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8.35 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): When I last spoke in a debate on this subject, my speech preceded that of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). He made some nice remarks about me, and until the last minute of his speech tonight, I had intended to make some nice remarks about him. I could go along with nearly all he said during the first 11 minutes, but that last minute contained remarks that could be described as a little far-fetched.

This has been a sombre debate, as indeed it needed to be. It has also been an honest debate. However, some of us become riled by accusations based on the idea of town versus country. Many of us represent what I would describe as semi-rural areas, which contain urban centres in the form of market towns but which also feature a rural hinterland in the villages and the surrounding land, most of which is farmland.

At times such as this, it behoves everyone to try to bring people together. I have been genuinely impressed by some sharing of ideas about strategy and by the attempts of politicians on both sides of the divide to find some hope in what has been happening. There is no case for politicking: many people look to this place for leadership, and they will not find it if we are seen to be bickering and point scoring.

We are going through an emotional time, and we have heard some moving speeches. I pay special tribute to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), whose constituencies are at the centre of the catastrophe.

We are, in fact, talking about three separate parts of the agricultural environment. There are the hot spots--Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, and Devon. There are a number of other areas in which infectivity is present, and must be dealt with through a range of measures. Then there is the rest of the country, which may have experienced the odd case but to which we are trying to

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restore some normality. We are, however, sharing common worries and calling together for the cohesive action that is needed.

If there is any lesson that we can learn from today's debate, it is this. It is not necessarily the case that mistakes have been made, but there have been problems in the way in which policies have evolved, and in the way in which decisions were--or should have been--made.

We should recognise, following what was said by my right hon. Friend the Minister, that more bad news seems likely, but as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar sensibly said, the disease is difficult to predict. There have been two outbreaks in my constituency, and there is no rhyme or reason as to why those holdings suffered and others have not. Pray God the others will not suffer, but there is a measure of uncertainty about how the disease begins to take hold, which makes coming up with solutions that much more difficult--if, that is, we are to avoid the most drastic solution, which is the "clean ring", or proactive culling.

There is much that we should try to do in regard to the science of the problem. Some of that is for the future, but we need to use some science today to learn how to discover further outbreaks as quickly as possible, to implement a slaughter policy, and--this seems to be, in many respects, the most difficult aspect--to dispose of animals in the right way.

Alongside the science of dealing with the disease are all the usual problems over money and compensation. It may be of secondary importance, but we fool ourselves if we regard it as being of no importance. Unfortunately, for all sorts of reasons, people haggle.

As I said in an intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), there was some criticism of the work of valuers in the other place. I have talked to valuers and they have fiercely defended their position and the way in which they work under pressure. They seem to be paid more than vets from private practice, and perhaps that needs to be changed, but we need all those people in place.

It is not a question of MAFF doing all the work, with the help of the Army and other public servants. We are indebted to the private service and must try to make that relationship work as well as it can. When I talk about the public service, it is important to remember local government, as I have tried to do whenever I have spoken, because it has done an amazing amount of good work.

I want to talk about agriculture because that is the issue that most affects me and we should, I suppose, concentrate on it, but like every other hon. Member in an affected area where there is infectivity, I know that other parts of our environment and the context in which people live their lives are being drastically affected. I have in my constituency the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust centre at Slimbridge, which for the past two weeks has been closed. An organisation that relies almost entirely on people coming through the door--I accept that there is some charitable giving on top of that--is day after day incapable of opening. It has staff with whom it does not know what to do. Should it get them to do some tidying up or research, or should it lay them off? Those are the dramatic, drastic decisions that people face in those areas.

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I am indebted to MAFF because it has helpfully clarified the position with regard to whether such organisations should be open or closed. That makes a lot of difference in respect not only of loss of revenue in the immediate future, but of possible insurance claims and of how to re-gear. Businesses based around other wildlife face a tricky transitional period in getting the public back into their facilities again. It will perhaps not be as tricky as restocking will be for our farmers, but it is a difficult exercise that must be thought through carefully. People will need monetary help as well as advice on how to do it.

Other hon. Members have spent some time going through the antecedents of the disease. I can make suppositions only on the basis of what we appear to know about where it came from, the implications of that and the way in which it has spread throughout the country. My hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) both talked about the movement of animals throughout the country. We need to consider carefully whether those movements are excessive and whether we should demand that animals stay in situ for longer.

Whether one thinks that that was a causal feature or an effect, the nature of the movement of sheep in particular has added to the seriousness of the outbreaks. I do not mind saying that we must question at least some of the ways in which dealers operate. Perhaps they feel that they are in the frame to take too much of the blame. They will in due course have the opportunity, through the media and in other ways, to defend their position.

From talking to farmers--dealers are, in their own way, farmers--I know that there is some question about whether we have gone too far in allowing such movement to take place. That leads us to questions about the food chain. Clearly, sheep are not traceable in the way that cattle and pigs are. More particularly, we must look at the centralisation of the food chain and how we move animals nationally and internationally. Some animals were exported to France and had to be slaughtered.

I want to look forward. We know the difficulties of the current situation and we feel great sorrow for those who are affected and in the depths of despair. However, we will see the problem through and get on top of foot and mouth. In so doing, we must recognise that, in reconstructing the industry, we must learn some lessons. There may be some value in re-engineering a localised food chain that locks into what the consumer seems to want. That is not a call for a drastically different food chain, but one that is in tune with what the customer wants. That will involve different production and distribution methods, which cannot come too soon.

We must examine how MAFF has performed. There seems to be agreement across the House that it has handled the basic strategy well, but there are points of detail, particularly in the hot spots. I heard what was said by hon. Members from Cumbria, where things are very difficult. There is an issue about the command-and-control structure and the way in which MAFF can give information. We can learn from that and get on top of the disease. We must look outwards and onwards, as that is what our farmers want at this time.

8.47 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise some matters of great importance to my constituents. We have cases of foot and

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mouth and, as in many other constituencies, the farming community is on tenterhooks. The pressure on farms--particularly the small family farms in my constituency, which is a livestock area--is enormous. I hope that, as the days go by, we will hear about the ways in which the Government are addressing the issues raised tonight and on earlier dates by hon. Members because the present situation needs to be changed.

In my area, slaughtered animals have been left in fields for up to a week before removal. However, it is not just that they lie in the fields. They are attacked by vermin, and that is a matter of great concern in terms of the spreading of the disease. Of course, moving animals that have been lying in that condition for a week is a very unpleasant task. Anyone who knows what happens to an animal post mortem will know that. There is also an added risk in terms of what is spread when the animals are moved.

Ministers have heard pleas from both sides of the House. It is essential that animals be disposed of immediately they are slaughtered. The plan must be there and put into action. Members on both sides have called for the Army to be more actively involved. In Devon, it has been deployed this week, but not for the purpose of overseeing the removal and disposal of animal carcases.

I have heard the arguments against burial on farms. Clearly, there are some farms and parts of farms where burial would be highly inappropriate, particularly because of leaching, contamination and the level of the water table. However, farmers know their land, and I believe that carcases could be disposed of on-farm in many cases. In that way, we could speed up the system and allow vets to be released to do other work. That would make a significant difference, as the task of overseeing the disposal of animals could well be left to the armed forces.

The Minister of Agriculture said that the problem was likely to get worse. The figures in my area show that it is getting worse every day. We must therefore make big changes in how we tackle the slaughter of animals and the disposal of carcases.

I intervened on the Minister earlier about a case in my constituency involving the welfare of pigs, and I was grateful for his response. People in this country say that they care about animal welfare, but they would be appalled if they could see some of the critical problems on-farm. The pig industry especially is in great distress, as animals are growing in size and are densely stocked. On welfare grounds, therefore, something must be done to help pig herds.

The scheme introduced last Thursday has a proper structure. Matters to do with compensation remain to be discussed, but I reiterate a plea that I have made before: will the Ministry please allow animals to be slaughtered on veterinary certification alone? We could then deal with the rest of the bureaucracy and the payments afterwards. Such an approach is justified on welfare grounds, and it would mean that we could start to sort out some of the pig industry's problems tomorrow.

I want to pay tribute to Mrs. Jean Turnbull of the National Pig Association. Her telephone number has been circulated around the country, so that pig farmers undergoing a great deal of stress and worry can ring her, day or night. She has also given out her mobile number for the same reason. All hon. Members who have had to deal with some distressing cases in the past two weeks

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will have appreciated the fact that people like Jean Turnbull have offered their support in helping to talk people through their problems.

We should not underestimate the stress that the farming community is going through. It is tragic and difficult for people to come to terms with the slaughter of their animals, but hon. Members from all parties have noted that the problem is not confined to them. Families waiting to see whether they are going to be the next to suffer are also under stress. For instance, a lady telephoned in the morning a week ago last Sunday as I was peeling the vegetables, saying that she just had to talk to someone. That illustrates the stress that families are going through.

The consequence of the outbreak for many people will be that they will lose their farms. Tenant farmers in my constituency tell me that they will have nothing if they lose all their stock. Many of them are close to retirement, and do not have the years in front of them in which they can rebuild. Even if they were given the money tomorrow, the experience has knocked the stuffing out of people of that older generation. I therefore urge the Minister of State to look at what can be done to help those who want to leave farming, and to give hope to the younger generation who will have to face the challenge of restocking and starting again under the most severe of circumstances.

It will be a long time before farms can be restocked. People's financial problems arising from the loss of stock will be exacerbated by the fact that there will be a long lead time before they can restock and get going again.

All hon. Members pray that the outbreak ends as soon as possible, but the reality is that it will not just disappear. The problem will remain for some months to come. Even when the last case has been dealt with, there will be a long period of restructuring and reorganisation before farms can get back into business.

I also ask the Minister of State to address the situation, particularly in the west country, where there are animals that could be slaughtered for the food chain now. I was encouraged to hear the figures on how the amount of meat in various species is increasing in terms of its distribution through the food chain.

I am particularly concerned about the sheep industry and about getting more sheep into the food chain. This is the time of year when thousands of animals, known in the west country as hoggets, are ready for the table. They are about a year old and have been fattened up. We need those animals to come to slaughter and to enter the food chain. Has the Ministry considered whether there may be a case for intervention if the meat from animals that are slaughtered for the food chain is not immediately taken into the food chain? That would give farmers some hope.

Some farmers are having difficulty feeding their stock. Mr. Lee, in Sandford in my constituency, has a feed bill of £4,000 a week, but no income. Mr. Hill, who farms a smaller farm in Ashley, has a feed bill of £1,000 a week, but no income. Farmers are extremely worried about how they will continue to feed their animals. Has MAFF considered contingency arrangements for emergency feedstuffs when the feed runs out, as it certainly will for some of my farmers in the next couple of weeks? They will not be able to buy feed for their animals because they cannot pay for it, which is very distressing.

Much has been said about bureaucracy. I know only too well how difficult it is to get wheels turning as quickly as one would like on occasions. However, a little more

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flexibility would help. In my constituency, for example, there is a very small, minor country road going through a farm. It is between Uplowman village and Stag Mill. The local villagers have, by consent, decided not to use the road through the farm because there is an alternative lane that can easily be used to bypass it. They do not want to put the farm at risk. The "road closed" signs put up by the villagers were taken down by the authorities, and they were told that they would be fined if they did it again. That is surely bureaucratic nonsense.

I have not phoned the Minister's office about the matter because I know that she has a lot of very difficult cases to deal with and that a lot of people are ringing her. However, where common sense prevails in a local community whose members want to protect the local farm, surely that common sense can be respected, without the need for an official to take the signs down. After all, it will not inconvenience anybody. That is an indication of the enormous concern and respect felt in the rural community for farms. The problem affects the whole countryside.

We have heard much this week about alternative industries in the rural areas connected with farming--perhaps not the most obvious ones--that are affected. I ask the Minister of State, as many hon. Members have tonight, to clarify what is meant by access to the countryside. I confess that I would be hard-pressed to advise a constituent what it really means. It is not sufficient to say that people should not go near grazing animals in fields. We all know that the disease can be transmitted on the wheels of vehicles and by people. Although human beings are not affected by the disease, they can carry it, so there is a certain nervousness in rural communities, which understand these things, about what is meant by access to the countryside.

A lady in my constituency has just invested her life savings in a fishing tackle shop, yet people cannot go out into the countryside to fish--

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