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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Oliver Heald. Sorry, Oliver Letwin.

5.1 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As Oliver Heald or as Oliver Letwin, I am delighted to be in the House. Having listened to some Liberal speeches, I am particularly delighted to be here as a recent potential victim of decapitation. It is nice to feel my head on my shoulders.

I look forward to encounters with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She is a person of differing political views from my own, but I have long admired her as a politician who speaks her mind and who has a considerable and distinguished record. I look forward to interesting discussions.

This has been an excellent debate. It began with a magisterial survey from my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) of the fundamental problems associated with productivity and the effects of over-government on our economy. Very symmetrically, very beautifully and, I must say, very astonishingly, it ended with an equally splendid speech to much the same effect from the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I sat listening carefully for the moment when I would depart from what he was saying, but I have to say that I agreed, I think, with every word of it. That worries
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me intensely: it is possible either that my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and I now find ourselves somehow oddly transmuted into Liberals, or it is possible that the Liberals have transmuted themselves into a kind of Conservative party on economics. I hope that it is the latter, but I am delighted to find that there is agreement on the whole Opposition side on the great need for deregulation and a lightening of the burden that the Government place on our economy.

We heard an interesting and important contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who reinforced the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant about fundamental economic problems. That was matched, at least, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Michael Jack), who was the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the last Parliament. He explained the importance of climate change and biofuels, to which I shall return. We had an instructive speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). It was a powerful and penetrating analysis of the complex debate on the future of electricity supply, to which I shall also refer. He demonstrated yet again the power of his intellect. Finally on the Conservative Benches, apart from the maiden speeches, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) stirred the Secretary of State into a passion and into arguing that the procedures of the House were somehow satisfactory. I have to say that I share my hon. and learned Friend's view that they are not wholly satisfactory. Of course, he did not discuss only that: he also analysed the wide-ranging problems relating to rural areas, another topic to which I shall come in a moment.

I congratulate hon. Members on both sides who made their maiden speeches. On the Labour Benches, the hon. Members for Burnley (Kitty Ussher), for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) and for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) all made lucid and powerful speeches. I listened with particular interest to the contribution from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth)—I have been associated with that city for a long time, though I have to admit that I did not know some of the history that he brought out—and to the speeches of the hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy); for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), whose constituency will, I hope, be renamed in due course; and for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who told us a great deal about features of Birmingham that I did not know.

Most of all, I listened to those splendid new Members my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who spoke about the risks relating to phone masts and the spiralling cost of regulation, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who told us about the effects of regional government on the ability of Bournemouth to fulfil its potential. I could add that that is a problem that stretches not only to West Dorset, but to the rest of the United Kingdom. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friends, and other maiden speakers, on their speeches and look forward, as does the rest of the House, to their future contributions.
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The debate relates not just to trade and industry, but to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Naturally enough, it is to that that I want to turn. It is appropriate that we should have a wide-ranging debate on the activities of that Department, because debates on such matters, as the Liberal spokesman pointed out at the beginning of our proceedings, are relatively rare in Government time, and more so because, while I do not doubt that Ministers intend to do the best by the countryside and the environment, the fact is that the Department, which surveys a scene including some 14,000 bureaucratic posts, has severe problems.

The first problem is that the Department has not established an energy policy that will enable the UK to play its full part in protecting the planet. The second is that it has not achieved a sustainable basis for agriculture and fishing in this country. The third, alas, is that it has not adequately protected rural communities and the countryside. I want to raise those three issues before moving on to the legislation proposed.

Let me start with energy policy. This is a remarkable scene. Between 1990 and 1997, this country made significant progress in reaching the target on the Kyoto basket of greenhouse gases. They reduced in millions of tonnes of carbon equivalent by about 8 per cent. in that period. Incidentally, to prevent Ministers from jumping to their feet, I fully admit that that was largely due to the dash for gas and that the large motive for that was economic rather than environmental. Nevertheless, it had a significant and beneficial effect.

That is mirrored in the fact that, during that period, carbon dioxide emissions themselves reduced by 6.9 per cent., which is a broadly commensurate amount. Since 1997, I fear, the figure and the pattern have been quite different. It is perfectly true that further progress has been made in meeting the Kyoto target. The Kyoto basket gases have declined by a further 5 per cent., broadly, but the picture beneath that is by no means so comforting.

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen by about 3 per cent., and the fact that there has been ostensible progress on the Kyoto basket is accounted for by just three things. First, there has been significant further improvement in farming practice. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from farming have significantly declined. Secondly, landfill methane has significantly declined. Thirdly, and this is the single largest component, there was a one-off shift, which I mentioned in an intervention earlier, in the production of adipic acid, which led to a significant reduction—some 4 million tonnes equivalent of carbon—in nitrous oxide emissions. That occurred between 1998 and 1999. It is an admirable thing and a great contribution, but it is not replicable. We cannot do it twice. We are no longer producing adipic acid on the old technology. We cannot improve again by the same degree.

We should consider the carbon dioxide pattern and, first in this context, the electricity supply industry, although we must not delude ourselves that it is the only component. It represents, however, roughly 40 per cent. of the problem. All the trends are going the wrong way, alas. Combined heat and power schemes have been declining. There are 64 mothballed plants, one of which
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I saw during the early stages of the election campaign. Between 2002 and 2004, coal-based production increased, which will produce carbon dioxide problems. Nuclear production is declining and, from 2008, as stations are decommissioned, it will decline further.

The Government, properly and splendidly, have placed great hope in renewables. The Government's energy White Paper of 2003 shows that the proposals would lead to only about 3 per cent. of the 1990 baseline, in terms of carbon dioxide emissions—165 million tonnes of carbon being knocked off by renewables entering the system by 2020.

As someone who has dealt with the electricity industry here and in other countries over the past 25 years, I can say that there is nothing in the patterns of that industry that gives confidence regarding persistent and sustainable reductions in carbon dioxide to the level required to meet the Kyoto targets, still less the appropriate and much tougher regime that the Government have established with their 20 per cent, target.

The 2003 White Paper shows that the Government themselves effectively admit that. The White Paper realistically supposes that almost all—80 per cent.—of the effect generated in meeting targets is to come from energy efficiency, but there is a problem here, too. I do not doubt the intentions of Ministers, particularly in this Department, to achieve things in energy efficiency. Unfortunately, Ministers in this Department do not have many of the levers and have not been successful so far in persuading the rest of Government to pull the relevant levers.

I shall give some examples. First, the energy efficiency scheme is not structured in a way that is likely to produce good results. Why not? Because it gives incentives to the utilities to reduce the use of energy in homes and, alas, the utilities have a strong commercial reason to increase the use of energy in homes. As others cannot play in that market place and are not allowed to receive the credits, it is unlikely that the scheme will be effective.

Secondly, Ministers clearly want a movement, as I do, to increasing efficiency in the use of road transport, particularly of cars. Clearly, there is a method to do that, which is to use vehicle excise duty, on which we have made proposals. However, the incentives for hybrid and high mileage per gallon cars are slight. There is some progress, but it has been slight.

Thirdly, UK emissions trading is a splendid idea that we backed, and which I fully back. I should like to see the scheme allied to an effective EU-wide energy emissions trading system. However, the fact is that neither scheme at the moment incorporates air transport, and that is a pretty large hole because air transport emissions are growing apace, while the Government are locked in a legal battle with the EU over the ETS in any event.

As I survey the scene—coming back to it relatively fresh and trying to be objective, and not in a partisan manner or trying to score points—I see a pattern of Ministers of good will trying to achieve effects but not having found the levers. I see a Government who are gradually moving towards either failing to meet their targets or nearly doing so, and certainly failing to meet their own superimposed targets. That is a sad state of affairs.
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On agriculture, I am afraid that the story is not dissimilar. I have been involved in agriculture on behalf of my constituents since a time when there were quite other Agriculture Ministers. I have talked to Ministers, and to farmers and fishermen from my constituency, over the past 10 years. I have seen the same patterns reinforced over and over again. Since 1997, farm output is down by 5 per cent. and farm incomes are down by 14 per cent. in real terms.

The single farm payment is a nightmare. Only yesterday, I found some performance targets that the Secretary of State had published for the Rural Payments Agency. Not much fuss was made about them but if you examined them, Mr. Deputy Speaker—given your constituency, you might want to look at them—you would find that the first item is,

It does not say so but it means, "We the Government have given up on the claim that we will have made the payments by the end of February. Instead, we are setting a target that will allow us to fulfil it if we make a single payment to one farmer by the end of February, as long as 96 per cent. of the remainder are made by the end of March"—a month's slip—"and 4 per cent. at some future, unknown date." That will come as no surprise to farmers because not one farmer in Britain believed that we would get there by February. I fear that I am not convinced that we will fulfil the target of 96 per cent. by the end of March.

The cross-compliance regime is set to be a nightmare. In addition, bovine tuberculosis has been increasing by 20 per cent. a year and there is no serious solution on offer. I know that Ministers are worried about that but I perceive no solution from them despite a letter sent by 350 vets and scientists on 24 February demanding a selective cull.

The over-30-month scheme continues to impose huge costs on the taxpayer and the National Beef Association tells us that it also imposes huge costs on the industry. I know that Ministers would like it to end, but, again, it has not happened. Margins in the liquid milk industry are much greater in the supermarkets than for the processors or the farmers, yet I have been persistently unsuccessful in persuading the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry or the Office of Fair Trading to do anything serious by way of an investigation or improving the code of conduct.

The disposal of carcases remains a terrible problem, which has recently got worse as a result of Government action. Again, I am sure that Ministers want a solution but none is forthcoming. Illegal imports continue apace. We have the spectacle of nine sniffer dogs trying to control all the illegal meat imports at 110 entry points. It is clear that, in addition to failing to find the levers for achieving a sustainable, effective reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, Ministers have failed to support sustainable agriculture.

Let us consider the countryside and rural communities. I am sure that Liberal colleagues and the majority of Labour Members share our desire for the countryside and rural communities to flourish. That element of our society works. Indeed, our villages are models of societies that work. People look out for one
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another and grow up in ways that do not lead to the sort of behaviour that rightly preoccupies the Prime Minister. Alas, those communities have been neglected.

I shall give only three examples of that. The first is simple but important: village halls. I dare say that, to most Labour Members and those who represent urban seats, village halls do not appear an important matter. A village hall is only a small object; a little space sitting in the middle of a village somewhere. Yet the whole social fabric of villages in the rural areas of our country depends on the village hall. That is the place where people come together for the many voluntary activities, from playgroups to Gilbert and Sullivan, and from art clubs to first responders. That is where they meet and manage to create something that gives meaning to terms such as "community", which are often meaningless and abused.

What is the pattern? Until 1997, many village halls were being reformed and reconstituted through lottery grants. What has happened since 1997? I fear that the Department, which was designed to preside over the protection and enhancement of our rural areas, has not allowed those halls to be funded substantially through the lottery.

I accept that village post offices have been closing for a long time and that the Government inherited the problem. Have they done anything to lessen it? Alas, no. Despite the splendid origins of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is now in his place, despite the fact that he and I locked horns on the subject some years ago, and that he and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) also locked horns on the matter, rural post offices continue to close in large numbers in my constituency and many others throughout the country. There have been 3,000 closures since 1997, despite rate relief and the so-called promotion of co-location of services.

The worst case of all is that of affordable housing. Many Members from rural constituencies—not only Conservative Members but others who have no axe to grind for the Conservative thesis, including some Liberal Members making their maiden speeches—have said today that the problem of affordable housing in rural areas is now acute. This is a two-edged problem involving high house prices resulting from the pressure of people purchasing holiday homes, second homes and retirement homes, alongside the relatively low-wage economies in rural communities. A solution is required, and I do not deny that Ministers clearly wish to find one—in fact, they have talked about doing so—but no solution is on offer today. Any solution has to involve shared ownership, but that is not forthcoming on a major scale.

All these rural problems—village halls, post offices, affordable housing and a range of others—can be set against a background of specific disadvantage in the grant regime for rural areas. The grant regime has consciously been reoriented to pour money into the cities. There are real problems in our inner cities: I know from my time as shadow Home Secretary just how acute the problems in our most deprived inner-city areas are and just how much needs to be done to re-create a sense of solidarity, community and society in those areas. I do not deny that that need exists, but the fact is that the
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rural areas are now significantly and unfairly disadvantaged by the grant regime. The Department has, in part, presided over that, too.

Are these fundamental problems addressed by the legislation in the Queen's Speech? I fear that they are not. There is nothing in the Queen's Speech on the energy agenda, or on the agricultural agenda. I promise that we will engage constructively with the Government on the animal welfare Bill, and on the common land Bill, which I can tell my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is not a land grab. We think that it involves a series of technical measures that deserve our support in principle, and we will work with the Government to ensure that they work. We are also glad to see the draft Marine Bill, although it is a pity that it is only a draft Bill and that it does not address the wider issues of the common fisheries policy. Nevertheless, we will engage constructively with the Government on that Bill as well.

Those three Bills will not, however, transform the scene that I have been describing; they do not even aim to do so. The flagship Bill is, of course, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, which will have its Second Reading debate—to which I look forward immensely—on 6 June. I fear that it shows all the signs of being an exercise in shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. It is apparently a simplification measure. What will be the net effect of this measure?

For those Members who do not follow these matters in great detail, I shall read out the names of the bodies in charge of various aspects of the countryside that we shall be left with as a result of this major simplification. They are: DEFRA; natural England; the commission for rural communities; the Environment Agency; the Forestry Commission; the Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate; the Wildlife Inspectorate; the Rural Payments Agency; the regional development agencies; the Joint Nature Conservation Committee; the national park authority; the Agricultural Wages Boards for England and Wales; the conservation boards for areas of outstanding natural beauty in England; the board of trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens; the British Potato Council; the British Waterways Board; the Consumer Council for Water; Food from Britain; the Gangmasters Licensing Authority; the Horticultural Development Council; the Home-grown Cereals Authority; the Milk Development Council; the Meat and Livestock Commission; the National Forest Company; the national park authority for establishing a national park in England; the Sea Fish Industry Authority; and the Wine Standards Board—[Interruption.] No, I have to tell hon. Members that I have never been a director of any of those bodies. Would that I had—I have no doubt that there are good pickings to be had. The fact is that this is not by any account a simple system that is being created.

It is true that we are losing the Hill Farming Advisory Committee, but alas, it is to be replaced by the Uplands Land Management Advisory Panel. And there is more good news: we are going to lose the Food and Drink Committees. But they are already in abeyance—they have not operated for years. I fear that when the new EU rural development regulations come in, with their three
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axes and their 34 measures under pillar 2 payments, we shall have a monumental mess on our hands. That is the simplification that I fear will arise from the legislation.

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