Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): What about Conservative policy?

Mr. Yeo: I am coming to that, but we are debating the Queen's Speech and I shall deal with that first.

We look forward to the imminent publication of the road safety Bill. I welcome the Government's acceptance of many of the measures for which the Conservative party has been calling for some time. They include measures such as a crackdown on uninsured drivers—long overdue—and action to tackle the disappointing upturn in drink driving. Other measures include the introduction of variable penalty points to reflect the relative seriousness of different traffic offences.

I was not entirely surprised that the Secretary of State got on to the subject of money in his speech, but he did not mention the cuts that he has made in transport spending. They must be something of an embarrassment to him. The spending plans that he inherited were set out in the 2002 spending review. That document said that, in the current year, 2004–05, the Government would spend £11.2 billion on transport. In the 2003 public expenditure statistical analysis, that figure was cut to £10.75 billion, and in the 2004 spending review, there is a further cut in transport spending for this year. The figure is now down to £10.4 billion—a reduction of 7 per cent. from the planned total for spending in 2004–05 that was announced before the Secretary of State took over.

Breaking a pledge so spectacularly is not unusual for this Government, of course, but it is a reason why we cannot rely on any promise about future spending increases from this Secretary of State. It makes a total mockery of the right hon. Gentleman's attempt to attack the Conservative party's transport plans when he has personally overseen a cut of nearly £1 billion in transport spending for the current year.

In any event, almost everyone—and I suspect that that includes the Secretary of State—recognises that taxpayers alone cannot fund the improvements needed in Britain's transport infrastructure. The key to a modern transport system is more private investment. Unfortunately, even if he realises that, the Secretary of State is not taking the necessary action to encourage it. Instead of getting on with extending the M6 toll road northwards, he is conducting yet another consultation process. That is another example of how this Government are all talk.

The M6 toll road was first approved when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) was a Transport Minister, and it took more than a decade to complete. The need for immediate action is therefore obvious.
25 Nov 2004 : Column 263

On railways, the Government's insistence on short-term contracts for train operators is an obstacle to increased investment. The bungled renationalisation of Railtrack is another deterrent to private investors. At the same time, the potential to bring vastly more private capital into the railways by unlocking the huge development potential in and around our stations, which are adjacent to some of the most valuable brownfield sites in the country, remains shamefully unexploited.

Unlike the present Government, the next Conservative Government will have a timetable for action. That will include longer contracts for the best train operators and a major programme—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Jamieson) appears to think that that is amusing, but he did not hear the earlier part of the debate. We will also have a major programme of investment in stations which will bring benefits to passengers without any contribution from the taxpayer or any increase in fares.

I turn now to the other subject for today's debate. It would have been too much to hope that the Queen's Speech would include a reference to farming. After all, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could not bring herself to mention farming in her speech to this year's Labour party conference. Nevertheless, everyone involved in agriculture has plenty about which to be concerned.

We are at a potential turning point in the industry. The effect of the mid-term review is to break the mould of 40 years of supporting farming by linking payment to production. Now that link is broken. I am not against that change in principle, but the potential consequences for the industry are far reaching. We may not see the changes take effect until 2006, because the Government's incompetence in sorting out the rules under which the new arrangements will work mean that, for the time being, farmers have to operate in a climate of uncertainty.

The difficulty that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality had last week in answering my question about whether the Government have assessed the likely impact of the changes in the method of farming support on British agricultural production was revealing. Clearly, the Government have not assessed that. I ask again today: does the Minister agree that it is now possible that over the next five years farm output will fall dramatically? Are the Government happy to see Britain become more and more dependent on imports for more and more of its food needs? Does the Government regard farming as a strategically important industry. What assessment have Ministers made of what all that will do for jobs in the countryside, the effect on the rural economy and how our rural landscape will look?

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): The many farmers in my constituency are increasingly concerned that the work permit restrictions are getting tighter and it is harder to get immigrant labour in to work on farms and maintain production. Does the hon. Gentleman perceive that as an increasing problem and, if so, how would further restrictions on immigration affect it?
25 Nov 2004 : Column 264

Mr. Yeo: If farm output falls sharply, it is unlikely that that would be a particular difficulty, However, if the hon. Gentleman is talking about seasonal workers who are needed temporarily for, for example, fruit picking, he is right that there will continue to be a short-term seasonal increase in the need for agricultural workers. That is why we have supported in the past increases in the numbers who can come in under the temporary agricultural workers scheme. That has been an important contribution to ensuring that certain seasonal peaks in demand for labour in the countryside can be met.

If we are to import more and more of our food, it is even more urgent that we require honesty in food labelling by law. British consumers are entitled to know where the food they buy comes from and how it was produced. British farmers are entitled to know that when food grown abroad—often to lower environmental and animal welfare standards—is sold in British shops, consumers will be informed of the differences between British methods of production and those overseas. Why are the Government so afraid of what Brussels might say that they continue to shirk their duty to consumers and producers alike on the vital question of labelling?

Will the Minister confirm that, because of the Government's failure in yet another computer project, farmers are likely to suffer severe cashflow problems? The Rural Payments Agency will be unable to make payments due to farmers when the single farm payment comes in, because of the Government's failure to complete the necessary preparations.

Why on earth have the Government not abolished the over-30-month scheme? Even the European authorities now accept without qualification that British beef is safe, but Ministers are unwilling to take the action that is needed to relieve our beef producers of a burden that could and should have been lifted a considerable time ago.

Will the Minister confirm the report in The Daily Telegraph today about the European Commission's refusal to allow two thirds of Britain's claim for help with the costs of foot and mouth disease? It appears that British taxpayers must pay an extra £600 million towards the £8 billion cost of foot and mouth disease because the Government refused to respond to the outbreak in a timely and prompt manner. The House will recall that in the last few days of February 2001 and the first three weeks of March 2001, my colleagues and I constantly urged the Government to take the steps, such as bringing in the Army, that were needed to bring foot and mouth disease under control. Because the Prime Minister did not want to admit the scale of the crisis in the run-up to the general election, he refused to act until forced to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence. That failure—those lost weeks during which I and others set out day after day exactly what needed to be done—cost our farmers, the countryside, the tourism industry and the country very dear. Today we learn that it will cost the taxpayer another £600 million on top of the billions of pounds already wasted. If the Minister says just one thing when he winds up, will he say sorry to all those people who suffered because of the way in which the Government bungled the handling of foot and mouth disease?
25 Nov 2004 : Column 265

The Government now propose an integrated rural agency. That proposal will weaken both the important statutory functions carried out by English Nature and the rural advocacy role performed by the Countryside Agency. I do not believe that making greater use of regional development agencies to deliver rural services will help the countryside or the people who live and work there.

Next Section IndexHome Page