservative Members ought to remember that it is Labour MPs who now represent rural England; Conservatives no longer do so.

Today's debate ranged widely. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) left the content of the Queen's Speech so far behind that he entered the realms of anti-European fiction. He caused some amusement, but it is serious to hear a Member of this House speak in such extreme terms—anti-European in tone as well as in content—and ignore the strong leadership provided by this Government in making sure that this country's interests are protected and enhanced by our engagement in Europe. The hon. Gentleman did not mention his own constituents until he told us how he is encouraging them to be anti European: how sad!

In contrast, other Members on both sides took the opportunity of this wide-ranging debate to comment on a variety of issues that affect their constituents. Tonight

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has illustrated the value of such an opportunity. Colleagues from the Department for Transport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and I have listened with interest and care. There may be specific issues that I have not been able to respond to on which we will write to right hon. and hon. Members. We look forward to continued debate on the detail of this excellent programme as the individual Bills come forward for debate and consideration. I, too, commend the Queen's Speech to the House.

Debate adjourned.—[Paul Clark.]

Debate to be resumed tomorrow.

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