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Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): My hon. Friend will know that Mr. Huntbach, who suffered the second outbreak in Cheshire, which was seriously devastated in 1967, attempted last Friday night to call the Ministry, as did the local vet. There was no answer and no answering machine, so the telephones are not being manned 24 hours. Having failed to contact the Stafford office, he tried Worcester, which told him to call Stafford again. Eventually, he was given a fax number, but it took 24 hours before contact was made. That is where the delay is occurring. The offices need to be fully staffed now.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I should make it clear that the Opposition's quarrel is not with Ministry officials at the sharp end, who are working under enormous pressure and are clearly overstretched, but with Ministers and Labour Members, who claim that the situation is under control when plainly it is not. They say that delays are not occurring when they obviously are. It is not the fault of officials that they are not available to answer the telephone 24 hours a day; it is obviously beyond their capacity to do so.

The Minister must know about the countless delays. The Government's claims are absurd. Farmers and hon. Friends call me six or seven times an hour every day with examples similar to the case outlined by my hon. Friend. If I am getting those calls, the Minister's office must be receiving ten times as many. It is not helpful to make claims that are plainly unfounded.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): On a related matter, the disease was diagnosed at Higham Lane in my constituency on Sunday. Some heifers with blisters were shot on Monday, but 250 cows were still alive yesterday. The Atherstone hunt kennels are across the road. The hunt's servants are qualified as slaughtermen and could be deployed to kill the animals. Does my hon. Friend agree that political correctness is preventing those people from being used to assist in the crisis?

Mr. Yeo: I shall address the problem of resources to carry out the slaughter in a moment. My hon. Friend makes an important point.

The third policy is the need for the immediate introduction of on-farm burial, which was used widely in 1967. On Monday, the chief veterinary officer described burial as the ideal option. The Environment Agency should already have indicated where the water table makes burial unsafe for human health reasons. Piles of rotting carcases are themselves a serious environmental and health hazard, and I find it hard to believe that there are no areas where on-farm burial can safely be used.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I agree with the hon. Gentleman about on-farm burial, but is not the difference

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between 1967 and now the fact that we have BSE in our cattle, and we do not want to turn an animal disease into a human problem?

Mr. Yeo: There are a number of differences between the 1967 outbreak and the present one. However, it is over four weeks since we first learned of the problem, and the Environment Agency should by now be able to advise on those parts of the country where on-farm burial would be a safe alternative to other disposal methods, and I am disappointed that it is still not being used to a significant extent.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Does my hon. Friend accept that most farmers know exactly where on their land they could bury animals, whether or not there is a high water table? Will he acknowledge that in 1967, when the problem was tackled within 24 hours at most, stock was buried on farms and there was no adverse reaction whatever from that process?

Mr. Yeo: The fact that no damage appears to have been done by the widespread use of on-farm burial is important. As my hon. Friend says, farmers will usually know what parts of their land are suitable. They should be able to establish, perhaps just by a phone call to the regional office of the Environment Agency, whether approval can be given straight away. Regional offices will also have information about the location of aquifers and so on, so there should be no difficulty getting an immediate answer. It is hard to understand why that quick, simple disposal method is not being more widely used.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Will my hon. Friend press the Minister for an immediate decision, and not just a general assurance that he will look into the matter? Certainly in Worcestershire, with the rendering situation as it is, thousands of carcases will be lying around not for days but for weeks. This matter needs immediate attention.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is right. It is clear from the figures that I have quoted that, far from being kept under control, the problem is getting worse day by day. As I said, between Monday and Tuesday, the number of unburied carcases rose by 16,000. If that is to continue for any length of time, it is an alarming prospect.

The country cannot understand why the simple, common-sense measures that we are calling for are not being implemented immediately. On wider policy issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) mentioned, the Government must stop sending out conflicting messages. Even within the Ministry last Thursday there was confusion about whether the proposed new large-scale cull in Cumbria included cattle. That caused alarm in the region, and the position was later clarified, but it underlines the need for an accurate presentation of any new Government measures.

Now we are told that the cull, which last week was said to be a necessary tactic to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease, may be postponed. On what basis was the original decision taken? What has happened to make the policy less urgent? Some of the questions that I faxed to the Minister's office last night are relevant. In particular, what is the scientific advice for selecting a 3 km radius for the clean-ring strategy, and for excluding cattle from the clean-ring strategy cull?

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Confusion has also emerged because of contradictory statements about the countryside. The Minister has, quite properly, issued warnings about not visiting livestock areas. He has been consistent in that and we support him, although it is becoming harder now to judge which farmland is a livestock area because clearly a lot of it does not have livestock. We should err on the side of caution. However, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which seem to be unrepresented here, are telling a very different story. Indeed, it might have been helpful if Ministers who are supposed to be responsible for the taskforce had taken the trouble to attend the debate. Given the lack of understanding shown by the taskforce of the scale and urgency of the problem, they might have benefited from being here because they would have learned a bit more about the problem.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Everybody has noted what my hon. Friend has just said. Given the importance of the national crisis, the urgent need for steps to tackle it and the constructive measures suggested by my hon. Friend, can he explain why, of more than 300 Labour Back Benchers, fewer that two dozen are present?

Mr. Yeo: I am afraid that I cannot shed any light on that but, as my hon. Friend knows, it is part of a pattern. When the crisis in the countryside is debated, the Government Benches tend to be thinly populated.

Last week, the Minister for the Environment spoke about what he called "safe" areas. Can the Minister of Agriculture enlighten us about how a safe area can be identified, given that the lengthy incubation period means that even areas that do not have the disease may be about to suffer an outbreak? Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment told us that the countryside was open for business. That statement has confused the public because it suggests that there are differences of view inside the Government. It creates the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire described in relation to Derbyshire county council, which must decide whether to reopen rights of way and footpaths.

The right approach is to say that getting foot and mouth disease under control is the overriding aim. Nothing should be done that might jeopardise progress towards that goal. Even non-farming businesses that are suffering, such as tourism, will benefit most if foot and mouth is contained and exterminated. That is the only permanent solution to the problem. Timely action along the lines that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I have been suggesting for some time will help to achieve that solution, curb the spread of foot and mouth disease and rebuild confidence in the countryside. Further delay by the Government will raise fears that they are still not ready to respond on the necessary scale.

The subject of timely action brings me to a further point. The Minister will be aware that, for some days, rumours have been circulating that his Ministry was making specific preparations to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease some weeks before the first case was confirmed. I have no means of knowing whether those rumours are true. If they are, the implications are very profound indeed.

Will the Minister make clear to the House at the earliest opportunity--this afternoon, I hope--exactly when the Ministry was notified of any suspected cases of foot and

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mouth disease? Will he also explain the basis on which the Ministry makes contingency plans to deal with foot and mouth? Are those plans regularly updated? If so, in what way? Is there an explanation for the fact that someone who has been approached to supply timber sleepers in case incineration is required has told broadcasters that she had not been contacted by the Ministry since the 1967 outbreak? If the contingency plans involve regular contact in the normal course of events, I hope that the Minister can explain why that person has suddenly reappeared on the list in that rather unusual way.

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