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Dr. David Clark (South Shields): May I join those who have said how awful this tragedy is, not only for farmers but for all those who live in the countryside? My right hon. Friend has the support of men and women of good will for the rigorous manner in which he has approached the situation. That is clearly the right way forward. I have two brief questions. First, will my right hon. Friend ensure that every facility is made available to local authority trading standards officers, who are responsible for monitoring the movement books for cattle and other animals? Secondly, will he reconsider the issue of imported feedstuffs? I understand what the regulations say, but there is a feeling in the farming community that they have not always been adhered to.

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks. We have been inundated with expressions of support for the approach that we are taking--expressions that have come even from those who are most affected by it. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of the work of trading standards officers. Of course, they are employed by local authorities, but we are in touch with their central co-ordinating body and they will be present at our meeting tomorrow with other interested parties. On imported feed, I have asked for work to be done to consider whether our enforcement of the current rules is as rigorous as it should be, or whether there is some other area that we need to address. The continuing inquiries into the source of the outbreak will inform that trawl of the regulations.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): The Minister will understand the great shock in my constituency and the fear within the local farming community, which has been reinforced by the billowing smoke that is over Warley. Over the weekend, I spoke to Mr. Gemmel, a farmer who is one of the victims of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. He is showing great restraint and dignity while seeing his life's work destroyed. I spoke a short time ago to Mr. Cheal, the owner of the abattoir, who is working to eradicate the disease. He commends to the Minister and the House the sharp-eyed veterinary officer who spotted it. If that had not happened, the outbreak would undoubtedly have been more serious.

A couple of lessons can be learned from farmers in my constituency. The Minister will recall that I rang his office on Friday to ask that farms in the immediate vicinity receive information and advice. I am pleased to say that they have now done so. I hope that that is now commonplace where outbreaks occur. Unhappiness was expressed over the weekend because the Ministry website, the prime source of information, had not been updated. I am pleased that that has now happened.

Farmers in my constituency, especially those affected by the restrictions, stressed that the nature of farming has changed since 1967. Much diversification has happened into, for example, farm shops. Such activities are affected by movement restrictions. The problem that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) raised is

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therefore acute. I hope that, when examining the new regime which will replace the current system on Friday, the Minister will carefully consider that problem and realise that farming in Essex is on a knife edge.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes four fair points. He is right that farmers and abattoir owners are the victims, not the cause, of the problem. They deserve sympathy and support, not blame. The best thing that the Government can do is to eliminate foot and mouth disease and help return the industry to normal trading as quickly as possible.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments about sharp-eyed vets and abattoir workers. Their prompt action in alerting the Ministry may well have helped contain the spread of the terrible condition, and the hon. Gentleman is right to praise them.

I want to provide information as quickly as possible and to be candid with the public. Circumstances are changing quickly, and there is a great hunger in the media for information. We are therefore holding regular briefings to tell them how matters have advanced. The media provide information immediately and everything that is said is broadcast at once. Many people may well find out about developments for the first time through the media. That is the way of the modern world. We are doing everything we can to ensure that the National Farmers Union and other interested parties get information as quickly as possible. However, the media tend to get there first nowadays--and that applies not only in the circumstances that we are discussing.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the prompt and rigorous action that he and his officials have taken, not only in the United Kingdom but with our European partners, to try to counteract the deadly and frightening outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Does he recognise that all reasonable people, not only in the House but throughout the country and especially in farming communities, will strongly support the measures that he has to pursue, however widespread they may become, to eliminate the sources of the infection? Will he refuse to be deflected by Opposition calls to take action on compensation that the Conservatives never took when in government?

Will my right hon. Friend pursue with Ben Gill, the president of the NFU--who has shown more statesmanship than the Conservative spokesman ever displayed--and the farming communities and their representatives all necessary action to eliminate foot and mouth disease and thus remove the threat from the thousands of farmers who are living in fear and trepidation?

Mr. Brown: The approach that my right hon. Friend outlines is right. Everyone contrasts the attitude of the NFU and others who earn their livelihoods in the livestock and food processing sectors with that of those who try to make political capital out of a national tragedy. My right hon. Friend is right to draw the House's attention to the irony of demands for agrimonetary compensation from a political party that did not pay a penny when it was in government.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Minister will realise that the main suspect is a waste food feeder

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and that that was not the case in the swine fever epidemic. Will he focus attention on that and tell the House when there is something to report? Identifying the cause is crucial.

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that footpaths and bridlepaths were heavily used in, for example, North Yorkshire at the weekend? The Government should take urgent action to close them, albeit temporarily, and perhaps issue red notices to bring home to people psychologically the importance of what is at stake. Will the right hon. Gentleman also bear in mind that farmers have to take their stocks to abattoirs, and that we do not want thousands of trailers running round the countryside trying to deliver livestock? What attention will he give to using some form of collection centres, such as auction marts, where proper disinfectant can be applied and where vehicles that we can be sure cannot transmit the disease can be provided?

Mr. Brown: On the right hon. Gentleman's third point, consideration is being given to exactly that matter, and I hope to have something to say on it relatively soon. It is being considered in the context of the way in which the current movement restrictions work. The right hon. Gentleman asked a perfectly fair question about footpaths, and consideration is being given to whether more needs to be done. I am grateful to those members of the public who have heeded my request that they stay away from livestock farms for the time being. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, laws work best when they have consent behind them, but there are obvious questions of enforcement.

Of course, we all want to get to the absolute root cause of the matter, and as I said earlier to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), work is under way in the Ministry to get as close to that as we can. The right hon. Gentleman invites me to say more, but I am afraid that I cannot--at least in part for legal reasons.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anxiety among the people in the west of Newcastle and in southern Northumberland at the events of the past week at Burnside farm, which is partly in my constituency? That anxiety has been fuelled by the further revelation today of a suspected outbreak at Westerhope farm, which is probably almost entirely in my constituency.

There is an overwhelming demand from all those within and outside the farming community that politicians do not bicker about this matter but deal with the real problems. Those people are asking how this could possibly have occurred at this farm in our area. I know what my right hon. Friend said in response to an earlier question, but will he say what time scale will apply to any investigation into the root cause? It has been reported that some of the conditions at Burnside farm partly contributed to the spread of the disease. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether his officials have identified that as a possible reason for the spread?

Mr. Brown: I agree with my hon. Friend that this should not be a party political issue. Indeed, the entire nation should unite behind the Government in our stated objective of containing and eliminating the outbreak. The farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall is believed to be the farm at which the outbreak has been in the United Kingdom for

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the longest time and, therefore, as far as we know at the moment, the first source of the disease. Investigations are continuing, and I do not want to say any more on that--again, partly for legal reasons.

It is likely that the spread to the farm in my hon. Friend's constituency was windborne, and we have placed the area under strict quarantine. By far the best thing we can do is to quarantine the problem, bear down on it and eliminate it, and get back to a disease-free status as quickly as possible. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about the Government's approach.


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