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9.19 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in the debate, because the issue is of grave concern to my constituents. I apologise that I could not be present in the House earlier, but I sent a note to the Speaker's Office to explain that I had a long-standing constituency engagement.

I returned to the House because the issue is so important. Seven cases of foot and mouth disease have been found in my constituency--one bordering the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and six in a hotspot in the Leigh and Bramshall area.

The disease is devastating for people who are directly affected by it and, as many hon. Members have said, it is desperately worrying for those who farm close by. However, it is not just farmers who are under a great strain. The local cattle market in my constituency has closed, which has had a knock-on effect on the retail trade in the market town of Uttoxeter. It has also meant that the Friday retail market, which takes place on the cattle market site, no longer takes place and Uttoxeter race course has closed. Sadly, the local abattoir has had to close, with 15 men being laid off.

Local businesses that are also in difficulty include those that one would not expect to be affected, such as the glass works in Tutbury. Not only is that firm missing the tourism trade, but it is losing out on orders for competition prizes because those are not taking place. Hopefully, as a

21 Mar 2001 : Column 433

result of yesterday's announcement by the Minister for the Environment, the canals will reopen. That will help a local company that produces a superb book on canals.

Like many hon. Members, I welcome yesterday's statement. It is desperately important that we do not accept that all the countryside is out of bounds. It is not. However, we must be careful about where we allow people to go in our countryside. The most important consideration is to tackle foot and mouth.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) mentioned Cheshire. I grew up on a farm there, and I know what it was like when there were outbreaks of foot and mouth. My father had just moved over the border into Staffordshire when the 1967 outbreak occurred. Thankfully, my family's farm never suffered from foot and mouth, but the fear that we might have been next is very real in my memory. It was different then because Cheshire had mainly dairy herds.

Blame has been placed on the lack of abattoirs. It is true that there are fewer of them, but one of the greatest problems is the movement of livestock, especially sheep, around the country and into different markets. That was the source of the outbreak in Leigh. Farmers from that area have contacted me because they are worried about the way in which the disease is being handled. There is concern that the disease is hidden in sheep. One farm, which has now had foot and mouth diagnosed in its cattle, was checked by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for several weeks because it had sheep from Longtown market. However, those sheep have not tested positive.

People are deeply worried that sheep in areas where there are also cattle may be the hidden source of future outbreaks in cattle. I have received requests, which I have conveyed to the Minister's office, for the introduction of a voluntary disposal system so that people who are prepared to give up their sheep within two miles of an outbreak are allowed to do so. I hope that that is given serious consideration.

We must also carry out a risk assessment of the possible causes of future outbreaks. No doubt much of the disease is spread by the wind, but the problem is compounded because foot and mouth is not easily identifiable in sheep. Perhaps cases were identified quickly in Cheshire because the disease was predominantly in cattle.

One of the main points that farmers have raised with me and, I am sure, many other Members, is that we must try to speed up the time between identifying the disease and disposing of carcases. That is crucial for disease control and for environmental reasons, and also because, otherwise, people are living on farms alongside dead animals.

Another issue that has been raised with me is closure, which I understand will be for six months. It means not only that farmers cannot have animals on the farm for that time, but that they will be unable to produce hay and silage. Farms that close now because of foot and mouth disease will need fodder for animals when they are allowed to return.

I know that the Government are doing everything possible to look at how the system can be improved. In the end, sadly, the disease will run its course, but I hope that we can put an end to it far quicker than we did in 1967.

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9.25 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I commend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for the way in which he opened the debate. He was correct to say that this is not a party political matter, and he handled it as such. Indeed, how could it be a party political matter? We all agree on the problem, which is foot and mouth, and we all agree on the solution, which is eradication.

The right hon. Gentleman's remarks were in contrast to those made by the Leader of the House yesterday, perhaps by way of a slip, when she said that animals were in quarantine, not people. Two farmers who telephoned me today after hearing that were extremely frightened by the implications, but that is not the tone in which the Minister conducted the debate and I am grateful to him for it.

It is essential that country people have confidence in the way in which the system is operating. The Minister may find it unpleasant to know this, but he must understand that there is a lack of confidence in the far south-west about some aspects of the situation. Time does not allow me to quote correspondence in great detail, but one farmer who wrote to me, Roderick Young, said that the tenants of a particular farm

He concluded:

He makes a good point.

If we have 108,000 animals waiting to be slaughtered and 80,000 waiting to be disposed of, we are not there yet. That is why I wish that the Minister had been able to consider using the Army in a different way. Nobody suggests that the Army should go boar hunting in Essex, but it does have expertise, through the engineers, in performing tasks such as burial, and it would be well capable of doing that. I shall not ask the Minister to assent to my next comment because I do not think that he will like what follows. I suspect that he might have some sympathy with what I am saying, but the Army is not being used in that way because the Prime Minister knows that if it were, the cat would be right out of the bag and people would realise that this is a national crisis that goes far beyond the regions that are affected.

As this is a national crisis, we have gone far beyond mere talk of compensation. We must realise that we are talking not about compensating individuals, but about the need for massive infrastructural input to ensure that whole regions do not simply crash out of economic prosperity altogether.

In the hope that many of the hon. Members who have been here for some time will be able to contribute to the debate, I shall make my final point. We must look at control. The Agriculture Minister will remember an exchange with me on 1 February, when I put it to him that when there is good, solid evidence abroad about unsafe meat coming into this country, it is not a sufficient response to say that to act in those circumstances might be considered anti-European. The one point that is common ground between us--the Minister has always had the courage and grace to admit it--is that this condition came from overseas, and whatever other conclusions we come to, we need to look at our importation controls.

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9.29 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I have nothing but praise for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He has treated the House with great courtesy and patience and he has tried to be as helpful as possible. The substance of all his remarks today and on previous occasions is that we want national unity to tackle this crisis. He said also that we want to have a Parliament that he can report to regularly. It would be an absolute scandal if a Government with 14 months of their mandate left, a massive majority and now a national crisis to add to their other unfinished business, plunged the country into an unnecessarily premature general election. That would be a great disservice. The Prime Minister's remarks this afternoon gave me the impression that he was not fully apprised of the great national calamity facing us. He talked with a glib assurance that was deeply disturbing and in marked contrast to the tone adopted by his right hon. Friend the Agriculture Minister.

The Government should not divide those parts of the country that are terribly beset by this dreadful disease by holding local elections. They should be postponed in certain areas of the country, but not necessarily everywhere. It would be contrary to the Minister's wish to maintain national unity if the Parliament to which he is answerable were dissolved prematurely and unnecessarily. We must face the crisis together and fight it together. We wish to give the Minister the support that his gentlemanly and sensible conduct manifestly deserves.

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