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9.14 pm

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

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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.

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I spoke today to Willie Campbell of Low Holehouse farm in Galston. Despite his address being in my constituency, his farm 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 their 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. That must be done in a manner that ensures that milk tankers cannot carry the infection. For that they depend on 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 an 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.

9.20 pm

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

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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 not 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 the 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 farming 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 term 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 that the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) wants it to have.

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9.25 pm

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