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Foot and Mouth (Devon)

11. Nick Harvey (North Devon): If she will make a statement on progress in eliminating foot and mouth disease in Devon. [580]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): Significant progress has been made towards eliminating foot and mouth disease in Devon. Since the upsurge of the disease in March and the first half of April,

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the number of cases has fallen to just one or two a week. Visits and tests are continuing in order to ensure that areas are free of the disease.

Nick Harvey: I welcome the fact that the number of incidents seems to have tailed off at present, but does the Minister understand that the farming industry in Devon is in a terrible state and that it is still reeling from the effects of the disease? Last week, the Department announced with something of a fanfare that some restrictions on movements would be lifted. Does the Minister understand that farmers have been beating a path to my door and that of the National Farmers Union offices, reeling from the news that they will now have to pay for veterinary inspection? What advice would the Minister give to Mr. Francis Courtenay, a farmer in the neighbouring village to mine? He has had no significant income since foot and mouth disease broke out in February, but now has 13 lambs that he wants to sell. He has now been told that he will have to pay £150 for the veterinary inspection and clean-up. That cost will work out at more than £10 a lamb, when each animal is likely to bring in only £35 or £36. Surely the Department understands that the farming industry is in a desperate state. What possible justification can there be for landing that additional financial burden on farmers at this time?

Mr. Morley: Of course I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about the costs being borne by his constituent. We are sensitive to that. However, the changes in movement restrictions have been welcomed by the livestock sector, as they have begun to bring some normality back to the markets. That is important, but changing the restrictions requires care, as moving livestock still entails enormous risks. That is why veterinary inspections have to take place.

I appreciate that there is a problem with regard to the costs borne by individual farmers, although some of those costs can be shared. So far, the Government have paid £1 billion in compensation for livestock that has had to be culled, and the total costs of the FMD outbreak are certainly in excess of £2 billion. However, I shall certainly take into account the point that the hon. Gentleman made.

Fuel Poverty

12. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): If she will make a statement on the targets for the elimination of fuel poverty. [581]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The goal of the Government is to seek an end to the problem of fuel poverty. The first target is to ensure that by 2010 no vulnerable household need risk ill health owing to a cold home. We will then seek to widen the focus to include those healthy adult householders in fuel poverty.

Mr. Amess: I fully accept the work done by the Minister for the Environment in trying to end fuel poverty, but during the consultation period a number of organisations objected to the definitions used in setting targets. They are especially worried that the term "gross income" rather than "disposable income" is to be used to determine which households are vulnerable. The right hon. Lady will probably answer that the use of either term

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would help to end fuel poverty, and an announcement on the matter is expected in November. Before that announcement is made, will she consider dropping the controversial term "gross income", and replacing it with "disposable income"?

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the Government's goal is to eradicate fuel poverty, however that is defined. I take the point that some people consider that a different definition that included more people would be beneficial, but the Government have given a massive undertaking. It represents a huge step forward that no previous Government have been prepared to take, and it is necessary to proceed step by step.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will keep up the pressure on the matter, and I applaud them for it. However, rather than quarrelling about the definitions--which the Government will keep under review--it seems to me that the main thing is to support the project and ensure that it has the effect that we all want it to have.

Animal Movements

13. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): If she will proceed with restrictions on repeated long-distance transport of farm animals. [582]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The most recent Agriculture Council unanimously adopted a resolution instructing the European Commission to bring forward early proposals for changes to the current rules. That will form the basis for change, including the possibility of reducing the number and duration of long-distance journeys of farm animals to slaughter.

Dr. Palmer: Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been widespread concern about the secondary market in farm animals, in which intermediate dealers buy animals and take them from market to market, seeking the best price? Does he also agree that that has been a significant factor in the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease?

Mr. Morley: I certainly agree with the last point. There is no doubt that the recent growth in dealers' movement of animals around livestock markets has contributed to the wide spread of foot and mouth. There were approximately 2 million sheep movements in the three weeks before foot and mouth was identified in this country. We are considering proposals for dealing with that, and we are consulting the livestock industry. I am pleased that the Council of Ministers has decided to examine long- distance transport, including vehicle design, standards, enforcement and even the justification for it.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Minister accept that farm livestock is transported over long distances in recent times because of the rapid reduction in the number of small abattoirs? That is the direct result of the huge cost imposed on them by regulation from government, not least the EU. Will the Government do something to re-establish small abattoirs? Many have closed in my area. We have one left--a good,

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small, family-owned abattoir. If the Government act, they can claim that they are doing something sensible about repeated long-distance transport of farm animals.

Mr. Morley: We are taking action on that. We have already announced in the rural White Paper support of £8 million for small abattoirs. However, the position is a lot more complicated than the hon. Gentleman suggests. In many cases, long-distance movements in the United Kingdom mean driving animals past slaughterhouses and taking them to slaughterhouses at the other end of the country. That happens for all sorts of reasons, not least those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) in relation to dealers moving animals from livestock market to livestock market.

We must tackle many complications, and the decline of small slaughterhouses, though important, is only one of them.

Rural Diversification

14. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If she will make a statement on her Department's plans for rural diversification. [583]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): In the last Parliament, we announced several measures aimed at supporting the rural economy and encouraging it to adapt to changing market conditions.

The rural White Paper "Our Countryside: the Future--A Fair Deal for Rural England", which was published at the end of last year, contains several initiatives to help support a thriving rural economy.

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree that although help and information are available for diversification through the regional development agencies, the countryside agencies, structural funds and other sources, constraints often exist in planning law, regulations and guidance? That is often the principal constraint on diversification. Will my hon. Friend discuss the issue and those constraints with his colleagues in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions?

Mr. Morley: Yes, we are doing that. My hon. Friend makes an important point. In some cases, planning restrictions have been unduly restrictive in relation to on-farm diversification. We do not want to exempt applicants from planning controls on vehicle movements, noise, emissions, smells. After all, planning controls exist to protect people. Nevertheless, we want to encourage diversification, and we are taking steps to do that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister appreciate that rural diversification can be helped by relatively small amounts of start-up capital? Does he know that, yesterday, in Skipton, the Craven Trust was set up to collect voluntary contributions to help people who have been affected by the foot and mouth outbreak? The Government funds that would match that money expire in two days' time. Will he ensure that areas where

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foot and mouth disease has broken out recently in the cycle are not disadvantaged in comparison with those that unfortunately suffered it much earlier?

Mr. Morley: The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, and I can give him an undertaking that we will look sympathetically at the case that he has made.

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I should add that the rural enterprise scheme, which is part of the English rural development programme, provides support for rural businesses. The regional development agencies also provide support designed to help rural businesses to recover. I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, and we shall look carefully at that matter.

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