§ Question again proposed.7.45 pm
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
This is an important debate. Unfortunately, my constituency is one of the two within Lancashire where foot and mouth has been confirmed. The other is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) where that horrible disease has been confirmed at an abattoir in Great Harwell; that is tragic news. My hon. Friend is suffering the same pain as I am, and people are rightly at a loss about what to do next. My hon. Friend is working hard and has been in touch with MAFF requesting help and advice on behalf of his constituents. They could not been represented by a better Member.
On Monday, we heard on the bush telegraph that there was a suspected case of foot and mouth in Chorley. MAFF was informed, and by 11 o'clock the next morning I had a telephone call confirming that foot and mouth had been established in the village of Withnell. To have such a horrible disease confirmed in a constituency such as Chorley, which has hundreds of farmers who are now worried for their future, is the worst news possible.
After I received the telephone call confirming the disease I telephoned the police, but I was told that they had not received confirmation. I was able to tell them that I had had confirmation from MAFF, but that matter requires urgent attention. Clearly, the police and other services involved should be told, and those who answer the telephones on behalf of the Lancashire police should be aware of the situation. The police should set up hotlines so that people who fear, or suspect, that they have foot and mouth on their farms can be dealt with immediately. We have the MAFF and the NFU hotlines, but the police, too, should have such a hotline. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn feels the same. People in Lancashire are worried that they cannot always get though to the right people in the police, so I hope that that problem is addressed quickly. Other constabularies in Britain should also ensure that they, too, have a hotline.
Before hearing the news I had spoken to the leader of the council, Jack Wilson, who had also heard whispers on the bush telegraph. When 11 o'clock came I knew we had to move quickly. I spoke to the local authority, which had already established that refuse vehicles would not enter farms within the constituency, but would stay on the highway and refuse would be brought to them. The local authority had therefore responded quickly.
Lancashire county council was also involved. I spoke to one farmer who rightly got in touch with the county council which, in turn, got in touch with me. Through its good offices, the council has played a major part. It has closed footpaths and is working with the police to ensure that people do not walk across the fields and spread the disease—the worst danger that we all fear.
The problem is that people are in fear and do not know where the disease will strike next. The district council and the county council, including County Councillor Steve Holgate, rightly played their role. I have spoken to local councillors, who share the same views whatever their political persuasions. This is not about politics. Councillor Iris Smith, who represents the Withnell ward, and Councillor Kerry Jones were the first two people to whom 974 I spoke. I mentioned to Councillor David Dickinson of the neighbouring wart that there was a problem just down the road from him. I also spoke to the local farmers on the district council, including Councillors Harold Heaton and Frank Culshaw, to ensure that they were aware of what was happening within the Chorley constituency. Everybody rightly showed great sympathy and worry. The constituency may cover an area of 80 square miles and have hundreds of forms, but it is close-knit, and the message went out.
The anxiety is about where the disease will go next. I feel sorry for farmers indeed, I always have done, as they have done badly for many years. I know that the Government have tried to address that problem, but now farmers face a new one. I want to ensure that this outbreak is not the final nail n the coffin of agriculture. I know that we all feel the same. Whatever happens and whatever is being said, we all know one thing: we want to ensure that when we have eradicated the disease, there is still a farming industry at the end of it. The House is united on that, and we should move forward. We want to ensure that farming will continue.
The plight of a Farmer whose land neighbours an infected farm is a for lonely one. He cannot go out and does not have any contact with other people. Farming is lonely at the best of times, but now is the loneliest time for a farmer. He does not know what is going on and has no contact with other people. The Government have tried to address the problem with extra financial resources for farming. However, marry farmers may lose out financially because of the over- 30-months scheme. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that those voices are not lost, and that people who are struggling will be helped and looked after.
The danger of any compensation scheme is that although people will get the money, they never quite know when that will happen. That danger is faced by farmers who have already experienced financial ruin. As they now face the extra problem of the disease and the burden that it brings, I want us not only to make the money available and award the compensation, but to consider making interim payments in cases of need, especially if the process is to be a long one. I would have thought that that was not impossible, so we should consider making interim payments available.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
I make no firm commitment tonight, but I intend to set what can be done to pull the agrimonetary payments, its forward to the earliest date on which they can practically be made. I shall be talking to Commissioner Fischier to see whether I can have the Commission's help in achieving what my hon. Friend asks for.
§ Mr. Hoyle
I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment, which all hon. Members will welcome. I know that he is genuine and means what he says. We all recognise that and we welcome his assurance.
It is sad in itself that the slaughtering has occurred in my constituency. No hon. Members ever want that to happen in their constituencies, but the problem also affects the farms adjoining those where the presence of the disease has been confirmed, which are waiting to see whether there are any signs of the disease. The farmers and their families sit there worrying, and they, too, face a 975 serious financial plight. They cannot take their animals to the abattoir or use the special rules that we introduce. The welfare of their animals is important. They must be fed and looked after, so there is a running cost.
The clock is ticking away, and we cannot say how long the farms that neighbour those where foot and mouth disease has been confirmed will last. We do not know how long it will be before any cattle can be moved to special abattoirs. It is the plight of those farmers and the worry that they face that I am highlighting. I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider whether special payments can be made to those adjoining farms. Nobody wants to move anything off them or to have any contact with them. Will my right hon. Friend consider that serious financial problem, which must be addressed?
People will ask why we must eradicate foot and mouth disease. We must do so for the future of farming in this country. It is our utmost aim and our main objective to ensure complete eradication. That is the only way in which we can export in future, especially to the United States, which will not touch a country that has not completely eradicated foot and mouth. It is those markets that we need, and to which we want to return. It is crucial for farming that we get back into the international market. On that basis, can we ensure that we do not import from countries that have foot and mouth disease? Let us be strong and take a firm stance, like the United States, to ensure that we do not receive imports from countries that have the disease and are not dealing with it properly.
I know that my right hon. Friend takes care of the farming industry. I know that that aim is in his heart and that he will continue to work on the industry's behalf. I speak on behalf of the industry, but especially for the Lancashire farmers, and my right lion. Friend came to Chorley to meet some of its hundreds of farmers. It is crucial that we look after them and do not allow our farming industry to bleed to death because it lacks the finances to carry on.
I know that the Government are committed to meeting the needs of those farmers, but these things always come down to time. As my right hon. friend said, time is essential and we must consider the matter as urgently as possible. I know that MAFF has played a super role and that he has done a super job. MAFF must continue to work with the farming industry and local farmers in the Chorley area, as well as with the National Farmers Union. We would struggle without MAFF, und I cannot praise it and the Minister enough on farmers behalf, but I look forward to quick help and support to ensure that their livelihood is preserved. Let us get behind the industry and ensure that British farming is put back on the world map, and once again leads the world in quality farming with quality welfare. That is what I want to see.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Several hon. Members have mentioned the plight of abattoirs. Before I add my comments on that facet of the discussion, I must declare an interest. It is unlikely that there will be an abattoir owner in the next Parliament, although there might be so many redundant owner that many will seek nomination for election to Parliament.
I question whether this Parliament has profited from the presence of an abattoir owner among its Members. I have regularly and persistently tried to flag up the threat to our 976 small abattoirs and the consequences of their closure. Just as regularly and consistently, however, the Government have tried to avoid facing up to the reality. Twelve months ago, I asked the Minister of Agriculture when he would implement the recommendations of the Pooley report. In reply, I received a written answer from the Minister of State, who stated:it is our intention that this should be done as speedily as possible."—[Official Report, 7 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 79W.]I shall not bore the House by quoting from the many, many other questions that I have asked in the intervening 12 months, but I received an answer to a question on the same subject this week. I asked the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on meat inspection charges for smaller abattoirs. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who had to answer because of a change in duties and responsibilities, said, "I shall let the hon. Member have a reply as soon as possible." Twelve months have passed since the Minister of State said that she intended to act as speedily as possible, but the Under-Secretary is now saying the same thing. Smaller abattoirs, which were seriously worried even before the foot and mouth problem arose, are still living in uncertainty because a new meat inspection charging regime is due to be implemented on 1 April and, as far as I know, they have not yet received from the Ministry a categorical description of what will happen.
Before I pursue that theme, I must say that we heard an excellent, sensible speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who pointed out that many abattoirs are large and specialist, and that that fact necessitates the movement of large numbers of stock over great distances throughout the United Kingdom. Those abattoirs are so big because their customers are the big supermarket chains, which smaller abattoirs are unable to supply because they cannot guarantee the volume or meet the specifications regularly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) referred to the abattoir in his constituency that specialises in killing sows that are exported to the continent. However, there are two other categories of abattoir. Historically, a large number were associated with meat products factories, where the product of the abattoir was fed into the production of the factory. A few still exist, but my concern is for the future of small abattoirs, and the particular relevance of the small local abattoir in the context of the debate.
The whole House wants the movement ban to be lifted as soon as possible, but hon. Members will appreciate the Minister's difficulty in lifting the ban completely and allowing the mass movement of livestock up and down the country to large specialist abattoirs, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham referred. That would, of course, risk spreading the disease further. It seems to me, and perhaps the Minister agrees, that if the ban is to be lifted, it may have to be lifted incrementally and only within a radius of a few miles of abattoirs.
In that context, smaller abattoirs will perhaps be able to reopen their doors, whereas larger abattoirs, denied the large numbers that they need to make their economics come right, may not be able to open on the same basis until the Minister can lift the ban completely.
§ Mr. Nick Brown
The hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about those matters, but the Government 977 are considering direct movement from farm to slaughterhouse, and movement from farm to holding area to slaughterhouse, in part to enable batches of animals to be assembled from different sources, thereby facilitating the workings of the trade. The crucial issue for us is the risk of spreading the disease. I cannot compromise on that. There will be no movements in any form that risk spreading the disease. What matters is not so much the length of a journey as the conditions in which it is undertaken. In particular, on the advice of veterinary authorities, my absolute insistence is that animals that travel directly to a slaughterhouse, or from a holding area to a slaughterhouse, have no chance to mix with other animals that are not going directly to slaughter.
§ Mr. Gill
Needless to say, I agree entirely that the ban must be lifted only on the basis of animals being consigned directly to an abattoir, so that the risk of spreading the disease is minimised.
I return to my theme, which Ministers know that I have been pursuing for at least two years. I remind the House that in June I initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on rural abattoirs. I used a statistic given by a Labour Minister in the other place. Baroness Hayman said:red meat slaughterhouses in this country declined in number from 1,385 in 1975 to 339 last year."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 March 2000; Vol. 610, c. 797.]That is a dramatic reduction, and the casualties were mainly smaller abattoirs. Some of the problems that we are experiencing were, to my mind, entirely foreseeable. I am not saying that we could have foreseen foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever or BSE, but we could have foreseen the consequences of effectively driving the smaller abattoirs out of business. Our common sense alone should have told us that piling bureaucracy and costs on to small abattoir operators would make those abattoirs uneconomic and cause their closure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar talked about large abattoirs. I accept that they can employ economies of scale, but smaller abattoirs are important in the local community. We have too few already. Labour Members have queried whether we have enough and whether they are strategically situated, and we need assurance from the Government that nothing more will be done to prejudice their future. I say that because a reduction in the number of private butchers and specialist meat producers who supply niche markets is an inevitable result of the demise of small abattoirs.
All parties in the House have flagged up the development of niche markets as one of the great hopes for the future of agricultural industries, not least the livestock industry—but without the smaller, specialist abattoirs, there will be no niche meat markets. Big plant abattoirs are not the least bit interested in dealing with small numbers of animals for specialist outlets, just as no big abattoirs are interested in taking an animal for private kill for home consumption, or slaughtering a perfectly fit animal that has to be disposed of. Only smaller abattoirs have been prepared to continue that service. It would be wrong, but administratively convenient, for Ministers and the Department to deal with a relatively small number of big abattoirs rather than the few hundred in existence, and many in the trade suspect that administrative convenience outweighs all the other considerations.
978 The situation is certainly serious: there is a prospect of the livestock industry being decimated. I do not think that any Member on either side of the House doubts that the margins on which livestock farmers currently operate are minuscule, and I beheve that this will be the last straw for many of them. There will also be a high attrition rate among specialist live stock hauliers. All that is bad news for the livestock industry in general.
It is ironic that in imposing ever stricter standards on the British industry—I refer not just to the livestock industry but to abattoirs and manufacturing industry—we are making our own industry less and less competitive. Yet we are apparently prepared to admit imports from anywhere in the world, provided that they carry a piece of paper stating that the meat was produced in conditions of which we approve.
Ministers will say that they have evidence in their Departments of instances of the law not being complied with in this country. What makes them confident enough to believe that the law in all the countries from which we import is being applied as rigorously as it is here, and that the products that we import meet the standards on which we insist?
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
Is not the truth of what my hon. Friend says demonstrated by the fact that the infection must have come from abroad? The disease had been eradicated in this country. Whatever else may eventually transpire, it has come here from abroad.
§ Mr. Gill
Absolutely. The same point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor), who was once Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food He said—I think I quote him correctly—that the cause of the disease had presumably come from abroad. If we did not have the disease a fortnight ago and we have it now, it must have come from somewhere; therefore it must have come from abroad.
I understand the difficulty in which the present Minister finds himself, and I know that he understands the point that I am making to hem, which is: how are we to maintain our high health status while allowing imports from the rest of the universe? Is it fair to bear down on our own industry in se draconian a fashion, making it uncompetitive and putting sections of it out of business, while the product that it used to supply is supplied by foreigners?
I believe in free markets and free competition, but we all face a dilemma that must be resolved. If the recent outbreak of classical swine fever was caused by someone carelessly discarding the proverbial ham sandwich, no amount of trouble that Ministers and Departments go to in order to ensure that our animal health status is maintained will be effective. Sooner or later, Ministers must address the question of food imports in a much more robust fashion, or else accept that the objective of maintaining 100 pet cent. animal health status is not feasible.
That was the point of my intervention on the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), when I asked whether we would be able to turn our face against vaccination for ever. It is possible to do that for ever and a day, provided that there is a cordon sanitaire around these islands, and provided that we know that no import will destroy our 100 per cent. animal health 979 status. The question on which tie House, and the Government in particular, must now focus is this: where is the present policy leading us?
We all agree that the slaughter policy is correct now, but we are dealing with a situation that is very different from that of 1967. The whole world has moved on, and, as many Members have pointed out, trade has been globalised since then. We must keep an open mind on, for example, whether we can sustain our high health status without vaccination; and we should perhaps reconsider the policy of slaughtering, slaughtering and slaughtering again until the disease has apparently been eradicated. Neither the Minister nor I can estimate how many thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of animals may have to be killed before we get to the end of the problem.
I have made this point many times, but I need to make it again. Ministers must understand that if the abattoirs close, there is scant prospect of their reopening. The reason is straightforward. Abattoirs operate on high volumes and low margins; they are now burdened with a huge amount of bureaucracy and inspection, and there are always the environmental pressures imposed on them by neighbours.
As with galvanising works, everyone knows where an abattoir should not be sited, but no one will say where one should be sited— and if an abattoir owner has a site that could be developed for housing or any other purpose, he could hardly be blamed for cashing in his chips and going out of business in the present circumstances. That is regrettable.
What is to be done? Movement must be resumed. We must halt the unnecessary closure of small abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred to the parlous state of the United Kingdom's biggest pig abattoir. The problem does not just affect small or medium-sized abattoirs, or indeed large abattoirs; it affects all abattoirs, including the biggest, which is in Malton in my hon. Friend's constituency. The maintaining of the movement ban threatens the future of all abattoirs, regardless of size.
Let me end by saying something that is self-evidently true: without abattoirs, there can be no livestock industry. The Minister needs to understand the importance of keeping all our abattoirs going, to provide the industry with an essential service and to convert its product into a food that the public will, I am sure, wish to buy. I believe that, given the choice, the vast majority of the British people would prefer to buy meat produced in this country.
§ Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)
I should start by declaring a tangential interest. I own five acres in Derbyshire, which are occupied by about 15 sheep. I receive no money or material gain from that. I have asked the young couple who look after them to take precautions, mainly to prevent possible infection from me because I travel a good deal within my constituency and there is a suspected case—although, fortunately, the initial test has proved negative—in Hartshorne in my area. We hope that the outcome will continue to prove negative, but, clearly, that case has caused much concern among the local farming community. The community of south Derbyshire respects its local farmers, although it does not always agree with everything that they do, and regards them as an important part of what is essentially a rural community with strong ties.
980 Let me touch on the immediate issues. The first relates to a conversation that I had this morning with a farmer who is not from my constituency, but from the neighbouring constituency—that of the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). The farmer raised comparisons with the way in which the crisis had been dealt with in 1967, which shows that some people farming now were farming in 1967 and they have accurate memories, as they see it, of what happened then. From what he had observed from a distance, that farmer felt that animals were being slaughtered and carcases destroyed less speedily than in 1967. I remarked that I thought that one of the difficulties was the different circumstances now; the infection is much more widespread. In 1967, it was concentrated in particular areas and it was easier to marshal resources to destroy animals speedily. Nevertheless, I pass on the remark that he made from his experience.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). He probably knows that I agree with much of what he said about abattoirs. When he strayed into references to foreigners, he lost my sympathy somewhat, but I have pursued a long campaign in my time as a Member of Parliament on the competitiveness issue: how we regulate and charge for abattoir services and the effect that that has had, particularly on the small abattoir community.
I think that I have achieved some progress. Initially, the competitiveness issue was not regarded as relevant; it was regarded essentially as a matter for individual Community countries, not a concern of Her Majesty's Government. Then a full survey was conducted of relative charges and charging regimes and, not to everyone's surprise, it was discovered that the regulatory regime that we applied was rather more rigorous in some ways and certainly more expensive.
I strongly support the hon. Gentleman's comments about the slow progress in implementing the recommendations made in the Pooley report. Small abattoirs still await a clear answer on the appropriate charging regime that they should have, which would better secure their future.
The incident in my constituency relates to an abattoir. As I said, I hope that it does not end up being a proven case. This afternoon I spoke to one of the workers at the abattoir. He had been laid off and was, not surprisingly, concerned about what would happen to him in the period in which his workplace was shut. He pointed out that around 90 per cent. of the produce of the abattoir, which is largely a specialist halal operation, is exported to Germany. Thus there are two problems: the constraint on movements that the business would face; and the constraint on exports, which is its main source of income.
I have a lot of sympathy with the arguments about the consequential implications for other parts of the agriculture supply chain at this time of crisis. That business is not large and it appears to have traded in good faith. In those circumstances, the needs of such businesses deserve proper consideration. Obviously, farmers close to that business who have had no part in any matter relating to the crisis so far, but who are nevertheless restricted on their premises, also need some thought, because there are now implications for their cash flow. I believe that yesterday's announcement goes some way towards that, but it does so in a random way—which is inevitable if it is relying largely on agrimonetary compensation. Many of 981 those who are not affected will receive some assistance, whereas many of those who are affected with some severity will receive the same assistance. Obviously that will cause difficulties.
I believe that there is scope to examine further the possibility of supporting consequential losses in some manner. I urge the Minister to continue investigating that issue and to use whatever means are available. I know that he has sympathy for those who have been placed in that situation. I also realise that it is a complicated process to satisfy his colleagues in the Government and, potentially, the European Commission that he is doing the right thing. Nevertheless, I urge him to continue with that focus.
The action that my right hon. Friend has announced to try to get the supply chain working again will have the most immediate effect, and it is what most business people would like. They would rather be paid for doing their job than paid something by the Government not to do it. In that light, I very much welcome the announcement and look forward with great interest to seeing the details of how the scheme will work. I am sure that that interest will be shared by many members of the South Derbyshire farming community.
The other gap that I have identified was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)—the briefing to local authorities on their role in the matter. I spoke to South Derbyshire district council about refuse collection from farms, but it had already identified the need to respond effectively. I just wonder, however, whether that knowledge is fully shared across the country. In some parts of our country, the linkage between the local authority and the local farming community is perhaps a little less robust. In that respect, there should be a clear brief on what should be expected, and some of the points made by my hon. Friend are certainly relevant. I think that clearer guidance is probably necessary.
As for the medium to long term, I have already addressed the issue—although the hon. Member for Ludlow has done it much better—of clarification of the role of small abattoirs. I am trying to examine whether some of our difficulties—of course not the original infection, but some of our difficulties with migration of the disease across the country—have been caused by unnecessarily long journeys. I certainly accept the knowledgeable comments that have been made about specialisation in the abattoir sector. Although specialisation has made some long journeys inevitable, other long journeys are not inevitable.
We should bear in mind the experience of the 1960s, when outbreaks were concentrated around particular places of infection, partly because the movement of animals across the country was not as intensive as it is now. I think that there is now an opportunity to re-examine that issue and certainly to clarify the charging regime that the abattoir sector now faces.
We also need to examine the supply chain within agriculture. Some well-informed remarks have been made in this debate about the changing way in which the supply chain is working and the increasing specialisation of some sectors, both of which have led to particular types of beasts being taken on long journeys around the country to 982 particular abattoirs. I am not sure how robustly understood that is or how well we understand the risks associated with the way in which supply chains have developed.
Supply chains have developed for entirely understandable market reasons. As those who have listened to my speeches before will know, I am essentially a strong, robust supporter of the marketplace in agriculture. Nevertheless, operation of the market does not always entail proper risk awareness. There needs to be some thought about that issue. Yesterday, I listened to a farmer who was on the television talking about the number of movements that seem to be made. A hon. Member earlier in the debate spoke about the apparent frequency of movements.
§ Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this matter in many forums on many occasions, and he will know that I share his general support for the importance of the market. However, I am very concerned about the pernicious effect of supermarkets, for example, in breaking the link between the supplier the retailer and the consumer. The extension of food-produce supply chains of the type that the hon. Gentleman described is largely the result of the breaking of that link. We need to look for ways to reunite purchasers with the source of the goods that they purchase. Farmers' markets represent one of those ways, but I fear that, sadly, they will be among the victims of this outbreak.
§ Mr. Todd
I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. He and I have disagreed in the past. I do not think that it is possible to roll back history, but we need to understand what we have done. I am not sure that we do understand that, and I shall return to the point at the end of my remarks.
I want to make three final points. First, we have failed to grasp the consequences of farm diversification. We press on farmers the need to diversify, and it is right that we should: I do it too, but the problem came home to me again yesterday, when I visited a farmer in my constituency. We talked—I should add that the meeting took place outside his premises—about the impact of the outbreak on his business. He told me that he had moved into horses, for which he lets out some buildings. People come in to look after the horses, or to go riding from the farm.
That diversification introduces a further risk that the disease might be spread by the movement of animals. It certainly makes control more complex: the farmer to whom I spoke has had to stop people entering his farm, horses from leaving it, and so on. Such difficulties for farmers are in part the consequence of the thrust to move away from the raw material production on which they had concentrated until recently. We must try to understand the risk implications of diversification rather better.
Secondly, reference has been made to globalisation and the implications associated with imports. It is clear that this outbreak started from something imported but, once again, we cannot roll back the frontiers in that regard. We must try to understand better the risks involved with imports, and to establish more robust controls at our borders. We cannot avert those risks utterly, but we must try to minimise them wherever we can.
We must understand td that increasing proportions of our foodstuffs come from abroad because that is what our consumers want. It has been said that our consumers 983 really want to buy British. I wish that that were true, but all too often consumers either want to buy foodstuffs that are not—and cannot be—produced in this country, or foodstuffs that can be produced here but at a cost that is higher than people are prepared to pay.
§ Mr. Hayes
I am grateful to the lion. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene a second time. In case he is worried, I assure him that I shall not attempt to intervene a third time. I believe that, sadly, most consumers have become less discerning. They do not know the origins of the products that they buy. That is part of the break in the link that I described earlier: people not know where their food—whether it be processed food or all sorts of other foodstuffs—comes from. It is not that they do not want to exercise choice, but in many circumstances choice is now almost impossible to exercise.
§ Mr. Todd
It was never possible for people to have the totality of knowledge that we might wish for, but we have another opportunity to bring hone to consumers the importance of thinking carefully about what to eat. The outbreak almost certainly derives from an import of some sort, and we must recognise that the choices open to consumers carry implications. We cannot stop people making the choices that they want to make, but we can make sure that they are aware of the risks involved.
Finally, we have very little knowledge of the consequences of the intensification of agriculture in Britain. That intensification took place for entirely market-oriented reasons. I subscribe o that motive, and I do not want to roll back the process, entirely. However, very often we have intensified agriculture in ignorance, and sometimes with a painful lack of knowledge of the scientific and risk implications.
I say that because, at my suggestion, the Select Committee on Agriculture started an inquiry, prompted by the Phillips report, into research into transmissible spongiform encephalopathy and into the implications of intensive farming. So far, we have had a good deal of evidence on research into TSE, which I expected. There has been a strong emphasis on that important subject. However, there has been virtually nothing on the revolution that has taken place in agriculture over the past 30 years and the possible implications that that may have for animal health, human health and our environment.
It is painful to acknowledge that we seem to be so poor at understanding the revolution that has taken place before our very eyes—certainly in my lifetime, and I have lived in the countryside for most of my life. That process has crept past us without our having any proper understanding of its implications. We have simply accepted incrementally, on the argument of the marketplace, what has come about, without examining thoroughly enough what steps have been taken and whether we have subtly and silently accepted a risk that, frankly, we would not have accepted had we known more about it. What I am suggesting is not an immediate task for the Minister, who has plenty to do, but I would like us to consider whether we need a much stronger research programme into the implications of some of the choices that we have made.
I will say what I have said many times in these debates. I believe that there is a bright future for United Kingdom farming—and this is a strange time to say it. To be honest, the brightness is not shining through the gloom around us. 984 However, there is a tremendous amount of enterprise and a strength of product that could create wealth and jobs in our countryside into the future. That vision is always before me, even when we face a dark subject of this kind, and we should constantly hold it up to our farming communities. They are feeling about as gloomy as one can imagine at the moment.
We are giving our farming communities more support, but I think that we also need to give them greater evidence of our faith in their future. I constantly hear it said that the Government no longer care about farming. As a committed supporter of British farming, I find that terrible. Any lover of the English landscape would find it terrible too. We need to give far stronger evidence of our commitment and faith, particularly at times of crisis such as this.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
It is always fascinating to follow the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), although I do not share his limited optimism about the future of the farming industry in the United Kingdom. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I and my many constituents who farm find it difficult to imagine that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. However, I hope that he is right. I, too, believe, that we have the science, the farming, the soil, the weather and the history to beat the pants off any other agricultural nation in the world. Sadly, the problems facing the industry are such that I, for one, am not enough of a visionary to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that it does exist.
I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench on calling this vital debate at this time in our farming history. I do not wish to bring any hint of party political bickering into what has thus far been a level-headed and sensible debate, but in the long history of the Government failing to call any debate on farming—I think that there has been one Government debate in the past two or three years and eight or nine called by Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, which strikes me as a strange recordit is particularly unfortunate that in this of all weeks the Conservative party has had to call the debate and force the Government to come to the House to discuss this vital topic. As recently as the day before yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was decrying the fact that we were wasting his time by calling him to Westminster to answer to the nation for what is going on.
This has been a good debate, and I intend to talk about the crisis that faces the nation. None the less, it is worth registering the fact that the Conservative party cares enough about the crisis to have called the debate, but that the Labour party does not. The Labour Government spent yesterday banning foxhunting. They feel more strongly about a few foxes than the many hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep that may have to be destroyed. I regret that. I feel passionately about foxhunting and about farming. The history of this week will be noted by people in the countryside and if they were able to be in London on 18 March—unfortunately, they cannot be—the Government would know that.
§ Mr. Drew
The hon. Gentleman chastises us for not holding a debate. I welcome the fact that we have held a 985 measured debate. Before it began, I looked at the history of BSE; it is interesting to note that, during the period when the hon. Gentleman was an adviser to the then Conservative Government, nearly all the debates on BSE were called by the Labour Opposition because the Conservatives did not want to talk about it.
§ Mr. Gray
I accept the hon. Gentleman's chastisement. It will also have been heard on his side of the House, so the Government will have understood that he is equally unhappy with their record on the matter.
This matter is not one for levity or for party political bickering. I hope that the House will forgive me for introducing a slight element of that, but I wanted to register those points at the beginning of my remarks.
I am deeply concerned because my constituency is primarily a livestock and dairy farming area. One hundred yards across the border with the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), there is a confirmed case of foot and mouth disease in the Bromham abattoir. I understand that a second case has been confirmed today at a farm a short distance from the abattoir.
My constituents include a large number of livestock farmers. I saw many of them last Friday at Chippenham market. Naturally, they are holding their breath as they watch the appalling tragedy that is unfolding across the nation; those of us who are not farmers, who live in towns and have occupations such as that of Member of Parliament cannot understand that. Farms in my constituency tend to be family farms and are generally of 400 or 500 acres, with between 100 and 150 milking cows. The farmers tend to do most of the work themselves nowadays; because of the crisis in agriculture, they have laid off most of their workers.
What an awful prospect those farmers face. Day in and day out, they work with about 150 animals—milking them twice a day, knowing their background and pedigrees. They know their animals as many of us know our families. They face the prospect that, by tomorrow, there may be huge bonfires, such as those we saw in the north of England, and that their yards will be eerily quiet and they will have nothing to do. They will have no means of employment and no income—they have precious little at the moment. What an effect this outbreak will have on those individuals; we have not touched on that matter sufficiently in the debate.
Farming is not only about large farms and abattoirs; it is about family farms such as those throughout the west of England. It is also about people who live, work and breathe farming and livestock. If foot and mouth came to their farm, it would bring a catastrophe that those of us who do not farm can only imagine.
Before I discuss the practical handling of the crisis in my constituency, I express the hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friends about the overwhelming importance in the medium to long term—once this horrible event has passed—of finding out why the outbreak occurred. We know that it came from abroad—the Minister said so during his opening remarks—but we do not know whether it was a sandwich in an airport rubbish bin or illegally imported meat; we do not know 986 where it came from. It cannot have been brought in on the wind; it must have been on some form of transport. It is vital that we know in detail, and publicly, where this terrible tragedy cam from.
Having been rather ungracious towards the Minister earlier in my speech, I now add my voice to those that we have heard throughout the debate to point out that he seems to have acted with decisiveness, clarity and urgency. He has taken precisely the right steps to contain the outbreak.
I was at Chippenham market at 1 o'clock last Friday, when the auctioneer made the announcement about the ending of the transportation of livestock to the dairy ring, which was then in use. Hon. Members can imagine the feeling around the ring about the appalling catastrophe facing farmers. I went around speaking to them, and, to a man, they all said, "Thank goodness that is being done. It is a terrible prospect, but it is exactly the right thing to do. We've got to contain the outbreak now, and we must take urgent and dramatic action to do so." The Minister and his officials have done exactly the right thing.
One or two of the farmers in my constituency have been in touch with MAFF officials in the south-west. They were very impressed by how efficient, courteous and, to use a rather new Labour word, caring the officials were; they have been absolutely switched on and first class. Similar comments were made earlier, and I am sure that the Minister will pass our thanks to the south-west office in particular. The people facing the appalling events that may happen on their farms or in their abattoirs are under great stress, but they have been handled extremely well.
I congratulate the people, whom I saw last night, from the Countryside Alliance on acting with equal determination and straightforwardness in cancelling the march that would have taken place on 18 March. They have been working flat out on the project for 18 months. Half a million people were planning to come to London, using a large number of buses and trains. A ship was even chartered in the north-east of England, and four of my constituents who are disabled were planning to attend. It was a huge event to cancel, but it was absolutely right to do so. Irrespective of one's views on hunting, I congratulate the people in the Countryside Alliance on having taken the clear and straightforward decision to cancel the march.
I should like to raise two or three issues on the practicalities of the past few days' events. First, I want to touch on the way in which the livestock industry operates. Of course, I accept the great wisdom of those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), rightly think that the meat industry tends to deal in large quantities. It is true that the supermarkets demand 5,000 head of sheep one week and 5,000 head of something else the next. Those animals must be found and transported to the abattoir that the supermarket requires.
Of course meat production tends to involve a large-volume industry, but our experience in the west country is slightly different. We still have a large number of family butchers, purchasing meat from animals killed in local abattoirs. In my constituency, apart from the abattoir affected by foot and mouth disease, the excellent Drury abattoir at Tockenham is still struggling and surviving the crisis in family abattoirs. However, Newman's abattoir at Malmesbury has had to close, 987 despite the fact that it achieved international notoriety because of the two pigs that were released in Malmesbury a year or two ago. None the less, it has had to close, but Drury is carrying on.
In the west country generally and in my constituency, many family farms still produce livestock that is slaughtered at the abattoir down the road, with the meat being sold at a local retail outlet. Huge movements of animals across the nation, huge abattoirs and cellophane-wrapped meat in Sainbury's may be inevitable, but rather like the inevitability of the closure of village shops, I hope that it does not happen. I will continue to support Drury and the local meat retailer in the hope that we can preserve some localism in the meat industry.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Bearing in mind that my hon. Friend and I both come from the west country, does he agree that it is heart-rending that, even in the absolute misery of their despair, farmers are saying that if there is compensation in due course—we have all been impressed with what the Minister has said recently—it must be for not just themselves, but their communities? The fact that, when they are in the depths of despair, they are also thinking about the others who have been affected says something about the communities that we represent.
§ Mr. Gray
My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I hope that his constituency will not be affected, but it may well be because Devon is one of the centres of the outbreak. He is right that those who operate abattoirs or run heavy goods vehicles to transport animals are currently receiving no income at all—they have had to close down. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire told us about the worker from an abattoir in his constituency who has been laid off today. That will happen across the nation. However, those businesses have not been told that they will receive compensation from the Government, but they will seek some means of surviving when the crisis is over.
We should be particularly concerned about two sectors in the livestock industry. First, what are farmers to do with beasts that are just under 30 months old? How long will they have to keep them and what compensation will they receive for the feed that they have to give the animals until they become eligible under the over-30-months scheme? I know that the Minister will give careful thought to that issue.
The second group is finishers. They finish the beasts off, but what will happen if they cannot do anything with them and the animals go beyond the specified date? How can one assess the value that one has lost from such a finished animal? Will the Minister also consider that point?
We know about the restrictions on the movements of animals and the restrictions on walkers, but what will happen if large areas of the countryside are closed off? Chippenham is only a mile or two away from an affected abattoir, and the people there do not know what they should or should not be doing. For example, there has been talk about closing schools, but should the schools remain open? I have set an absolute rule that members of the Conservative party should do no campaigning of any sort in villages or the countryside. We shall continue to campaign in the town, where we should be reasonably all right. However, people do not know what they can and cannot do in the restricted areas.
988 That point applies even to the Avon Vale hunt that is based a few hundred yards away from the affected abattoir. It was told nothing at all, and it learned only from the news that the neighbouring abattoir had a case of foot and mouth. It was told nothing until it took the trouble to ring MAFF officials in the south-west. It was then treated courteously and was told precisely what it could and could not do. It has been given a special dispensation to bring in fallen stock. Everything is fine now but, initially, the hunt did not know what it could do.
If the tragedy expands across the nation, I hope that the MAFF official responsible—it may be the press officer—will find ways of getting the message across. It should go not only to livestock owners and to farmers—they probably already know what they can do—but to the much wider audience in an area such as mine. People are very worried about the disease, and they do not want to contribute to it spreading. Apart from the obvious point about not walking across farms, they are not clear about what they can do.
Hon. Members have referred to how other organisations, such as the police, should react to the crisis. I have been asked to raise an interesting case with the Minister about the way in which the Wiltshire police reacted to the actions of the farmer at Manor farm, Thorn Hill, Wootton Bassett near Swindon. He lives down a dead-end road that no one, apart from the residents of two or three cottages alongside it, uses. He was determined to stop the disease spreading on to his farm, so he decided to put straw and disinfectant on to the road. That may not be entirely effective in preventing the spread of the disease in all circumstances, but it makes a useful contribution.
Unfortunately, the police told the farmer that he was not allowed to put straw and disinfectant on to the road and that he would be responsible if anyone driving along the road were involved in an accident. They insisted that he should clear the road of the straw and disinfectant. I am told such cases have also occurred in other areas, because the police are unclear about the road traffic regulations and about the risks that straw and disinfectant on small roads, such as this one, and larger roads create.
MAFF officials should talk to other agencies, such as the police and the emergency services, to make it clear to them what farmers can do and what would happen if straw or disinfectant on the road resulted in a tragic accident. Who would be responsible? Is it possible that the farmer might not be held responsible? Will the Minister take the trouble of letting Mr. Tim Bennett of Manor farm know the answer to those questions? The issue has been raised in newspapers and in other areas.
The Minister knows the appalling consequences that livestock farmers face. The debate has been useful. It has given us many opportunities to ensure that he is fully aware of the catastrophe facing farmers, such as those in my constituency. I hope that he will listen carefully to those concerns. Of course there are urgent matters to which he must attend to contain the disease, and that is the priority. However, in 1967 the farming industry was reasonably healthy and could handle a similar crisis. I doubt that areas such as mine, where there are predominantly family farmers, can handle this crisis.
The issue of compensation and rebuilding the industry after the crisis has passed is overwhelmingly important. If the Minister does not pay that due attention and merely 989 does the least that he can get away with by providing agrimonetary compensation—which we needed to keep the farming industry alive before the crisis—the farming industry will die. He must find a way to compensate farmers and supporting industries for their losses so that we can look forward, as the hon. Member for South Derbyshire said, to having the same healthy farming industry in 10 or 20 years' time that we used to have. The Minister's heart is in the right place, but I appeal to him to rip it out and show farmers that he cares deeply about the crisis by doing a few things on the ground to preserve the industry.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. Many hon. Members are anxious to speak. If contributions are as brief as possible, I hope that not too many people will be disappointed.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I shall try to be brief, not least because I was not able to hear the opening speeches in full because of my commitment to sit on a Select Committee. I apologise for that.
On behalf of hon. Members who represent rural constituencies, I thank my right hon. Friend and his Ministers for their hard work and dedication, which Opposition Members also acknowledged. In Staffordshire, we are keeping our fingers crossed that we will escape the disease. I congratulate the Minister on his work, in particular for the information that has been made readily available on the website and for the full transparency surrounding events.
The words "foot and mouth" do strike terror in communities—I remember the 1967 outbreak. My late mother, many years before, had lived through a series of animals being killed and burned. The disease has brought terror to generations of farming communities. That is why it is so important that we do everything that we can to deal with it.
I have misgivings about the scale of agricultural production. I hope that this terrible crisis will mean that we have a debate about how to ensure that we look after the needs of local agricultural production. I agree with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). I, too, have campaigned in the House for ways to protect smaller abattoirs, not least because of their contribution to the production of organic food.
I shall concentrate not on animal health, but on public health. I note that the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency have clearly stated that the crisis poses no direct risk to public health. I agree with them.
In any crisis, the first task is to get the emergency services to deal with the situation as it presents itself. Urgent action is being taken to deal with the current situation, but there will be secondary effects. I seek reassurances from my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will liaise with others, not least environmental health officers. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Where it is essential that carcases are burned following slaughter, it is important that there is 990 consultation locally About the most appropriate place to do that. What liaison has there been with the chartered institute, local environmental health officers, water companies and the Environment Agency?
It is crucial that where there are vast pyres of slaughtered animals, none of the remains or the ash gets into water courses and systems. We want to avoid contamination of any kind. Joint action is needed by the Ministry, including its vets, and local authorities, waste agencies, the Environment Agency and environmental health officers. I should be grateful for assurances that liaison is taking place between the right people so that on-going problems can be dealt with.
Those pyres should not be sited close to food producers because we do not want cross-contamination to occur. In view of the work done by the Pennington taskforce on E. coli 0157, what risk assessment has been carried out of the possibility of E. coli 0157 reaching water supplies? What is the risk of fires burning at an insufficiently high temperature, which could mean that there is a danger of remains containing pathogens contaminating the ground and, subsequently, water courses? That is a critical point in view of the high number of private water supplies throughout the country.
What is being done about the risk of salmonella? The speed and temperatures at which the carcases are burned may mean that residue could contaminate the water supply. There is also concern about the destruction of prions. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many of the cattle that are being slaughtered, and how many of those that have been burned, are in the high risk, over-30-month category? What precautions are the Government taking? Other public health issues include green-top milk, about which we need assurance. How do all those issues affect the Food Standards Agency?
The Government are rightly concentrating all their-efforts on the dangers posed by the outbreak. However, I should be grateful for assurances on the secondary issues about which I am concerned and about the local consultation procedures that will be put in place.
§ 9.5 pm
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
I speak for three reasons. First, I have been a beef farmer in my constituency from long before I represented it in this place. Secondly, I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. Thirdly by strange co-incidence, I was a young graduate researcher who acted as secretary to the specialist committee of Conservative Members in the affected areas that reported on the outcome of the 1967–68 epidemic. I have some back knowledge of these matters.
I am sure that the slaughter and stamping-out policy is the right one. We all agree that we must leave the vets and the authorities to get on with the job and not get in their way. The debate has not frustrated them in that sense. In my view, anything else must be secondary to that.
In the interests of time, I shall make four brief points about the current situation, and then move on to the medium and longer term. In Northamptonshire, there has been one outbreak just outside my constituency. There is concern about disinfectant, which the Minister has substantially answered. There are some slight concerns about price gouging. Given the 1967 experience, the right 991 hon. Gentleman needs to be certain that all the disinfectants that he is prepared to license are equally effective against the foot and mouth virus. There were concerns about that in 1967.
Secondly, many colleagues have spoken about compensation. I add the consideration that if foot and mouth disease develops into a full-blown epidemic and there are large-scale slaughterings there will be a tendency for the prices of replacement stock to drift upwards. The right hon. Gentleman will have to bear that in mind. Thirdly, there is the question of the resources that are available to the Minister. He responded satisfactorily by saying that he woultl be able to draw in other veterinary assistance, if necessary from the European Union or further afield.
There is also the importance of administration and the Ministry. We had some experience of these matters when the BSE crisis hit us in March 1996. Members, local authorities and other public bodies should be informed of the need to keep everybody up to speed. It is necessary also to plan for possible contingencies. I shall mention two. The first is whether the census will have to be put off; the second is what will happen to the county council elections, let alone one or two other possible elections at that time.
It is important that the Minister has sufficient firepower. It is important also that he should have an extra string to his bow—so he might gei one or two bright officials who are not on the job to consider what has happened, to review the 1967 and subsequent experience and, as it were, to think outside the box so that the right hon. Gentleman can be kept up to speed.
Fourthly, I declare a direct interest in the licensed slaughter scheme. It happens that a motorway was built through my farm, and I have stock 400 yd down wind of it. Northamptonshire is criss-crossed by motorways and other major roads. I hope that the Minister will have regard to the importance of local disposal of stock—given the extreme virulence of foot and mouth disease, he should not even inadvertently pave the way for an incubating animal to take a trail of virus throughout the country, as happened to some extent before we knew that that could happen.
Those are my immediate concerns. In the medium term, there is a worry that the Minister and his policy of slaughter and stamping out will corm under pressure. We hope that the disease will be contains d by the rapid action that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, and we are pleased that he has done that. There is a striking difference from 1967. In contrast td everything that has been said about the intensification of the industry, there has been an intensification of media interest. When we got to the point where hundreds of thousands of animals were slaughtered, there was huge concern and people began to ask whether we were doing the right thing, and whether we would have to move to a vaccination policy, on a selective or a general basis.
We all very much hope that that will not happen. Perhaps, like Queen Victoria, the right hon. Gentleman must not counsel the possibility of defeat, but if he is a wise Minister, he will have that in mind as a long-term contingency, and he would be prepared to consider it if it ever became necessary. As we deal with the situation, it is extremely important that both the short-term tactical 992 considerations, some of which I have advanced, and the rolling concern that I am sure will develop are properly handled.
From my experience at that time, I believe that the then shadow Minister, the late Joe Godber, of whom I was very fond and for whom I worked for a number of years, would have been proud of the speech made by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). We emphasise the same sort of approach, but it depends on a degree of reciprocity, which the Minister has shown himself ready to undertake. He must be prepared to receive confidences and representations from all round the House and, if necessary, to share them.
When the pressures that we were experiencing became extreme, Joe Godber asked the then Minister, the late Fred Peart, who was widely respected, whether he could have a briefing from the chief vet. I happened to be the only other person in the room when that briefing was given. It was extremely useful and gave us a detailed and authoritative professional sitrep on where we were and how the epidemic could be contained and eventually stamped out, as I am confident it will be in the present case.
There is one final longer-term consideration for the Minister. I have dismissed from my remarks some of the speculation that properly exists about the origin of the outbreak. No doubt there will be deficiencies in the handling; there always are. There are already queries about information. The Minister should not be ashamed of that, and we should not press him too hard on it.
There will also be longer-term considerations about the structure of the agriculture industry, its intensification, and whether, for example—I mention this only as a possibility—it will be necessary to think in terms of a rest period between a series of moves. That would be very difficult for the commercial trade in agriculture, but it may come to that.
Those are all long-term considerations. In 1968, after the epidemic was contained within a period of six months and at a cost of almost 500,000 head of livestock, it was decided that there should be an authoritative report under a distinguished independent chairman into the entire matter and the lessons that were to be learned.
I suggest to the Minister that there will be serious long-term issues to consider. They need not be party politically contentious, but they will undoubtedly be sensitive areas. The best course may be for him to put them on one side for now. Perhaps we would back him on that, against the promise that when the outbreak is over, he will commission an independent inquiry to look at all the factors. That will help in the way that Lord Phillips did in relation to BSE.
Let us concentrate on the job today. Let us be aware that there are wider implications, which many hon. Members in all parts of the House have rehearsed. Let us hope, above all, that by concentrating on the immediate issue, and by having the right kind of dialogue on how to resolve it and any problems that arise, we can stamp the thing out in good time. Then, it will be the time for a longer look at what needs to be learned.
§ Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I do not intend to 993 repeat points that have already been made, but I may inevitably do so, as unfortunately I have not been present for the whole of the debate. I apologise to the House for that. For part of the evening, I was necessarily engaged elsewhere.
I was present for the opening speeches. In this debate, I have no difficulty in supporting the Opposition motion. I am grateful to them for the opportunity to say that.
I join hon. Members in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister. His contribution to today's debate will be remembered with credit by many of us for a long time. For me—I still consider myself to be a new Member although I have been here for four years—it was a singular honour to hear his contribution.
I have not been present throughout the debate, and, in the interests of brevity, I hope that hon. Members will understand if I abandon references to their contributions; but I cannot allow the contribution from the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) to pass without comment. It is appropriate that I should speak on the subject shortly after him for two reasons.
It is no surprise to me that the hon. Gentleman introduced his remarks with a reference to foxhunting. I have heard his views on that subject before, and we have debated them in the Scottish media. I have also heard his views on whether I should have a view in this place on foxhunting, but we will have to agree to disagree on that. However, we can agree on the importance of agriculture to my constituency, where the hon. Gentleman has his roots. Last year I had the pleasure of hosting him and his mother at the farm where his ancestor made the first Dunlop cheese in the village of Dunlop. It was a beautiful afternoon, as I remember it.
The area within a 35-mile radius of the main town in my constituency, Kilmarnock, supplies between 25 and 30 per cent. of Scotland's milk. The high rainfall which that area experiences is conducive to grass growing, not grain crops. Ayrshire is consequently one of the most intensive livestock areas in Europe. When one adds to that the fact that 15 per cent. of Scotland's over-30-months scheme cattle come to Kilmarnock to be slaughtered, I am sure that the House will appreciate why a collective sigh of relief emanated from Ayrshire farmers when the news came through that the farm in Aberdeen had proved negative. No one in Scotland wants to see the funeral pyres associated with the eradication of this terrible disease. Currently, Scotland is disease free, and, of course, we want to keep it that way.
Although relieved, Scottish farmers are not complacent about that. This evening, there are threats in a parish which abuts my constituency, and I understand that there are checks in Dumfriesshire, the county south of Ayrshire. That is why farmers in Scotland, and particularly in Ayrshire, fully support the Government in their aim to eradicate this dreadful disease. They support all the restrictions that have been placed on the movement of livestock and have issued a collective call to the public in full support of the Government's advice to keep out of the countryside until foot and mouth can be contained and eradicated. During the past decade, the collapse in the milk price has put enormous pressures on their industry. A serious outbreak could deal it a blow from which it could never recover.
994 I spoke today to Willie Campbell of Low Holehouse farm in Galston. Despite his address being in my constituency, his fann is not in my constituency. He is the chairman of the Ayrshire NFU, a respected commentator on the industry and currently the Scottish representative on the Milk Development Council. Coincidentally, that council was due to meet in London tomorrow, but, responsibly, he is preparing his contribution with a view to making it by telephone.
Willie Campbell made the same point to me as that made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. This crisis is not only a business tragedy, but a deeply personal tragedy for farmers In Ayrshire. There is no agribusiness there, but there are hundreds of family farms. He conveyed to me a depressing picture of what he and his colleagues and theil, families are facing. The level of anxiety among his fellow farmers is immense. He described to me the terror that he saw etched on the faces of other farmers whom he met recently. He was reassured by the news that the Government intend to draw down their full entitlement to agrimonetary compensation. He said that while that money will not solve the financial pressures that the dairy industry faces, it is welcome news and will make a contribution to easing the pressure.
Willie Campbell also welcomed the proposed licensed movement scheme. In Ayrshire, there are significant numbers of upland sheep that need to be brought home to the lowland fields for lambing. He hopes that the animal welfare considerations implicit in such circumstances will mean that that scheme will allow their movement. It is imperative that it does as some of his ewes are due to lamb tomorrow.
The dairy industry cannot survive unless there is movement of milk. Chat must be done in a manner that ensures that milk tankers cannot carry the infection. For that they depend oil disinfectant. Farmers in Ayrshire today telephoned four suppliers but could manage to secure only 5 litres of disinfectant. They are reassured to some extent by my right hon. Friend's announcement that he intends to place in order today increasing by 35 the types of disinfectant that can be used, but it is the availability of that disinfectant that concerns them. However, it is not only disinfectant that is in short supply in Ayrshire, but the necessary spraying equipment. When it is available, it comes at a cost that some farmers cannot meet.
The farmers of Scotland go to bed tonight praying and hoping that Scotland, which accounts for 20 per cent. of the United Kingdom' s agricultural production, will remain disease free and will be allowed to come back on stream in the not-too-distant future. However, they send a strong message to the House that if it cannot do that, they will join in partnership with farmers, politicians and the Government in trying to eradicate the disease.
Finally, I am reassured that MAFF and the Scottish Executive are working well in partnership. The test of the devolution settlement is how it performs in a crisis, and in this one it is performing well.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I should like to begin by thanking the Minister for his response to my intervention. He promised to keep the House closely informed not only by being in attendance with his colleague the Minister of State, but also by perhaps 995 introducing a bulletin or something similar. Those remarks are deeply appreciated. He has done a great deal today to unite the House. The tone of the debate was brilliantly set by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and the Minister responded in an exemplary manner. We are all grateful to him and we want to help him.
I should like to make one point, as that is all that I have time to do. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) made an extremely perceptive and powerful speech that was based on much experience. He told the Minister that he should vot worry too much about the phrase "creating a precedent", as we have an unprecedented situation. I remember well the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 1967, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr Boswell) spoke so eloquently a few moments ago. That was contained within parts of England and Wales, but the current outbreak is going all over the place. Like the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), I pray that it will not go north of the border, but it is in Wales already and many parts of England. Of course, the time is coming when agriculture will be on its knees in a way that did not happen in 1967.
Agriculture is not only the basic industry of this country and the most important of all our indigenous industries, but is responsible for the countryside that we all love and cherish. The consequential effects of a devastating and desolating epidemic would be felt not, only by those who practise agriculture, but by the tourism industry, those who are anxious to bring people to this country and all who have helped to make its wealth in that manner. Thus, although the provision of compensation to enable farming to survive may have elements of tie unprecedented, it should be considered further. I know that the Minister is keen to do all that he can to help, and when he is considering compensation, he should, of course, think primarily of those who are directly affected. However, will he consider all the other farmers who are affected, and also the other industries? Whatever he can do will not only help our great industry of farmits to survive, but aid the survival of the countryside as we know and love it.
It is crucial for every hon. Member, to remember that, as we all have a responsibility. Although very few people work on the land, there is not a single family that does not depend upon those who work on the land and what is produced from it. Every home in this country is affected directly or indirectly by the state of agriculture, and every family will be affected in some way by the extent of the epidemic. It is absolutely right that the Minister should use every weapon in his armoury to try to contain and then defeat the disease. He should have unqualified support from all hon. Members and all parts of the country in what he seeks to do.
We should not be diverted by other matters. If it is necessary to postpone a census or a county council election, it must be postponed.
As for the general election, the Government have a massive majority, an unfinished programme in other spheres and 15 months of their tern, left. In my view, it would be far better to answer to the electorate when the full five-year term has been completed. It is crucial that nothing should divert our attention, from fighting this appalling disease or from ensuring that British agriculture emerges from it with the optimism mat the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) wants it to have.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)
I shall be brief. I say amen to what the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said, or 95 per cent. of it anyway, which was very sound indeed. I offer my sympathy to my constituents, Robin Lloyd and family and David Thomas and family, who have had their outbreaks confirmed today. The situations of several other farmers in my constituency are under close examination.
I am pleased to report that Powys county council has made the whole of Powys a prohibition area. The county holds a quarter of a million acres of common land and about 1 million sheep, and the situation is serious because outbreaks have occurred on the boundary of mountain land. I hate to think what would happen if the disease spread to that.
I want to make a few brief points. In 1967, when I was working in Northumberland, I was involved on the periphery of the outbreak and what I saw was appalling. I have been a farmer, managing 1,500 acres, and I was brought up on a farm. I commend the remarks of the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), who gave the Minister some sound advice. The methods of disposal being used now are the same as those used in 1967. Huge heat has to be generated to get rid of the disease, but I wonder why the incineration process involves a delay. It could start a lot earlier and there could be graduated burning.
Access is a problem. On Sunday, 100 people from Ross-on-Wye appeared in my constituency even though the Ministry of Defence has banned people from entering its 32,000 acre estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) realises the importance of that matter. On protection, there is no doubt that lorries need to be sprayed when they enter certain areas and that disinfection pads need to be put in place. The situation at Burnside farm buildings—I know where it is and that is what I prefer to call it—is very serious. If the disease was present for two weeks, an education and training problem clearly needs to be resolved as quickly as possible.
Imports from third countries are a problem and I alert the Minister to the fact that a person cannot enter New Zealand with even a sandwich in his pocket—it would be incinerated. We must be that particular in respect of the situation in Britain and food brought in at airports and ferry ports should be burned on sight and destroyed. Also, I urge the Minister to consider banning pig swill. Cutbacks have affected Ministry vets and veterinary investigation centres have been closed. That loss must be examined as well.
We must consider consequential loss compensation not only for farmers, but for organisations such as Farmers Ferry, which operates out of my constituency and has exported 1 million lambs in the past 12 months. It will find it hard to continue. We must consider that fact, because we need the infrastructure to continue after the crisis is over. We must be eternally vigilant and must show no complacency in attacking the disease, which, as we know, is highly infectious. I congratulate the Minister and his Department on what they have done so far.
Keeping the food chain going is vital for the future of the industry and the movement of livestock direct to abattoirs is one of the most important points that has been referred to this evening. I agree with the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about the 997 need for support for the industry: it is vital at this time. I believe that the nation, and those who are present here now, want the contingency fund to be used. I think that the current outbreak could prove more serious than that of 1967, and that it needs to be tackled head on in terms of protection and, indeed, compensation.
The industry needs a future, and if we are not careful it will not have one. However, following the Minister's statements this evening I am confident that he will ensure somehow that it survives and, eventually, prospers.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
We have heard from many Members on both sides of the House with direct constituency involvement in this tragic crisis. Sadly, the number of Members with such involvement has increased day by day—an increase that we all hope will cease.
We have heard in particular from my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), both of whom are directly involved, and both of whom made excellent points. I especially appreciated the courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who cut his speech off in its prime to allow time for the statement about the rail crash.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) demonstrated his experience as a farmer, a Minister and a political adviser, recalled the last major outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and—as others have said—presented a number of sensible proposals.
Last week, while using the opportunity of a parliamentary recess to take a few days off, I received a phone call saying that there had been an outbreak of foot and mouth. Like other Members, I am sure, I asked myself how much more British farming would have to take at this dreadful time. That thought was immediately followed by a comment to my wife: "Poor old Nick must wonder what he did in a previous life to deserve this." He may tell us—or perhaps the Minister of State will tell us.
I have to say that my sympathy evaporated rapidly on Monday, when I heard the Minister's outburst over this debate. He has regained his composure, however, and, as many Members have said this evening, he has redeemed himself totally by his manner—by the way in which he has addressed the issues, and by the courtesies he has shown both on the Floor of the House and privately to me.
We have heard many speeches and interventions, which shows that this subject is of real interest to many Members. I hope the Minister now accepts that it was right to hold the debate—a debate that has taken place against the background of an industry in crisis. The industry is losing 400 jobs a week, and experiencing year-on-year financial losses. Net farm incomes are lower than living expenses, and there are no reserves on which to rely. Upland livestock incomes are about £2,500 a year, while lowland livestock incomes are about £1,500.
I too remember the 1967 outbreak. It happened just after I started work in farming. It lasted about five months, and I pray, as others must do, that this outbreak is dealt with more quickly and does not last as long. It has horrendous implications for animals as well as human 998 beings. For obvious reasons we have talked about farm animals today, but we should not overlook the threat posed to animals in zoos, including many rare species of antelope and other cloven-hooved animals. The unique wild cattle of Chilli lgham are threatened, as is wildlife, including our deer population. But of course it is even worse for farmers, many of whom are seeing their life's work being wiped cut. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham also made some tremendously potent remarks about the human factor in the context of, for instance, schools.
Many people who do not understand agriculture may find it perverse that farmers who breed and rear stock simply so that it can be killed and eaten should, at the same time, care passionately for that stock and its welfare. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham pointed out, however, many of those farmers have spent decades breeding pedigree stock to a high level—stock that now goes to the flames in the same way as the humblest mongrel bullock.
The tragedy was brought home to me the other night when I saw one of my oldest friends being interviewed on television as his stock were being slaughtered in the background behind him. I understood and empathised with him and with many other farmers as that happened.
I join in the tributes that have been paid to Ministry officials, to the vets and to all the others not directly employed who have been and are closely involved in the crisis. I strongly welcome the Minister's robust rejection of the idea of vaccination, a line for which he will have our support.
Farmers are affected in two different ways. There are those whose herds are compulsorily slaughtered and who receive full compensation equivalent to the value of the stock. However—thew Minister has not mentioned it, but I presume that this true—they will not be allowed to restock for some six months, as was the case in 1967. Therefore, they will have no income on which to live. They will have to live off the capital that comes from that compensation—not a situation that we would wish to encourage.
Then there is the group of farmers—a much larger group, I am thankful to say—who are not slaughtered out, but who are hit by th movement restrictions and the other problems that will increase as the crisis lasts. I welcome the Minister's comments about a licensing scheme. Obviously, we all look forward to hearing the details, such as how it might help smaller producers, those who produce for farmers markets, those who have cattle coming up to 30 months old, and those who have lambs rising to the end or their lambhood with the potential eruption of their second teeth, the carcases of which need to be split. The scheme will be welcomed by many abattoir workers, including those in my constituency who have contacted me, anxious about the future of their jobs.
I understand that there are derogations for injured animals and casualties, but I am told that those are somewhat complicated. I ask the Minister to find out whether they can be simplified. I do not know whether he is in a position to say what the position is regarding TB reactors. Rightly, we have heard from the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about the TB situation. Obviously, reactors should not be held on farms longer than is necessary.
999 There are other movement issues. The Minister showed that he recognised those. There is the issue of moving sheep into buildings or near to land for lambing. There are sheep on agistment, or tack as it is sometimes called—a feature that often expires today, 28 February, when they would be expected to go back to their upland farms. That is an issue not only for the sheep farmer, but for the dairy farmer, on whose grass they are currently grazing. The Minister obviously understands that.
If we can regain some of the supply trade through the licensing arrangement that the Minister proposes, the issue of prices will still remain. I appreciate that getting the trade going is the first priority. I welcome his comments with regard to the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) on private storage for sows. I hope that he will also consider introducing such a scheme for sheepmeat because that product, too, relied on an export market, which for the moment is denied us. That must hit trade particularly.
We welcome the agrimonetary compensation. I congratulate the Minister on the fact that he is already having discussions with the clearing banks, but I emphasise the need for further help in the form of compensation. The need for help will increase the longer the outbreak lasts. This is a national emergency, and Conservative Members believe that that justifies a call on the contingency fund.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the Minister and the wary in which he has conducted himself in this debate, which has been exemplary, but does not the country's ability to face up to the consequences of what has happened depend largely on the success of the economy? For all sorts of reasons, the economy is doing extremely well. Although it would be unreasonable to ask the Minister to give an open-ended commitment to compensate everyone for everything, the situation is vastly different from that in 1967. We hope that he will be able to say that he will at least consider a slightly wider band of compensation than he perhaps has so far been able to consider.
§ Mr. Paice
My hon. Friend makes an important point in support of my case. It is not entirely true that there is no precedent for further compensation. My attention has been drawn to remarks made in 1996 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) in which he mentioned moving towards compensation for consequential loss. Additionally, the over-30-months scheme itself is a form of compensation for loss.
§ Mr. Paice
I am grateful that the Minister acknowledges that. Consequential compensation could save money if it shortens the crisit. If agisted sheep, which I mentioned earlier, cannot retarn to their original farms, it might be cheaper, however horrendous that may be, to kill them out and provide compensation than it would be to succumb to the temptation to weaken the restriction orders.
I should like to mention some of the organisations that deal with the impact on farmers—including the rural stress information network, the Royal Agricultural 1000 Benevolent Institution and the Samaritans, which have reported a tenfold increase in calls in the past few days. Last year, the Government provided more money for the rural stress information network. Although it was a tiny sum for the Government, it was not a small sum for the organisation. I hope that the Minister will consider whether it needs more help.
The Opposition strongly support both the legal and the voluntary measures to restrict movement. I hope that the Minister will confirm that all Government agencies—not only the obvious ones such as the Health and Safety Executive and farm assurance, but even the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the countless others that are involved in these matters—have been told to cease farm visits.
I hope that the Minister will also do as he suggested in reply to an earlier intervention from me and examine whether the pig development scheme could be extended to cover the position of pig farmers which, as he rightly acknowledged, is somewhat different from that of sheep and cattle farmers.
Earlier, I also mentioned wild deer. Since 1967, the United Kingdom's wild deer population has exploded. Although that is very welcome for many reasons, will the Minister comment on what should be done about wild deer in areas where there are outbreaks? It would be disastrous if the disease were to infect the wild deer population. I do not want one, but is a localised culling of deer necessary to stamp out the disease?
Today is not the time for recrimination, or even for detailed examination of the background to or the causes of the crisis. As the Minister said, we must now concentrate on controlling and eradicating the disease and on helping farmers to get through the crisis. However, the day will come when we have to examine the cause, how it has been handled, and whether it was caused by illegally imported pigmeat.
On that issue, it is now five months since Ministry veterinarians said that the swine fever outbreak was caused by illegally imported pigmeat. To my knowledge, despite several requests from the Opposition, the Government have not yet made a further statement about the origins of that outbreak. I therefore hope that the Government will be considering additional import controls—about which, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, we have repeatedly expressed our concerns. Such measures are not protectionist controls, as he has sometimes chided us, but controls for protection. [Interruption.]
Other import and export issues have to be examined. They may seem far-fetched now, but—[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary is rabbiting away on the Treasury Bench. The whole of this debate has been conducted in polite appreciation of one another's points of view. I am sorry that he seems to want to alter that at this late stage.
We have to examine, for example, whether the virus is coming from countries where foot and mouth is endemic, but from which we do not import meat. Could it be carried on the surface of fruit, for example? That may seem far-fetched, but it is an issue related to the globalisation of trade that has to be examined.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) talked about what might be called domestic imports, when people bring in items such as sandwiches and other food in their luggage. Another issue is whether 1001 the virus can be carried in semen or embryos, both of which are important export markets for the United Kingdom that have now been closed.
As other hon. Members have said, we shall also have to examine the issue of abattoir closures. My assessment of the way in which the crisis has been unfolding is that, although there are many reasons to lament the closure of abattoirs, and although the initial outbreak in Essex was at an abattoir, most of the cases that we have heard about seem to be related more to livestock markets than to abattoirs. It appears that the very innocent purchase by Mr. Cleave of stock in Northumberland has been the primary cause of the spread of the disease. I feel immensely sorry for him, given the responsibility with which he—unwittingly and innocently—finds himself burdened.
Circulation of livestock is not a new phenomenon. I can remember as a child seeing trainloads of Irish cattle coming into this country to be fattened. That circulation has been going on for decades, and it is not the new development that other hon. Members have suggested.
Foot and mouth is a horrendous disease. It has implications for animals, wildlife, farmers and hauliers, and for the countryside. Some farmers may decide not to restock, and that will have implications for the landscape. Nothing must be left undone in dealing with the outbreak, and I hope that the Minister understands that clearly.
It is very rare to wind up an Opposition day debate without partisan rancour, but I am happy to do so today on an issue that has brought all sides of the House together. I wish the Minister and his staff the best of luck in the challenge that lies before them. Most of all, however, my thoughts are with the farmers and their families, who despair for their future.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)
Before I respond to the debate, may I briefly associate myself with the sorrow expressed by the whole House at the rail crash earlier today? Many hon. Members who have spoken in this debate are, like me, regular users of the east coast main line. Many will have constituents among the passengers or crew, or the relatives of those people. The House has certainly been united in sorrow at that incident.
The House has also been united in this debate on the crisis caused by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and on its effects on farmers, agriculture and the countryside. The length of the debate allowed many issues to be addressed, and I welcome that. It allowed my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is always generous in giving way, to deal with an enormous number of interventions and direct questions from hon. Members of all parties. However, many other issues have been raised in the course of the debate. That reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and others about the importance of the Government keeping the House informed at every stage about developments with the disease and its effects.
The participant in the debate for whom I have most sympathy is the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). He responded in a very public-spirited way to the House's desire to listen to the statement by my 1002 right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, he thereby sacrifice d a large amount of time to which I feel that he would have been entitled, given the importance of events that took place in his constituency.
The hon. Gentleman has been very active in pursuit of the interests of his farming constituents and of those employed at the Cheale abattoir. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Bas ildon (Angela Smith) came to see me at an earlier stage to discuss their concerns about the abattoir's ability to attract business under the over-30-months scheme. I therefore know that the hon. Gentleman's interest is of long standing, and that it does not arise solely out of the tragic circumstances of the past week.
The hon. Gentleman addressed some questions to me, one of which was when the abattoir in his constituency might reopen. He will understand that the Ministry must be totally certain that the virus has been totally eradicated first. There are national and European Union rules about the time that must elapse before the various checks and tests can be carried out. I shall let the hon. Gentleman know if we have further information on that point.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned checks on wild deer, an issue referred to also by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). The state veterinary service is carrying out a rapid risk assessment and we hope to share the results of that as soon as possible.
My right hon. Friend the Minister gave the House an update of the situation and told us about the number of confirmed cases, which stands at 26. As is usual, and as has happened in regent days, a number of cases are still under investigation, of which two or three at least seem highly suspicious.
§ Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. It is essential to stop the spread of this awful disease. In my constituency there are a number of caravan parks surrounding farms. l am very concerned that this weekend the caravan parks will be open to tourists, many of whom will come from east Lancashire and the Chorley area and could carry the disease. What measures can local authorities take to stop these people coming to caravan parks? What can thy do to ensure that at least the lanes are properly disinfected with straw put across them? They say that they have no powers to put straw and disinfectant across the lanes.
§ Ms Quin
The local authority can contact its local animal health office and work in conjunction with MAFF, and it should do so if it is concerned, because there are powers that can be taken. I am familiar with the site that my hon. Friend mentions—in fact, I once visited it. The Caravan Club has issued recommendations to all its members not to trayel at this time of year and to respect a number of restrictions, as well as fully respecting the measures that the Government have put in place.
There are now at least 26 confirmed cases as well as a number of cases under investigation. That figure includes what appears to be the first case in Northern Ireland, in sheep which were smirced from Carlisle market. There is very little consolation, if any, in this situation, but it is worth saying that so far there seems to have been no significant lateral wind-borne spread of disease. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, it has been possible to make 1003 the link between the Devon case, which, in turn, links back to Northumberland, or between Northumberland and the Cheale abattoir. That has been the pattern so far.
As right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, there is no doubt that the considerable movement of animals throughout the country means that the situation is very serious. The number of right hon. and hon. Members from virtually all regions of the country who have spoken about their experience of the plight of their farming constituents as a result of the outbreak has borne dramatic testimony to that.
I think that all areas were mentioned. The south-west is a very important agricultural area. It was pointed out that East Anglia has already had tremendous difficulties, particularly with the recent outbreak of classical swine fever. Wales was mentioned, as was tile north-east where, like the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) I, too, saw the gruesome and distressing sight last weekend of animals piled up near the main road, very visible to everyone passing. I was talking to farmers in that area when the case in Devon was confirmed. People in Northumberland told me and the links between the markets in Northumberland and the particular farm, or farms, in Devon which were then affected.
I very much welcome the warm tribute paid by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) to the chief vet, Jim Scudamore, and his excellent staff. The hon. Gentleman's comments were echoed by a large number of Members, but he chose especially apt words to describe the work of the chief vet and his staff. I also welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and others about the helpfulness of Ministry staff, not only at head office but throughout the regions. Indeed, one Northumberland NFU member asked me to mention how sensitively the Ministry staff at Carlisle dealt with the distress and concern that was obviously experienced by so many farmers in that region.
I strongly welcome the support expressed on both sides of the House for the measures taken by the Government. We welcome the terms of the Opposition motion. That is an unusual experience, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire pointed out. I cannot remember a similar occurrence, but we are dealing with exceptional and unprecedented circumstances—a point that was strongly made.
Although obviously we look back io the 1967 outbreak, which many hon. Members recalled when they spoke, we should not make false comparisons. There are many 1004 differences, especially in relation to the difficulties—indeed the crisis—that the agriculture sector has undergone. For that reason, we are being extremely sensitive not only in ensuring that the measures that we have already taken to help farmers are effective, but in considering what else we can do.
§ Ms Quin
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not give way. I have only three minutes for the rest of my remarks. He expressed concern about the irresponsible movement of stock by farmers—although most farmers have been entirely responsible, as hon. Members have pointed out. However, we are certainly prepared to take up with the Home Office and the police any failure to implement the rules that have been clearly put in place. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.
There was much mention of consequential losses and so on. Those are difficult matters. We are open to consideration of ways in which we can help, although I appreciate the point made by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the implications could be extremely far reaching; they could even stretch to the tourist industry, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). The issue is not easy, but we shall definitely look into it.
The debate has been impressive, with Members showing a powerful empathy with the plight of farming constituents, their families and communities. We shall keep the House fully informed about the cases and outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, the measures for tackling it and the ways in which we can help the agriculture and food industries to recover. However, as everyone has agreed, combating and eradicating the disease has to be and will remain our foremost aim and priority.
§ Question put and agreed to.
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.