Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Garnier: Does not the list that my right hon. Friend read out inform us about the way in which the Government operate? There are now more civil servants than soldiers in the Ministry of Defence or policemen in the Home Office. I dare say that there will be more civil servants in DEFRA and its various agencies than there are farmers throughout the United Kingdom and that before very long there will be more civil servants than sheep and cattle on our farms.

Mr. Letwin: I must correct my hon. and learned Friend. We have studied the ratio, and it is not quite as he says. It is only true that there are more officials in DEFRA and its satrapies than there are dairy farms in England. It is not, however, just a matter of the number of people. It is a matter of the number of bodies, of the interlocking structures that they create, and of the forms and the regulation that they produce. It is a matter of the fact that our farmers and rural communities are being driven mad by over-regulation. That is not because Ministers want to over-regulate to such a degree. It is not because Ministers want to create administrative chaos. It is because they have not managed to find a means of slimming down a leviathan.

Let me say something about how we intend to pursue these matters in the coming months. This is a new Parliament. The Government have a new mandate: they have a mandate to rule. It would be absurd if we spent the next few months talking about what we would do four or five years from now, but we want to be constructive. We will present proposals in the spirit of applying constructive pressure on Government in the national interest. Let me describe some of those proposals.

In relation to energy policy, we put pressure on the Government to create more incentives for cleaner cars. We will put pressure on the Government to implement the renewable transport fuels obligation, which our colleagues in the other place installed in the Sustainable Energy Act 2003 and which was originally suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde. We will put pressure on the Government to promote micro-generation, as provided for in the 2003 Act. We will put pressure on the Government to work with house builders on zero emissions developments, which could make a major contribution to energy efficiency. We will put pressure on the Government to open up competition in the energy efficiency commitment, so that the scheme begins to produce the dividends that I believe it could produce.

Most important, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant and I will put pressure on the two Secretaries of State for a full review of the electricity supply industry, taking full account of both the environmental and the economic constraints so that we can try to achieve a national consensus on a way forward that can reconcile our economic requirements with our environmental obligations.

In relation to agriculture and fisheries, we will put pressure on Ministers to simplify the cost compliance regime massively, and we will make specific proposals.
19 May 2005 : Column 381
We will put pressure on Ministers to improve the labelling regime, so that consumers in this country can know for the first time where their food comes from, what they are eating, whether it meets the animal welfare standards imposed in Britain, and how far it has travelled. We will put pressure on Ministers to take real steps to improve public purchasing of meat and other commodities so that it does not disadvantage our farmers. We will put pressure on Ministers to come up with a serious solution to the bovine tuberculosis problem, using culling licences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. We will propose, and put pressure on Ministers to implement, revisions of the fallen stock scheme to solve the fallen stock problem. Most immediately, we will put sustained pressure on Ministers to provide relief under the single farm payment scheme through interim payments in the next few months, based on historic grants, and a set of guarantees that farmers will not be penalised for submitting forms based on faulty data from the Rural Payments Agency.

In relation to rural communities, we will press Ministers for a serious approach to shared ownership. We will press Ministers for a new look at village facilities and at the unfairness of the grant regime to rural areas. Finally, we will put whatever pressure we can on the Government as a whole to devolve power to counties and districts and away from the rural development agencies and other large and unnecessary regional bodies. I hope that, over the coming months, we will be able to persuade the Secretary of State to adopt increasing proportions of that agenda, because we do not want another four years of wasted opportunity.

5.29 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I welcome the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) to their new responsibilities. I am sure that there will be many opportunities for us to engage in dialogue in the House. I hope that those dialogues will indeed be constructive and useful.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set out the context in which we are discussing industry and environment today and highlighted both the record and the aspirations of the Government. He also drew attention to the legislative proposals in the Queen's Speech. The speech by the hon. Member for Havant was, in some ways, witty and it was interesting, but my overwhelming impression was that it mirrored strongly the stance taken during the general election by his party in that it identified some of the problems that face the country without contributing any potential solutions. The closest he came to saying anything concrete was when my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) challenged him on regional selective assistance. The hon. Gentleman said that that was under review.That is understandable. I noted that the right hon. Member for West Dorset was careful to say that it would be unwise to set policy now for five years' time. I take it that that is an explanation of why there may be some policy gaps. That is fair enough; I understand those pressures.
19 May 2005 : Column 382

We have had a most interesting general debate. As a number of hon. Members have said, it has been distinguished not only by the fact that a considerable number of maiden speeches have been made, which totalled 10 I think, but by the fact that the maiden speeches—I say this entirely sincerely and it is not a criticism of returning Members—have been of unusual quality. Hon. Members of every party, on both sides of the House, made maiden speeches that were truly excellent. They were an indication of the quality of our new Members, who will clearly make an immense contribution to our debates.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) was the first to make a maiden speech. It is obviously customary to compliment all maiden speeches, but today that has not been at all difficult. I was particularly pleased to see her in her place making her first contribution. I have been fortunate enough to work with her in varying capacities—both in her case and mine—over a number of years, most latterly when she served as a special adviser to the previous Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Both her constituency experience and her other experience made her able to make a good contribution to the debate. Hers was a very good start to the maiden speeches. I particularly welcomed her reference to modern apprenticeships.

As I say, 10 maiden speeches were made in all. One of the distinguishing features of the maiden speeches—I hope that no one will mind if I weave them all together—was the skill that new Members showed in weaving in particular issues while observing the customary courtesies of the House by being not too controversial and not too long, describing their constituencies and being graceful to their predecessors. As all of us know, that is not as easy to do as it sounds.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) touched on his concern about phone masts in his constituency. As he will find before he has been here much longer, that concern is widely shared and expressed in the House. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) was not only clear and witty but poetic, which is perhaps not so common. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) talked of her passion for education. Like a number of hon. Members, the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) talked about affordable housing. That is a common theme across the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) welcomed warmly and effectively the renewal that he has seen in his constituency. That was a feature of the speeches by Labour Members, who identified and welcomed the improvements, not least in levels of employment—almost every one of them mentioned the fall in unemployment. For some curious reason that was not such a common feature in the speeches of new. Members from Opposition Benches, but I am sure that the trend will change. In future they will be happy to give credit to the Government where improvements have taken place.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) talked about education funding and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) welcomed many of the improvements that have taken place in Cornwall. I fully understand that that county has faced many difficulties in the past. She perhaps welcomed the improvements more in terms
19 May 2005 : Column 383
of the contribution made by her colleagues than in terms of where the levers lie. That is understandable. I am sure that she will find her place in future debates.

The hon. Lady was followed by her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander)—poor man. I have no idea how the House will shorten his constituency name, but I fear he may find that hon. Members will not always find it easy to remember the full glory of his constituency title and I hope that he will not take that amiss. Sometimes one wonders how the Boundary Commission spends its time, but never mind. I say that with particular feeling because in the last boundary changes commissioners came up with the distinctive treatment for my constituency of calling my seat Derby, South and my immediate neighbour's seat South Derbyshire. If they had been a little more inventive, as clearly they have been with the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it might have been easier for people to remember which was which.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) made an interesting and diverse speech. He said that he would not refer to his concerns about Rover because his remarks might be too daring and controversial for a maiden speech. I am sure that we all look forward eagerly to whatever it is he has to say about that in the future.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a colleague—I hope he does not mind my saying that even though he is in a different party—for whom I have the greatest respect, not least for his impeccable track record in supporting manufacturing. He said that the job losses that we have now seen in manufacturing would previously have been unthinkable, but I recall a number of job losses, not least in manufacturing, under the Tory Government over many years. I also, however, remember that he was as equally keen to challenge that Government on these issues as he has been to challenge ours. That is reasonable enough.

I disagreed in part with the hon. Gentleman's emphasis on productive jobs. I take his point entirely and he knows that I share his view about the importance of manufacturing as part of our economic base, but I do not share the assumption, which perhaps did not underlie his remarks but which often seems to underlie such remarks in this House, that jobs in the police service or in nursing, for example, are somehow not productive. They are extremely necessary and welcome. I am very conscious of the fact that some measures of productivity are rather artificial and do not create a full picture. I do not think that he would dispute that. He asked me specifically to comment on the issue of Rover. All I can say is that, as my right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, we are mindful that Sir Brian Nicholson is undertaking a study at present and we do not wish in any way to pre-empt what he might say.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Michael Jack) expressed concern that there was not a reference in the Queen's Speech to the issue of climate change. I appreciate that when our colleagues are making so much noise down in the House of Lords it is not always easy to hear every word that Her Majesty utters. There was
19 May 2005 : Column 384
indeed a reference, particularly in the context of the G8, to the important issue of climate change. Without making the Queen's Speech inordinately long, it would have been difficult to work in some of the references that he would have liked to the need to influence other member states, whether the United States, China, India or others. I accept that those are key factors.

The right hon. Member for Fylde also said that it would have been desirable to say more in the context of the G8 about biodiversity. In fact, we were lucky recently, at a meeting in Derbyshire of the G8 Environment and Development Ministers, to reach agreement on illegal logging, which we hope will have much effect in the future. I wholly share his concern for the development of biomass and biofuels as an energy source—a concern also expressed by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I remind both of them that we have a taskforce under way under the chairmanship of Sir Ben Gill, which I hope will have some useful contribution to make on these issues.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) also alluded to climate change issues, but he was reluctant to accept that it was possible to address the need for more affordable housing—a concern expressed across the Chamber—without a devastating impact on the environment. We share the concern about housing; we do not accept that it cannot be tackled without damaging environmental impacts.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) was one of many Labour Members who paid tribute to the Government's management of the economy without ignoring the continuing problems and difficulties. I said a moment ago that almost every Labour Member referred to the fall in unemployment in their constituencies, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). She referred to the opportunities, not least for manufacturing, that occur in her constituency.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) could honestly and honourably be said to have given the Queen's Speech a mixed reception. He did, however, welcome the investment that the Government intend to make and have made in education. I very much welcome that, and I know that he is conscious of how important that is for the future of people in any of our constituencies.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), although graceful to both maiden speakers and retired or defeated colleagues, was perhaps less graceful about the support that the Government are giving to education and health care. I find it astonishing to listen to hon. Members who have been in this place for some considerable time complaining about the inadequacy of this Government's support for services that were starved of money by the Government whom they supported.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough drew attention in particular to the remaining concerns in rural areas, as did the right hon. Member for West Dorset. I simply say to both of them that we are extraordinarily conscious of the real need that remains for improvement in rural areas. I cannot stress too often the issue of affordable housing because it is something that is raised with me by every Labour Member who has a rural or semi-rural constituency. The hon. and learned Member
19 May 2005 : Column 385
for Harborough talked in such terms about the problems of his constituents that I thought that he must have missed the survey undertaken by my Department of satisfaction with services in rural areas. That survey showed remarkable levels of approval of services in rural areas among the rural communities.

We have as a Government put in substantial resources—some £150 million a year for rural post offices, £30 million for rural police, and support for new facilities for health care, for small schools and for village shops. I am not arguing that any of this is enough. There is much more undoubtedly to do, but to talk as though there has been no improvement is to ignore not only the record of the previous Government, but the record of change and improvement over which this Government have presided.

Like the right hon. Member for West Dorset, I can reassure the hon. and learned Member for Harborough that it is not the intention of the Government—although my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead may be disappointed to hear this—to nationalise common land or, indeed, any other land. No, I think that I do my hon. Friend an injustice because I am sure that he would not be in favour of taking anything from the people. It is indeed the case that a Bill on common land is needed. It has been called for by nearly every rural organisation, including the Country Land and Business Association, although I do not doubt that, as always, there will be issues about the detail. The Bill is intended to modernise outdated legislation, to provide better local management of common land and to enable commoners and landowners to work together to manage the land, update the register and so forth. It will be a worthwhile measure, which some sceptical Members might even support.

Next Section IndexHome Page