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David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con):
I am grateful to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to speak in the Christmas Adjournment debate. It is the first time in many years that I have spoken in this debateindeed, in any debate in the Chamberand I apologise to colleagues for being a little rusty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) has promised me some intensive teach-ins on how to speak in the Chamber, if I turn up on Friday mornings in future. I apologise to the Minister for rattling through a list of subjects. It is not because they are unimportant but because there are so many that I should like to touch on that, if I do not, I shall rapidly run out of time.
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First, I raise the state of the Cumbrian economy, which, believe it or not, is dire. Most colleagues will think of Cumbria, if they think of Cumbria at all, as the Lake districtthat beautiful stretch of mountains and lakesbut our economy is dying. From official Government statistics, we find that between 1995 and 2002 the Cumbrian economy grew by only 13.2 per cent. The region of the north-west, including Liverpool, Manchester and areas that once were terribly depressed, grew by 38 per cent. The national economy grew by 44 per cent. When indexed against the gross value added per head, the Cumbrian gross domestic product in 1995 was 92 per cent., but in 2002 it had fallen to 74 per cent.
Today I am not going to attack the Government for letting that happen; there will be ample time in the next few years to do that. Today I want to make the point that an economy that has in the past few years shrunk from 92 per cent. to 74 per cent. is in a dire state. And that is on the latest statistics, to 2002. We believe that when the 2003 statistics are released, the Cumbrian economy will have shrunk to 71 per cent. of GDP, and Cumbria will qualify for objective 1 funding. I make a strong plea to the Minister to pass that fact on to his colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry. We must have objective 1 funding in Cumbria.
The Cumbrian economy is in a worse state than Liverpool was when Liverpool was in its pits. It is in a worse state than Cornwall was when it qualified for objective 1 funding. It is in a worse state than those parts of Scotland that got funding. Yet not many people realise that that is so, because we still have the wonderful image of the Lake district, which seems such a nice, pleasant, wealthy place. I am afraid that it is not.
We are calling on the Government to seek objective 1 funding urgently for Cumbria. These issues must be addressed by a considerable package of UK and European funds, which must be dedicated to the whole of the NUTS 2 area of Cumbria, to be managed and delivered locally. The funds should come from the EU's regional competitiveness and employment fund, which is the new objective 2 of the structural funds. The funds should come with a derogation allowing a certain broadening of scope to target them at a wide range of activities in accordance with the structural needs of the county. We ask, too, that the funds be accompanied by assisted area designation under the regional aid guidelines as an article 87.3(c) area to enable higher investment in companies. I am sorry if that latter part sounded boring and technical; it is, but we are nevertheless losing industries hand over fist and do not have many new high-tech industries. We desperately need smaller, added-value companies in our county.
This is not a plea about the state of farming, which is also in decline, but in decline around most of the country. It is a plea for industry and our economy. We cannot continue at the present rate. If the Government's plans to run down and close Sellafield were to be enacted tomorrow, as opposed to over eight years, another 15 per cent. would be taken out of the Cumbrian economy. I hope that a time will come in the near future when I shall be able to address the issues of the nuclear industry. Let me say simply that I hope I shall be able to congratulate the Government not on running down the nuclear industry and Sellafield but on restarting it. We need the technology at Sellafield, and we need it in Cumbria. I hasten to add that I think we need it producing our power in the rest of the country, too.
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That leads me to my next point, which is on wind farms. Energy prices have more than doubled in the past few months. On Friday, I visited a small factory in my constituency which makes polythene bags and a range of products from plastic. Its electricity bill has gone up more than 100 per cent. since May. The Government keep saying, and rightly, that our electricity prices have historically been the lowest in Europe. That was the case, but since May and June it is the case no more. The whole of that firm's last year's profit margin has been wiped out by this year's increase in electricity prices.
Because of that increase in electricity prices, the Government insist on maintaining the carbon tax and the renewables obligation. That obligation has long passed its sell-by date. It has resulted in Cumbria's being afflicted by hundreds and hundreds of applications for giant wind farms in the wrong place, which would despoil what is left of our economy, bring no new jobs and contribute only a fraction of the electricity that this country so badly needs. My next plea to the Government is that if they wish to pursue a wind farm policy, they should consider big ones offshore. They should not try to dump wind farms on the Lake district and other areas of outstanding natural beauty. They do not contribute to our electricity needs, and they are destroying our countryside.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My right hon. Friend may be aware that I am president of the Country Guardians, which is opposed to the ill placing of wind turbines. Does he know that 21 wind farms are currently under construction, a further 68 have been given consent and 160 are under planning consideration? People have had enough of these unsightly, inefficient wind farms blighting our countryside, and it is about time that we had a proper energy policy.
David Maclean: My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way, and admirably well. I applaud what he has said. Wind farms are blighting our countryside. Many of the applications are a mass try-on: companies apply for wind farms en masse, knowing that they will lose some, but hoping to gain most of them, which they can then sell on for someone else to build. The Government must look urgently at the whole policy of wind farms on land.
I want to speak, too, about community hospitals. I suspect that the Conservative pairing Whip did not entirely believe me when I said last week that I should like a day off to help lead a protest march through Penrith to save our community hospitals, which are up for closure. I have been able to produce the evidence, and what surprised most people in Cumbria was that 2,000 others from around the county turned out on a protest march, something those people have never done beforeindeed, do not quite know how to do. Those people came from all parts of north Cumbria and from all walks of life. In fact, as the admirable Fred Wilson, the photographer from the Penrith Herald said, the last time that 2,000 people marched through Penrith was in 1745, and they did not get as warm a welcome from the local population as the Scot leading them this time. Three cheers for Bonnie Prince David.[Laughter.]
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The strategic health authority's plans to close four community hospitals in my constituency, plus two in the neighbouring constituencies of Labour MPs, are not properly thought out. They are based on back-of-the-fag-packet calculations. In place of the service offered by the community hospitals, the health authority has scrabbled together an idea for a 24/7 travelling district nurse, backed up by enhanced GP services. I am happy to say that if the professionals in the health servicedoctors, nurses and othershad come together, asked how they could improve rural health and, over two years or 18 months, produced a plan involving travelling district nurses 24 hours a day and enhanced GP services, and if they had consulted on that and properly costed it, and if it would deliver more benefits, I could not resist it. But this plan has not come about in that way. It has been devised because the SHA way down in Preston has said, "You're in deficit. Cut your budget." When asked for a steer on what should be cut, the SHA apparently said, "We don't have community hospitals in Preston. Get rid of your community hospitals."
So a plan that will supposedly save £15 million overall is targeting our community hospitals to save £2.4 million. That will be devastating to our rural areas and it will be bad for the acute hospital in Carlisle, because it will lead to bed blocking on a massive scale. That is the nonsense of Government accounting. If the NHS gets away with this scheme, it will save £2.4 million. We will then have to build 120 nursing home places to take the people who are not capable of going straight home from the acute hospital.
The community hospital beds are not a luxury. No Government would have kept those hospitals open if they were unnecessary. We have them because there is nowhere to put people who have been discharged from the acute hospital but are not fit to go home. They need a week or 10 days of intermediate care. But if the health service saves on its budget, the cost of building 120 nursing home places outweighs it. Those mostly elderly people will be shoved into those places and, probably, stay there for evermore. When an elderly person goes into a community hospital for intermediate care, they are there for a week or 10 days and then they come out, but once they get a place in a nursing homeat enormous extra costthey will be there for the rest of their life. The health service may save £2.4 million, but the county council and the social services budget will increase by at least £4 million. But that is a different budget head, so no one cares.
I hope that the Minister will tell the Secretary of State for Health, in the words we used at the rally, "If you persist with this, you have seen nothing yet." If 2,000 Cumbrians can be stirred up to join a protest march to save our community hospitals, I can tell the Government that they will see protests on a massive scale throughout north Cumbria. People will protest as they have never protested before, because we will not tolerate the closure of those essential services. There are other ways to save money in the health service. Indeed, there are other ways to use those hospitals more efficiently, but the scheme, cobbled together in a desperate attempt to save some money on a budget and targeting rural areas in the hope that rural people are so quiescent that they would not squeal, is wrong and doomed to failure.
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My penultimate point is about the state of agriculture in my constituency and, indeed, in the whole of Cumbria, in the particular area of hill farming. I am concerned that the three-tier payment system discriminates against hill farmers in Cumbria. I know that in some parts of the country, such as the Peak district, hill farmers benefit more from the new single payment system. But because of the way in which the three tiers have been designed, hill farmers are suffering. I am not suggesting any more money overall for farmers, but I am suggesting that the Government revisit the three tiers and consider a possible rebalancing between them.
I urge the Government to explore urgently the recent National Trust report. It contains detailed research and suggests some ideas for rebalancing the three tiers to give different support levels to farmers. The concern that we have in the hills is that farmers will stop farming. To put it simply, if a farmer is to get a single farm payment for not farming animals, why on earth should a hill farmer go out at all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and all year round, to look after some yows on the hillside? It is not worth doing, especially if the payments are only £2,000 or £3,000 a year. The National Trust is concerned, as am I, that farming will cease in large parts of the Lake district, and then all the other parts of the landscape that we valuethe walls, the fields and the hedgerowswill change fundamentally. That is the National Trust's fear, and I think it is justified. I urge the Government to consider the report carefully.
My final point is that the heart is being torn out of my county now. The administrative heart of Cumbria is going. Already, our fire service control has been moved out of the county to a regional centre at Warrington. The ambulance service told me this week that it will amalgamate with another in the political region. If the ambulance service in Cumbria were to amalgamate sensibly with a neighbour, it would be Northumberland, but that is not allowed because it is across the political border. We had an excellent debate on policing yesterday and I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about it. His words apply equally to Cumbria. There is no need or justification for the Cumbrian force to be amalgamated with Lancashire or Liverpool or into a regional structure. If the Cumbrian police should amalgamate with any other police force, again it should probably be Northumberland. But of course that is ruled out, because it is in the wrong political region. The excuse that every force in the country needs to be up to the same level of anti-terrorist expertise as the Met is barking and incorrect.
We are losing our fire service, our ambulance service and our police service. The Border regiment was extinguished last week, and the Government decided not even to keep its name in the new Lancashire county regiment. Part after part of my county is being stripped out. In a few years' time, why should business come to Cumbria when it has no headquarters of police, fire or ambulance, no learning and skills councils, and no regiment? My message to the Minister is, please give us the regional funding that we need, stop the nonsense of closing our hospitals, and do not tear the heart out of my county.
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