Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Thomas: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, at the beginning of this outbreak, we had half the vets that we had at the time of the 1967 outbreak? That reflects what has been happening to the Government's veterinary service. We need to consider that matter--after we have got rid of the disease, obviously--in terms of contingency planning for the future and of co-ordinating these issues at a European level. We now have partners in Europe that we did not have in 1967.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is obviously right. That was the point that I was making. We are less able to deal with a crisis of this kind because of some very foolish decisions that were taken some years ago to reduce our effective barriers to epidemic. That has been exacerbated by the closure of abattoirs, especially small abattoirs, and by the fact that we now move animals over much greater distances on a more regular basis.

On the action being taken, I suspect that the Minister's tactics for dealing with the epidemic are absolutely right. They certainly accord with the veterinary advice that he has received. I shall not enter into the discussion about inoculation as a means of fighting the disease, although I would be interested to know what contrary advice the Dutch Government received that brought them to a different decision. In my constituency, a gentleman is electioneering on the basis that he would introduce immediate inoculation and vaccination as a means of dealing with the problem. I think that he is entirely wrong-headed in that view and that, if he were to put it to farmers, they would show him the error of his ways.

We have already touched on the problem of the time lag between diagnosis and slaughter. The Minister said that he had been dealing with that. I can only say to him that it is not before time. That was a matter of great concern to many farmers who recognised that their flocks or herds were potentially diseased, but who had to wait for the diagnosis to be confirmed before anything could be done about it, knowing that all the time their animals were breathing out a plume of virus that could infect other animals on their farm or a neighbouring one.

Local management has been a major issue. I do not say that to criticise the regional veterinary officers. I am simply saying that they were overloaded with the logistical demands that were placed on them to deal with the veterinary side of their work and with everything else

21 Mar 2001 : Column 382

that they were being asked to do. It should have been obvious from the time when it became clear that we had two foci of infection--or three, if we include the Welsh borders, the Marches--that there needed to be a single person in charge. That is a matter of management, and a matter for the civil service, but I commend the decision that has now been made to put such a person in place. That is exactly the right decision.

On disposal, I believed from day one that burial was a better option, particularly for the relatively small number of carcases that we were dealing with in the early stage of the epidemic. I am disappointed that that option was rejected so early, that the Minister is still, apparently, fighting battles with other Departments about the ways of dealing with carcases, and that that method has not been made available.

On the use of the Army, I have received messages from, and had direct contact with, people involved with the Army who cannot understand why the relevant units are not being used. Let us remember that four Royal Engineers units and five Territorial Army regiments are stationed in the UK. They have 140 devices known as combat engineer tractors, which are not tractors at all, but are similar to the JCBs that one finds in civilian life, except that they have tracks on them. Those devices have not been brought into use, and neither has the Royal Logistic Corps. I find it difficult to understand why it is considered preferable for support to be provided by a few military policemen, however eminently qualified they may be, rather than by Royal Engineers with diggers, who could do the job.

Mr. Keetch: Does my hon. Friend agree that bringing in the Army would further emphasise that this is truly a serious national crisis?

Mr. Heath: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The key point is that, in a crisis that is overwhelming rural areas to such an extent, every single part of Government should have been mobilised from day one. There is sufficient evidence that that was not the case and that MAFF tried to fight a lone battle without the support of other Departments. Indeed, some decisions seem inexplicable.

The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service was effectively laid off from day one because it could not go on to farms. An agriculture advisory service that cannot get on to farms is no good and it had to sit around at home, waiting. Although it was put at the Minister's disposal, no staff were deployed to assist the Ministry in dealing with the epidemic until two or three weeks later. That is a scandalous waste of a human resources.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that a consequence of that waste is concern among the farming community that it has not heard enough about the rationale for the culls? Does he also agree that the Government could and should, as a matter of urgency and to ensure that the partnership between farmers and the Ministry continues, outline a clear justification for these dramatic measures? I am sure that they have to be taken, but their logic has not always been clear to people who have to suffer the consequences.

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend is right. He is referring to the clarity of the information provided and I shall come to that.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 383

On resources, clearly there have not been enough vets in the field. Part of the problem has been the rate of pay, which the Minister has increased from £160 to £250. That is welcome, and I hope that the increase goes some way to meeting needs, but it has been reported to me that valuers are being paid £500 a day plus commission. Perhaps he can confirm that. Our sense of priorities seems topsy-turvy: we pay vets less than half what we pay valuers to value carcases after diagnosis. That is nonsensical and I hope that the Minister will consider it.

Mr. Drew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: I must be careful, because other Members want to speak, but I shall give way once more.

Mr. Drew: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way a second time.

I have talked to valuers and we must be fair to them. They make two points: first, they need to value when the animal is alive, so they need to be on the scene quickly. Secondly, they face the same problems as vets in being unable to go on to farms. It is important to understand that there is a difference between clean and dirty vets, and valuers, and how that delays the process.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not convinced that valuers have to value while the animal is alive. If the Ministry changed its specifications, they would not have to do so. I suggest in the gentlest way possible that vets also have to examine animals while they are alive and they have the same restrictions placed on them. Perhaps there is an equivalence that he is not addressing.

I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister's offer to give Members of Parliament information on the epidemiology and other matters through a presentation. That is extremely helpful. However, on the provision of information to farmers and concerned people, I have serious worries about the extent of readiness. There is huge reliance on the internet, but it is a foreign country to an awful lot of farmers and they simply are not using it to get advice. They simply do not know what is put on the internet for their benefit and the amount of information sent to them on paper is nugatory. In fact, they have received practically none, which does not help them to deal effectively with the disease.

Information will not have been received by many people who keep animals on smallholdings. A few years ago, I would have counted myself as one, as I bred Tamworth pigs and kept a few breeding sows. As I had only a small herd, I would not have been on any list of farmers and it would have been difficult to find out what to do and what precautions to take. Those who think that that is not important should remember that the closure of Exmoor resulted from an outbreak in a flock of eight sheep. A small amount of infectivity in a tiny herd can cause a real problem.

More information should be made available and the Ministry could valuably have used intermediaries. That takes us back to the point about the use of ADAS officials, because there is also a case for using farmers themselves as intermediaries. They have offered their services as

21 Mar 2001 : Column 384

liaison officers and they could talk to their colleagues. Surely we should take them up on that offer and use them effectively.

The clarity of the information provided leaves much to be desired. Partly because of the structure of government, there have been apparent mismatches between information and advice from MAFF and from other Departments. That does not always happen in the devolved Administrations, however, and the guidance from the National Assembly for Wales, whose Minister for Rural Affairs is overseeing those matters, is immeasurably better than any so far produced in England, and I commend it to the House. It shows the advantages of genuinely joined-up government.

Welfare disposal schemes have been discussed and it is a great shame that the pig scheme at least is not yet in place. I understand the difficulties with sheep, but there is a real problem with pigs because weaners cannot be moved on for finishing and the older pigs are still hanging around. The welfare problem needs to be dealt with and we need clarity as to the welfare disposal schemes. We also need the potential for on-farm slaughter to assist the process.

On ewes, I have a story to tell from Mr. Guy Thomas-Everard, who farms in west Somerset. He has ewes in lamb that he wants to move to lambing sheds just across the A396. However, he needs a movement order and he got in touch with the Ministry two or three days ago to request one. He rang me this morning to say that he had been told that there was a licence sitting on a desk at the MAFF regional office in Bristol, but it could not be issued because there was no executive officer there to sign it. That is not satisfactory, as bureaucracy is overriding common sense. The matter needs to be considered.

Maureen Prince, who I believe lives in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the Conservative party, and her colleagues arranged to produce a disposal mechanism by cremating carcases on their property to stop piles of animals building up. The vets agreed, but the Ministry said no. Officials do not have to say yes or no on every single case; we should use common sense to fight the disease.

On welfare of people, I commend the Farm Crisis Network, which has been doing a marvellous job. Farmers are concerned about whether they can pay their taxes; they are worried about Lady day; they are worried about their rent; they are worried about how to make ends meet. That is the main problem, and the point has been repeatedly made that it goes well beyond farming.

Shopkeepers in my constituency in towns well away from farming and tourist areas all say that their businesses are being decimated, mainly because a lot of them depend on people visiting out of season, perhaps at this time of year. Such people are generally fairly well off. They read The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, which tell them that they must not go to country areas. Being socially aware and responsible, they do not--and do not spend their money. As a result, the newsagent, the butcher and the food shop, for instance, experience cash flow problems.

Although I welcomed the announcement made by the Minister for the Environment, serious questions remain to be asked. Many measures are still being considered, rather than being introduced. Moreover, it appears from what we

21 Mar 2001 : Column 385

heard from the Prime Minister today that the relief is going only to communities identified as being rural--communities of fewer than 3,000. Many of the problems exist in market towns with populations of more than 3,000, and if they are left out the help will not reach those whom it needs to reach. We need much more clarity about the arrangements relating to value-added and other tax.

Mr. Guy Thomas-Everard, to whom I am indebted for his contribution, says that he was in touch with the Taunton Inland Revenue office today. After a delay, he was told to ring a special helpline number. When he did so, he was told to ring the Taunton tax office, which then said that it had no information about the Government's plans and could not help. We can do without lack of co-ordination of that kind.

Let me say something about the financial position of farmers specifically. It would help us enormously to know what is to be done about cattle aged over 30 months, and cattle going through the over-30-months barrier, while they are in a restricted area. It would also help us enormously to know what will happen to lambs that would normally be taken to market but which, by the time the restrictions end, will unfortunately be mutton.

Next Section

IndexHome Page