HC Deb 15 November 2001 vol 374 cc969-72
6. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

When she next plans to meet representatives of the National Farmers Union to discuss the foot and mouth outbreak; and if she will make a statement. [13068]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

I met the president of the National Farmers Union to discuss the foot and mouth outbreak on 30 October. Members of my ministerial team and departmental officials keep the NFU fully informed of developments at regular stakeholder meetings, which cover a wide range of foot and mouth disease related issues.

Mr. Bellingham

Is the Secretary of State aware that, as well as the devastation caused by foot and mouth in the areas directly affected by the disease, there has also been substantial damage to ancillary businesses in places such as Norfolk? For example, Far Pavilions is a company that hires out tents and marquees in west Norfolk. It has faced crippling losses as a direct consequence of the epidemic. Will she meet representatives of businesses such as that to discuss claims for compensation?

Finally, has not the time come for the Secretary of State to face up to the huge anger in the countryside and order a full and comprehensive public inquiry?

Margaret Beckett

First, we are aware of the many ancillary businesses damaged by the consequences of the foot and mouth outbreak. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that no Government have ever felt able to say that they could deal with and compensate all those affected by a range of public events. This matter is no different, although I can tell him that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs has continued to hold meetings with interested parties. For example, alongside the meetings that have been held generally with stakeholders in the wider farming community, other meetings have been held with the wider rural stakeholders. We are very conscious of the problems and have sought to do what we can to help to ease the difficulties experienced by people in other businesses. However, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have not been able to alleviate all those problems. The most important contribution that could have been made was to try to bring the epidemic to an end so that ordinary business could resume. Nothing that the Government could do could replace that contribution.

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

We had foot and mouth in my constituency, which has the largest English cattle ranch and the largest sheep farm in the country. My farmers want to know what the future of farming will be. In that context, will my right hon. Friend remind the House about where we are in discussions about the future of the new common agricultural policy?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, as his question enables me to respond to the second half of the question from the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for omitting to do so earlier.

The inquiry process set in train by the Government has three strands, one of which is the work of the commission looking at the future of food and farming. I hope and expect that that commission will be able to report around the end of the year. Obviously, that will be an important contribution to what my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) will know is a widespread debate. He will know too that the Government have pressed—as did our predecessors, although less successfully—for CAP reform. I believe that the agreement reached in Doha will be a substantial stimulus to that process.

However, I can tell the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk that the Government strongly believe that there is a great deal to be said for holding independently run inquiries that disaggregate the different issues arising from foot and mouth disease. Such an inquiry will report much more speedily and at much less cost than a full tribunal of public inquiry.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Given the green light for the resumption of foxhunting in the veterinary risk assessment published this morning, will the Secretary of State join me in acknowledging the invaluable role played by hunt professionals in tackling some of the worst aspects of foot and mouth disease? Will she say for how long the proposed licensing regime will be imposed? Will it be scrapped when the country is deemed to be free of foot and mouth? Finally, will she ensure that the same restrictions are imposed on the dangerous and irresponsible activities of hunt saboteurs?

Margaret Beckett

I remind the hon. Gentleman that what was published this morning was a consultation paper. It is important that people understand that a process of consultation studying aspects of this issue will be held over the next two to three weeks. Also, I take this opportunity to stress that the picture that emerges following the veterinary advice is mixed. Subject to the outcome of the consultation, the Government propose to lift restrictions on falconry, and we shall give greater freedom to operate, for instance, to small teams working to catch vermin in specific farm areas.

However, when people think of conventional hunting they think of people riding horses, and so on. There are different regimes for such hunting in different parts of the country, depending on disease status. That is the veterinary advice and we shall follow it, as we have followed such advice throughout the outbreak.

The hon. Gentleman called for restraint among hunt saboteurs. The Government call on everyone connected with hunting—those who engage in it or who follow it, either in support or opposition—to show restraint and to obey the restrictions that are in place. I do not think that anyone would be forgiven if foot and mouth cases started to appear again as a result of our adoption of the veterinary advice.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

It is pleasing to hear of the warmth of the relations between the Government and Mr. Ben Gill of the National Farmers Union, but does my right hon. Friend agree that individual local NFU members have been very poorly served by their national leadership? Will she take those local members into the circle of people whom she consults? Will she discuss with them the view that they hold—and which I share—that the contiguous culling policy has been costly, cruel and crass?

Margaret Beckett

The Department seeks to have constructive relationships with all our stakeholders, and the NFU is not exceptional or singled out in that respect. It is not for me to enter into disputes between any membership organisation and its national leadership.

I am aware that the contiguous cull was a policy of some considerable controversy. However, if my hon. Friend considers the course of the outbreak in the Brecon Beacons, he will find that, because of a perfectly understandable wish not to kill unnecessarily, the procedure included testing before killing. That testing showed that at every stage the disease was running ahead of those tackling it, until the contiguous cull was extended. There is complete agreement between those who dealt with the problem in the Brecon Beacons and the Department that the contiguous cull brought the disease under control. I understand that the policy is controversial, but no one has yet produced a better alternative.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Will the Government consider paying a national supplement to the sheep annual premium? Our recent inability to export and the highest European market prices on record have meant that the premium has been calculated at the low level of less than £7, instead of around £17. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the livestock welfare disposal scheme will continue into 2002 and as long as it is needed while animal welfare problems persist as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic?

Margaret Beckett

We keep all those issues under review. The hon. Lady invites me to come to conclusions here and now, and to announce them. I am not prepared to do that. Of course, the Government are mindful of how the terrible problems caused by foot and mouth impacted on the farming community in a variety of ways. However, as she acknowledged, the question of the sheep premium is not related to that alone. We are mindful of the concerns and needs of the farming industry, and the Government do what they can to address them.