Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Brown: MAFF officials are having close discussions with EU officials and individual member states about the extent and proportionality of the ban. Although I cannot make any immediate announcement, I can tell my hon. Friend that we are working closely with others on the problems that he highlights. Depending on how circumstances develop, it may be possible to do something that would help his constituents further on. However, much depends on the scale of the problem and on our ability to bear down on it. No countries will allow foot and mouth disease in, to infect their national flocks and herds, and we do not allow it in here either.

My hon. Friend is right about farm diversification. That is why we are taking very tough measures now, in the hope that we can prevent the spread of the disease with the movement restrictions, contain it with quarantine, and then eliminate it with our slaughter policy. In other words, I hope that this will not be a protracted episode; that is what we are trying hard to avoid. However, I cannot make that promise to the House today.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I, like many others, have a farmer in my constituency who has made urgent representations to me about the imminent impact of the 30-month limit on prime beef cattle that he now cannot move to market. Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about that problem?

Mr. Brown: I am trying to put movement arrangements in place so that prime animals can move again, although under strict conditions. That requires a response from the private sector. The best thing that I can do for the hon. Gentleman's constituents is to get the supply chain moving again without spreading the disease. Both are important, and if a priority has to be chosen, it is to prevent the spread of the disease.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman will have heard my earlier plea about the plight of the small abattoir in my constituency--the only one in Hampshire--and I hope that he will be able to say something about that.

When the right hon. Gentleman is considering the details of his licensing arrangements, will he also take into account the needs of a very new company in my constituency that is doing fantastic work in producing porcine collagen for medical purposes? The company needs 30 or 40 skins a week to satisfy demand, and it has no more supply. If the Minister could take that into account when considering the licensing arrangements, it would be greatly appreciated.

Mr. Brown: We are trying to deal with a number of specialist issues; the hon. Gentleman rightly mentions one of them. I do not want to give him an absolute assurance because my first priority is to ensure that anything I allow to move--even under licence--does not risk spreading the disease. However, subject to that, I will ask MAFF

28 Feb 2001 : Column 931

officials to look into the specific issue that he raises. First, I will write to him setting out the exact circumstances that prevail and why. Secondly, I will see whether we can do anything to help his constituents who are employed in that specialist area of activity.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have transferred from MAFF's budget a sum of money to the Department of Health--in essence, to the Meat Hygiene Service--with a view to underpinning the veterinary costs involved in the operation of small abattoirs. It is my intention that the changes in movement patterns that I announced yesterday should be of advantage to small operators as well as large ones. It is slightly harder to arrange that, but it is the Government's intention; we want to help all the people involved to get some movement into their businesses--even if that cannot be in normal trading circumstances.

I have taken many interventions; I know that that is not conventional, even for agriculture debates. I am aware of how many Members on both sides of the House want to make representations on behalf of their constituents and to do the right thing by them in difficult and rapidly changing circumstances. However, I shall now move on to the set piece of my text, as it contains information that I know the House will want to have.

I have urged the public to exercise responsibility and to avoid all unnecessary visits to farms and farmland. However, where such visits are unavoidable, procedures for disinfection should be followed in order to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease from farm to farm. That advice seems simple and straightforward, and I urge everybody to listen carefully and to follow it. I am grateful for the responsible approach that has been taken by farmers, the general public and those responsible for organising sporting events and other large gatherings in the countryside. That includes organisations with which I do not otherwise agree.

Unfortunately, not everyone is following the advice that we have given, so local authorities have been given powers to declare prohibited areas and to close footpaths and rights of way in and around farmland. I understand that Dartmoor and Exmoor national parks have been closed to the public. That is right. I urge local authorities to prosecute people who insist on arguing about those measures. We are beyond argument: the measures are necessary in order to control the disease.

Of course, the most important measure for controlling the disease is the ban on animal movements. On the advice of the chief veterinary officer, we will be extending the controlled area measures, including the ban on livestock movements within Great Britain, for two more weeks from 2 March. We may then need to consider further movement restrictions--I know that that is unwelcome news. At present we just do not know, but if it is necessary, we shall have to do it.

At the same time, we are working up details of the schemes that we have discussed whereby healthy animals can go direct from the farm to an abattoir, under strictly controlled conditions, to supply the food chain. That will go ahead only if the chief veterinary officer advises me that such arrangements are fully compatible with controlling the disease outbreak. Details of the scheme are being worked up in conjunction with representatives of the livestock industry, and I plan to announce further details on Friday.

28 Feb 2001 : Column 932

I am also considering whether it would be safe to have licensed collection centres for animals going for slaughter. However, the Government cannot reopen livestock markets generally at this stage. In that context, I am considering what can be done to help with the range of problems associated with the operation of the over-30-months scheme.

We are liaising closely with the Commission and our European Union partners. The Standing Veterinary Committee extended the export ban on UK livestock and products for a further week to 9 March. The committee will meet again on Tuesday 6 March to take stock of the situation in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the EU. The Government welcome that approach. I would prefer the necessary control measures to be renewed short period by short period, as that would provide an opportunity at each stage to review them and to respond quickly to emerging and, I hope, improving circumstances.

As the House would expect, the Government's immediate and overriding priority is the control and eradication of the disease. However, epidemiological investigations into the source are continuing. That brings me to the question that the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) perfectly properly asked me earlier. There was no known foot and mouth disease in the EU, which suggests that the source was outside the EU. There are strict controls banning imports from areas where foot and mouth disease is endemic. Imports from such a source would be illegal.

There is no special reason to believe that the disease was imported from South Africa. South Africa has in place a ban on exports from infected areas, and in any case, the United Kingdom introduced measures to prohibit South African imports before similar EU measures were introduced.

I can confirm to the House--this goes to the root of the right hon. Gentleman's question--that the earliest outbreak of the disease was that confirmed in pigs at Heddon-on-the-Wall on Friday last week. Veterinary inspection suggests that the disease was present in the pigs for up to two weeks before it was notified by the farmer to MAFF veterinary staff. An investigation is under way and, partly for legal reasons, I am unable to give the House any further details.

When the disease has been brought under control, I shall want to examine carefully the implications that increased world travel, the globalisation of agricultural trade and modern farming methods have on disease control. I have asked for an examination of the current enforcement and control measures.

Farm incomes have been severely depressed for four years. An outbreak of foot and mouth disease means further serious hardship for a very large number of farmers and their families. There are serious impacts on farmers whose animals must be slaughtered and on those whose businesses are disrupted by the movement restrictions necessary to control and isolate the disease.

The Government are doing all we can to help. Farmers whose animals must be slaughtered as a disease control measure are compensated to the full market value of their stock. In addition, I announced yesterday that the Government plan to draw down the full amount of agrimonetary compensation available for livestock farmers. That amounts to a total of about £170 million, of which £16 million is the compulsory element that has

28 Feb 2001 : Column 933

previously been announced. That brings the total amount of agrimonetary compensation paid under the Government to £786 million since the last election.

To benefit pig farmers, I plan to open a second round of the outgoers element of the pig industry restructuring scheme, bringing forward money already announced and allocated for future financial years. Although I cannot make a further announcement today, I am carefully considering what else might be done to help the pig sector. I promise to consider the suggestion made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, and I am mindful of the other interventions that I have taken in this debate.

Next Section

IndexHome Page