Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Brown: I am considering what I can do, in the context of my ministerial responsibilities, to help the areas with highest infectivity--Cumbria and Devon specifically, but not exclusively. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's other remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

What the hon. Gentleman says about special breeds is entirely right: we need to devise a strategy that gives them the best possible chance of survival. I believe that we have done that in discussions with breed societies and representatives of local farmers. I am advised--and I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows this--that a management rather than an automatic-culling strategy has the best prospect of achieving what we both want to achieve.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I could raise many issues relating to the mishandling of the disease in my constituency, but I would not do so in a spirit of political partisanship, because I was sent here by my constituents to scrutinise the Executive. I shall, in fact, raise just one issue on which the Minister seemed to be prepared to move further. I refer to the form D restrictions.

A farmer in my constituency, Mr. Jeremy Boaz of Willow Bough farm in Grafton Flyford, stands to lose thousands of pounds because he is still under a form D restriction. If he has disposed of his animals under the livestock welfare disposal scheme, he will receive not £50 to £60 per sheep or lamb, but about £28.80. Moreover, he will receive nothing for animals that are slaughtered simply because he cannot afford to feed them. Meanwhile, the farm that caused the outbreak that led to the restriction is, quite rightly, receiving full compensation for its animals. Can such injustice be justified?

Mr. Brown: I hope that by the middle of next week the hon. Gentleman's constituent will be able to move his animals commercially, and receive a proper price for them in the marketplace.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): The Minister has spent some of his time providing some gentle reassurance that the Government have the issue of illegal food imports in hand. Is he aware of the sheer scale of the problem at

3 May 2001 : Column 1017

airports such as Heathrow, where dozens of flights end every day? The vast majority will not be checked for such illegal food imports. The episode of last Sunday night, which I witnessed--444 kg of food was seized--resulted from a random check carried out by Customs and Excise. It is unlikely to be repeated frequently, if at all, and nothing of the kind had happened for many weeks before that.

The Minister mentioned port health authorities, but they have no statutory powers to search passenger luggage for imports of commercial scale. Responsibility rests entirely with Customs and Excise, whose priorities at present relate to class A drugs and tobacco. Customs and Excise currently has no recourse to sniffer dogs, or to any of the resources or logistics that are necessary for the carrying out of checks on food imports.

Will the Minister confirm that he has been aware of the current state of affairs at least since 30 May last year, when he was written to directly about this very problem by those involved in the detection of such imports at Heathrow airport?

Mr. Brown: Yes, but as the hon. Gentleman says, enforcement of the law is a matter for Customs and Excise. Strategy powers reside with Customs and Excise, and any representations made to me, as a Minister, would be sent to Customs and Excise as well because of its powers to enforce the law.

I think that we should take a robust line on illegal imports. We have upped the checking and testing regime, which involves agencies throughout public service, including local authority trading standards officers. If more needs to be done, more will be done. I consider it unacceptable for the whole country to be put through the pain and turmoil that we have been put through over the past two months because of an illegal import of the disease. We must take firm action to ensure that that cannot happen again.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Minister visit Northumberland, which seems to have been forgotten, although we are seeing new cases nearly every day? Will he heed the anger of people in the Widdrington area, who have witnessed the burial of more than 100,000 carcases and the burning of 3,500, but are told that--although we are supposedly on the home straight--their burial site is to be kept open for another month? Will the Minister pay particular regard to the need to protect the Chillingham wild cattle, and to the impact of all this on tourism businesses? He could even make his trip enjoyable by fitting in a visit to one of the many attractions in Northumberland that are still open.

Mr. Brown: I am aware of the attractions. Given my constituency, Northumberland is high on the list of areas that I am unlikely to overlook. Even were I to do so, it should be borne in mind that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who represents Gateshead, is a frequent visitor.

Of course we will make arrangements to deal with special breeds, including Chillingham cattle. What I cannot do is give all hon. Members the special assurances that they would like about particular disposal sites or disposal routes. I know of the concern that these issues occasion locally--although people feel that the policy

3 May 2001 : Column 1018

may be right in principle, no one is enthusiastic about having a disposal site as a neighbour--but I cannot assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will manage to intervene, and change decisions made by those who are responsible for these matters regionally.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The Minister, with whom I have worked closely, will know that the two suspected cases in my constituency, at Adlington and North Rode, have proved negative. Unfortunately, however, D form notices and movement restrictions are still in place. I am receiving an increasing number of representations from the Macclesfield branch of the National Farmers Union, and from individual farmers: they want movement restrictions to be lifted immediately.

A number of farmers are what I would describe as examples of economic tragedy in the current crisis. For instance, Mr. J. L. Mellor of High Lee farm, Sutton, has store cattle that are long overdue for sale. He can no longer afford to feed them. Mr. P. J. Simcock of Brink farm, Pott Shrigley, has 300 hundred horned sheep that are available for slaughter immediately. Abattoirs are ready to accept them, but they cannot be sent to the abattoirs. They are clean beasts.

Farmers can no longer afford to feed their animals. Will the Minister examine such cases very carefully, and then tell me--and the Macclesfield NFU--that the D forms and movement restrictions will be lifted in my constituency, as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Brown: I will do what I can to help the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

For every three suspicious cases reported, only one turns out to be a case of foot and mouth disease. When cases are reported, however, it takes longer to prove that the animals are clear than it takes to confirm the disease. If it is possible to lift the 3 km movement restrictions, consistent with disease control, I will ask the regional veterinary authorities to consider the matter carefully, and to treat the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Minister was uncharacteristically sharp in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). She asked whether there could be a full-scale public inquiry into the matter. Many would want to contribute; many lessons need to be learned. Will the Minister, in the spirit of openness, take this opportunity to explain why the Government do not want a full-scale public inquiry, if that is the case? Many are calling for such an inquiry.

May I re-emphasise the point about the welfare scheme? My constituent Lyn Horrocks received approval for the slaughter of pigs under the scheme, but there was a delay, and she may now receive a lower price for her animals. Does the Minister consider that equitable?

Mr. Brown: If we are talking about the same case as the right hon. Gentleman asked me about at the Select Committee hearing, I do not know whether he has been able yet to drop me a note to explain why the animals cannot be moved or managed where they are. If he could drop me such a note, I promise that I will look at the particular constituency case.

3 May 2001 : Column 1019

I will co-operate with whatever inquiries are set up. Throughout the disease outbreak, I have put all the advice to me into the public domain and tried to explain my decisions as the disease has taken the course that it has. Where circumstances have changed, and therefore public policy has had to be adapted, I have explained that candidly in front of the House, the Select Committee and, where appropriate, at press conferences, too.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): Can the Minister explain why the MAFF website states that there have been no confirmed cases of foot and mouth in Essex for over three weeks when, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, very recently, 1,600 sheep and 112 pigs were slaughtered after antibodies were found in the blood of animals at a farm near Colchester? Does the Minister understand farmers' fears that they may not be being given all the facts? Can he take this opportunity to state exactly what he believes the position to be in Essex?

Next Section

IndexHome Page