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6.16 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): In the 18 years I have been privileged to be a Member of Parliament representing a wonderful part of Cumbria, we have faced various threats: the possibility of Sellafield closing or losing jobs, of the north-west railway line going into decline and not being repaired, and of Carlisle not getting a new hospital. All have been major issues, but I have never before seen or faced the complete meltdown of our county. The danger we face in Cumbria is that we will suffer such losses in the rural sector, in tourism and in other industries that it will take us years and years to recover.

I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who have two or three cases of foot and mouth in their constituencies, to those who have 48 or 45 cases in their constituencies--they can appreciate the extent of the damage--or to those who have 12 or 15 cases: I pray to God that they do not get 130 cases in their constituency. I pray to God that it does not get into their cattle herds and cut a swathe through their area, as it is doing through my constituency tonight.

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Foot and mouth is now hitting farms in my constituency at the rate of more than 1 an hour: there have been 29 cases in the past 24 hours. I cannot count the number of sheep that have been slaughtered: it must be between 5,000 and 10,000. I give the numbers of cattle that have been slaughtered on individual farms: 152, 100, 184, 225, 320, 154, 150, 160, 157, 467, 425, 400, 205 and 870. Can colleagues imagine the cremation pyre for 870 prime cattle? What is happening in that part of north Cumbria tonight is almost unimaginable.

There will have to be a mega-inquiry after this. Today is not the day for recriminations. I could fill volumes with the stories that I have heard in the past few weeks on how the problem has been handled, but I wish to flag up a few issues. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has been right to say that the whole issue has been a shambles at times, but he should not put the blame solely on one official in Cumbria. It was on 5 March that I called for the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps to be called in to help. The help arrived only this week, 15 days later. On 8 March, I called for more resources and said that the situation was out of control in Cumbria. Two days later, the Minister said that everything was under control.

On 10 March, I called for more vets from around the world to be called in. I know the MAFF contingency plan--call up Commonwealth vets and some others through the vets network--but I thought that we needed more. On 11 March, I called for veterinary students to be mobilised and vets to be permitted to authorise killing without waiting for lab results. We are still sending 10 per cent. of tests for results. That is not necessary.

One Labour Member said that the vets had to make only one phone call, but one phone call to whom? Should they phone someone in Carlisle, or someone in London--someone who is not looking at the cattle and the sheep with the blisters? Why should a qualified vet have to phone anyone to say, "I have found cattle with blisters; it is foot and mouth," and then seek permission to authorise killing? It may only involve a matter of minutes for the vet to pick up the phone, but I suggest that the decision may take slightly longer.

On 13 March, I sent the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a ten-point plan. I say to the hon. Member for Workington that I sent it not to Carlisle, but directly to the Minister's office. In point 1, I said:


I urged the Minister to call the colleges as they, the universities and the schools would be going on holiday soon. Hundreds of student vets would be available, and we should get them in now.

I asked for the five-day quarantine ban on vets to be lifted; I referred to that as recycling dirty vets more quickly. I also said:


I understand that that is now under consideration, but I called for it on 13 March.

In point 2, I said that vets must be


I asked the Minister to let Ministry vets

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In point 3, I said:


That was a week ago and the length of time has come down considerably. It is now down to two or three days, but that is still far too long.

In point 4, I said:


I asked the Minister to give himself


In point 5, I called for the power to seal off minor roads; in point 6, I called for disinfectant zones to be created on major roads. In point 8, I said that all unnecessary activity in the heavily infected areas of the country should be stopped. In point 9, I called for the setting up of


Finally, I said that massive television and radio advertising should be used to warn and advise the public. Apparently, that will now happen, but I called for it on 13 March. On 14 March, I wrote to the Minister to beg him to grant Cumbria county council the power to close minor roads.

On 15 March--the famous Ides of March--we had the mistake of the Minister, when he included cattle. It is trendy these days for people to sue because of stress experienced for minor things. Last Thursday night in Cumbria, I could have found 10,000 farmers who would have sued for millions because of the stress that they suffered before the Minister had the decency, correctly, to go back on television and apologise for the mistake that had been made.

On 17 March, in desperation, I wrote to the Minister again. I said that there were now two things to do. The first was to appoint a supremo to take command in Cumbria. A team of experts should be sent there and control should be devolved. I believe that Jane Brown has arrived there today. I am grateful to the Government for listening to my suggestion.

I also called for the Army, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Logistic Corps to organise things. I said that there were plenty of civil contractors and that we did not need troops digging trenches; civil engineers could do that. In Cumbria, there are dozens of firms that are not allowed on to farms; agricultural drainage engineers and contractors cannot go near farms. Their plant is sitting idle and they desperately want to help. I concluded by saying that the appalling delay in Cumbria had been caused by a failure of the whole logistical back-up system to kill and to dispose of animals quickly enough.

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What we do not have in Cumbria--despite the Prime Minister's words today, I suspect that we will not have it by the end of the week--is the situation that I called for in my letter to the Minister. I said:


Is that wrong? Have I got that plan wrong? From my experience as a MAFF Minister; from my lay experience as an appointee, by this Government, to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; and from my knowledge as a junior officer in the Territorial Army, I know that there is a simple logistical task for the military to do. That task, understandably, was not for MAFF's qualified vets, who have their own speciality: diagnosing the disease and calling in the others.

Tonight, I am not confident, but we are slightly further down the road. So much time has been wasted, however. The disease has now reached epidemic proportions and a firestorm is sweeping through north Cumbria tonight. For the sake of our whole country, I say to those colleagues with one or two cases--or with 45, as the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) has in his area--and to others with ten or a dozen cases: I hope that we in Cumbria have a unique epidemic and that that hotspot will remain unique to us. I would not wish this on the rest of the country for a king's ransom.

We must have on-farm burials in Cumbria. I will not bore the House by reading out the letter that I sent the Minister for the Environment on Sunday, urging him to overrule his own Environment Agency and to permit on-farm burials. I also wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, urging him to overrule the Environment Agency. From all sides we have had demands to let burials on farms proceed. I know that that is MAFF policy; it has always been MAFF policy and it is the safest policy.

My criticism of the Government and of MAFF Ministers is that they should have had the courage to say that we faced a crisis of epidemic proportions and that, in most cases, there would be on-farm burial, except in a few cases where it was unsafe to do so. Cremation would then take over.

I beg the Minister not to use two council refuse tips in Cumbria--the waste tips at Hespin wood and Flusco quarry. Flusco quarry was going to be closed by the Environment Agency three years ago because it is a limestone quarry and even domestic garbage was leaking out. Now it has been lined with plastic and is to be sealed. A methane gas pipe is to be put in; if 6,000 sheep are put in it, it had better be a big pipe.

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We have 100 years of experience of what happens to animals when they rot in the ground. We have no experience of what happens when they are in a sealed--


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