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7.12 pm

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): It is rather ironic that I should follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) in the debate, as we have recently been to Poland together, where he inveigled me into talking about agriculture for much of the time, when I wanted to talk about the chemical industries and the development of information technology, which are my natural interests.

Some might not have predicted that I would take part in this debate, given that Falkirk, East is mostly an industrial and residential constituency, but I can claim some credentials because, between 1980 and 1990, when 10 per cent. of the beef farmers in the Forth valley area went out of business for economic reasons, they came to me, as leader of the council, and we struck up a very good dialogue which continued between 1992 and 1997. When they came to the House to lobby they would see me, even though I was the Member for Falkirk, East, because they did not seem to receive much of a hearing from the former Member for Stirling.

The new Member for that constituency, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), has a very close relationship with the farming community, but she has been rostered to sit on the Whips Bench today. However, we have been talking about the issue, and I know that she is in close contact with the farming and tourist industries in Stirling.

Although Falkirk, East is mostly an industrial and residential constituency, it has a hinterland, as do all constituencies, except those in cities. Sadly, that hinterland contains two farms at which foot and mouth has been suspected during the recent outbreak. I told the farmer and his family that I would mention their plight today. Although their animals have not suffered from foot and mouth, outsiders might think that they would be better compensated if they had, as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has suggested, because it seems that they will receive no compensation for the losses that they suffered when their farm was embargoed and movements frozen while it was under inspection.

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The farmer's mother and wife came to see me at the weekend, and they were in a rather emotional condition. They are concerned about the hard work of a young, enterprising farmer, who is under 50--well below the average age of 59. He decided to diversify in what seemed to be the right way. In fact, he became a haulier, stocker and wholesale sheep dealer for abattoirs, the markets and the supermarkets. He had a well-worked-out business plan, and he seemed to be doing very well until the recent outbreak.

Although some sniping and posturing has occurred, most of the debate has been enlightening, intelligent and balanced. It does not help farmers if hon. Members try to score points rather than settling down together to work in a bipartisan manner to solve what is a massive problem for them.

I want to raise the issue of consequential loss. It is clear that there is a spectrum of claims. That spectrum includes matters far removed from farming and the breeding and rearing of animals, but I hope that farmers and those in farming-related enterprises, directly linked to the production and distribution of animals, will be treated slightly differently from those who may also suffer, but have a tenuous link to the industry because they happen to be in the rural environment.

The problem occurred as a consequence of something that happened on the farms. As a non-farmer who does not come from a farming community, I have to say that it happened because of something done by a farmer. Someone did something in the farm food chain that caused the disease to spread. All the people whose livelihoods depend on farming should be considered to be victims of that act. I heard the Minister say that one of his aims was to put more money into farmers' pockets, and he said that the Government will consider whether more can be done.

I want to relate the story of the Stewart family of Drum farm in Bo'ness. They are a young family who had broken away from rearing animals, by fattening sheep for four weeks before market. Those who know about farming understand that that involves feeding high-protein cake. Although the cake is expensive, those who use it normally get their reward in the end because they can sell lean sheep at a good price. The family purchases for abattoirs on a wholesale basis and they offer overnight lairage for local abattoirs. They also buy sheep to sell on to the supermarkets.

The family also owns a livestock haulage firm, running eight lorries. Theirs is a small firm, not a large concern, but they employ 11 men. At the weekend, it was remarkable to hear them say that they were really worried in case they had to lay off any of those people because they had been very loyal. Their firm was clearly haemorrhaging cash, but they did not want to make anyone suffer who had shown them loyalty as they changed from being farmers and breeders and developed their new business.

The family owed 6,330 sheep the day before the foot and mouth outbreak. I am told that the sheep were worth £2.50 a kilo before the foot and mouth outbreak, but the family gets just £1.75 a kilo for the sheep now that they have been released from their incarceration and can take the beasts to market. That represents a cash loss of more

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than £90,000 to that business. A bank manager would need to be very understanding to be happy that a business had lost that amount of money in such a short period. That money will be not recoverable unless the Government seriously consider compensation.

During the 10 days that it took for the family to get the all clear, when they were almost locked in, they had to bring in feed in bags because no one could take feed to the farm in large lorries. They keep sheep at a number of places in my constituency, and they had to take medical supplies to all those animals, some of which were suffering because they had been kept long beyond the day that they should have gone to market.

I commend the family on being very enterprising. Now that they have been allowed to move, they have started to take small herds of sheep from smaller farms directly to the local abattoir, and they are involved in the secondary business of moving the carcases to supermarkets. They are trying to recover some of their losses, but they are not getting anything like the money that they should. If we say that such consequential losses should be written off, I am sure that that would be the tip of the iceberg. All the other Members whose constituencies contain many sheep farms and other types of farms that are also frozen under the embargo will say that they are also losing out and that it will be a long time, if ever, before they recover.

My plea to the Government is that they treat businesses such as that run by the Stewart family as direct farming units and compensate them as direct farming units. If we do not do that, we are saying that it is better to have beasts with foot and mouth slaughtered than it is to do what the Stewart family did. They showed a real public concern. I understand that only one sheep was ill and that they had been to many markets, but not to the Longtown market in the borders. They called in the local vet, who did not know whether the sheep had foot and mouth--he did not know what was wrong. Therefore, he decided to call in the MAFF vet.

As soon as the MAFF vet stepped on to the farm and took a test, the two farms that the family use were embargoed and locked off for 10 days. The fact that the family did their public duty cost them money. It is therefore rather odd to hear from the media that the Government will not compensate them because their losses are consequential. I would say that they are direct losses.

Mr. Stewart asked me to pass on a few thoughts on the wider issues. The first relates to proper washing and disinfecting at markets. The Stewarts' haulage firm has full wash-bay facilities that are often used by other people hauling back and forward to the market in Edinburgh. Although it is probably a matter for the Scottish Parliament, and I do not know how it happened, I have been told that the wash-bay facilities have been taken out of one of the markets in Edinburgh because the sewage did not conform to the environmental health regulations. That seems rather strange. Instead of moving the market or upgrading the treatment facilities, the wash bay was removed. That does not suggest that the people who run the market have much concern for public health. I hope that that matter will be considered either here or in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Stewart feels strongly about the second point that he made. He said:

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I am sure that he meant "like British lamb", and he adds:

I heard my right hon. Friend the Minister say that we will crack down on the illegal importation of meat. Clearly, that is very welcome.

On the next point, I disagree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. Mr. Stewart said that the marketing structure had been extremely fragile for many small farmers and small hauliers, and the market had become far too dependent on large farming and hauling enterprises. Small farmers had to take the price given, and that probably would not sustain them. Mr. Stewart thought that he had found a niche market in which his small haulage firm could sustain a large number of small farmers. It would provide good value for money and he would give them good rates for haulage, lairage and so on. The outbreak has thrown the situation into chaos and he said that we must consider seriously how we can help small hauliers and small farms to sustain their contribution to agriculture. I agree that the smaller farmer seems to be more concerned about the quality of the product rather than the number of the beasts that they turn out.

I wish to quote the conclusion of my letter to my right hon. Friend the Minister, because I hope that the Government will take this point very seriously. I wrote:

If we do not, we shall be seen as not having treated the whole farming industry in a proper manner.

I end my remarks with an ironic story. Mr. Stewart has a close friendship with another haulier who comes from the Cumbria area. His animals were found to have foot and mouth, and he is looking to buy a farm in Scotland when he receives his compensation. That is a crazy indictment of the way in which compensation is being paid.

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