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Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. As a former Minister, I strongly support the creation of her Department and the fact that she will examine the revival of the rural economy as a whole, and the important role that agriculture will play in that. I also welcome the fact that there will be an inquiry and I look forward to defending many aspects of the Government's record in handling the outbreak.
Once again, the Conservative spokesman seems to be unwilling to be distracted by mere facts. Instead of being in advance of the Government, he was very much behind us in several of the measures that we took. Comparisons
I hope that the maximum amount of information will be available to farmers engaged in restocking, and that the Department will pull out all the stops to work with the agricultural sector to provide for its long-term future.
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her comments, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to her for the tremendous amount of work that she did in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I regret that she has chosen to devote more of her time to the interests of her constituents, and not to play a part in the Department in the future. I also acknowledge the real justice of many of her strictures about the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). I also agree with my right hon. Friend that the differences between now and the 1967 outbreak are stark, and that the delay in reporting is the most significant difference--as she rightly identified. I have been very impressed with the mechanisms that I have found in the Department for consultation with the wider farming and rural community. We will continue to use those mechanisms, not least when discussing matters such as restocking and how to spread information about it. Again, I am grateful to her for her remarks in that respect.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I welcome the Secretary of State to her new post, and thank her for her statement. However, will she clarify the nature of the public inquiry that she announced? Will it be as full, comprehensive and independent as the BSE inquiry under Lord Phillips, or will it be delayed, incomplete and shoved under the carpet? We need a report that shows precisely how the Government handled the foot and mouth crisis.
The crisis has cost about £1 billion, so is it not clear that there needs to be more investment in the veterinary service, as it is vets who will advise the Government? Also, should not more advice be sought from independent scientific sources, so that the real nature of animal diseases can be identified more clearly? That would help us to cope better with any future outbreak.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the new Department should do more than merely respond to the rural task force? It should develop strategies and policies that can be debated early in this Parliament, thus ensuring that the Department gets on top of the integration of rural policy and the policies of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In that way, it would be evident that a new direction and culture had been adopted.
Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no delay in opening up Dartmoor? That is very important, given the start of the summer tourist season. We have heard that Dartmoor may not be fully reopened. I hope that that is not correct, but I should be grateful if she could investigate the matter urgently. As she will be aware, in the far south-west the summer season and the opening up of Dartmoor are extremely important.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for further investment to strengthen the veterinary service, and we shall, of course, consider such matters in the future. Speaking from memory, I think that about 10 times as many vets have been working on the outbreak than are normally available full time. That provision is temporary, and it is to be hoped that so many vets will not be needed in the ordinary course of events. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should strengthen access to scientific advice, but I do not link that requirement to our knowledge of the disease. In many ways, we know a great deal about the disease; the question is how we handle outbreaks such as we have experienced. I certainly share his wish for a new direction and culture when it comes to discussing the rural community's concerns and affairs more widely and in the context of sustainable development.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Dartmoor. As I said in my statement, we shall want as much ground as possible to be opened up, subject to the balance of proper control of the disease. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will make some inquiries about the position in Dartmoor, and will make contact with the hon. Gentleman if he has something useful to convey.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that many small farmers who have lost herds are in very real financial difficulty. Will she give urgent consideration to the payment of compensation, to ensure that people do not wait an unnecessarily long time? Will she also look at the subject of artificial insemination, which is causing considerable difficulty for firms in my constituency? They have been directly affected, but feel that the veterinary decision that has been taken has not been followed up by a clear policy statement from the Department. Will she look at those matters very urgently?
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Secretary of State will understand the sense of embattlement, claustrophobia, foreboding, fear and anger in my constituency and in neighbouring constituencies in Lancashire, where there have been 80 cases of foot and mouth disease since the general election was announced. In addition, 326 farms have been culled out, and nearly 250,000 animals slaughtered. Will she recognise that the first service that she can do is to acknowledge how serious the crisis is locally? However the figures look nationally, to people on the ground the crisis remains urgent, terrible and present. Will she further realise that, although most people think that the cull has been handled sensitively and efficiently, there is a terrible problem with the cleaning-up operation because of the enormous bottlenecks, and that
The Secretary of State will also recognise that business in my constituency, which has been effectively closed down since the very first outbreaks in Hawes and Lancashire--the present crisis has only multiplied the difficulties--is now in serious difficulty, faces a summer of loss and a potential winter of bankruptcy. Will she therefore announce that the rate relief scheme, which is due to finish at the end of the month, will be renewed; and that Government aid, which for Yorkshire and Humberside is only £2.5 million and was announced before my constituency had any cases, will be renewed and adjusted in proportion to an outbreak that in Craven at least is beginning to look as if it will be of Cumbrian proportions? Does she realise that Government funding via the Countryside Agency to match voluntary contributions finishes at the end of the month, before we shall have a chance to benefit?
Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of attracting more tourists to the area, bearing it in mind that 90 per cent. of the tourists to the Yorkshire Dales are national not international, and that of those, 80 per cent. are regional? Rather than attract Americans back, if we could get tourists back from Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, it would do us a service. Will she deal with those matters and recognise how sensitive and raw-edged people's feelings are?
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the sensitive way in which he has recognised and spoken of the range of issues. Of course I recognise how badly his constituents feel. Although I do not represent a farming constituency, when I lived in Lincolnshire some 10 years after the previous outbreak I was well aware of the remaining grief and deep feelings of mourning of those who experienced the 1967 outbreak. I am under no illusions at all about how deep the grief will have gone within his community and the many others that have been affected. I do indeed recognise those concerns.
I recognise the validity of the right hon. Gentleman's other points about the potential for bottlenecks in the cleaning-up process, the range of businesses affected and the fact that it was some time ago that the dates for the support schemes were first set. The Government will have to consider all those issues. I cannot give him any information today, but I undertake consider the points that he raised, not least his final, extremely pertinent point about domestic tourism. He will appreciate that that is part of the reason for the thrust of the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will make later today. We are seeking to get the message across. I have heard some anecdotal evidence of how, in various areas as restrictions have been lifted, the recovery of tourism and other businesses has been speedier than people had feared and that people have begun to recover losses more speedily than had been feared. It is essential that we do everything that we can to minimise that damage and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall do so.