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6.48 pm

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Following the contributions of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), none of us wants the maelstrom that has hit those areas to be visited on our rural areas.

In my constituency, as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in his opening statement, there is a concentration of the outbreak of foot and mouth. There are nine confirmed cases and others are suspected.

Three weeks ago, at the beginning of the outbreak, when the Forest of Dean was made an infected area due to the outbreak on the other side of the Wye valley in Herefordshire, I attended a planning meeting that included representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the police, the Forestry Commission, the district council, trading standards and emergency planning departments, as well as the commoners from the statutory Forest of Dean. At that meeting, I raised the important issue of sheep roaming free in the statutory Forest of Dean. We are not sure exactly how many sheep there are, but believe that there are about 5,000. They are grazed there by right of commoners or badgers.

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I asked whether the sheep would be mustered and penned together. The area of the forest is wide, and contains many towns and villages. I was told that there had been advice that it would not be good policy to muster the sheep since that would cause tremendous disturbance and disruption, which would increase the risk of spreading infection. I was told that only 40 per cent. of commoners had holdings elsewhere for sheep, which raised the difficulty of where the sheep would go. The forest enterprise could identify only five areas in the statutory forest that could be fenced in, and even they would create problems with grazing the animals. I made it clear that I would want to see someone take responsibility for the problem. I was told that responsibility for managing and checking the sheep, and for keeping them in the statutory forest area would, as it always had before, fall on the commoners themselves.

Since then, the situation has changed. At Coleford magistrates court today, Glyn Barclay, a badger, was tried at short notice and found guilty of allowing his sheep to roam free outside the statutory forest. Indeed, they were roaming down the A48. He was heavily fined, and the case was dealt with quickly to show its importance.

There has also been a confirmed outbreak in the village of English Bicknor, outside the statutory forest. A couple of weeks ago, free-roaming sheep went on to the farm in question from the statutory forest. The farmers were told by MAFF to pen those sheep separately and feed them. They did so, but have now had a confirmed outbreak of foot and mouth disease, although it arose not from a link with those sheep, but from a link with Ross market.

On Friday, at my surgery, a gentleman arrived breathless and late. He apologised, and said that he had been held up by a sheep truck. I said, "They can't be moving sheep around; how do you know there were sheep in it?" "I could see them," he said, and we realised that he was talking about an area inside the statutory forest where one of the commoners was moving sheep in an open truck.

In addition, there has been a confirmed case at a farm in Blakeney, which abuts the statutory forest, and we must consider the possibility that that will infect the sheep in the forest. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and the head of the planning team in Gloucestershire to ask them to reconsider the decision taken three weeks ago so that we can go ahead with mustering the forest's free-roaming sheep. We need those sheep to be properly managed, as they patently have not been to date. I want those 5,000 sheep checked to ensure that they do not have the disease, and we must be sure to protect the surrounding agricultural community.

It is clear that in recent weeks some--though not all--commoners have behaved irresponsibly. Indeed, MAFF has made it known to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that commoners have been obstructive in letting out their sheep at night. Such behaviour contrasts directly with the measures taken in the surrounding agricultural community. Other farmers are rigorously enforcing controls and taking every possible precaution.

I seek urgent reconsideration of this matter. The decision must be taken on the advice of experts, but since we have all suddenly become experts on foot and mouth, let it be left to real experts. The free-roaming sheep could cause a serious risk, although I appreciate that there has

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until now been no evidence that infection among any Forest of Dean flock has come from them. I do not ask for a cull, which would be a complete change of policy. At present, the sheep are clean, and a cull would also include deer in the forest. However, we must consider penning and controlling the sheep since the commoners are not doing so themselves.

In my area, as in all others, farmers are extremely anxious, and not only on the nine farms that have foot and mouth. Those farmers are at a loss to know what to do as they grieve the loss of their animals and businesses, some of which may have been built up over generations.

I have a few further issues to discuss, including concern about mixed messages from MAFF. There are problems with the website. Although it is excellent in part, I have been told that it is not updated frequently enough. Local farmers are finding out about outbreaks from the local news rather than the MAFF website. Nor is it precise enough. It will say, for example, as it did in a case last week, that there has been one on a farm near Lydney. That information was no good since the farm was in Purton, which is not near Lydney. Farmers need to know whether an outbreak is on the farm next door or 3 km away. The information on the website is not accurate enough.

I am also concerned about information for the general public. We have all become experts on foot and mouth, and I have heard some curious stories. One lady, for example, rang up to say that she knew that sheep in a nearby field had foot and mouth because all the baby lambs had pink legs. Lots of new-born lambs have pink legs, and it is not a sign of foot and mouth. Suddenly, however, everyone is an expert.

We need to put out more accurate information for the general public whom we are asking to play a part by keeping out of the countryside in infected areas and away from footpaths and the statutory forest. We need to make sure that people do not panic and build up myths that could damage our farming community and tourism industry. We need accurate information.

I want to touch on what is happening to other rural businesses in my constituency. The Forest of Dean is beautiful and unique, and it depends heavily on tourism. Indeed, it depends more on tourism than it does on livestock. Although I recognise that we must do absolutely all that we can to secure the future of the livestock industry by eradicating this dreadful disease, I do not want the tourism industry sacrificed.

Since 27 February, my area has been classified as infected. That creates punitive problems for businesses such as local pubs, outdoor centres, centres running canoe courses and the Newent bird of prey centre. All those places are either closed or serving few visitors. Cancellations have been made at our hostels and at all our caving centres. We must recognise that people can cope with a problem for a short time, but that they face cancellations not for now, but for June and July as schools pull out. We need much more support. We need not sympathy alone, but measures to tide businesses over until the affected area is cleared and we can open up the forest again.

The work of the taskforce must be widely publicised among businesses. I have been asked what the Government are doing and have said that the taskforce would report and that a transitional package would be put

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in place. But people do not know what is in that package, and I must point out that there has not been enough information even in the House of Commons Library about what the taskforce is doing.

I welcome, as small businesses will, deferrals of value added tax on businesses, the three-month business rate relief and support from the Small Business Service in the form of a loan guarantee scheme. All that is good, but we need more. The taskforce must go on meeting and making recommendations. That information needs to be disseminated to businesses close to infected areas so that they know what help they can obtain during this difficult period.

Many people in rural areas have made a terrific sacrifice. Although we welcome the work that is going on, the rural community--farmers and small businesses--must have clear messages both from MAFF and other Departments about how the Government are handling the matter and seeing it through, and about what we are doing to assist businesses in this dreadful situation.

7 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I want to raise some practical issues that affect my constituency. There is only one outbreak cluster in the area--in Hawes in North Yorkshire. Although my constituency does not have an outbreak, a large part of it is in an infected area, so the impact is strong.

My first concern is for farmers in an infected area who do not have the disease on their farms. They are heavily restricted and cannot sell or move their animals. Their cattle are going over the 30-month limit--cattle are often marketed at 28 or 29 months. There is a similar problem with lambs. When they push up their second teeth, they are sold as mutton and that can mean a 50 per cent. price discount.

Those farmers do not stand to receive compensation, but they are losing substantially because their animals are eating their capital, yet generating no revenue. The matter is serious. Those farmers are directly concerned. Will the Minister of State look urgently at that matter when she considers compensation? The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already said that compensation is needed in relation to the over-30-months scheme for cattle.

I want to draw attention to the problems of farmers whose ewes are away from the main farm. The Minister said that they have an option: they could repatriate the ewes voluntarily, provided that the animals were passing from an area of lesser infection to one of greater infection. In practice, there is little of the voluntary about that; many farmers have no real choice. Their ewes are in lamb in extraordinarily difficult circumstances--on small patches of land where little food is available. There is high mortality among ewes. The farmer cannot bury or dispose of the carcases. There is also high mortality among lambs. In my constituency, one farmer's ewes were eating ivy and so produced many dead lambs. If a farmer wants to bring his sheep home, the sheer hassle involved is almost prohibitive.

I understand why the regulations are in place, but the distances--as well as the series of journeys to get disinfectant--and the costs mean that in practice, for a

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farmer who is really concerned about animal welfare, the only sensible choice is slaughter. However, that farmer will not receive proper compensation: because his action is deemed voluntary, he will receive only two thirds of the price. A responsible farmer would not regard that as a voluntary choice. Will the Minister of State consider that matter seriously? The animal welfare implications are very real.

The most chilling remarks that I have heard in my constituency during the past few days have been from farmers who ring me up to say, "The best thing for us would be to get the disease on our farm. Then we'd get the proper compensation. We are suffering because we do not have the disease." There is only a short step from farmers who think that the restrictions are unreasonable or perverse and who are suffering because they are combating the disease to people who might be tempted to relax their guard or even, in marginal cases, attract the disease. The sheer frustration and anguish of farmers, their sense of vulnerability and foreboding, cannot be exaggerated.

It would help if the Minister of State explained why some of the exclusion zones have been drawn as they are. Around Hawes, they are extremely wide; they stretch 25 miles to Ripon, yet they are much shorter in other directions. There are some perverse lines on the map. I realise that one needs to identify proper traceable features, but farmers who are 25 miles away from an outbreak and under restriction know that other farmers only half that distance away are not under restriction. The Minister of State should consider local authorisation for the revision of those boundaries where that can be done sensibly and rationally so as to liberate some farmers. The older idea of drawing a circumference around affected areas might be considered.

I want to look ahead. At the end of this experience, we shall need to draw the threads together. I want to make a pre-emptive strike by noting three conclusions that I hope will not be drawn because they are entirely false.

The first is that the outbreak is all the fault of intensive farming. That is the greatest load of nonsense I have heard. As foot and mouth is endemic in the third world, yet the United States has managed to eliminate it entirely, it is difficult to argue that intensive farming generates the disease. That is a false and ridiculous conclusion.

The second false idea relates to abattoirs. There is a case for small, local abattoirs--but not on the grounds of animal health. The case for such abattoirs is that they serve a local market and meet a proper need. It is not to do with hygiene. We closed down many abattoirs, and many of them badly needed it. Between 10 and 15 years ago, Britain was heavily over-abattoired; there was much surplus capacity.

It is ironic that the disease was detected in an inspection of a modern, up-to-date abattoir. I am in favour of such abattoirs. Of course, small abattoirs have a role, but they, too, must be modern and up to date. Let us consider such abattoirs sensibly rather than in the context of the romantic folklore that, by definition, they are superior to what has replaced them.

The third false statement is that the outbreak is all the fault of the supermarkets. I regret that the Prime Minister made such silly remarks about supermarkets when he visited Gloucester recently. The supermarkets have probably done more to change the shape of the common

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agricultural policy and of agricultural development in the United Kingdom than any politician. By and large, they have done so for the better.

We must look to the future--the Minister of Agriculture talked about that. Many people will leave agriculture as a result of this experience. The average age of farmers in Britain is 59. Farmers will receive compensation if their animals are slaughtered. I accept that he has said that he has tried to make that compensation generous rather than otherwise, but for many farmers, it will be their retirement pension. He would be well advised to consider whether some modest outgoers scheme might not be a useful weapon to deploy at this stage, despite the arguments levelled against such schemes in the past.

We must also bear in mind the heavy costs of stock replacement. The Minister of Agriculture may be paying a good price for the cull, but that price probably comes nowhere near the replacement cost of the animals, simply because less stock will be available. Some farmers who are suffering now may do well soon if they have stock available for sale as replacement stock and a marketplace for it.

The shape of British agriculture will change dramatically; BSE did not change it, but foot and mouth will. It is inevitable that live animal exports will come under scrutiny. It will be difficult to resume them. I have supported such exports. My constituency earns a large part of its agricultural livelihood from sheep, and export plays a part. It will be difficult to resume exports, especially as only one vessel, the Farmers Ferry, is used. We may have to examine the practicalities involved. There will be consequences for the market. The Minister of Agriculture talked about the need to restore a functioning marketplace; those factors must be taken into the equation.

Scrutiny of live auction marts is also inevitable. I support them. In my constituency, where many farmers lead an isolated life, the mart is the one place where they meet other farmers. Indeed, if Government are looking for an instrument to tackle social exclusion, the live auction mart could play a major role in rural parts of the United Kingdom.

I realise that questions will be asked because of the problems of transmission, so the Government must think about what measures might be necessary to reassure people that the live auction system can continue, while eliminating any risk that might stem from them. At the same time, I believe that introducing a pause before traded animals can be dispersed is likely to be the inevitable consequence.

We will also need to consider meat imports. Meat can be imported from regions where foot and mouth does not exist, but from countries where it does, and many people will want to be reassured that the controls that govern the movement of that product in the country of origin are strong enough to enable us to have confidence in that trade. If we regionalised the United Kingdom and had regions that were free of the disease, I doubt very much whether it would be easy to export our products on the basis that some of our regions were free of foot and mouth when it was endemic in others.

The disease will accelerate the trend away from support for production towards support for the public good. Even before this crisis, the question for farmers was what they

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should do in a society that is well-off and well fed, that has no problems with food security and that is mobile and environmentally conscious. The answer is that they will have to move to new marketplaces, going up the food chain and producing better food. They will also have to move to recreational and environmental markets.

We, the other parts of society, must define what we want in terms of the public good and what we are willing to pay to achieve that public good--a more difficult problem. We should have that sensible debate sooner rather than later, as it would take us entirely in the direction that the previous Government and this Government have been going, to try to move away from supporting production to defining agriculture in the wider rural context. That is the sensible way forward.

Finally, the Government are taking the right actions, but there is a danger that they will lose the argument because of the problems involved in implementing them. If an animal is slaughtered and disposed of rapidly, that is better than if it hangs around. Putting right the practice is an important element of winning the arguments of principle involved in the Government's actions, and I am sure that they will observe that importance.

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