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Siting of Telecommunications Masts

Ms Debra Shipley accordingly presented a Bill to control the siting and development of telecommunications masts: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 March, and to be printed [Bill 53].

28 Feb 2001 : Column 912

Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): We are grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for his commitment to make a statement this evening on the terrible rail accident in Yorkshire. In view of the terrible events on the railway, we do not think it appropriate to debate the first Opposition motion on the Order Paper today on the Government's integrated transport policy.

Foot and Mouth

3.46 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

I welcome the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to this debate, which has been brought forward by three and a half hours because of this morning's tragic accident. I should like to say that because the Minister has come here earlier than expected and given the pressure that he is under, we shall understand if he cannot be present throughout the debate.

A week ago, the public became aware that for the first time in 34 years, foot and mouth disease had been identified on the British mainland. Every day in the past seven days, the true horror that that news implied has been brought home. As more outbreaks have been confirmed, we have learned how quickly the disease can spread. As export markets shut down and internal livestock movements are banned, we see the vulnerability of a whole industry to a single disease. As race meetings and rugby fixtures have been cancelled, we have understood how widely the impact of the crisis is being felt. As the freedom of movement of people on foot and by car in rural areas is restricted, we realise how much of ordinary daily social, domestic and business life is coming to a halt. But above all, it is the personal tragedies of the farmers directly concerned that deserve our first sympathy.

More than for most people, the daily work of livestock farmers is a way of life. They are men and women who rise in the dark at 3.30 in the morning to milk their cows. They are men and women whose nights may be interrupted because of calving or lambing. Those men and women have a special relationship with the animals in their care, and when those animals are under threat of slaughter, those men and women face not just the loss of their livelihoods, but the destruction of the whole of their life's work. That is why, at the start of the motion, we invite the House to express sympathy for those farmers. At this time, they truly deserve our sympathy.

The past seven days have also shown the enormity of the task that the country now faces. The detailed process of checking animal movements to and from farms,

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markets and slaughterhouses has placed a burden on vets, officials and other inspectors, which continues to grow. The need to understand how this dreadful disease came to our shores after a gap of more than a generation is paramount. Only by identifying the original source of the outbreak can we be sure of minimising the risk of a recurrence.

Every family in the land has been talking about the issue. There cannot be a single kitchen table anywhere in the United Kingdom around which worries have not been expressed about the disease, about its spread and about the possible consequences. That is why the Opposition have chosen to debate the subject today. It would be very odd indeed if Parliament did not address these concerns directly.

I hope that the Minister agrees that, even at a time of intense pressure on him and his Ministry, it remains an important part of his duty to keep Parliament informed and to be available on a regular basis to answer questions from hon. Members on both sides of the House--questions that have been put to them by their constituents and that they expect to have a chance to ask.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): My hon. Friend will have observed the enormous interest and understandable support that he is receiving from Conservative Members. Given the claims of Labour Members that they also represent parts of the countryside, can he offer an explanation for their lack of representation in this debate?

Mr. Yeo: My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which will be apparent to anyone who can see the attendance in the Chamber.

Very unusually for an Opposition day motion, this motion has not been amended by the Government. We have chosen wording that is deliberately supportive not just of farmers and the industry, but of the main actions that the Government have announced in response to the crisis. Indeed, the Opposition have supported every one of the steps that the Government have taken so far. We have suggested more than once--and may continue to do so--that the Government should go further and should do more, but we have not criticised or resisted any of the Government's proposals to tackle the crisis. Because this is an emergency, we will give the Government our full backing in dealing with it. We genuinely wish the Minister and everyone else involved in trying to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease and to identify its source every possible success in their task.

I wish to comment on four subjects briefly. The first is compensation. I welcome unreservedly the announcement yesterday that the Government will draw down £156 million of agrimonetary compensation. That was the right decision, and I am glad that the Government have responded to many requests from Conservative Members and from the industry to take such a decision.

However, the Minister is fully aware that this agrimonetary compensation is designed specifically to compensate farmers for the weakness of the euro. Given the present state of the agriculture industry--an industry which is losing 400 jobs a week, which has lost 40,000 jobs in the past two years and in which the average income of farmers has fallen by three quarters in the past

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four years--that agrimonetary compensation was sorely needed regardless of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

We and others urged the Government to draw that money down before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease was known about, so I urge the Minister to confirm this afternoon that, in principle, the Government accept that further targeted help may be needed for farmers and others suffering unrecoverable losses as a direct result of foot and mouth disease.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On the question of loss, will my hon. Friend refer specifically to the plight of the livestock producers who are caught by the 30-month rule? They cannot market animals of more than 30 months at the full price because of that rule.

Mr. Yeo: My right hon. and learned Friend draws attention to a point to which I was coming. It is a relevant problem and a number of farmers will face it. The number will grow each week as movement restrictions remain.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Will my hon. Friend also consider the position of pig producers who, particularly in Norfolk and Suffolk, have already suffered the depredation of classical swine fever? Once again, they have to feed pigs that they cannot send to market. Those who have fattening units will again face empty stalls and no cashflow when they eventually manage to send pigs to market, and they have already faced the problems caused by the terrible swine fever.

Mr. Yeo: I am going to mention pig farmers, who are especially badly hit in both our constituencies. However, on the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), cattle are at the peak of their value when they approach 30 months, after which that value declines substantially and there is no prospect of it recovering. If the restrictions on movement, which have properly been imposed and to which we give our full support, remain in force for any length of time, an increasing number of farmers will face severe difficulty.

It is important to mention cashflow. Nothing gnaws away at a business man's sense of well-being than cashflow problems. People who work in the public sector know that their salary cheque will go into their bank account come what may at the end of each month. They sometimes have no concept of the anxiety and sleepless nights that people suffer if they do not know when they will next receive any money. Such circumstances can lead to the human tragedies that have too often scarred the industry in the past year or two.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Bearing in mind the cashflow difficulties that my hon. Friend mentions, will he also consider small abattoirs, which are greatly affected by the problem? The only abattoir left in Hampshire is in my constituency. It slaughtered its last animal two days ago. It has no income and substantial outgoings. Can he give my constituent and others any hope that they will receive help?

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