Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.5 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I shall try to follow the example of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and keep my remarks short.

Like many rural MPs, I have been approached by many farmers who are very worried about the outbreak. On one occasion, two farmers' wives "hijacked" me into their car as I walked down the street. They wanted to press the concerns that I hope to get on the record now. Obviously, the Minister of State may not be able to address all my points; if so, I hope that MAFF will consider the details and write to me.

I want to associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who made a general case about all farmers and the economic plight that they are suffering, whether or not they are directly affected by the disease. I want also to associate myself with comments made by other hon. Members about the wider community.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) rightly raised the issue of consequential costs, which the Government will have to confront. We are discussing a major crisis that has hit an industry that was already on its knees, and which was blighted by so many other problems that it simply could not take on board the consequential losses of the outbreak. I join in expressing sympathy for people in the area represented by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and in neighbouring constituencies. Many of them have been devastated by the disease, and I thank him for expressing the wish that the rest of us will not face such serious problems.

I am disappointed that even when Ministers say that welfare movements will be improved, it takes time for such changes to be made. Once the hope has been prompted that a measure will be introduced to help in dealing with the crisis, it must be delivered as quickly as possible if farmers' morale is to be kept up. They sit at home and see the issues being reported, but then find that they are not necessarily arriving on the ground.

Many people are anxious about the quality of imports and have asked about their control and inspection. Labelling is a related concern. It is extremely disappointing for farmers to hear about carcases entering

21 Mar 2001 : Column 416

the country to be butchered here and then turn up as British meat in the supermarket, especially when they have met far higher quality standards than the producers of that imported meat and have paid proper attention to disease and to human health.

If licensed movement is to work for the farmers, proper capacity is required in the abattoirs. Farmers have told me about their worry that the imports of foreign meat that arrived during the complete close-down have reduced the available capacity to make such licensed movement work. What are the Government doing to monitor the abattoirs' capacity and their ability to provide an outlet at the other end of the process? If such measures are to relieve farmers' problems, abattoirs must be able to process the stock.

Abattoirs have raised with me another serious concern. They are worried about how long they will have to close down for if they open up to take licensed movements but end up receiving infected animals. The risk of closing down for a month--the time scale applied for many closures--and suffering the consequent damage is not one that they are willing to take. That risk is especially great with regard to sheep, whose symptoms are less obvious.

I heard on the phone recently about worries in respect of the fact that some flocks have been traced back to the market very late in the process. Farmers who are trying to protect their herds want reassurance that information on where every movement has ended up is now out in the open. They do not want suddenly to find that a nearby flock carries a high risk and that they have not been able to take extra precautions.

Let us consider the wider lessons and the way in which we can deal with some the problems of movement. One farmer made the point that if we are going to create producer co-operatives, reduce movements and introduce electronic auctions, farmers need to have more confidence in the grading at abattoirs. Any sizeable producer co-operative will have to use more than one abattoir. Such producers will not get a choice of abattoirs, but if they opt out of the co-operative, they can choose the abattoir where the grading is most sympathetic to the supplier. I have raised that point with Ministers and the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Farmers have made the valid point that if they have no confidence in the grading system, they will not happily auction animals electronically to any old abattoir for a price that can be downgraded when the animals arrive. For farmers to reduce movements and ensure that the system is working efficiently, they must have confidence in the grading system.

I want to emphasise the strain on those farmers who are not yet directly affected. That is a problem throughout the country. It is vital that we learn lessons from the crisis. Clearly, most of MAFF's energy must be directed at containing and controlling the outbreak. However, it must also try to learn how to avoid a recurrence. We cannot go through such a crisis again. If the original trigger is not identified, fully understood and placed on the record as soon as possible, we cannot be confident that we will have the necessary precautions for avoiding a recurrence.

I stress to the media the importance of balance. It is difficult for them to deal with a continuing crisis that takes time to develop, because they need a new story or angle all the time. The fire-break strategy caused a media feeding frenzy about the slaughter of healthy animals. An

21 Mar 2001 : Column 417

outbreak of any disease on a farm means that all animals on the farm are slaughtered. Some may be healthy at the time, but all animals must be slaughtered to contain the disease. The fire-break strategy is simply an extension of that, because the disease is not easily contained or easily detectable. Rather than referring to the slaughter of healthy animals, the media should use the phrase "apparently healthy". The strategy is being used to remove infectivity from the flock.

I especially remember Kevin Bouquet revealing the journalist's lack of perspective when he nearly began a report by saying, "They are about to murder"--before correcting himself and using the word "slaughter". There must be perspective in reporting the outbreak if the wider public are to understand and embrace the strategy.

Obviously, I cannot meet farmers groups now. However, in meetings between representatives of NFU branches, Members of Parliament and Members of the Scottish Parliament, and with individual farmers, I have been impressed by the energy with which they try to understand the wider issues that affect their industry and the complexities that surround them. Often, when I am on a platform and one farmer confronts me with a question that is almost impossible to answer, another mentions the complex reason for a certain regulation, for instance, before I have a chance to try to reply.

Farmers live and breathe their industry. Farming is not a nine-to-five job; it takes over farmers' lives. The crisis deeply affects them and their families. The nature of the disease controls means that their natural support networks are not there. I hope that the wider community understands how seriously they are affected, and that the Government recognise the importance of tackling the crisis, and of taking every possible measure to contain it now. I urge them on in their actions. They must accept some of the anxieties about implementation and the need to take advice from the Army. They must take their action forward because the disease must be tackled quickly, efficiently and effectively if the strain is to be removed from all our farmers and the wider community.

8.14 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith), who speaks with great authority about the experience in Scotland, and to follow other hon. Members who have spoken with passion about the serious predicament that faces the country. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) told especially disturbing stories and spoke very well.

I did not expect to attend a debate in the House today, because I had made plans to be in my constituency to share a platform with the Archbishop of Wales. I regret that I am not able to do that, but I am sure that people will appreciate the necessity of my being here to speak on behalf of the farmers of Monmouthshire.

Until last Friday, we had had a few scares, but no outbreaks in Monmouthshire. Last Friday, the first case was confirmed on a small farm in Grosmont near the Hereford border. The outbreak in Llancloudy in Herefordshire meant that movement across much of Monmouthshire was restricted. The case in Grosmont sent a shudder through Monmouthshire farmers, who expressed to me the anxieties that I shall outline.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 418

Although the outbreak in Grosmont was confirmed on Friday, the stock was not slaughtered until Monday. I took that up with the Ministry vet in Cardiff, who informed me that the infected stock were killed over the weekend, but local farmers dispute that. I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to make inquiries at the National Assembly for Wales about that.

Neighbouring farmers say that they were not formally notified of the case and they believe that communications have not been as good as Ministers said they ought to be. There has been a suspect case at the neighbouring farm of Mr. David Probert, who was chairman of the Monmouthshire branch of the National Farmers Union until a couple of years ago. He shot the suspect sheep immediately and put them in bags. He is now awaiting, with some trepidation, confirmation of an outbreak. I have discussed those matters with Mr. David Thomas, the Ministry vet in Cardiff, and I appreciate his help, advice and willingness to speak to local farmers.

I recently spoke to a pig farmer in my constituency. We have few pig farms in Monmouthshire, but Mr. Whittal-Williams informed me that there are 3,000 pigs currently on his farm. At this stage, he would normally have only 2,000. The extra pigs are overweight and growing rapidly. They cannot be housed adequately, they are fighting each other and some have even fallen into the slurry pit and drowned. That is an especially disturbing animal welfare case. Mr. Whittal-Williams feels incredibly frustrated that he cannot either get the pigs to abattoirs, which will not take them anyway, or get them destroyed on animal welfare grounds and be compensated. I welcome the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that animal welfare considerations for slaughtering such pigs will be in force as quickly as possible.

In recent discussions in my constituency with the NFU and the Farmers Union of Wales representatives expressed anxiety about the welfare of sheep in Monmouthshire, about the need to move lambing ewes indoors, and about farms that are divided by the restricted area boundary. Farmers cannot bring their sheep from one part of the farm to another because the boundary runs through it. They also want to be able to bring home sheep that are on tack, so I am glad that licences are available for that. I am grateful for the representations that farmers have made to me and for being able to convey them to Ministers.

Farmers have expressed anxiety about dealers who buy and sell livestock around the country and put small groups of livestock together. As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said, a 28-day restriction on livestock movement could help to prevent such outbreaks.

Farmers have also expressed frustration over the role allocated to the Army and hon. Members have spoken of the need to involve the Royal Engineers. I have in my constituency the senior Territorial Army regiment in the country: the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers. They go out on exercises every month.

Next Section

IndexHome Page