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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): May I be the first to congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his steadfastness through this difficult time, but on his good humour, which is often needed in these difficult circumstances? Will he look at how he can begin to shrink the ring around infected premises--those farms that are subject to form D restrictions--as quickly as possible because that is where the biggest problems are arising in the recovery period?

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Will my right hon. Friend make sure that payments are made expeditiously? People who have been waiting for a good number of weeks need to know not only how they will restock, but how they will afford to do that and other things on their holding. Will he conduct an investigation into the state veterinary service--which was cut to ribbons by the Conservatives--to see how we can rebuild it?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the size of the state veterinary service is one of the issues that we will want to consider in the aftermath of this terrible disease outbreak. On prompt payment, I have already asked officials what can be done to make sure that we are making prompt payments in these terrible circumstances.

As for shrinking the 3 km infected zones, where that is possible I have asked that it be done, but it has to be consistent with disease control. We are trying to find ways of enabling livestock from premises under form D restrictions to get to the market. As I said in my opening statement, I hope that that is under way by the middle of next week.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the prior notice that he gave me of his statement? I welcome it and the general tenor of the improving situation that it described. However, I express caution; any suggestion that the crisis is over will be seen as a joke in the affected areas. If the epidemic is abating in livestock, there will still be many business casualties in the coming months. Given the new case in Wiveliscombe in Somerset, can the right hon. Gentleman scotch any rumours by stating categorically that no feral deer have tested positive for foot and mouth disease?

May I welcome the flexibility now exercised in the contiguous cull? Will the Minister pay particular attention to valuable pedigree herds that may be caught up in an infected area? On the welfare schemes, how is it that in Devon, where there is already a great deal of concern about the changes in compensation rates, the first newsletter issued by MAFF in the county gave the old, incorrect rates to farmers?

Has the Minister given further consideration to re-establishing the over-30-months scheme? We are approaching spring calving and a lot of cows would normally be moved on at that stage. A backlog will build up unless a suitable measure is put in place in the relatively near future. I welcome the relaxation on form D restricted areas. Does he agree that the best course of action for farmers caught in such areas is to enable them to move non-infected animals for sale?

On import controls, is not it extraordinary that the elementary advice in the statement--that the FSA has asked port health authorities and local authorities to check for illegal imports--should have been given at this stage in the crisis? Perhaps that explains why my hon. Friends and I have been refused permission by Customs and Excise to talk to the authorities at ports.

On pigswill orders, can the Minister confirm that what he has said today means that whey will be excluded from the restriction and, therefore, that the cheese-making industry will not be affected? I had expressed concern about that.

Lastly, will the Minister join the Minister for the Environment in saying that there should be an independent public inquiry on the handling of the foot and

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mouth disease outbreak? The Minister should have nothing to fear from some aspects of that inquiry, but clearly there is scope for improvement. We need a clear commitment to allowing someone to consider the evidence of the past few months.

Mr. Brown: Of course, we shall consider all the issues arising from the disease outbreak. On whey, my understanding is the same as that of the hon. Gentleman. On enforcement, it is perfectly reasonable for the FSA to highlight those issues with the appropriate regulatory authorities. On the over-30-months scheme, I want to return it to normal working. On the welfare schemes, I understand the point that he makes, but ensuring that we are not setting rates that create a false market is essential for the reasons that I set out earlier.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about pedigree herds, the crucial issue is biosecurity on the farm. If farmers want their animals to be given due consideration when their farm is contiguous to an infected premise, the correct way to achieve that is to pay scrupulous attention to biosecurity. Clearly, the owners of pedigree herds are already well aware of that.

On feral deer, I am still not aware of any case of the disease having been found, although I have discussed what the Government would do in such circumstances, because we would not automatically seek to cull it out. I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about acting with caution and not saying that the outbreak is over. There is still much to be done, and that includes disease control measures.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): A number of farmers in Pendle have been in touch with me to express concern about the 20-day standstill period. I appreciate that the Government are consulting on that, but can the Minister tell the House anything about the issue? Is he minded to make a policy change?

Mr. Brown: The consultation period is not over yet, and a number of matters of detail have emerged already. Although the principle of a 20-day standstill for sheep and cattle has been welcomed, people want the Government further to consider a number of caveats, so I have extended the consultation period. The Government have not reached a firm conclusion.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Will the Minister confirm that there will be a full judicial inquiry, on which the Government so enthusiastically insisted for BSE, into the foot and mouth outbreak? If not, surely the Government will be accused of being interested in the problems of previous Governments, but not in their own.

Mr. Brown: I have nothing to add to what I have already said to the House.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I thank my right hon. Friend for the measures that he has announced today and inform him that, unfortunately, the 18th outbreak in Monmouthshire occurred just last week. It has affected seven contiguous farms.

The main concern of the farmers with whom I have been dealing this week are delays in compensation and the reduction in the rates of the welfare disposal scheme.

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It is particularly unfair on those farmers to experience unreasonable delays in dealing with their applications. Will my right hon. Friend consider the operation of the Intervention Board, which is a rather confusing institution for any of us to deal with? I hope that designated officers can deal with regions or sub-regions of the country at least, so that we can speak to someone in person.

Mr. Brown: The purpose of the welfare scheme is to deal with genuine welfare problems whereby animals cannot be managed where they are or cannot be moved under licence, which is the preferred option. My hon. Friend asks about making payments as expeditiously as we can. I have asked officials to see what more can be done.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): The very measured tones in which the right hon. Gentleman has talked about the problem today represent a marked contrast with the reported comments of the Prime Minister, who is said effectively to have remarked that the crisis is over. The case in Wiveliscombe has been referred to, and MAFF has already identified 15 dangerous contacts.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if the measured tones that he uses are replaced by those of the Prime Minister, the public will be given the impression that the crisis is over and will drop their guard? There are already reports in the west country of farmers moving their stock around without having received the appropriate licences, and if the Prime Minister's tone is adopted, we may yet reap the whirlwind.

Mr. Brown: The Prime Minister has not said that the outbreak is over. It is not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying very firmly to all involved in the livestock industry, but to farmers in particular, that they must not move their livestock without a licence. Unauthorised movement of livestock is the surest way to keep the disease outbreak going.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thank the Minister for all the hard work that he and his staff have put in. He has visited my constituency twice.

There has been a severe problem in Cumbria, but over the 10 weeks a lot of local labour has been employed in the cull. Many of those people lost their jobs because of foot and mouth. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that local people will be the last to lose their jobs as the handling of the epidemic winds down? A senior official of the Lake district national park has said that it is unlikely that access to the fells will be possible this year. Did that official get his information from MAFF and does my right hon. Friend believe that that is the case? If it is, the tourism industry in Cumbria will have severe problems.


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