§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I beg to move,That this House expresses concern about the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease, sympathy for farmers facing the loss of their livelihoods and for others working in the livestock sector, and appreciation of the work of those fighting to contain the spread of the disease; endorses the action of the Government to restrict the movement of livestock; welcomes its efforts to identify the source of the outbreak; urges, where necessary, a temporary suspension of rights of way across farmland; welcomes the Government's announcement that it will draw down the full amount of agri-monetary compensation available for livestock farmers; and calls on the Government to consider what other help can be given to the industry.I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to this debate, which has been brought forward by three and a half hours because of this morning's tragic accident. I should like to say that because the Minister has come here earlier than expected and given the pressure that he is under, we shall understand if he cannot be present throughout the debate.
A week ago, the public became aware that for the first time in 34 years, foot and mouth disease had been identified on the British mainland. Every day in the past seven days, the true horror that that news implied has been brought home. As more outbreaks have been confirmed, we have learned how quickly the disease can spread. As export markets shut down and internal livestock movements are banned, we see the vulnerability of a whole industry to a single disease. As race meetings and rugby fixtures have been cancelled, we have understood how widely the impact of the crisis is being felt. As the freedom of movement of people on foot and by car in rural areas is restricted, we realise how much of ordinary daily social, domestic and business life is coming to a halt. But above all, it is the personal tragedies of the farmers directly concerned that deserve our first sympathy.
More than for most people, the daily work of livestock farmers is a way of life. They are men and women who rise in the dark at 3.30 in the morning to milk their cows. They are men and women whose nights may be interrupted because of calving or lambing. Those men and women have a special relationship with the animals in their care, and when those animals are under threat of slaughter, those men and women face not just the loss of their livelihoods, but the destruction of the whole of their life's work. That is why, at the start of the motion, we invite the House to express sympathy for those fanners. At this time, they truly deserve our sympathy.
The past seven days have also shown the enormity of the task that the country now faces. The detailed process of checking animal movements to and from farms, 913 markets and slaughterhouses has placed a burden on vets, officials and other inspectors, which continues to grow. The need to understand how this dreadful disease came to our shores after a gap of more than a generation is paramount. Only by identifying the original source of the outbreak can we be sure of minimising the risk of a recurrence.
Every family in the land has been talking about the issue. There cannot be a single kitchen table anywhere in the United Kingdom around which worries have not been expressed about the disease, about its spread and about the possible consequences. That is why the Opposition have chosen to debate the subject today. It would be very odd indeed if Parliament did not address these concerns directly.
I hope that the Minister agrees that, even at a time of intense pressure on him and his Ministry, it remains an important part of his duty to keep Parliament informed and to be available on a regular basis to answer questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House—questions that have been put to them by their constituents and that they expect to have a chance to ask.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
My hon. Friend will have observed the enormous interest and understandable support that he is receiving from Conservative Members. Given the claims of Labour Members that they also represent parts of the countryside, can he offer an explanation for their lack of representation in this debate?
§ Mr. Yeo
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which will be apparent to anyone who can see the attendance in the Chamber.
Very unusually for an Opposition day motion, this motion has not been amended by the Government. We have chosen wording that is deliberately supportive not just of farmers and the industry, but of the main actions that the Government have announced in response to the crisis. Indeed, the Opposition have supported every one of the steps that the Government have taken so far. We have suggested more than once—and may continue to do so—that the Government should go further and should do more, but we have not criticised or resisted any of the Government's proposals to tackle the crisis. Because this is an emergency, we will give the Government our full backing in dealing with it. We genuinely wish the Minister and everyone else involved in trying to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease and to identify its source every possible success in their task.
I wish to comment on four subjects briefly. The first is compensation. I welcome unreservedly the announcement yesterday that the Government will draw down £156 million of agrimonetary compensation. That was the right decision, and I am glad that the Government have responded to many requests from Conservative Members and from the industry to take such a decision.
However, the Minister is fully aware that this agrimonetary compensation is designed specifically to compensate farmers for the weakness of the euro. Given the present state of the agriculture industry—an industry which is losing 400 jobs a week, which has lost 40,000 jobs in the past two years and in which the average income of farmers has fallen by three quarters in the past 914 four years—that agimonetary compensation was sorely needed regardless of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
We and others urged the Government to draw that money down befork the outbreak of foot and mouth disease was known about, so I urge the Minister to confirm this afternoon that, in principle, the Government accept that further targeted help may be needed for farmers and others suffering unrecoverable losses as a direct result of foot and mouth disease.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
On the question of loss, will my hon. Friend refer specifically to the plight of the livestock producers who are caught by the 30-month rule? They cannot market animals of more than 30 months at the full price because of that rule.
§ Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)
Will my hon. Friend also consider the position of pig producers who, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, have already suffered the depredation of classical swine fever? Once again, they have to feed pigs that they cannot send to market. Those who have fattening units will again face empty stalls and no cashflow when they eventually manage to send pigs to market, and they have already faced the problems caused by the terrible swine fever.
§ Mr. Yeo
I am going to mention pig farmers, who are especially badly hit in both our constituencies. However, on the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), cattle are at the peak of their value when they approach 30 months, after which that value declines substantially and there is no prospect of it recovering. If the restrictions on movement, which have properly been imposed and to which we give our lull support, remain in force for any length of time, an increasing number of farmers will face severe difficulty.
It is important to mention cashflow. Nothing gnaws away at a business man's sense of well-being than cashflow problems. People who work in the public sector know that their salary cheque will go into their bank account come what may at the end of each month. They sometimes have no concept of the anxiety and sleepless nights that people stiffer if they do not know when they will next receive any money. Such circumstances can lead to the human tragedies that have too often scarred the industry in the past year or two.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
Bearing in mind the cashflow difficulties that my hon. Friend mentions, will he also consider small abattoirs, which are greatly affected by the problem? The only abattoir left in Hampshire is in my constituency. It slaughtered its last animal two days ago. It has no income and substantial outgoings. Can he give my constituent and others any hope that they will receive help?
§ Mr. Yeo
My hon. Friend has raised that matter with me and is right to say that some small abattoirs will face acute difficulties. The Prime Minister recently seemed to 915 leave the door ajar to receiving further representations on behalf of people who may be affected in the way that my hon. Friend has described.
As for pig farmers, they have operated without subsidy because they are outside the regime that is covered by agrimonetary compensation. In the past 24 hours, the Minister referred to advancing the available money that was announced last April in the action plan for farming—a total of £65 million over three years. Although the intention was to spend some of that money in the current year, little or none has been spent for the purpose for which it was provided. In addition, the money is available only to people who are going to close down their business. That is not much comfort to people who are worried about the large amount of imported pigmeat that we have to buy. It would be comforting if there was something for pig fanners who want to remain in business.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I wee with the hon. Gentleman's comments. Will he encompass farmers and producers who supply farmers' markets in his remarks? The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rightly recommended that farmers' markets should not take place for the foreseeable future. Many people completely changed their method and chain of production for those markets and they are especially disadvantaged because they cannot shift any material. I hope that he will agree that that is a problem.
§ Mr. Yeo
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to that. It is a problem. The growth of farmers' markets in the past couple of years, which both sides of the House welcome, has been brought to an abrupt halt, and that will cause acute problems. I am sure than, the Minister heard the hon. Gentleman.
Will the Minister consider the provision of private storage aid—for example, for sows, for which the export market has been removed? That world give pig farmers some hope that they might obtain a fair price for their animals.
My second point relates directly to compensation. It is possible that some animal movements may be permitted under licence. I appreciate that the Minister will want to be guided by the chief veterinary officer, and no Opposition Member would expect him to take a risk to cut corners. There is a difficult balance to strike between the obvious desirability of allowing as much movement as possible under licence to enable farmers to generate income again and the need to continue the containment measures that are in place. Clearly, however, the need for extra cash help for the industry will be directly reduced if some animal movement can be permitted. I understand from what was said in the House earlier that more information will be given on Friday. We look forward to hearing that. Can the Minister say this afternoon whether he expects the relaxations in the short term to be extensive?
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
There must be an adequate supply of disinfectant throughout the country to enable even limited movement of Livestock. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is a she nage of disinfectant in mid-Wales and elsewhere? Would he be interested to 916 hear, as I am, what provision the Government might make to supply adequate volumes of disinfectant to the farming community?
§ Mr. Yeo
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present earlier, but my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised exactly that point with the Prime Minister. That is an acute problem not only in the region of Wales from which the hon. Gentleman comes but in Devon and Cornwall and possibly elsewhere. Given that the availability of disinfectant is crucial to the containment measures, this is a key issue and that is why my right hon. Friend raised it.
The Minister will know that the lambing season is upon us, and in Prime Minister's Question Time, my right hon. Friend pointed out that farmers may want to move their sheep but are unable to do so at present, even across a road that may divide one part of their farm from another. I understand that they are also unable to cross land belonging to a neighbouring farmer, even if the owner has given consent. Clearly, any relaxation that can safely be undertaken would be welcome, but I stress again that we understand that the Minister will want to make decisions on the basis of the advice that he is receiving from the chief vet.
My third point concerns the origin of the outbreak. The British mainland has enjoyed freedom from foot and mouth disease for 34 years, and it is terribly important that we should discover the origin of this outbreak. There are suspicions that it may have resulted from meat imports, whether legal or illegal. We have permitted imports from countries where foot and mouth outbreaks have recently occurred. I am advised that we currently allow imports from five countries where foot and mouth disease has occurred since the start of the year.
The Minister will know of the concern that I expressed in a parliamentary question on 8 January about the risks of imports from South Africa in the light of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in that country. I hope that in due course an analysis of how much meat has been imported from countries such as South Africa, which are known to have had foot and mouth disease in the very recent past, will be undertaken and published. The problem of illegal imports is also serious, and the Minister and I have debated it on many occasions. I will not go over that ground again, except to say that I believe that the public are also concerned about that, quite apart from any possible link with the outbreak of this disease.
I understand that more information is available about the swill used by the farmer in Northumberland, where the first outbreak occurred. I hope that the Minister will be able to share that information with the House and tell us whether he believes that the current regulations on feeding practices need to be reviewed in light of the advice that he is receiving. The public, as well as farmers, will want to know that reasonable precautions are being taken against the risk that foot and mouth disease could re-enter Britain after the present outbreak has been brought under control.
The reports today that antibodies have been found in sheep exported to Germany may—I stress the word "may"—mean that foot and mouth disease has been present here for longer than was previously thought. It underlines the need to understand precisely how the outbreak has occurred.
917 My fourth and last, brief point concerns access. I welcome the Government's prompt response to calls to close footpaths and rights of way across farmland. I was glad to see a press release from Kent county council today saying that it has already used the emergency powers available to close footpaths, bridleways and byways in that county.
I have heard from other county councils, including Suffolk, that they feel that they do not yet have the information that they need to put their powers into practice. I hope that the Minister will ask the relevant Minister at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ensure that all local authorities are notified immediately of their powers and of how they can be operated. I hope that he will back that up by urging them to introduce the powers at once.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
Is my hon. Friend aware that foot and mouth disease has already been diagnosed at a number of farms in Devon? Given the beauty of the area, many footpaths are still being used, including those over the Dartmoor national park and the heritage coastline. Thousands of ramblers from throughout Europe, including England, continue to walk these paths. Does my hon. Friend agree that Devon county council should be encouraged to close these footpaths and bridleways as a precaution? The foot and mouth farms are within 20 miles of the borders of my constituency. I suggested to the Minister on Monday that matting with disinfectant could be used at all the access points to the peninsula of south Devon, and so eradicate the possibility of foot and mouth disease coming to that peninsula.
§ Mr. Yeo
Devon is one of the most important livestock farming counties in Britain, and I am sure that the local people would want every possible precaution to be taken, as my hon. Friend has suggested, to minimise the risk of the disease spreading in the county. I believe that county councils would not be criticised if they decided to err on the side of caution in their response, given the powers that are now available to them.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
I believe, but I am not yet certain—I shall check during the debate—that the appropriate orders have been made by Devon county council to close the footpaths.
§ Mr. Yeo
I am sure that the House is grateful for that information. [Interruption.] I am not sure what grounds Labour Members have for mirth.
This is a fast-moving situation. It was always likely that more cases would be confirmed after the first one last week. I dare say that we shall not know for a little longer whether the containment measures now in place are succeeding. The country will hope and pray that they do succeed. The Minister has an unenviable task, and we all hope that he succeeds in it. On behalf of the Opposition, I pledge that anything that we can do to assist him will be done. I warmly commend the motion to the House.
§ 4.7 pm
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)
Before dealing with the motion, I want to say that in view of the tragic circumstances of 918 this morning's rail accident, the Opposition were right to change the business in the way that they have. I want to identify Ministers and officials in my Department with the expressions of sorrow, from both sides of the House, about the accident and the victims. I want particularly to add my personal expression of sorrow and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State—friends and neighbours may well have been travelling on that train this morning.
I now come to the debate, and I thank the Opposition for their support for the Government's actions as expressed in their motion. There is nothing in the motion with which I disagree. This more bipartisan approach is the right way to respond to the serious situation that confronts us.
I know that the House will want to join me in expressing support and sympathy for all those who are caught up in the outbreak and the control measures that we have had to put in place. There have been a further six confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease today, taking the total to 24. The new cases include two in Powys, one in Herefordshire, one in Devon, one in Leicestershire and one in Lancashire. Yesterday, I confirmed new cases in Anglesey, Lancashire, Northampton and County Durham. Most of those new cases can be linked to previous cases. For the cases confirmed today, investigations into links with other cases are still continuing. All animals in confirmed cases and potentially dangerous contacts are slaughtered. So far, just over 15,000 animals have been slaughtered to control the disease—more than 3,000 cattle, about 11,000 sheep and almost 2,000 pigs.
I know that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to the work of those who are in the front line in combating this disease outbreak. They include farmers and others in the livestock industry, the staff of the state veterinary service, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food animal health offices and regional service centres, local authorities, the Meat Hygiene Service, private veterinarians and the police.
The Government's disease control policy remains as I reported to the Home on Monday. I shall summarise the sequence of events. Foot and mouth disease was first confirmed on Tuesday evening last week in pigs at an abattoir and in castle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex. A further case was confirmed at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland on Friday. Because that case was as in another region and because of the suspicion, subsequently confirmed, that it had been present for up to two weeks, the same day the whole of Great Britain was made a controlled area. All livestock movements and markets have been banned, as have country fairs, hunts and hare coursing held on farm land.
The Government have granted a special licence to allow the movement, under strict conditions, of fallen stock to a rendering plant, a knacker's yard, incinerators or hunt kennels. In cunjunction with the European Union, we have stopped the export of live animals and products to the EU and beyond so that we do not export the disease.
Mr. Dafydd Wigiey (Caernarfon)
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken and give them my party's full support. What will b the position with ewes that need to be moved for lambing purposes, perhaps from one farm 919 to another owned by the same farmer? Given that there is a derogation for injured animals, is the right hon. Gentleman considering a derogation for ewes?
§ Mr. Brown
When I said yesterday that the situation was becoming increasingly complex, that was one of the issues that I had in mind. In an earlier exchange, a perfectly proper question was asked about the movement of ewes that are about to give birth to lambs from one farmholding to an adjacent farmholding, across an area where travel is not allowed. Indeed, travel is not allowed from one farmholding to another—but that is only one part of the issue.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are getting to the time of the year when breeding animals move from their winter grazing to the original farmholding where they are expected to give birth. Lambing is a period of intensive activity, which rather conflicts with our desire to impose rigid movement restrictions. I am very aware of the problem. I cannot announce a solution today, except to say that the imposition of movement restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease must be given first priority, but we will have urgent discussions with the industry to see how we should handle the situation in the current circumstances.
Although we have discovered foot and mouth disease in what are called fat lambs—animas that have been fattened for slaughter—we have not yet discovered it in the breeding flock. That is a significant fact for those who have to decide policy. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar with the industry and therefore understands the complexities. I can e explain the problem, but I am afraid that I am not in a position today to explain the comprehensive solution. All I can do is assert that priority is being given to the need to exterminate the disease.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)
I thank the Minister for giving way and also for his tireless work over the past week. He mentioned two cases in Powys. In fact, they are in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, and the evidence is that they originate from the Devon outbreak, which has been traced back to Northumberland. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that all the cases so far are linked to the original outbreak?
§ Mr. Brown
Because of the movements to and from Essex to neighbouring farms, and in view of the similar pattern where other outbreaks have been discovered, it does seem that every outbreak can be traced back to the Heddon-on-the-Wall farm, where the disease has been for longer than anywhere else in this country. That seems to be the position. I cannot be categorical, but it is a fair assumption.
§ Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)
What is the position of graziers on common land? Having spoken to the Minister's office about this earlier, it seems that MAFF has no powers over graziers on common land. Is that true?
§ Mr. Brown
The position of common land is one of the other complexities with which we are grappling. While the animals are not moving, there is no danger of them spreading the disease beyond the common land, but the problem that the hon. Gentleman is getting at, of how 920 to sort flock by flock, is an intractable one. He describes it well, and if he has an idea for dealing with it immediately I shall be grateful to him. Perhaps the best way to proceed is exactly as we are doing and not allow animals to move, except for slaughter, and to bear down where the disease is found. That, as the hon. Gentleman knows, means bearing down on the cohorts with all the implications that that has for common land.
§ Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)
The Minister referred to the market in lambs, and one particular problem that we have in Scotland, perhaps more than elsewhere, is the trade in overwintered lambs, which should be coming on to the market just now. If they do not come on to the market now, apart from the loss to the farmers the danger is that they will come on later in the year and so destroy the market for new lambs. Will he consider a scheme to take the lambs off the market so that the market later in the year is not destroyed?
§ Mr. Brown
We are giving consideration to such trade issues. The main thrust of our work is to bear down on the disease, but the hon. Gentleman is right to mention the trade issues. Perhaps now is the appropriate point for me to say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that his suggestion, in the context of the pig industry, concerning the use of private storage aid in some circumstances is a useful one, and I promise to keep it under review and at the forefront of my mind in my discussions with the Commission. I would require a derogation—it would be deemed a state aid if it were not in place throughout the Community.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's necessarily cautious approach and the absolute premium that he attaches to safety. However, given that the issue of the possible grant of special licences has been raised by a number of sheep farmers in my constituency—and, I am sure, in those of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House—can the Minister at least confirm that he is holding discussions with the national veterinary inspection service on the issue?
§ Mr. Brown
The veterinary authorities are involved in a range of discussions. I am not in a position to describe them all. In current circumstances, I rely on the advice being summarised by the chief veterinary officer and given to me in terms that assist me in making policy decisions. The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question is clearly right, but what I cannot do is describe to the House today how we will devise a solution that will deal with the vexed problem that he accurately describes. Clearly, if a measure is to be found, it will most certainly involve the strictest of controls, if animal movement is to be permitted at all. I ask everyone to bear at the forefront of their minds what I have just said about having discovered foot and mouth disease in the animals being fattened for the market but not yet having discovered it in the breeding flock. However, that does not mean that they are not susceptible to it; they most certainly are.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
Will the Minister return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) with 921 regard to common land? That is a particular problem in the New Forest where cattle, a number of pigs and the ponies themselves range widely. That difficulty is compounded by open access, with a number of Forestry Commission car parks, camp sites, and a large number of horse boxes coming in, particularly at weekends. Can any measures be taken through MAFF's own verderer or through the Forestry Commission?
§ Mr. Brown
The regulatory authorities have the power to shut rights of way and, if they deem it necessary—even on a pretty wide interpretation of the precautionary principle—I am content that that should be a matter for them.
There is a series of different risks, by far the largest of which is that animals that are susceptible to the disease will transmit it to other animals. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—the disease can be carried by vehicles, people, horses and other animals that are not directly susceptible, and it can, of course, be moved by travelling from farm to farm. Simple precautions can be taken that almost certainly reduce the risk of the transmission of an infective dose. Again, I appeal to everybody who enjoys the countryside to stay away from livestock and to take sensible precautions if they have to visit vulnerable premises.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
What guidance is the Minister giving to local authorities on how many footpaths should be closed? I spoke a short time ago to the chief legal officer of Brentwood council, who is obviously very much involved in tackling the disease. Of course, hon. Members who represent neighbouring constituencies are also concerned about the matter. No advice has been received and there is a meeting tonight to decide what footpaths should be closed. Clearly, there is a difference between areas of agricultural land that have not been affected and other locations, but my area is right at the epicentre. What advice has been offered to Brentwood council on the number of footpaths that should be closed?
§ Mr. Brown
I deliberately left the issue to the discretion of local authorities, on the understanding that they would know best the local circumstances. It is for them to make an assessment of risk. I could divert veterinary resources into conducting a risk assessment of all the rights of way, but I have got them all bearing down on the disease itself and I had hoped that I could leave the matter of footpaths to local authorities. Incidentally, if they want advice from me, I suggest that they act on a precautionary basis. I think that most people would understand that that is a sensible way to proceed.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
I have been contacted by a company that collects milk from a number of farms in my constituency. It is anxious, as it has been trying to get in touch with the Ministry at Tolworth but so far has not managed to obtain a satisfactory response. It is concerned about spray suppression equipment, which must be fitted to heavy goods vehicles. The company is saying that the requirement to fit such equipment means that mud is being carried from one farm to another. It would be 922 possible to remove the equipment, but a derogation is needed for that. The company cannot get an answer either from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions or the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will the Minister consider that as a matter of urgency?
§ Mr. Brown
I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will get officials in my Department to consider the issue as a matter of urgency and provide him with a definitive answer. It seems to me that there are competing claims about whether such intervention is correct. I urge caution on the dairy industry. We are trying at least to keep the milk routes going, but there are obviously vulnerabilities in doing farm-to-farm visits. Everybody needs to exercise extreme caution to ensure that people and vehicles are not spreading the disease.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I know that the Minister is doing his best with regard to public access, but I am afraid that he will have to do a lot more to convince the public that they must be more strong minded in choosing where to go at weekends. He will be interested in the case of my constituent, Mr. Matthews, of Skyborry farm on the Welsh border. I suppose that the farm is situated about 90 miles from Leicester, but at the weekend Mr. Matthews encountered people from Leicester walking in what can only be called intensive sheep country. With the best will in the world, local authorities will be up against it to stop that sort of thing happening. The Minister should say more about the subject, so the public are properly aware of the risk.
§ Mr. Brown
We have devolved power to local authorities so that they can use it. If they do so, it has the force of law. If people will not obey the law, it is perfectly permissible to call the police. We have not devolved that power because we expect policemen to be standing at the beginning of every right of way. When somebody in authority, whether it is a farmer or a public official, says "Please do not use this footpath during the outbreak", any sensible person will just go away. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that one or two people are quarrelling and asserting their rights, but in those circumstances I urge local authorities to take their names and addresses and prosecute them.
§ Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
I appreciate the blanket ban that has been put in place, and I understand the nightmare of trying gently to unravel it—of knowing where to start—and the problems of competing pressures. However, will the Minister ensure than officials consider the animal welfare problem that a farmer raised with me today? His cattle, which are wintering in slatted rented accommodation that is unsuitable for calving, need to move back to his farm to calve, but, obviously, the forces of nature mean that there is a time limit. I know that the Minister cannot answer fully now, but will he ensure that the matter is considered?
§ Mr. Brown
That problem is similar, although not on the same scale, to that of the breeding flock of sheep. We are very conscious of it, but the hon. Gentleman, having described the problem accurately enough, will realise how difficult it is to deal with. Also, he will be familiar with 923 its scale. Let me repeat that last March more than 1 million lambs were born in the United Kingdom. The dairy industry, by its very nature, involves calving.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for the manner in which he is taking these questions. May I ask about a matter that has just been raised in a European Scrutiny Committee? New European Union proposals—a draft directive and a draft regulation, of which I am sure he is aware—deal with health requirements for animal by-products not intended for human consumption. That will bear in the question of transport, as will the manner in which such a massive pile of documents deals with the question of animal by-products and their testing and the extent to which they may be dangerous to the public.
In the context of both present circumstances and the question whether the virus might have been imported—possibly from countries that do not have the high standards that we employ or from other countries, perhaps in Europe—can the Minister give an absolute assurance that these matters will be dealt with expeditiously so that there is no doubt as to the legislative, situation and the dangers to animal and human health?
§ Mr. Brown
I must be the first Labour Minister who has been able to respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying yes, in general terms, I can give him the assurance he seeks. What is more, later on I stall say something further. Given that he has asked a question, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to say that I have just been informed by our veterinary authorities that the German authorities advise that the sheep involved in the earlier containment exercise are not antibody positive. There is a threshold of negative status and work is continuing on a precautionary basis to consider that, I gut the fact that the sheep are not antibody positive is a hopeful sign.
§ Mr. Burnett
I am grateful to the Minister, who has been incredibly generous in giving way. I am also extremely grateful to him for that announcement, which comes as a great relief to me because I know that the problem was worrying Mr. Cleave at Burdon farm, Highampton.
I am also grateful to a veterinary surgeon in Holsworthy in my constituency for drawing to my attention the point that all the interventions that have been made only emphasise the importance of knowledge and information, for farmers as well as for others. I hope that the Minister will at least consider that. Many farmers are not on the internet, so will he encourage his officials immediately to post information and orders on, for ex ample, the Teletext and Ceefax services, which are available to nearly everybody? They are certainly available to nearly all my constituency farmers.
§ Mr. Brown
A helpline and other front-line advice is available and I shall write to all Members setting out the arrangements so that they will know where to turn if they are contacted by constituents. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is a good one and I shall lave it examined by my officials. I specifically extend my sympathy to the farmers in his constituency, which is at the centre of this awful outbreak, and to the private veterinary officials who have been so helpful in dealing with it.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
The Minister suggested that he faces a crisis of this scale because it was not 924 possible to identify the problem at Heddon-on-the-Wall early enough without jumping to conclusions. He also said that he believed that the disease had not yet reached the breeding flock. Anyone who has handled sheep and experienced the problems of footrot and off knows that it is often incredibly difficult to establish whether an animal is suffering from foot and mouth. Will the right hon. Gentleman see what his Ministry can do to ensure that anyone with sheep knows how to look for the symptoms, and knows what action is necessary? The worst possibility is that the disease is incubating in sheep. As we know, it is more visible in cattle and pigs.
§ Mr. Brown
It is also fair to say that many farmers will not have seen the symptoms before. We therefore plan to write to every farmer with a livestock holding, including some with whom we do not communicate regularly—we had a problem with the pig sector, because it is an unaided regime—enclosing a simple factual leaflet explaining what the condition looks like and what precautionary measures can be taken. The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is perfectly reasonable, and the Ministry is already on to it.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
The issue of information has already been raised. Does the Minister recognise that it is important, and clearly consistent with the tone of the debate, for Members of Parliament to be involved with regard to their constituents? They are likely to hear of any confirmed outbreaks fairly quickly through the bush telegraph. However, will the Minister consider setting up a system whereby Members could be advised—perhaps by means of a pager number—of any outbreaks affecting their constituencies? That would enable them to answer constituents' queries accurately.
§ Mr. Brown
Obviously, many Members on both sides of the House will, very properly, be anxious for their constituents and will want to do the best they can for them. We all have that in common. I am writing to all Members giving front-line advice, and I will take the hon. Gentleman's suggestion on board because I know how important it is for all of us to be able to provide our constituents with a front-line service in these difficult times.
§ Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)
Will my right hon. Friend assist Cornwall county council, farmers and the community in my constituency? Owing to the siting of the county's periphery, we have fortunately not had any foot and mouth diagnosed as yet, and we want to keep it that way. Three trunk roads enter the county. The council, local MAFF officials and vets are united in wanting to install disinfectant baths on those three routes. Such baths have already been installed on the minor roads.
§ Mr. Brown
I am not sure whether that is the right thing to do; I shall take professional advice. Obviously, I do not wish to thwart any disease control measure, so I shall ensure that officials consider my hon. Friend's suggestion and that of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), and convey their professional advice to me. I am afraid that I cannot give a fuller response at the moment.
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's 925 customary generosity in giving way. Has he considered the position of the national milk record service, which regularly visits every dairy farm? I know that a number of farmers and the National Farmers Union in Wales have expressed concern and have suggested that the service should be suspended until we know that the dairy sector, in particular, is not affected.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
The Minister is earning the admiration of the whole House by his willingness to give way, and also by the competence that he has displayed in answering a raft of questions.
All of us with rural constituencies share the anxiety and apprehension of the farmers in those constituencies, but other businesses also depend on farming for their existence, not least small and medium-sized haulage businesses. I have received a communication from one such in my constituency, saying that if there are no movements of livestock within the next two or three weeks it will have to close its doors.
Does the Minister understand that when people talk of consequential loss, they have in mind the possibility that the Government will at least consider the fate of businesses of that kind, and give some consideration to compensating them in due course?
§ Mr. Brown
I understand the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes. The livestock haulage business is a specialist business; it cannot find other markets easily. That is why I am working hard with officials, including the chief vet, to get the industry operating again. It will be able to do so only under licensed conditions—under controlled conditions. I will say something about that later, but it seems that the best way to give hope to the domestic livestock sector and to intermediary industries, including the abattoir and haulage sectors, is to get things working again in a way that does not involve a risk of spreading the disease. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, it is possible to devise such arrangements for direct movement from farm to slaughterhouse as long as the animals do not meet other animals that will not be slaughtered.
§ Mr. Drew
As always, agriculture problems seem to come in multitudes. My right hon. Friend is well aware of the problems with bovine tuberculosis. What effect is the latest problem having on operations in the trial areas? More particularly, will there will be a loss of personnel, which happened with the outbreak of classical swine fever? Action has been somewhat delayed.
§ Mr. Brown
It is too early to tell what the long-term impact will be, but my hon. Friend is right. All veterinary resources that I have at my disposal at the minute are 926 focused on the elimination of foot and mouth disease. That is not to undermine the importance of the other tasks that we undertake in the Department.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
I have been contacted by a Mr. Fattorini, who farms in my constituency. His particular case concerns an auctioneer who goes to a farm to conduct a valuation and who, under current regulations and the ban on movement, is then not allowed to return to the mart for six days because of the foot and mouth outbreak. The question that has been put to me—if the Minister is not able to answer it immediately, perhaps he would be kind enough to write to me—is, who should pay the fees for those six days?
§ Mr. Brown
The one thing that I can say with some certainty—I know that the hon. Lady will not like the answer—is that it is almost certainly not the Government who should pay. I cannot give her a more comprehensive answer, but I will write to her and see if it is possible to establish a more focused response than that.
§ Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)
Can my right hon. Friend give Mr. Bould, a long-established butcher in Leek, reassurance that movement of livestock to slaughter will soon he licensed, as it was in the 1967 outbreak, so that local butchers can continue to source from local livestock suppliers within Staffordshire, Moorlands and he can continue to provide local produce to customers, rather than having to resort to imports?
§ Mr. Brown
I can in general terms give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. That is the purpose of the licensing schemes that the Government have announced and intend to introduce on Friday. We have announced them now, so that those in the trade can reflect on what they mean to them. They are at least in part private sector arrangements. I cannot predict the total take-up because everyone will make their own business decisions, but it is the Government's intention to devise schemes that help small and medium-sized businesses and that are not just focused on large farms and large slaughterhouses. That is why we are also considering the idea of holding pens.
§ Mr. Gummer
The right hon. Gentleman will know that farmers want him, in addressing these movement issues, to put stopping the disease above everything else. He will also know that farmers would be happier if they felt that he was considering very carefully the issue of compensating farmers who are in the pig production chain and depend upon movement in it for their very existence. They—including many of my farmers—are facing a second experience of this type of situation in a very short time, and I believe that they would be better able to hold to addressing the pre-eminent issue—eradicating the disease—if he could I say something to give them some confidence that that there may be some help.
§ Mr. Brown
I can say two things that I hope provide at least partial comfort to the right hon. Gentleman's 927 constituents, who have been through a tough time with the classical swine fever outbreak. First, I am very conscious of the welfare issues that arise very quickly because of the stratified nature of the pig sector, but can also arise more generally in agricultural production when movement is restricted. I am looking at that issue very hard. The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the pig sector, but the point also applies to animals that are about to give birth, particularly in the current circumstances, when they are not in the ideal geographical location.
The second thing that I hope will he of some comfort to the right hon. Gentleman's constituents is that I am trying hard, with all the other things Mat I have to do, to pay particular attention to the problems of the pig industry, which has been through tough times. I am also very conscious that, for reasons that we all understand, the normal European Union routes for helping agriculture do not work for the pig sector. I am considering ideas, including the suggestion by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, about other market intervention that might be of help.
Such matters have to be thought about very carefully, and I cannot announce the introduction of a new scheme today. Please have my assurance, how ever, that I am not going to overlook the interests of those involved in the pig sector, particularly the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, who have been through such tough times.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
The right hon. Gentleman may want to say a little more about licensing. However, in deciding which arrangements can be licensed, will he bear in mind the situation at the Malton bacon factory, for example, which is probably this country's biggest abattoir? Currently, 2,500 people are laid off, but many pig producers within 25 to 50 miles of Malton could benefit from the type of arrangement that he has suggested, which would allow the transport of animals ready for slaughter directly from farms to the abattoir. The alternative is not only serious damage to our pig production capacity—
§ Mr. Greenway
Not only could there be damage to production capacity, and further difficulties heaped on the problems of classical swine fever, but domestic product could be replaced by imports. That could not be in the interests of any part of our own meat business or in those of consumers.
§ Mr. Brown
I will get British product moving again for the purpose of providing for our domestic market. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is nothing that I could do to help the pig sector more than getting it moving again. However, as he also knows, no farm species is more vulnerable to foot and mouth disease than pigs. Not only does it seem to affect them in a particularly virulent way, but they pump it out more than other animals do.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
The right hon. Gentleman is being very helpful. May I bring him back to the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Pife (Mr. Campbell) about livestock hauliers—many of whom were already in 928 a parlous state before this episode of foot and mouth? The right hon. Gentleman's reply was helpful in that he recognised that that is a specialist haulage sector, for which other markets are not easily available. However, does he also recognise that the specialist drivers who are engaged in that business would be difficult to replace if those companies go out of business in the short term? Will he therefore ensure that either he or one of his colleagues sits round the table with representatives of the livestock hauliers and Ministers from both the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Treasury? Cross-departmental initiatives could and must be taken to preserve the livestock haulage industry, which is desperately important.
§ Mr. Brown
Meetings are, of course, taking place across Government, and yesterday's ministerial meeting presided over by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was significant among them. I cannot promise direct financial assistance to the sector about which the hon. Gentleman asks, but he is right to emphasise the specialist skills of those drivers. My plan is to get them back to work and make use of their specialist knowledge in ensuring that the effect of the crucial licensing regime, combined with responsible handling of the animals, is maximised. That is especially important when animals are being moved to a holding area rather than to an abattoir.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that foot and mouth disease has been confirmed in my constituency. Does he know what movements of cattle trucks there may have been at the farm involved? Are the vehicles' routes being tracked back? Are the vehicles being checked, and fully and professionally cleaned?
§ Mr. Brown
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he so properly seeks. There is an enormous amount of work to be undertaken by the veterinary authorities, but every vehicle is being checked. All point-of-slaughter records at abattoirs are being checked, as are all market records, and the latter takes an enormous amount of work. Checking is also being conducted on a farm-by-farm basis.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
I congratulate the Minister on his extremely helpful response to the debate. Will he confirm that there has been no outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Scotland? Does he agree that farmers and other folk must not be complacent about moving around the Scottish countryside just because there has been no outbreak there?
The Prime Minister touched on the question of the disinfectant supply. He said that disinfectant was being produced but that difficulties were being experienced in getting it to certain areas. I know that the supply has run out in part of Argyll. Has the right hon. Gentleman anything to say about that?
§ Mr. Brown
In response to her question about disinfectant, I can tell the hon. Lady that we will make an order this afternoon to add 35 disinfectants to the approved list. That administrative act will ensure that supplies of substances that are effective in this context increase dramatically. In general there is sufficient disinfectant, but the problem is that it is not in the right 929 place. We have asked the trade to establish a website setting out where disinfectant is located, so that those who need it will be able to order it direct.
The hon. Lady asked about Scotland's present disease-free status. I want that status to be maintained. I am working closely with Ross Finnie, and my veterinary authorities are working closely with their counterparts in Scotland. Our best hope of defeating the disease lies in there being a close working relationship between the devolved Administrations and the United Kingdom Government.
If it is possible to make an early bid for disease-free status for part of the UK—Northern Ireland is probably the strongest candidate—I am willing to grant that status, as long the claim can be substantiated with the European Union. However, the hon. Lady probably knows that there are substantial movements of animals—especially sheep—between Northumberland and Scotland. Although I hope that Scotland remains disease free, it is too early to say with complete assurance that it will. We are doing everything possible to eradicate the disease throughout the United Kingdom, and I am grateful for the help and support that we are getting from the authorities in Scotland.
§ Mr. Jack
I thank the Minister for his kindness and courtesy in taking so many interventions. Mr. Tom Fare is a very worried pig farmer in my constituency. Like many others, he would be most grateful if the Minister would return to a point that he made earlier and say a little more about the work being done to track down the disease's true origins, rather than simply where it started. A number of rumours are swirling around about whether it was caused by imported meat or swill from airports, schools or goodness knows where. The answer to that question will determine our strategy in defending ourselves from this scourge in the future.
My constituent also asks whether, when the immediate crisis has passed, the Minister will give consideration to launching a national exercise to assess whether we have abattoirs in the right places and in the right numbers.
§ Mr. Brown
I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman quite the response that he wants about abattoirs. However, he is right that it is essential to understand how this virus—and, indeed, the classical swine fever virus—got into our country. We have been free of it for something like 20 years, and it is absolutely certain that it has not been hibernating here in the United Kingdom. It got into the United Kingdom from somewhere else, and I will have more to say about that later.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I support everything that my right hon. Friend has done, including closing footpaths and stopping people walking on open land, but the effect on the tourist industry in Cumbria could be drastic. We are fortunate in the Lake district that things are quite quiet at present, but if the ban continues over Easter and into the summer, the tourist industry will suffer great devastation. Many of those affected will be farmers who have diversified into tourism. Will my right hon. Friend talk to his colleagues about help for those people?
As for the export of dairy products, a factory in my constituency makes a considerable amount of milk powder. Obviously, because of the heat treatment of the 930 milk powder, there is no threat to anyone, but at present there is a ban. Will the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food give priority to lifting the ban on exports, not only to European Union countries but to other countries where the company sends its products? If the factory cannot continue to manufacture, that will create another problem for our farmers.
§ Mr. Brown
MAFF officials are having close discussions with EU officials and individual member states about the extent and proportionality of the ban. Although I cannot make any immediate announcement, I can tell my hon. Friend that we are working closely with others on the problems that he highlights. Depending on how circumstances develop, it may be possible to do something that would help his constituents further on. However, much depends on the scale of the problem and on our ability to bear down on it. No countries will allow foot and mouth disease in, to infect their national flocks and herds, and we do not allow it in here either.
My hon. Friend is right about farm diversification. That is why we are taking very tough measures now, in the hope that we can prevent the spread of the disease with the movement restrictions, contain it with quarantine, and then eliminate it with our slaughter policy. In other words, I hope that this will not be a protracted episode; that is what we are trying hard to avoid. However, I cannot make that promise to the House today.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
I, like many others, have a farmer in my constituency who has made urgent representations to me about the imminent impact of the 30-month limit on prime beef cattle that he now cannot move to market. Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about that problem?
§ Mr. Brown
I am trying to put movement arrangements in place so that prime animals can move again, although under strict conditions. That requires a response from the private sector. The best thing that I can do for the hon. Gentleman's constituents is to get the supply chain moving again without spreading the disease. Both are important, and if a priority has to be chosen, it is to prevent the spread of the disease.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my earlier plea about the plight of the small abattoir in my constituency—the only one in Hampshire—and I hope that he will be able to say something about that.
When the right hon. Gentleman is considering the details of his licensing arrangements, will he also take into account the needs of a very new company in my constituency that doing fantastic work in producing porcine collagen for medical purposes? The company needs 30 or 40 skins a week to satisfy demand, and it has no more supply. If the Minister could take that into account when considering the licensing arrangements, it would be greatly appreciated.
§ Mr. Brown
We are trying to deal with a number of specialist issues; the hon. Gentleman rightly mentions one of them. I do not want to give him an absolute assurance because my first priority is to ensure that anything I allow to move—even under licence—does not risk spreading the disease. However, subject to that, I will ask MAFF 931 officials to look into the specific issue that he raises. First, I will write to him setting out the exact circumstances that prevail and why. Secondly, I will see whether we can do anything to help his constituents who are employed in that specialist area of activity.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have transferred from MAFF's budget a sum of money to the Department of Health—in essence, to the Meat Hygiene Service—with a view to underpinning the veterinary costs involved in the operation of small abattoirs. It is my intention that the changes in movement patterns that I announced yesterday should be of advantage to small operators as well as large ones. It is slightly harder to arrange that, but it is the Government's intention; we want to help all the people involved to get some movement into their businesses—even if that cannot be in normal trading circumstances.
I have taken many interventions; I know that that is not conventional, even for agriculture debates. I am aware of how many Members on both sides of the House want to make representations on behalf of their constituents and to do the right thing by them in difficult and rapidly changing circumstances. However, I shall now move on to the set piece of my text, as it contains information that I know the House will want to have.
I have urged the public to exercise responsibility and to avoid all unnecessary visits to farms and farmland. However, where such visits are unavoidable, procedures for disinfection should be followed in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease from farm to farm. That advice seems simple and straightforward, and I urge everybody to listen carefully and to follow it. I am grateful for the responsible approach that has been taken by farmers, the general public and Close responsible for organising sporting events and other large gatherings in the countryside. That includes organisations with which I do not otherwise agree.
Unfortunately, not everyone is following the advice that we have given, so local authorities have been given powers to declare prohibited areas and to close footpaths and rights of way in and around farmland. I understand that Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks have been closed to the public. That is right. I urge local authorities to prosecute people who insist on arguing about those measures. We are beyond argument the measures are necessary in order to control the disease.
Of course, the most important measure for controlling the disease is the ban on animal movements. On the advice of the chief veterinary officer, we will be extending the controlled area measures, including the ban on livestock movements within Great Britain, for two more weeks from 2 March. We may then need to consider further movement restrictions—I know that that is unwelcome news. At present we just do not know, but if it is necessary, we shall have to do it.
At the same time, we are working up details of the schemes that we have discussed whereby healthy animals can go direct from the farm to an abattoir, under strictly controlled conditions, to supply the food chain. That will go ahead only if the chief veterinary officer advises me that such arrangements are fully compatible with controlling the disease outbreak. Details of the scheme are being worked up in conjunction with representatives of the livestock industry, and I plan to announce further details on Friday.
932 I am also considering whether it would be safe to have licensed collection centres for animals going for slaughter. However, the Government cannot reopen livestock markets generally at this stage. In that context, I am considering what can be done to help with the range of problems associated with the operation of the over-30-months scheme.
We are liaising closely with the Commission and our European Union partners. The Standing Veterinary Committee extended the export ban on UK livestock and products for a further week to 9 March. The committee will meet again on Tuesday 6 March to take stock of the situation in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the EU. The Government welcome that approach. I would prefer the necessary control measures to be renewed short period by short period, as that would provide an opportunity at each stage to review them and to respond quickly to emerging and, I hope, improving circumstances.
As the House would expect, the Government's immediate and overriding priority is the control and eradication of the disease. However, epidemiological investigations into the source are continuing. That brings me to the question that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) perfectly properly asked me earlier. There was no known foot and mouth disease in the EU, which suggests that the source was outside the EU. There are strict controls banning imports from areas where foot and mouth disease is endemic. Imports from such a source would be illegal.
There is no special reason to believe that the disease was imported from South Africa. South Africa has in place a ban on exports from infected areas, and in any case, the United Kingdom introduced measures to prohibit South African imports before similar EU measures were introduced.
I can confirm to the House—this goes to the root of the right hon. Gentleman's question—that the earliest outbreak of the disease was that confirmed in pigs at Heddon-on-the-Wall on Friday last week. Veterinary inspection suggests that the disease was present in the pigs for up to two weeks before it was notified by the farmer to MAFF veterinary staff. An investigation is under way and, partly for legal reasons, I am unable to give the House any further details.
When the disease has been brought under control, I shall want to examine carefully the implications that increased world travel, the globalisation of agricultural trade and modern farming methods have on disease control. I have asked for an examination of the current enforcement and control measures.
Farm incomes have been severely depressed for four years. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease means further serious hardship for a very large number of farmers and their families. There are serious impacts on farmers whose animals must be slaughtered and on those whose businesses are disrupted by the movement restrictions necessary to control and isolate the disease.
The Government are doing all we can to help. Farmers whose animals must be slaughtered as a disease control measure are compensated to the full market value of their stock. In addition, I announced yesterday that the Government plan to draw down the full amount of agrimonetary compensation available for livestock farmers. That amounts to a total of about £170 million, of which £16 million is the compulsory element that has 933 previously been announced. That brings the total amount of agrimonetary compensation paid under the Government to £786 million since the last election.
To benefit pig farmers, I plan to open a second round of the outgoers element of the pig industry restructuring scheme, bringing forward money already announced and allocated for future financial years. Although I cannot make a further announcement today, I am carefully considering what else might be done to help the pig sector. I promise to consider the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, and I am mindful of the other interventions that I have taken in this debate.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I want to ask the Minister about the pig outgoers scheme and the announcement that he made yesterday. He introduced that scheme to deal with the serious crisis that existed in the pig industry until about a year ago. However, last autumn or late summer, he introduced the pig industry development scheme, which we shall debate in Committee tomorrow. That scheme was aimed at the problems caused to pig farmers caught in the swine fever outbreak who could not move their pigs off the farm. That operation, rather than the outgoers scheme, seems much more analogous to the current position. It is perfectly understandable that the Minister is shopping around his budget and looking for some money to use, but will he explain why he is using the outgoers scheme, not the development scheme, to help the industry?
§ Mr. Brown
There is a long history to this issue, and I fought to get the scheme in place before the outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia occurred. I had the money from the Treasury, but not the approval of the Commission. Both elements were necessary to get the scheme under way, but the other parties tried to attach a whole range of conditions to it.
My immediate purpose is to try to help people who, because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, are wondering again about their long-term commitment to the industry, and who have not bid for the first round of the outgoers scheme, but who might now like to do so. I am not saying that there are people in those circumstances; I genuinely do not know. However, if there are, they will be among the most worried, and they might suddenly like to find an exit route. It is to help them that I have managed to get permission from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to draw some moneys forward.
That does not mean that I have stopped thinking about the rest of the industry. However, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) knows, although we have gone through the most terrible downturn in trade, with incomes falling below the costs of production—that is not sustainable in the longer term—prospects for the sector are looking up. We have all worked hard to bring that about, and individual farmers making business decisions might not find the scheme an attractive option, or may prefer to wait until they see how the condition—it is not an epidemic—emerges in the national herds and flocks. It may be significant—I say, touching wood—that the latest cases, with all the attendant difficulties, involve cattle and sheep but not pigs.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
The right hon. Gentleman has treated the House in an exemplary 934 manner this afternoon, and that is widely recognised. I hope that he will have sensed that the House wants to help him. Because many of his answers will of necessity be tentative—he cannot of be definitive about many issues—will he assure the House that he will keep us regularly informed? Will he give thought to the idea of producing a newsletter perhaps once a week for Members of Parliament, so that we know what is happening and he can keep us updated?
§ Mr. Brown
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I accept that I am under an obligation to keep the House regularly informed; all Ministers are accountable to the House. I will consider what more we can do to keep Men bers of Parliament informed as this rapidly changing situation develops. I intend to write to Members with front-line advice that will help them to deal with individual constituency inquiries, but a bulletin that sets out progress and is available to Members might also help. I will have a hard look at that suggestion and come back to the hon. Gentleman with a definitive answer.
Private storage aid has been mentioned. I have said that we shall consider that, as it might be a way forward. I am raising a range of issues with Commissioner Fischler, who I know will try to help. All sorts of anomalies arise with the administration of the European Union support schemes, and they require the good will of the Commission in these difficult circumstances. However, it is right that I should report to the House that I found nothing but sympathy and good will from Ministers, the presidency and the Commission when I addressed them at the Council meeting late on Monday night.
Those who hold ministerial office realise what a difficult and intractable problem this is. The expressions of good will have teen given practical effect by offers from our European Union partners of extra veterinary assistance should the chief veterinary officer need to call on it. He can call not only on the resources of the European Union, but on those of our major trading partners worldwide.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I echo what has been said about the Minister's response today. Will he ask the Commissioner to consider the issues that affect smaller abattoirs with low throughput? The Minister will recall that I have met him with several delegations to discuss the issues that affect smaller abattoirs, and I note that the Minister for the Environment has said today that special help will be given to them in future.
Given the number of smaller abattoirs that have disappeared—to be fair. I must add that that happened under his predecessors rather than while he has been in office—will the Minister consider particularly the issue of locality? It is not just the size of the abattoirs but their location that has caused the problem. The fact that animals have to travel long distances has undoubtedly accentuated the difficulties that we now face. Will he consider that specific issue?
§ Mr. Brown
Even in this day and age, there are many abattoirs between Northumberland, where the original outbreak started, and Essex. It was necessary for the animals to travel such a long distance because of the specialist nature of the abattoir trade. It is not the last journey that is the most dangerous, because the animals are isolated from other livestock when they go to 935 slaughter. The virus is breathed out, and animals cease to breathe once they are slaughtered, so the danger of spreading the disease is much reduced, although not entirely removed.
There are other public policy reasons why one might want to support the small abattoir sector. We are addressing those across Departments. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said. In addition, the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is doing with the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service is also relevant. My immediate task is to devise a movement scheme that encompasses not just the large operators, but the small and medium-sized sector too, so that they have hope for the future. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will do everything that I can to achieve that objective.
§ Mr. Gill
In response to a parliamentary question in November, the Minister of State said:we are not aware that animal welfare has been in any way compromised by longer journey times from farm to slaughter."—[Official Report, 24 November 2000; Vol. 357, c. 325W.]Is that still the Government's view?
§ Mr. Brown
Yes. We carry out inspections, and individual abuses are sometimes found, but journey times and patterns conform with the regulatory regime. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am trying to get that tightened, but it is a matter for European Union law.
We are also in contact with the clearing banks to discuss the issue of cash flow to farm businesses affected by the disease outbreak. The clearing banks are interested in our assessment. I cannot be as certain as I should like to be, but the announced intention to draw down not just the compulsory part of the agrimonetary scheme but a much larger discretionary element will have a significant impact on our discussions. However, I cannot give a commitment on compensation for other losses in the supply chain. I do not want to mislead people by holding out the prospect of another source of financial aid. The best help that I can give is to control and eradicate the disease as soon as possible.
I want to add a caveat: the Government are keeping a close eye on the implications for farm animal welfare. Given the experience of the classical swine fever outbreak last summer, it is clear to everyone involved that an important issue is at stake. I hope that we do not have to reconsider it, but I alert the House to the fact that we may.
The Government's priority is to control and eradicate the disease. The licensing of movement between farms and abattoirs from the end of this week will begin to get the haulage business, the abattoirs am the food processors that use British food products back to work. We all want that to happen.
I am grateful for the tone of the Opposition motion, with which I fully agree. I am also grateful for the measured way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House—who are, of course, worried on behalf of their constituents—have put their questions. This is a serious issue for our country. I hope that we can unite to support the necessary control measures and, by working together, eradicate the disease. Once that is done, we can take a close interest in how the outbreak started and what extra measures are necessary to prevent it from happening 936 again. We need to get our industry back to working normally and to restore our country's high reputation for having an enduring disease-free status.
§ Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)
I, too, welcome the Minister's contribution. I welcome also the constructive opposition evident in the tone and content of the Conservative motion, which has enabled us all to debate the issue.
Almost a fortnight ago hon. Members discussed the aftermath of BSE; I do not think that any of us thought that we would be debating the serious issue of foot and mouth only days later. The BSE crisis led to the Phillips report, which made me think about the lessons that we might have learned from the 1967 epidemic of foot and mouth disease and the single outbreak on the Isle of Wight in 1981. Hon. Members have referred to incidents of the disease in Europe, such as that in Greece only a year ago.
It is inconceivable that, following those incidents, nothing was done and no reports were commissioned to consider the way in which the spread of disease was changing along with the patterns of farming and trading. Indeed, it has come to my attention that the European Commission published an agriculture report entitled "Animal health and related problems in densely populated livestock areas of the Community", which detailed the proceedings of a workshop held in Brussels on 22 November 1994—quite some time ago. I will not quote large chunks of the report, but I hope that officials and others will take the opportunity to re-read it because Phillips taught us that we must look back to see what lessons could have been learned and what measures could have been taken.
There are some telling paragraphs in the report's conclusions and recommendations. Under the heading "The problem", the report says:This means that despite the immediate economic advantages, high density areas may prove to be unsustainable in the long term.It goes on to say:Good management has a significant role to play in preventing the entry of infection into units and in avoiding the worst consequences".It further says:The present trade in animals poses great risks to the sanitary situation,and suggests ways in which those risks might be reduced.
Perhaps most telling is the paragraph on long-term solutions, which says:The environmental pollutions and disease epidemics that are being encountered in dense livestock areas are but symptoms of a more deep-seated structural malaise. This can only be solved in a systems approach that encompasses animal health, environmental and economic components … The European Commission is asked to ensure that research is coordinated so that the animal health, economic and environmental aspects are brought together in a comprehensive strategy.In the long term, the risks posed by dense livestock areas can only be reduced by some measure of restructuring achieved through self-regulation, economic incentives or, in the last resort, by legislation. All these avenues should be explored.I do not know whether any of those avenues have been explored, but as that workshop was held almost six and a half years ago perhaps someone decided that we ought to examine the issues. One might postulate that if there had 937 been some such activity, we might have been able to put preventive measures in place. This island nation could, perhaps, protect itself from disease better than any other part of the European Community.
I do not want those remarks to divert attention from the No. 1 priority, which is to find the source of the outbreak, to contain it and to eradicate it as soon as possible. Like others, I am concerned about whether we have the resources—not financial but human—to deal with the whole problem. Experienced vets have to be in an enormous number of places. If the spread of foot and mouth disease continues, vets will be able to continue for a while but they will be working a tremendous number of hours. I wonder whether we shall have the necessary human resources to undertake all the controls and inspections.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question. The state veterinary service and private sector vets are working long hours and extraordinarily hard to try to get the epidemic under control—the condition under control. It does not yet have epidemic status.
The question that the hon. Gentleman asks is one that I put daily to the chief vet, Jim Scudamore. I have said to him on behalf of the Government that if he needs extra resources and needs to recruit extra vets, he should do so. He knows that that is the position. At present, he says that he has the resources that he needs, or is getting them. We have had generous offers of help from our European Union partners and from our trading partners more widely.
§ Mr. Breed
I am extremely grateful for that news. It might be an appropriate moment to congratulate the chief vet on the way in which he is handling the mechanics and logistics and on his openness, honesty and balanced communications through the media, which have significantly reduced panic.
One of the issues is the growth of what might be called dealers. I am talking about farmers and dealers and even abattoirs and dealers, and the way in which animals are moved. Only today, one of the farmers in my constituency, Mr. Martin, who farms near Mount Edgecumbe, told me that he bought a suckler calf in a market about a couple of weeks ago. When he received the paperwork, he was astounded to learn that the calf had been through two farms and three markets in the previous four weeks. That is extraordinary. The calf had travelled a long way before Mr. Martin bought it. He was not aware of that at the time. That highlights the fact that animals are tradeable commodities.
If an animal is going through several markets, it is incurring additional costs, such as transport costs, commission costs and auctioneers' fees. Those charges add cost to the animal, and none of that is coming back to the farmer. It is all being dissipated at a distance from the primary producer. If some of the money were part of the profit on the animal for the fanner, we would not be facing some of the current problems.
I know that, in a way, dealers underpin the market. They sometimes provide fluidity and liquidity, but they have a serious effect that needs to be considered by the Ministry.
938 Compensation is on many people's minds. They are fearful, and much of that fear relates to the fact that they are losing money every day. The industry has gone through a period of intensification and specialisation. The opportunities for farmers and others—we have heard already about hauliers—to derive income in other ways is much diminished. They are specialist suppliers for a specialist industry. The intensification and specialisation of the industry to achieve economies of scale have driven away multi-providers. That is the significant difference between now and the past, when consequential losses were not considered because there were opportunities to make money elsewhere. Those opportunities no longer exist, and that should focus the Government's mind.
We have talked about the over-30-months scheme. The sooner that we can deal with animals that might be caught up in it, the better.
With regard to consequential loss, I shall quote from a couple of letters, which are heartfelt. The first is from a farmer in South Mol on, who writes:As a sixth generation Exmoor farmer with a young family, it is extremely hard to describe the terror, worry and sheer anxiety that this foot and mouth outbreak is causing my immediate family. I run both beef and sheep and am not afraid of hard work. Firstly, I live downwind, albeit 35 miles from the Hatherleigh cluster of outbreaks. Secondly, my partner still works in her father's livestock haulage business so we can attempt to have a decent lifestyle. This would have brought her innocently in contact with other livestock.Those are some of the worries that our constituents are experiencing.
The letter continues:If any good is to come out of this potential disaster for family farmers, rural communities and ultimately the whole country, it must be that we, as a nation, need to regain control of our food chain. This means we need to feed ourselves with high quality, local produce. The distance between slaughter, in the case of meat, and consumption needs to be as small as possible. This may take time and encouragement as our level of production has been cut back to such low levels we are now incapable of feeding ourselves.The second letter is from a haulier, who states:As a long established family firm (four generations), this is causing unimaginable financial and mental stress on everybody concerned. We are dedicated livestock hauliers and cannot turn to other work. As an example, we have not got or have time to obtain the necessary certificate to move fertiliser, not that anybody wants a livestock haulier driving around their farm or business at this time.The letter goes on:All our staff cannot he laid off for 90 days, not that we want to…With 20 employees our weekly basic wage is in the region of £5000. With no income this obviously cannot continue for any length of time. The state of agriculture was bad enough with bad debts running at record levels, before this current problem. I am concerned that consequential loss compensation is not being considered by government for ancillary trades.Those letters graphically describe the fears and worries of those who are operating in a specialist area where there is no opportunity for other income to be raised.
§ Sir Robert Smith
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I was surprised to learn that another group affected are pelagic fishermen, whom most people would not see as immediate victims of the foot and mouth outbreak. At a time when the mackerel fishery is becoming important, the Russian Government have decided to ban the import of fish as a precaution. I hope that MAFF will do all it can to persuade the Russian Government to be a little more rational about food safety.
§ Mr. Breed
I am grateful for that intervention, and I am sure that the Minister has taken note.
939 On the situation as it affects pigs, I remind the Minister that we had a successful pig welfare disposal scheme last year, following the swine fever outbreak. Perhaps a similar scheme should be reactivated in the current situation.
Finally, I was surprised to read that the Government may even be considering vaccination—
§ Mr. Brown
On the basis of professional advice and pleadings from the entire industry, the Government are not considering vaccination, although we have stocks of vaccine, of course. The European Union has enormous stocks of vaccine, to which it would allow us access if necessary, but to compromise permanently our disease-free status by using vaccines would eradicate much of our export business and would have a deleterious effect on the long-term future of the livestock sector, so we will not use vaccines.
§ Mr. Breed
I am delighted to heir that. If we, as an island nation, with the obvious barrier of the sea, cannot protect ourselves and retain our disease-free status, it would be a bad show. No doubt the suggestion originated from some of our French colleagues, as France is one of the largest producers of the vaccine and they may have seen a ready market.
The Government's message must he clearly stated. We were disease free for many years, and we must return to that situation. Such protections that were in force, and should have been in force, must be reinforced if we are to ensure that, once this terrible outbreak has been conquered, we do not become susceptible to it ever again.
§ Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
It is appropriate that the House should not today debate transport policy, other than the statement that is to be made later. I am pretty sure that, one way or another, some of my constituents will have been involved in the terrible accident that took place this morning. My thoughts and sympathies are with the injured and the families who have suffered fatalities
The debate has provided an opportunity for a useful question-and-answer session. During Monday's statement, some doubt was expressed about whether the House could pull together on this serious matter affecting not only the countryside but the whole country. Today's debate, the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister has given way so generously and hon. Members' serious questions show a change of tone, which I hope we shall be able to sustain. Few who are involved in the issue believe that it will disappear tomorrow, next week, or even next month. If the House is to give the country a lead, we must, wherever possible, avoid unnecessary political division, however difficult that might be.
The Minister is a colleague of mine from Newcastle upon Tyne and I have the highest admiration for the way in which he is leading his team in tackling this terrible disease. Everyone to whom I have spoken in the farming and the urban communities has the highest regard for the dedication and determination with which my right hon. Friend has conducted his business curing the past weeks and before.
I do not usually take part in agriculture debates in the House. I was brought up in a part mining, part agricultural community. There was a farm opposite my railway house 940 and I remember the previous outbreak in the 1960s and its impact on the community. However, since then I have tended to wander into industrial and urban landscapes. My constituency on the west and north-west of Newcastle upon Tyne is essentially an urban constituency, with 99 per cent. of the people living an urban or suburban life, but the largest land area in my constituency is farmland.
Many of the farms in my constituency are what I would call nouveau farms—not the typical farm where the farm owner and farm workers live on the farm. That is becoming less typical in many more traditional agricultural areas, but in my constituency many farms are contracting farms where the land is owned by a third party, a farm business in another part of the country, and a contractor manages the farm business. The dangers and difficulties in that become all too obvious in the situation that we now face.
The farm where it is alleged that the outbreak began straddles my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). Most of the farm buildings are in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and much of the land is in mine.
The second farm that has been infected at Black Callerton is almost entirely in my constituency. The farm owner has just taken over from his father, who died recently. He is a well-known and respected agriculturalist in the community of south Northumberland and north-west Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a tragedy that his farm has been affected by the events of the past week.
Last Sunday evening, there was a big bonfire on Burnside farm, which is a few hundred metres or less from the A69, just outside the urban area of Newcastle. Carcases were piled high and the flames went higher; 70 tonnes of coal were used to attempt to burn away the disease, producing a terribly acrid smell across the surrounding farmland. It was extremely traumatic to witness the event. Its impact on the lives of young people who saw it, whether they came from the farming community, perhaps in Heddon-on-the-Wall, or some of the other traditionally industrial villages in my constituency, such as Throckley, Lemmington and Newburn, will last for ever.
From all those locations, one could see the flames and get the impression of what was happening. It was bad that people had to suffer the event, but there was some benefit. It demonstrated to the local community the seriousness of the situation that we face. As it was well covered on television, it also showed the gravity of the situation to a wider community within the country. That probably helped a lot of people who might otherwise have needed a bit more persuasion to understand what needed to be done. It was unfortunate for my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Hexham that they were nearer the fire and felt more of the impact, but it will none the less raise public consciousness of the seriousness of the disease.
I do not like to be a historian unnecessarily, but I think that there is a need for more public education than has previously been provided. In 1960–61, when a major outbreak lasted six months, it was only seven years after rationing and only 15 years or less since war controls had been in place, so there was public understanding of the need to play by the rules in times of national emergency. I am not so sure that our community is as prepared now. We have a public education duty to explain that the 941 current situation is serious and can affect the whole country and beyond. We must explain why it should be tackled with that sense of gravity.
My right hon. Friend the Minister has relieved some of our fears and dealt with some of the genuine points that have been made. I should like as succinctly as possible to outline the themes that should be reinforced as part of the public education that I have described. First, we must continually emphasise the need to tackle the problem as it exists. We must all be prepared to do what is necessary to make our contribution, whether farmers are marooned on their land, businesses cannot conduct their activities as they wish or people cannot travel to the areas that they normally visit for whatever purposes, be they recreational or otherwise. We must take the necessary measures and stress continually that all must play their part if we are to tackle the disease as speedily as possible.
Secondly, people are asking a question that I raised in Question Time on Monday: "How could this possibly have happened in our community? We thought that foot and mouth disease had gone, so what has happened to allow it to recur?" As a political community, in the Government or the House, we must reassure the public that everything has been done to get to the root cause. We must use the best scientific advice and investigatory powers to find out why Burnside farm, on the edge of my constituency, was probably the source. Where did the disease come from? How did it get there?
Lots of rumours are flying about Tyneside: perhaps the swill was not dealt with properly on the farm, or poisoned or infected food may have got into it. There is an international airport nearby. Did the swill come from there? All those questions are being asked by local people and the farming community will be well aware of the need to identify how the disease got to Heddon. If we can find that out, we shall be much better able to trace what happened afterwards and find out how the secondary infection began. We must do so to raise public confidence.
The agriculture industry has suffered in recent times because of unforeseen and previously unexperienced events such as the terrible problem of BSE. Now it has to deal with foot and mouth on top of that. It must try to re-establish its credibility with the public, and we have a responsibility and a duty to help it to do so. For that reason, we must identify the source of the infection, although my right hon. Friend the Minister may face another issue in discussions with the European Union.
Although the outbreak began in the United Kingdom, and even though we have taken unilateral action with the co-operation and support of the EU, we cannot predict what will happen. We do not know the extent of the spread of the infection. We do not know how many EU countries will become involved. We do not know what the extent of that involvement will be or what relationship those countries have with their suppliers in other parts of the world.
The EU will probably become involved farther down the line in the way in which we resolve a number of matters such as how we put in place measures to try to prevent what has happened at Heddon-on-the-Wall and elsewhere from happening again and the eventual relaxation of controls in this country and perhaps in others. It may also become involved in how we consider 942 compensation, who should qualify for it and who should pay for it. We shall probably become more and more involved with the EU when we deal with such issues, unless the outbreak is curtailed quickly. Although we all want it to be curtailed I as quickly as possible, I doubt that it will be.
We must be prepared to take action for a sustainable period. A constituent asked me how long that might be, but I do not know and I doubt whether my right hon. Friend the Minister and the scientists know. We should consider the pattern of the major infections of 1960–61 and 1967: it was impossible to predict when we would reach the critical point at which the graph would dip, the extent of the spread would begin to reduce and the measures put in place to counter that spread could be relaxed.
We may not be aware of the critical point until we have passed it, and dealing with such a crisis is like climbing a mountain: we may have reached the first peak, but we will not know how many peaks we have to tackle until we reach the final one—the summit. We may get convincing scientific documentation and opinion that shows that the situation is beginning to improve only after we have passed that critical point, which we cannot predict. My reading about previous major infections suggests that we perhaps have better controls in place, so we should get a grip and control the spread of the disease more quickly. However, we are in the hands of the gods in many ways.
Another priority for the House is a quick return to normality for farmers. Those in Newcastle and in Northumberland will welcome Friday's statement on putting into practice new licensing arrangements to allow, where possible, sound animals to be taken to the marketplace. That represents a first step back to normality; we shall expect others to be taken in due course.
I understand that the current compensation scheme has been in place for many years. It might be useful if the Ministry considered whether it should be reviewed. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned the effect on the tourist industry in the Lake district. Is there a case for helping that industry? In my area of Northumberland, the wall generates a sizeable tourist industry in summer, and must provide access for many hundreds of thousands of people if it is to remain viable. Clearly that activity will be curtailed if this dreadful infection persists into the spring, with financial consequences for many who are involved.
I think that the public will rally if we can convince them of the seriousness of the situation. The farming community knows how serious it is, but the public have to be convinced. It is important for the House to give them a lead, and we can best do that by backing sensible measures taken by Government. I do not mean to be obsequious to the Government—I assure you that I am not that, Mr. Deputy Speaker; not even to my right hon. Friend the Minister—but I believe that we must give that support. It will involve accountability on the Government's part, however, so that questions can be asked about the way in which the situation is developing, and about progress or investigation and curtailment. Such questions will be asked here on a number of occasions in the coming months.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. With the leave of the House, and given the special circumstances that overhang the debate, I call the Minister to make a short statement.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
With the leave a the House, I wish to report further cases of foot and mouth disease.
As of 5.30 pm, the total number of cases in the United Kingdom is 26. There are two further cases, in Warwickshire and Chelmsford. We have already traced links with earlier sources: the Warwickshire case is linked by transport to the seventh outbreak, in Devon. The link with the Chelmsford outbreak has not yet been traced, but the farm is contiguous with the site of an earlier case. The Warwickshire outbreak involves 80 sheep and 220 cattle; on the Chelmsford holding, 600 sheep and two pigs are affected.
§ Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk)
I thank the Minister for his statement. It underlines the gravity of this outbreak and, sadly, the fear that it may continue for some time.
Let me begin by declaring an interest. As the Register of Members' Interests states, I am a non-executive director of two companies that are inevitably involved in the problem: Associated British Foods and Uniq. However, I shall speak mainly on behalf of the agriculture industry and farmers. As the Minister knows, I represent not only a major agricultural area, but one of the country's key pig-farming areas, which was heavily affected by classical swine fever. I am grateful for the Minister's acknowledgement of the plight of the pig sector.
I congratulate the Minister on the manner in which he has approached the debate. As one who knows how difficult it is to deal with these issues, I pay tribute to the comprehensive and understanding, way in which he is handling them. He will know that he has the support of the whole House. He certainly has my support in all the measures that he is taking. Before I came to the two main points that I want to make, let me refer to two of those measures briefly—they have already been dealt with at some length.
The first is in relation to disinfectant. I am getting the same reports as everyone else: there is a real worry that disinfectant is still not getting through to where it is needed. Obviously, if there are more outbreaks such as those that the Minister has just announced, that becomes a more important issue. I know that he is paying attention to that matter and I am grateful for his announcement earlier, but it will be a key issue.
The second is in relation to the licensed slaughter scheme, which I understand the Minister intends to announce on Friday. He put the point fairly—I am paraphrasing his words, not quoting—when he said that the issue was to get the supply chain moving without compromising the eradication of the disease. Although I fully understand the desire to get the supply chain moving, as that would deal with many issues, including the demands of the supermarkets, I hope that he will err on the side of caution. From my awareness of some of the issues and complications involved, it may take him more than two days. I would not mind if it did. I am well aware of some of the issues and it could easily go wrong. I am sure that the whole industry would prefer to have an absolutely cast-iron scheme than to move too quickly.
944 In that context, the Minister said that he had had discussions with representatives of the livestock industry; I know that he has had discussions with the National Farmers Union. My understanding, as of lunchtime today, was that one of the chief executives of a major processing firm and abattoir had not yet been consulted. As he might be exactly the sort of person who will be heavily involved in the practical implementation of the scheme, perhaps the Minister should look at that matter and consider whether to consult more widely.
I can cover my two main points briefly because so much has been said already. In both the points, I aim to strengthen the Minister's hand in what he is trying to do. The first is on compensation. Of course, I welcome the announcements on the agrimonetary compensation payments and on the acceleration of the pig outgoers scheme, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) brought out well, in the light of the effects of sterling on the agricultural industry, the agrimonetary compensation payments should have been in place anyway and were designed for a different purpose.
It is helpful that the Minister has been able to get the Treasury to agree to the pig outgoers scheme now. That may not have been possible without the current crisis. Nevertheless, we must remember what the scheme was designed for. It does not help much in these circumstances. As the Minister knows—it may be one of the reasons why he has been able to accelerate the scheme—the take-up has not been great, so not much money has been involved. Therefore, although both those initiatives are helpful, more may need to be done.
As a former Chief Secretary as well as a former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I can see the hand of the Treasury in the two announcements that have been made. In both cases, the schemes are very limited: the costs are ring-fenced. There has been great pressure for one of them already; the other is simply an acceleration of a scheme.
I shall make a plea to the Minister—I hope that I am strengthening his hand. In his statement on Monday, he kept saying in relation to any proposals for consequential loss that there was no precedent for such schemes. He is right. I understand the problem for other industries, such as the road haulage industry, but I am talking only about consequential losses for the agriculture industry and farmers.
My response to the point that there is no precedent is that we are now in an unprecedented situation. When the last outbreak occurred in 1967, the industry was not on its knees, so it was able to recover quite quickly. The income position was wholly different. The industry had the resources to recover and the scale of the outbreak turned out to be nothing like what appears to be the scale of the current outbreak. It was confined to three counties, or certainly to two areas. It was not England and Wales wide, as, unhappily, this one is. The scale of the current outbreak appears to be much bigger, but the industry is in a much weaker position. That is the big difference.
Today, as the Minister fully acknowledges, after four extremely difficult years for the farming community, every sector of the industry has been rocked back on its heels in a way that I have never seen during my parliamentary lifetime—indeed, during my lifetime because I cannot remember the 1930s. As we know, incomes are heavily down and cash flow is much affected. 945 Cash flow for many sectors, such as the pig industry, has been awful for some considerable time. Many people in the industry are now eating into their capital, if they have capital, and others have borrowed heavily. Thus the industry's finances are much worse than in 1967. That is an important point in relation to precedent.
I am glad that the Minister is keeping an open mind on the matter, as he has said. I hope that he is willing to go to the Treasury again for further support for the agriculture industry alone if the problem continues for much longer.
§ Mr. Drew
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that there are difficulties with the precedent argument. I make no apology for returning to the case of bovine TB. Although foot and mouth is on a different scale in that it is a national problem, some of us have had to live with the threat of bovine TB, which also results in the closure of units and a lot of cost. I am sure he agrees that it would be dangerous to set precedents.
§ Mr. MacGregor
I have already made the point that this looks like an unprecedented situation. It will obviously depend how long the disease continues, but my understanding is that, with the problems of animals stocking up on farms, the cost of feeding and the loss of value when farmers sell, the total cost could amount to £150 million a month. That is the latest assessment that I have been given. I am sure that it is a very rough assessment at this stage, but it puts into context the relief given on the agrimonetary payments. I realise the difficulties of working out a scheme and I know all the problems of going to Brussels, but if this continues, I hope that the Minister will be prepared to look at the matter again.
Another reason why this crisis is different from 1967 is that there is a heavy surplus in the Government's finances. Again, I speak as a former Chief Secretary. The contingency fund is intended for exactly this type of situation. Unlike many schemes and programmes that the Minister is sometimes urged to take up, it is a one-off crisis that would not be repeated in later years. Therefore, in that context, from the Treasury's point of view, it is not a bother.
The contingency fund is intended for exactly that type of purpose. I do not want to raise a politically contentious issue, but most people in the country would regard some use of the fund—even surpluses beyond the fund, if that were necessary—for that purpose as much more worth while than bailing out the dome. The cost of such a scheme, payable in one year only, would be small in relation to the securing of an industry and home supplies.
I with to stress the position in relation to the pig industry. The Minister has been right in everything that he has said. The pig industry has not had many EU support schemes. We know all the issues in relation to the pig industry, which, after classical swine fever, is in a serious position. Most pig farmers simply do not have the resources to cope with a long continuation of the present outbreak, particularly as they have now over-borrowed.
§ Mr. MacGregor
I have not done so because I have not been able to assess the position of those industries. I am aware of the position of many farmers and of the pig industry. I am not sufficiently familiar with the highly specialised road haulage industry, but there are other sources of income for road hauliers. I wish to confine myself simply to that sector. If the Minister succeeds, if it is necessary, in getting further schemes from the Treasury, it will be important that the case is well argued and well confined, so that it does not create other precedents. I realise that such a scheme would be considered by the European Commission as a state aid. However, I should have thought—the Minister seemed to imply it in describing the reaction that he received on Monday—that, given that it is vital to contain the problem Europe-wide, he would swiftly be given approval for a compensation scheme.
At Prime Minister's questions today, the Prime Minister described the farming industry—as so many of us have done over the years—as the custodians of the countryside. That role is another very important element in the issue. We have to ensure that the industry has the resources that it needs to come out of this crisis so that it can fulfil that function.
The other issue that I wanted to raise is that of imports. I have just been reading a book on globalisation, the foreword to which is entitled "The World Began Ten Years Ago". More than 10 years ago, as Agriculture Minister and as Secretary of State for Education, I was making speeches at out the speed of technical change around the world, globalisation and heaven knows what else. It is therefore interesting that one of the leading commentators on globalisation should be saying that the world began 10 years ago. Nevertheless, his comments on so many of the industries on which he focuses—such as the financial sector, but also the agriculture industry—reinforce the Minister's brief comments on world trade and technical change, and illustrate the fact that we are now operating in a hugely different world from that in which so many of of our original schemes were created.
Not the least of those changes has been the way in which supermarkets operate in formulating new trade relationships. It has to be said, however, that the main beneficiary of that process has been not industry, but consumers. As we are learning now, there may well be a price to pay for that.
The point that I want to stress to the Minister—I am sure from his comments that he is already very well apprised of it—is that both the outbreak of classical swine fever, which could h the been started by a ham sandwich imported from goodness knows where, and the current outbreak facing us, which, as he rightly said, must have come from overseas as we have been free of it for so long, demonstrate how, unless worldwide controls are formulated to regulate the current world situation, those controls can pose enormous damage to our own industry.
I therefore fully support the Minister in his view—I understand that Sir John Krebs would take precisely the same view—that we have to double our confidence in international and Government controls; re-examine our systems, and the controls and the resources that we have 947 to apply them; and examine the origins of products and the controls that apply in third countries. As the current outbreak demonstrates, even one tiny lapse can cause a very serious crisis.
Although we still do not know the source of the disease, I presume that it originated from something brought in from overseas. I therefore believe that that re-examination should apply to controls not only in the food chain itself, but at ports and airports. It is right to re-examine those controls in order to discover the lessons to be learned.
Ever since the outbreak of classical swine fever, I have been reflecting on concerns about the new arrangements that we have made for the right to roam. Various controls are being implemented now to deal with the current crisis, but no controls were in place when someone perhaps threw a sandwich over a fence and the classical swine fever outbreak began. There are big issues to be addressed, but I know that, once the Minister has dealt with the immediate crisis, he will a dress them. He has our full support in every measure that he is taking now.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carn earthen and South Pembrokeshire)
I represent a farming constituency that is well known not only for its dairy and new potatoes but for its beef and sheep, and my constituents are extremely concerned about last week's announcements. However, from my discussions with local farming unions, I know that they fully support all the action that my right hon. Friend has taken so far. The priority for my constituents and the farming unions is that the disease is contained and eradicated. I should like to focus on hose two issues.
Some right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the availability of disinfectant. It seems clear from responses earlier today that the problem with disinfectant is not production, but distribution. I hope that, within the next few days, arrangements will be made so that the more peripheral parts of the United Kingdom—particularly Wales, and especially west Wales, so that I can give a good message to my farmers and industry—have access to that vital product. We need it to take the action necessary to ensure containment.
I am very grateful that the National Assembly for Wales has reacted so quickly to the order on footpaths. Orders have been passed in Wales to ensure that countryside access is limited.
The day before my right hon. Friend implemented the restriction of movement order, I attended the launch of a Greenways scheme, which is a way of encouraging tourists to visit the coastal and rural parts of my constituency by linking footpaths with local railway stations. We took a walk from the local railway station to a local carpark, where we opened a footpath for wheelchair users. It is ironic that, the following day, I issued a press release urging my right hon. Friend and everyone else who uses the countryside not to come to the countryside for fear of spreading foot and mouth.
As my right hon. Friend said, it is essential that anyone who breaches the orders is prosecuted. As we know, the problem is that the disease is so easily spread. Irresponsible people who wander with their dogs or family through the countryside really are acting most irresponsibly.
Yesterday, I had a conversation with one of my farmers, who said that, unfortunately, sometimes not only the public but farmers act irresponsibly. Straying stock is 948 a real issue. Having checked with my local county council, which is enforcing the movement restriction order, I understand that under article 35 of the order farmers who fail to contain their stock can be prosecuted. We have to get that message out very clearly. I was also told yesterday that a neighbouring farmer had collected 50 sheep that had strayed from another farm. That may seem unbelievable, but it is true. We have to repeat the message to farmers that they have clear responsibilities to contain their stock.
The great problem is that the outbreak has occurred when the industry is already having an awful time because of the collapse in farm prices and farm incomes. Therefore, like the farming unions in Wales, I hope that by Friday my right hon. Friend will be able to announce a licensed slaughter scheme, which would at least allow an income stream for farmers and related industries such as the haulage trade. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that the absolute priority must be finding ways of ensuring that the disease does not spread. I think that farmers would understand it if a little more time were taken and a belt-and-braces scheme were developed to ensure that a licensed slaughter scheme allowed no chance whatsoever of the disease spreading.
When the scheme starts to operate, it might confirm what some of us already believe. For whatever reason—perhaps simply because the market sometimes operates peculiarly—abattoirs, certainly in Wales, tend to be located far from the main sources of production. Maps showing how stock has travelled between Northumberland, Essex and Devon appear to suggest that the market has not got right the location of abattoirs around the UK. Perhaps we should be more prescriptive in encouraging abattoirs to be set up closer to areas of production.
The benefits are obvious—jobs would be brought to areas where they are much needed, and the number of animals being transported around the UK would be radically reduced. The risk of disease travelling large distances would also be reduced.
I learned today that supermarkets are clamouring for the establishment of a licensed slaughtering scheme because their customers are demanding British product. That is good news, as it appears that people have not lost confidence in the British product, as many farmers had feared. Customers are asking supermarkets when British product that has run out will reappear on the shelves. It looks likely that we can restore sales of British meat in supermarkets in the future. We must maintain that confidence, however: losing it, as happened after the BSE outbreak, would cause the industry to be plunged into yet another crisis.
I spoke to Malcolm Thomas, the director of NFU Cymru, before the debate, and he asked that a specific issue be dealt with. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other hon. Members have touched on the matter, which has to do with the flexibility of animal movements, especially between holdings.
In my constituency, the Castlemartin range is a large tank range, where thousands of head of sheep off the Preseli hills overwinter. The dozen different owners of those sheep are desperate to move them back to the hills, and the matter is clearly a major animal welfare issue. Farmers want to know whether a common-sense 949 arrangement could be made to tackle problems such as that, while at the same time ensuring that the disease does not travel.
Another matter raised by Malcolm Thomas had to do with a farmer to the north of my constituency who has 800 store lambs in a large field that is virtually bare. The farmer has four fields full of grass less than a mile away, but he cannot move the 800 store lambs at the moment. I am sure that a sensible, common-sense arrangement can be devised to deal with such problems.
§ Mr. Livsey
Similar problems have arisen in my constituency. Many sheep farmers would expect the last day of February to be the normal day for moving tank sheep. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that some sort of special licence system should be established in such circumstances?
§ Mr. Ainger
I am sure that there is some way to achieve that, and I saw my right hon. Friend the Minister nod. It is imperative that we do so in the next few days. Genuine animal welfare issues are involved, especially in relation to the 800 sheep that I have mentioned. It has been suggested that sheep should be introduced to silage, but they do not like it and do not eat it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to come up with the practical arrangement that we need.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister of State winds up the debate, I hope that she will say when agrimonetary compensation will be paid. I recognise that claims are not due to be registered for the European element until 30 April, but farmers will clearly be facing a severe cashflow problem, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks. I hope that the agrimonetary compensation will be distributed as quickly as possible.
I was first elected to the House in 1992, and the difficulty of distributing money to farmers in Wales existed then. Significant investment has since been made in computer technology to resolve the problem, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) knows. However, if the Government are prepared to get money to farmers as quickly as possible, it would be ironic if they were to be let down by the mechanism that they would have to use. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take up the issue with Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Assembly's Minister for Rural Affairs, to ensure that available money is paid as quickly as possible.
I dealt with one of the largest compensation claims ever dealt with by a constituency Member of Parliament. The claim arose when the Sea Empress ran aground. I listened to the argument presented by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about precedent, who said that some people should be targeted, and that others should not. The problem is difficult and complex. In the Sea Empress case, the international oil pollution compensation fund drew red lines on a map, saying that people outside those lines were not affected.
If we go down the road of compensation for consequential loss, I fear that a similar problem will be encountered. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister is keeping open the possibility of consequential loss compensation, but he will have to grapple with the problem that I have set out: if the principle is accepted, 950 where does one draw the line? The problem is hugely difficult. The Sea Empress claim amounted to more than £50 million, and I know how hard it is to decide whether a hotel 20 miles from the coast suffered the same losses as did a hotel five miles from the coast.
I have one question that I think the whole industry will have to examine. We seem to expect the public purse to be the first call when it comes to compensation for losses suffered when disaster strikes. Should not we look to the industry and say, "Isn't it about time you started looking after your own? Shouldn't you set up a compensation fund along the lines of the one run by the oil industry?" The international oil pollution compensation fund is now able to pay out up to £120 million on a one-off spill. Should not the farm industry look at establishing a similar fund?
Clearly, premiums would have to be paid, and so on, but I believe such a fund to be an idea for the future. The time will come when a serious situation arises and the Government of the day may not have been as prudent as this one. The necessary resources may not be available, as they are today. Perhaps the industry should start thinking about how it can look after itself.
Finally, my right hon. Friend has handled this debate superbly. I hope that in the next few weeks we will see the containment of this horrendous disease and its eradication. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress made so far.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I disagree with the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) about the urgency of moving ewes off the hills to in-bye land to lamb. All farmers will see that as less of a Priority than preventing the spread of the disease. To do as the hon. Gentleman suggests would, I think, increase the risk to an unacceptable level. That should come second to the eradication of the disease.
This has been a very useful debate. I should like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) about the victims of today' s train crash between the Newcastle and London trains. The people of Northumberland and the north-east must be wondering what they have done to deserve this. They have had the outbreak of foot and mouth diseaste—which, sadly, started in my constituency—and to lay there has been the tragedy of the train crash. They have probably also had some of the worst snowstorms since 1962, and many houses are without power. They have had a hard time, and I sympathise with the I problems that the outbreak is causing.
Foot and mouth lisease is a personal tragedy. The Williamsons in my constituency, a well-respected Northumbrian farming family, were innocent victims of the outbreak; their stock was simply infected because they were near the source of the outbreak. They had a renowned herd of pedigree beef Limousin. To see those animals being lifted with a JCB and dropped on a pile to be incinerated by the side of the A69 was heart breaking. I am sure that the Williamsons will not mind my saying that MAFF officials have, in these difficult circumstances, treated them with extreme kindness and courtesy and could not have been more helpful. That should go on the record.
Northumberland has two exclusion zones. The county council is struggling with closing footpaths. Some confusion has arisen. I have heard that Kent county 951 council has simply imposed a blanket ban, but Northumberland county council believes that it will have to put up notices on every right of way to close them. In a county the size of Northumberland, that will be extremely difficult. Local authorities might need further guidance about how they should close rights of way, but it is extremely important that they do so as urgently as possible.
Another problem is that the county has only five animal health inspectors. Once animal health inspectors go to a farm where the disease is confirmed, they are categorised as "dirty" in the trade, and cannot visit another farm for a considerable period. Effectively, they are no longer very much use in this outbreak.
The outbreak has led to schools closing. Some teaching staff live on farms, and a lot of children who live on farms are not attending school. The outbreak has had a profound effect on our lives. If it were not for the snow, I suspect that it would also have a profound effect on tourism. As was mentioned earlier, tourism is an important economic factor in the constituency, and that will be seriously damaged if the outbreak continues.
Burnside farm has been said to be the source of the outbreak, but that is somewhat inaccurate. Burnside farm was split up a long time ago, and all we are talking about is a pig unit consisting of a number of sheds. I know that the Minister and his officials will inquire into the cause of this, but it seems rather a strange story. At this stage, our priority must be to control the disease, but it was something of a surprise to local people to learn that farmers at the farm that is said to be the source of the outbreak had been evicted from previous premises in south Tyneside—East Boldon—in 1995 after a long and protracted legal action by the local authority and English Partnerships, which had some ownership in the land. Once the two brothers had left, English Partnerships and the council were faced with a bill approaching £100,000 to clear up the premises. Shortly afterwards, the brothers popped up again in Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, with a licence to go back into the pig-fattening business.
The premises were visited on a number of occasions by trading standards officers and MAFF experts. No disease was found, but I believe that the way in which the farm was being kept was criticised Neighbours had complained regularly about conditions in the sheds, and I hope that in the fulness of time there will be a full explanation. It was obvious that the farm was poorly kept.
Finding the source of the outbreak is vital. There was a rumour that swill had come to the farm from Newcastle airport, but that has been hotly denied by the airport. I am happy to put the record straight. However, there was, and is, an extensive collection of swill to that farm and the neighbouring farm, which has also been affected by the disease. It is important to find out how the infected meat got into the swill chain.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) spoke about globalisation. That is central to the control of disease. With the way in which the world works now, it will be virtually impossible to stop some diseases moving around the world unless there is strict control of the sources of production. In Europe, for instance, we now eat more Brazil an chicken meat than ever before. Brazil is making great efforts to export chicken meat to Europe. It is vital that the way in which chickens are produced in Brazil meets European 952 standards. I believe that even if we put a cordon round a country to check the food that it imports, the volume of food imported into this country makes it virtually impossible to make a check at the point of entry meaningful. Therefore, we have to go to the source of the product. That is a penalty of the global economy, but we must remember that the global economy is also an advantage to us and that our farmers benefit from it.
There has been some talk about abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) is an expert on the subject, and he may wish to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a misconception about abattoirs and their purpose, which Liberal Democrat Members have mentioned.
The problem is that abattoirs these days are very large, multi-million pound, highly technical businesses. Wanting to go back to small abattoirs is like closing the supermarkets and opening the corner shops all day. A big, modern, state-of-the-art abattoir has to work 364 or 365 days a year. Lambs in the south-west reach maturity earlier because of the better climate. However, when the supply of lambs runs out, an abattoir cannot simply shut down and pay off all its staff—it has to bring in lambs from further and further afield, which is why animals have to be transported. Nothing that we do will change that. We cannot turn back the clock. Clearly, some small abattoirs are important, but the idea that we can have local abattoirs around the country to shorten journey times is economic nonsense.
§ Mr. Burnett
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point. Does he agree that the habit or practice of taking animals from the north to the south of England has been going on for years?
§ Mr. Atkinson
That is true. There has undoubtedly been a change since 1967, as we can see from the map of the outbreak, and there is now much more movement. Abattoirs are not only big businesses; some of them are also specialised. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow may talk about the specialised abattoir in his constituency. Such specialisation is why animals are transported around the country. There is little that we can do to change that.
I shall touch briefly on the problems faced in the supply chain—for the hauliers, the auction marts and others involved in the whole process. Like all of us, I am pleased that the Minister is considering the movement of animals under licence. However, I suspect that it will be some time before that begins to solve the problems. I fear that the outbreak will be worse than we anticipated—its growth over the past 24 hours suggests that it is serious.
If the Minister is unable to license movement directly to abattoirs, I urge him to consider some assistance for the supply chain. There are at least two specialist livestock transporters in my constituency—they do nothing else. They have no work at present. They can lay off drivers and staff, but they cannot stop the financial charges on their business. They will experience great difficulty. When the crisis is over, it will be no good if such companies no longer exist.
The movement of stock directly from farm to abattoir raises the question of how to determine the price to be paid. If there is no auction mart, how can the price be assessed? That must be considered when the system is set up.
953 Insurance was mentioned by the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire. Today, a farmer in my constituency told me that his foot and mouth insurance runs out at midnight. This morning, the insurance company notified him that it would not renew his insurance—helpful as always. I hope that the farmer is contacting NFU Mutual, which might reinsure him.
Farming is in a crisis. In previous outbreaks of disease, the farming industry could fall back on its own resources to repair some of the damage, but this time the industry is so low—so broke—that it simply cannot sustain further large financial losses if the outbreak continues.
We are all grateful to the Minister and to his staff for what they are doing to try to contain the outbreak. Farmers in Northumberland, in the firing line, will also appreciate that.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate, although I am sure that none of us would have wanted these events to occur. I welcome the Opposition motion. Earlier in the week, there was a slight spat as to whether it was right to hold the debate now and to haul Ministers back from what they were doing. However, the House is always at its best when faced with a great crisis; we can all come together. In his inimitable way, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has managed to disarm many of the critics who might have tried to pull the rug from under him. I am sure that we all agree that he has done a good job in putting people's minds at rest.
We cannot underestimate the gravity of the situation however. I do not have a specific constituency interest at present—I am extremely grateful that one of the first notifications of a possible outbreak, at Woodchester park in my constituency, turned out to be negative. Obviously, people in the constituencies of other hon. Members have not been so fortunate.
One of the difficulties is that although it is relatively easy to determine that there is an outbreak of the disease on a particular farm or holding, it takes considerably longer to confirm that a holding does not have the disease. There is an incubation period before the animals show signs of the disease and that is a dreadful waiting time for people on the holding or on surrounding farms. That is not, of course, to underestimate the impact on those who actually have to deal with the disease.
The outbreak is national. It seems to be getting worse day by day, although we are looking forward to an upturn. However, we must place animal health and animal welfare in context—I am not sure where we draw the line between the two, but veterinary science defines them separately. Within a relatively short period, this country—indeed, our continent and the world—has seen a number of animal diseases. There was the disaster of BSE and the continuing problems of bovine tuberculosis—I make no apology for mentioning them, although they are on a different scale. In my part of the world, we have been learning to live with bovine TB for some time—it is getting worse and we must find solutions. I shall say more about that later in my speech. In parts of the country, there have been outbreaks of classical swine fever. Now, there is foot and mouth disease.
954 Anyone who pretends that this outbreak is a one-off event that has come completely out of the blue should look back and think harder about what is happening in animal farming. If we do not learn from that, our successors will rue the day. There is evidence that such outbreaks are becoming more complicated; they are not necessarily longer lasting, but they seem to affect more animals more quickly. That causes us even more concern.
On the plus side. I join in the plaudits to my right hon. Friend the Minister. It is clear from objective measurement of such matters that the Labour Administration have learned from some of the mistakes of the past. By that, I do not mean the previous Conservative Administration—I do not want to make party political points. Since the last serious outbreak—BSE—I am pleased that command and control structures have been quickly put in place Although a few people thought that some of the measures were rather draconian and could have been seen to be non-libertarian—telling people not to go to the country side is about as illiberal as we could imagine—nevertheless the speed with which the Administration have acted was right. That has been welcomed not only by the industry, but by all those who have an interest in the countryside.
I am pleased about the drawing down of the agrimonetary compensation; arguably, it is a coincidence, but it could not have come at a better time. I very much support that, although I am sure that my right hon. Friend will realise from comments on both sides of the House that this may not be the end of the story on the compensation that will be needed.
It is pleasing to see the work of the state veterinary service. Some of its have been critical of MAFF's operation in practice, but the SVS has performed at the highest possible standard. It has links with the Meat Hygiene Service and the Food Standards Agency. I make a special plea that we should remember all those who work at the local government end—trading standards or environmental health officers. Those people are sometimes forgotten, but they are very much at the forefront because they have to make the initial visits and give clear recommendations. They always tell me that they are overworked and under-resourced. They tend to see themselves as the Cinderella services in local government. Perhaps we need to examine their work and ensure that they are properly resourced, because they have to deal with a legacy of different issues—which they do with great professionalism. We must never take those people for granted.
The loss of income will have an immediate impact, but we must not try to ignore the on-going problems. The loss of income arises from the inability to sell animals, but inevitably regulations will be involved. The Select Committee on Agriculture is considering the forms used in the integrated control and administration system, and there is a general view that we need to deal with that matter with more of a soft touch. We need to consider how regulation has been geared up post-BSE.
As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), in the debate on the Phillips report, which took place just before last week's recess, we considered not necessarily less but better regulation. The belief that cutting out all regulation is the answer to all the farm industry's problems would cost us dear. There is an underlying problem that leads to a loss of confidence, and it is why people leave the industry. That is 955 inevitable—people leave, as well as enter, any industry. Not many people want to enter agriculture, for obvious reasons, but we must find out who is leaving, and we always need to invest in younger people so that we can produce food for tomorrow as well as for today.
I shall not go over the ground that other hon. Members have covered in dealing with the food chain. However, we must not fail to realise that we are talking not just about an immediate impact on the raw commodity—the animals—but about the fact that we are currently incapable of exporting them. That will soon affect the whole food processing industry and will have an enormous impact on the United Kingdom.
We may have an agricultural trade deficit because we have always imported more agricultural products than we have exported, even though we could I be self-sufficient, as hon. Members know—but that has been made up for by the fact that we are a major exporter of all manner of different foodstuffs. Of course, those foodstuffs will be questioned in other parts of the world. We must be very careful not to talk up that problem, but we must be realistic. The loss of those export markets needs to be carefully scrutinised and we must do all we can to deal with the disease as quickly as possible to ensure that we restore confidence in those markets All that is known about and understood.
I wish to dwell on some other issues for a few moments, some of which hon. Members have already mentioned. The Select Committee has devoted a great deal of its time to considering the relevance of the globalisation of the food chain. That has been mentioned by Opposition and Labour Members both today and in questions on Monday's statement. I have a clear view that although globalisation may appear inevitable to some people, it would be a disservice if we did not question it. Even if no one else has had reason to question globalisation, there is much evidence that consumers have begun to look carefully at what they buy. They are asking where their food comes from—of course, labelling is relevant—and whether they can buy it locally. They want to know which farm it came from. They want to know about the attractions of organic food, even though it is not necessarily local.
All those matters are important and link with the key food chain issue—the relationship between science and the factors that are always found to be part of the communality of causation. Again, hon. Members have told us what they believe to be the cause. I am not sure that we know the cause; we certainly do not necessarily know who caused the problems. However, there is an interface between science, on which we rely so much to solve our problems, and the difficulties that we seem to cause ourselves, given the number of diseases that develop and how we deal with them.
Vaccination has been mentioned. It is interesting that my right hon. Friend the Minister has ruled out vaccination with every good reason, as most hon. Members would rightly say, because vaccination would take away our status and would seem to be nothing more than a short-term expedient. A comparison can be made with bovine TB. Those who do not like the work undertaken to find the cause and method of transmission 956 of bovine TB call for vaccination. There are difficulties in trying to be consistent in how we deal with animal disease.
§ Mr. Gill
Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that we may have to reconsider vaccination? It is all very well to talk about having a high health status in this country, given that we live on an island. We could keep disease out of these islands if we did not import from other parts of the world. However, we are importing and there is perhaps a great political imperative to continue to do so. Perhaps there is a contradiction in thinking that we can retain the total health integrity of our own animals in this country, while importing products from all over the world. Has it occurred to him that we may have to revisit that territory?
§ Mr. Drew
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not sure whether he makes an anti-European or an anti-world point, but I would approach the issue from the other direction. We should begin to question some of the global food chains. Instead of using vaccination to make animals more immune to those threats, we should try to remove the threats. I am not in favour of a little Englander approach, by which we eat what we produce. Clearly, that could not be contemplated; it is not what most people would want. However, we must revisit some parts of the food chain and perhaps get more balance back into it. That would encourage localisation, which I have always advocated. I shall not get into the argument about abattoirs. The hon. Gentleman has far more experience and knowledge of such matters than I have. However, we need to address those issues seriously.
Science has brought us successes such as traceability, which has allowed us to check most animals origins. However, we must check what we feed to our animals, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point during the investigation. Most people would argue—perhaps with limited knowledge—that risks have been taken with animal feed and that we should carefully consider the causes of those risks.
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend some questions about some matters that have already been mentioned, and he might like to investigate and consider their wider implications.
Earlier, hon. Members raised the issue of common land. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) attended a briefing by those who implement the policy; it highlighted the problems of areas such as the Forest of Dean, where sheep graze openly. It would be nice to think that we could contain the animals, but the sheep in the Forest of Dean visit people's gardens as well as the more open areas. Therefore, we need clarity on how we should deal with those animals, because they and their contact with human beings could spread the disease. The issue affects me because of the common land in my constituency.
When I intervened on the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), I asked how we could assist farmers markets and farm shops. The people whose main business is to supply those outlets face a particular difficulty at the moment. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to offer them clear advice. At present, it is not to hold the markets and not to open the shops, but the time will come when people's livelihoods will be affected not just because of their inability to farm, but because of their inability to attend the markets.
957 We are always told that one of the reasons we cannot offer compensation in the form that some of us might like is that it would fall foul of the state aid rules. At this time of crisis, it would be helpful to know that we could go to the European Union for a dispensation on any help that might be forthcoming.
Regaining access to markets after the crisis is another issue. We must have a systematic approach to that, but it will not be easy. When the disease is eradicated—let us hope that that is soon—there will be a period in which Europe and the rest of the world will want reassurance that we are clear of foot and mouth disease. Regaining access to international markets is an issue, because there is a problem not only with the raw commodity—the animals—but with all the other products that we need to sell.
Whatever our views on the European Union, we must all recognise the importance of the negotiations in which my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues will engage. We need the EU' s support at this time. Although we may criticise it on how aspects of policy worked out in the past, we now need to pull together with our partners. I pay tribute to the sterling work that my right hon. Friend has done not just in this country, but in the discussions in Europe. The most important thing is to eradicate the disease, but we need to keep our markets open so that we can access them at the earliest possible opportunity.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He made a very interesting speech that was based on his great knowledge. His contributions to the debate and his media appearances have added to our understanding of the problem.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the conduct of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: it has been exemplary. Despite the pressure that he has been under, it has been noticeable that he has answered interventions thoroughly. Even though I was critical of some of his remarks on Monday, I have nothing but praise for his conduct and performance today.
I am sorry to learn that a further outbreak of foot and mouth disease has been found in Essex. Chelmsford is very close to the abattoir in my constituency where the disease was found. The sight of the smoke that rose over my constituency from a great cauldron on Monday was depressing; I am sure that it will remain with me for a long time. I suspect that I have had a foretaste of what other Members may see. People's livelihoods for many years were literally burned before their eyes.
The Minister was right on Monday to express sympathy for the farmers and abattoirs involved. He said:They deserve sympathy and support, not blame. The best thing that the Government can do is to eliminate foot and mouth disease and help return the industry to normal trading as soon as possible."—[Official Report, 26 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 604.]Colleagues in the House have asked me about the abattoir in my constituency. In particular, they are surprised at the enormous distances that animals travel on their way to Brentwood. Inappropriate conclusions have been drawn from that. It is sad that a number of small abattoirs have disappeared, but it is wrong to draw the conclusion that Cheale Meats is responsible for the 958 decline in the number of small abattoirs and the fact that animals have to travel long distances. Cheale Meats is a specialist abattoir that is of enormous strategic importance to the pig industry. More than half the pig carcases exported from the United Kingdom come from Cheale Meats. Without the abattoir and its facilities, the number of live exports would increase dramatically, so it is critical that it gets back into operation as soon as possible.
Ironically, an application to extend the abattoir's facilities for the storage of stock has been before Brentwood council. Had those facilities already been in existence, the transfer of the disease to Old English farm probably would not have occurred. Matters were in hand to deal with the possible threat of foot and mouth disease even before the outbreak. If it were not for the efficiency of the abattoir, the current outbreak of the disease probably would not have been detected as quickly as it was.
Rumours have been flying around about the nature of the business of Cheale Meats. I am grateful to my Friend the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who told me about an anonymous telephone call to his office today suggesting that there, was a financial link between the abattoir in Brentwood and the firm in Heddon-on-the-Wall in his constituency—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal)
Order. Members should please keep their voices down when an hon. Member is speaking.
§ Mr. Pickles
The telephone call suggested that there was a financial link between the abattoir and the pig farm in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have checked that allegation, and I am pleased to say that there is no financial connection—either direct or indirect—between the two. I have spoken to the directors of Cheale Meats, who have given me that unqualified assurance. We have many problems to with in the current outbreak and people—especially those who do not have the courage to make themselves known—spreading malicious falsehoods does not help us to do that. I am happy to put the record straight on that particular point.
It is not easy to telephone a farmer whose stock is being destroyed. However at the weekend I called my constituent, Mr. Gemill, and was struck by the quiet dignity with which ho took the news of the destruction of his life's work. The valuers are examining his stock and he will receive compensation, but he still has to go through the process of replacing those animals in six months' time. Many hon. Members will have to make similar calls, and they, too, will not enjoy them.
Is this a convent time for me to stop speaking, Mr. Speaker?
§ Mr. Speaker
When the hon. Gentleman finishes, we will commence the statement. [Interruption.] Does he detect a hint?
§ Mr. Pickles
I am as good as the advice that I am given. I thank the Whips Office for telling me that I should sit down at 7 pm, which I am happy to do, and then continue after the statement. I do not want to keep 959 the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions waiting, because the subject of his statement is important.