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There is one other practical point. Four and a half months into the crisis, why cannot we have proper disinfectant baths on our country roads? So many people say to me, "How in God's name is it possible for foot and mouth to spread like wildfire, when everyone has been told of the importance of biosecurity measures?" My right hon. Friend mentioned those in her statement.
Margaret Beckett: May I say to my hon. Friend, with proper respect, that I hope that this does not become a competition to be the worst affected area as a means of ensuring that Ministers visit a particular part of the country? I understand the concerns that have been expressed. I have not heard all the anecdotal evidence to which he refers, but of course I am aware that there have been occasions when distress has been caused as a result of the culling operation.
With regard to my hon. Friend's query about disinfectant baths, I hope that the House is aware that the key means by which the disease is spread is the movement of vehicles and of people, and in particular, close contact with animals. He is right that everyone should be mindful of that and of the precautions that need to be taken. I suggest that we all, as politicians, continue to urge those precautions on our constituents to bring about a continued diminution in the already substantially reduced number of affected areas.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The impact of foot and mouth on the Ribble Valley has been enormous. The Minister has spoken of the national impact, but in the villages that have been directly affected, such as West Bradford, Gisburn, Paythorne, Sawley, Rimington, Downham and other areas near Clitheroe, the impact has been devastating and total. Farmers still speak about the 1967 outbreak and remember it as though it occurred yesterday.
The present outbreak has affected not just those directly involved in farming, but the wider community. There is a sense of grieving for the communities throughout my area and, I am sure, in neighbouring areas. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the culling operation is carried out as humanely as possible? Stories have been spread about the inhumane culling of animals. We heard about that before and thought that it had been corrected. It must not be allowed to continue.
With regard to the welfare package and the compensation that has been made available to farmers whether or not they have been directly affected by foot and mouth, will the Secretary of State ensure that it gets through as quickly as possible? I understand that some farmers have been waiting 10 to 12 weeks for money, which cannot be allowed.
Margaret Beckett: I shall respond briefly. I understand the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about the feelings and concerns of his constituents. He made a number of observations about people waiting for compensation, and suggestions for dealing with problems in the handling of transport. It would be very helpful to my Department if people who have detailed evidence, whether of delays in payment or, indeed, of incidents of the kind to which he referred, made it available. He will know that one such anecdote repeated 10 times gives the impression of 10 such events. We shall of course look at any concerns that are expressed, but evidence would help.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): When the Government announced their enhanced support for the business rate relief scheme for some councils, Stafford borough was not one of them. Given my right hon. Friend's responsibility for all rural businesses, will she take an early opportunity to consider representations received not just from Stafford but from several other councils about why they believe that businesses affected in their areas deserve that enhanced Government support?
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): What steps have the Government taken to strengthen the inspection at ports of entry into this country of meat that has been subject in the past only to random checking? What steps have they taken to review the labelling of imported meat products that are subsequently sold to consumers in this country?
Margaret Beckett: Steps have certainly been taken. I do not have the details about my person, but I know that more advice has been given to the inspectorates at the ports that there should be more stringent enforcement and that, again, the issues are kept continually under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that we continue to consider issues such as labelling to see what can be done to ensure that people are given accurate information. As I say, I do not have the detailed information with me, but if there is anything further that I can add, I shall certainly write to him.
Margaret Beckett: Obviously, the Government will have to look over time at issues such as the aftermath and the handling of matters such as landfill tax. I know that the Minister for Rural Affairs, who chairs the rural task force, has taken on board my hon. Friend's remarks.
With regard to the handling of cases on the particular landfill site to which my hon. Friend referred, I am sure that he will know that no such use is made of sites without the most thorough consideration of both environmental and health aspects. I know that he will have taken on board my remarks at the outset that we will not use such sites unless we absolutely have to.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and wish her well in making the new Department work effectively. Will she join me in congratulating the very large number of walkers who have behaved extremely responsibly throughout the crisis and shown great restraint? Will she assure them that she is putting pressure on local authorities that have kept footpaths closed long after it was necessary to do so to ensure that all footpaths that can be opened are open for the school holidays?
Margaret Beckett: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He is right that the walkers of this country have shown the proper respect and concern for the overall welfare of the countryside that we would expect of them. That has been most noticeable. I am sure that he will have noted the burden of my observations about path closure. He is right that in some areas it has been difficult to see how continued closure has been justified. However, where there are genuine local concerns, local authorities will remain able to make that case known and to have it heeded. Obviously, safe handling is essential, although, as he rightly says, it is also essential that we make our countryside available to those who wish to walk in it where it is safe to do so.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): In wishing the right hon. Lady well in her very important task, may I ask her two questions? First, will she please have an early discussion with all hon. Members whose constituencies have been affected by this dreadful disease? I have in mind a proper forum that she would attend and where she would have proper discussion. There is a widespread feeling that the epidemic has been badly handled in many respects, and we could doubtless advise her in that regard. Secondly, will she bear it in mind that there will be no final satisfaction unless a proper, independent public inquiry is conducted at the right time?