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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): At the outset of the crisis, the Minister expressed his concern that even the time required for him to participate in debates in the House might damage his ability and that of his fellow Ministers and officials to look after the crisis as best they could. Given that that was his view then, can he put his hand on his heart and say to the House that his ability and that of other Ministers and officials would not be damaged much more severely if we were to proceed with a general election while such a crisis is raging? Or does he agree with me that any Government who went ahead with a general election under these circumstances, when they have a year of their time left to run, would fulfil the worst fears of the electorate--that the convenience of politicians comes before the interests of their constituents?
Mr. Brown: Let me say this to the farming community: while I am the Minister, I will work night and day to get the disease extinguished. That is my responsibility and public duty, and I shall fulfil it to the very best of my ability. The use of my time in the early days of the outbreak, when a response had to be devised and veterinary officials relied upon my support in government, was extremely important. That was the only point I was making. I do not begrudge coming to the House or begrudge the dialogue between us here. The testing of the Government's policies in a constructive atmosphere is the right way for a parliamentary democracy to work.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Cheshire was devastated in 1967 by foot and mouth. We now have one outbreak on the Shropshire border, but the rest of the county is still clean and we want to keep it that way. May I register again my strongest objections and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on behalf of farmers in the east of the county about the movement of dead stock to the processing plant at Widnes? Those farmers are not convinced that the decontamination of vehicles is foolproof. I hope that the Minister will understand their concerns.
May I also express the view that rapid reaction is essential, which is probably why we went a little wrong at the beginning? I welcome the fact that vets can now shoot animals as soon as they diagnose the clinical signs of the disease and that there will be on-farm burial when that is appropriate.
Mr. Brown: There is nothing new in the veterinary authorities' ability to order livestock for destruction once they have examined them and identified there and then the clinical signs of the disease. The word of the vet is enough; we do not have to wait for the test results to come through if a vet identifies the clinical signs. I repeat that in 80 per cent. of the cases in which animals have been destroyed that is what has happened.
On the question of vehicles, the hon. Lady's constituents have my wholehearted sympathy. I am not going to take any risks with the spread of the disease. Indeed, right from the beginning, we have clamped down on movements. The risk comes not from the movement of dead animals in lorries, but from the movement of live animals from infected to uninfected herds. The incubation
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): It was a clear recommendation of the 1968 report on the 1967 outbreak that burial was preferable to burning as a means of disposing of carcases. In Cheshire, north Shropshire and the Maelor, 25 JCBs are working full time. The Minister has said that he will use the Army for logistical support, but will he consider using its machinery and personnel immediately to implement a burial policy?
Mr. Brown: All the points that the hon. Gentleman perfectly properly raises are under consideration. We have been using contractors to carry out the destruction work so far, and we have used burning. There are a range of reasons why, in the circumstances that we have faced so far, we have not adopted a burial strategy, but it is an option that we could use. If we require the support of the armed forces to help with the physical work as well as the logistical work with which they are already helping, that option will be available to me. I will have no hesitation in using it if I am told it is necessary, and nor will the Ministry of Defence have any hesitation in providing its support.
Mr. Brown: I am considering that option. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) suggested it for the pig sector, but it is clearly an issue for the sheep sector, too. It is not the preferred route that is being recommended to me by officials, but I am keeping everything carefully under review, including the impact on markets.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): This may be the last in the long succession of questions that the Minister has answered, and I think that he has dealt with the House in a very sympathetic manner. He will have heard my question to the Leader of the House, and I hope that he will be able to deal with that matter.
Another issue relates to my constituent, Mr. Tom Fudge, of Neighbrook farm, Aston Magna near Moreton- in-Marsh, who sent a load of sheep to be slaughtered this week. They made only 20p per kilogram compared to a price of 34p per kilogram before the foot and mouth outbreak. It appears that some abattoirs and supermarkets may be engaged in some form of price cutting to farmers, which is totally wrong when the price of meat in the shops is higher than it was before the outbreak. Will the Minister make representations to the slaughter industry and the supermarkets that they should give British farmers a fair price during the outbreak? Will he also guarantee that the compensation to British farmers will be based on the pre-outbreak price? If they were paid at the price of 20p per kilogram, that would be exploitation by the Ministry.
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman's point about the rates that the Government pay when we purchase animals for destruction is a fair one. I will write to him setting out the average prices that are being paid. As he knows, each case can be contested and there is an arbitration procedure. I have urged the big retailers and others in the trade to behave responsibly and fairly throughout the supply chain. I have received a sympathetic and supportive response.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are particular problems in the sheep sector, because many lambs are bred for the continental market and do not meet the specifications of the main part of the United Kingdom market. They are not therefore a displacing product on the market and are not specifically bred for the main demand in the UK. Prices are depressed for market specification reasons and because supply is in excess of demand.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few moments ago in my question to the Minister, I inadvertently indicated that some schools in my constituency had closed as a result of the outbreak. What I meant to say was that Wiltshire county council has considered whether to close the schools. However, as far as I am aware, none of them has been closed.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for me to reiterate that I fully understand that the rural community wants to do everything necessary to assist farmers and others who rely on visitors to extinguish the disease?
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you were absolutely right to thank the Minister for the time that he has given to the House, and we would like to thank you for ensuring that the exchanges were able to continue. They demonstrated Parliament at its best.
Sadly, I raise a point of order because I wonder whether you have received notification from the Secretary of State for Defence of his wish to come to the House to make a statement. I was telephoned by my local radio station last night about a £200 million investment, including £3 million for my constituency, for barracks accommodation for soldiers. I have received no information from the Secretary of State, so I approached his office this morning, but I have still not received any information. That is appalling.
The Minister for the Armed Forces is in his place and I heard him on my local radio station this morning telling my constituents about the investment, but he has not had the courtesy to let me know about it so that I can tell my constituents what on earth is going on. I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, would deprecate the behaviour of Ministers in the MOD who--unlike the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who has made such a great effort--have made no effort to keep the House informed.