Draft Pig Industry Development Scheme 2000 (Confirmation) Order 2001

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Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): I want to make one point relating to the present crisis. Article 3 states:

    ``The purpose of this scheme is to make provision for such facilities or services''

which would reduce

    ``the risk of herds of any pig producers that are kept in Great Britain contracting any pig disease''.

I am not critical of anything MAFF vets have done in the past week. They moved with impeccable speed. Foot and mouth is an awful disease with ghastly consequences, but it is a textbook matter. When I was a Minister, if we ever had an outbreak of foot and mouth, there was no problem in one sense—we knew what to do. The MAFF vets reach up to the shelf, pick up the book on how to deal with a ghastly crisis such as this, and people start digging trenches, slaughtering, burning, killing, which is horrendous. The problem has a textbook solution, although it takes time.

I was contacted on Monday by a farmer who said that his and a few other farms were off a C class road—a minor road. It was a public road, but, if anyone passed their farms, it was as a short cut to somewhere else. He and his neighbours wanted to put down straw, sawdust and disinfectant to try to do their bit—as self-help; they did not want Government help—to try to contain the disease. They know that they could do all that and the disease would still travel through the air.

The Minister has today confirmed that, at the auction mart at Longtown in my constituency, as I anticipated last week, we have foot and mouth. Everyone wants to do something to try to control it. However, when the farmer contacted Cumbria police, they rightly said, ``You'd better not put anything on the road, chum; we don't have cover from the Government.'' The county council said, ``If you put something on the road and there's an accident there's unlimited liability.'' That is correct. I therefore had to advise my constituent not to put down any straw, sawdust or disinfectant on that minor road unless he had legal cover to do so, because if there was an accident, or if some child set fire to it, the liability would be horrendous.

I am therefore pleased that the Government are introducing orders to allow footpaths and bridleways to be closed and other control mechanisms. I ask the Minister—without straying too far, Mr. Cunningham; this is a pig disease control measure—urgently to consider in the wider context of foot and mouth an order whereby farmers could, if the police and county council were happy, take some preventive measures as self-help on, say, C class roads?

We do not want farmers putting down straw on a motorway, thinking that they can stop foot and mouth, but they could in limited circumstances do their bit to contain it. That is a small point, but I know that the Minister will want to raise it with others in govt. I mention it today in the context of the order, knowing that the Minister will examine it in good faith. It would be more of a morale-boosting thing than anything else. We all know that, if we stop every milk tanker and post office van, the disease will still travel through the air, but country people want to feel that they are doing something.

My constituency closed down last weekend, before we had foot and mouth. No one wants to travel anywhere—they are dead scared that they will spread foot and mouth. They are scared that, if they go to a party, a do, or any event or go shopping in the supermarket, they will meet another farmer whose farm has the disease and they are all withdrawing into their shells. Pigs spread about 50 times more foot and mouth through their breathing than any other animal.

I think that the Minister has understood my point. I hope that she will pass it on to her colleagues. We are asking not for extra Government help, but for farmers—whether pig farmers or other producers—to be allowed to take sensible measures in conjunction with the police and local authorities to try to do their bit to control the present disease, which will also be relevant to the disease that is dealt with in the order.

4.53 pm

Ms Quin: I welcome the support given by the Committee to the order and the scheme that it brings into being. I welcome the comments by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I hope that he develops a habit of being so supportive, which would be welcome. I recognise that in present circumstances it is important for us to consider together the best way to deal with the situation. I also welcome the support for the pig welfare (disposal) scheme.

The hon. Gentleman described it as an imaginative and innovative way of helping the industry. We were considering ways of helping the industry that would avoid lengthy state aid routes and get money into the industry quickly. He talked about the level of levy, which is being set by the Meat and Livestock Commission at 20p per pig. It will take some time to build the fund to give the money due even to those producers affected by classical swine fever.

I fully respect the hon. Gentleman's wider concerns about the finance likely to be available under the scheme in the near future. Immediately, it would only start to help those producers affected. He also mentioned the money available in the Aujeszky's fund. As a former pig farmer, he knows about the Aujeszky's disease, which has not appeared in this country since 1989. I therefore hope that it has been eradicated. None the less, we would need to work with the Pig Disease Eradication Fund Ltd. board for Aujeszky's disease and the industry to decide the future of the fund. That will take longer than simply introducing arrangements to authorise a loan from the Aujeszky's fund, as we discussed.

The money available is just over £500,000. The amount for the pig producers affected would therefore be about £2.50 per pig, whereas the whole top-up would be about £25 per pig. The loan being considered by the MLC and the levy contributions will need to start to kick in before the whole of the top-up can be made up.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire rightly asked me what the relevance of the scheme was to the foot and mouth disease situation. Although top-up payments to those affected by classical swine fever make the first call on the development scheme, it would, in theory, be available for other diseases at the discretion of the board. The majority on the board will be producers, so it will be an industry decision. Because of the amount of money available in the near future, we must consider other ways of helping producers who are affected by foot and mouth disease.

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we are also considering using the pig industry restructuring money to help pig producers. I do not rule out considering other ways of helping, in terms of compensation and consequential losses. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the fact that we are at least hoping to achieve limited movement of livestock to abattoirs in controlled circumstances. An announcement will be made about that shortly. He is right to stress that, although some movement is desirable, it cannot in any circumstances jeopardise the battle that we have to wage against foot and mouth disease. He is also right to stress that that is what farmers feel. I welcome his comments on the matter.

Clearly, some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman relate to state aid. My heart sank when he referred to a conversation with a Commission official about what aid could be given. I have had so much experience of people having encouraging conversations with Commission officials. However, when it comes to working out the detail, the result is often not so encouraging. I am prepared to consider what was said and to pass that information on. None the less, we know that, in reality, it can sometimes be difficult to negotiate even what seem to us to be justified state aid schemes.

The agriculture state aid rules are not as vague as was implied. I refer, for example, to the pig industry restructuring scheme, which the hon. Gentleman and I were discussing two or three weeks ago. The figure of 16 per cent. that related to restructuring limits was very precise. It was difficult to get the Commission to look at it another way. The rules governing state aid, which, in turn, can affect large parts of the agricultural sector, are often precise, not vague.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for welcoming my earlier comments. As I explained, today, most pig farmers face restriction on movement and the problems that stem from that. The situation is identical to that faced by most pig farmers in East Anglia last summer. The development scheme, which came from the pig welfare (disposal) scheme, is designed to overcome that problem. Does anything in that scheme require it to be levy funded?

We understand that state aid was set up to provide the 20 per cent., which the Minister agreed with the industry. Eighty per cent. came from the Government, so what is to stop the same scheme being used with Government funding in the current circumstances? I shall set aside for a moment where that might come from. If it was possible and acceptable to do it then, why cannot it be possible and acceptable to do it today in identical circumstances?

Ms Quin: I need to reflect on whether it is possible without state aid clearance to use a welfare disposal scheme-type route, although, obviously, much will depend on how much movement there will be under the scheme that will be announced shortly. Welfare needs throughout the pig industry will be assessed as a result of that. If the hon. Gentleman is agreeable, I prefer to reflect on the matter, rather than give him an answer now. Obviously, whether such a route would be appropriate is a wide- ranging matter. He referred earlier to the information about the pig industry development scheme and to separate initiatives on the slaughtering of animals in the event of a disease outbreak such as foot and mouth.

The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) referred to the understandable desire of farmers in his constituency to take measures that would help to contain the spread of the disease. That is one of several representations that I have received over the past couple of days. In some areas, measures have been taken successfully which, for other reasons, seem to have been difficult to take in other areas. The Government need urgently to ensure that there is uniformity of application and that the people affected know the exact procedures to be followed. We are looking at a similar problem in relation to other areas of the country. If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall come back to him on that particular issue as soon as possible.

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