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In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Agriculture, Fisheries and Food', and insert 'Environment, Food and Rural Affairs'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Environment, Transport and the Regions', and insert 'Transport, Local Government and the Regions'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Scottish, Welsh', and insert 'Scotland, Wales'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Social Security', and insert 'Work and Pensions'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Education and Employment', and insert 'Education and Skills'.—[Angela Smith.]


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [28 June].

Question again proposed,

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6.59 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) rose

It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Monday 9 July.— [Mr. Heppell.]


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

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Foot and Mouth (Tiverton and Honiton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

7 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): My purpose tonight is to seek information from Ministers, and I am seeking specific answers to specific questions. I did not want to table a lot of written questions and, perhaps, wait a long time for the answers. I hope that if the Minister cannot answer my specific questions when he responds, he will at least undertake to send me written, substantive replies to the many questions from my constituents. Although the Government have said that we are now on the home straight as far as foot and mouth is concerned, that is certainly not the way in which my constituents in my rural seat see the situation.

I should like to begin by referring to matters relating to the farming and agriculture industry. There is a great deal of confusion within the farming community about whether the Government have finally decided that, if the disease continues, the vaccination of animals has been ruled out. The subject keeps cropping up and I must admit—even as a former Agriculture Minister—that there is a duty on the Government immediately to establish a committee that will bring together all the relevant information, so that it can be considered over the coming weeks.

The fear among my farming constituents is that there may be a large resurgence of outbreaks in the autumn, when the weather changes and the disease is more likely to spring up again. If there is any question of the Government recommending vaccination, the work, preparation and analysis of all the available data will have been carried out over the summer months. We may reach autumn without having had a proper analysis and the farming community may be suddenly faced with a proposal for vaccination at a time when, perhaps, there will not be the opportunity for that to be properly considered. I urge the Minister to put together a committee of expertise and to put the information in the public domain before the autumn.

I have to express to the Minister my concerns and those of my constituents about the way in which the contiguous culls have been conducted. I agree in principle that where an outbreak occurs one should throw a cordon around it by culling out the adjacent farms in order to contain the disease. Other countries have done that and have managed to contain the disease.

What is not acceptable is when the contiguous culls are dealt with not within the first 24 or 48 hours of an outbreak, but days and weeks later. I have done some special pleading on behalf of farms in my constituency that were threatened with having their entire livestock slaughtered up to 21 days after an outbreak. If cases continue and contiguous culling proves necessary, I hope that the Minister will ensure that it is carried out quickly: leaving it for a long time would defeat the object of the exercise.

Since the election, there have been more outbreaks of foot and mouth in my constituency than before. Worryingly, the parish of Clayhanger, which previously had no identified outbreaks, has seen a crop of outbreaks in the past two to three weeks.

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The issue of footpaths was raised at business questions today, but no real answer was given and perhaps the Minister could look into the matter. Who exactly has the final say about the opening of footpaths? Is it the Government or the local authority? The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that there is no risk in walkers and others using footpaths, but my constituents are very concerned about the situation, especially in areas where livestock are kept on land immediately adjacent to footpaths.

Many of my constituents are still on farm, where they have been for several months, because they have been extremely cautious about their own movements on and off farm. Some of my constituents have effectively locked themselves away for several months and are concerned that others will come on to the land. Every time footpaths are opened, my office is inundated with telephone calls and I wish to know to whom I, as a Member of Parliament, should make representations. Is it to the local authority, or directly to the Minister's office? We are batted to and fro, with no definitive answer given.

Farmers who might survive foot and mouth still face practical problems. We are already aware of the financial pressures that veterinary inspection is imposing on farmers who wish to avail themselves of the derestrictions on movement. I alert the Minister yet again to the fact that the financial position of many farmers in my constituency is dire, and I shall give specific examples later in my speech. Farmers are also concerned about artificial insemination services gaining access to farms, because they are trying to plan for the future. What is the Minister's advice to farmers who wish to plan in that way? Sheep farmers also face specific problems with shearers gaining access to sheep.

All those issues are not only bound up with what has happened in the past few months, but they constrain farmers who are just about hanging on and who do not know whether they have a future or not. Therefore, I hope that the Department is addressing those practical problems and will be able to give specific advice to farmers.

Another problem is the holding pit that was built, at short notice, on a property called Westlake farm in the parish of Oakford in my constituency. It is north of Tiverton, right up on the Exmoor border, and I have been to see the holding pit myself. I was shocked. It looked like a massive strip of runway for an airport. It is huge and it must have cost millions of pounds. It has not been used and I have corresponded with the Environment Agency about how the project was instigated, because there was no consultation with the parish council or local people. It has had a dire impact on people in the area who wish to sell their properties and on nearby farms that do farmhouse bed and breakfast, because it is a massive blot on the landscape in that rural and beautiful parish.

My question for the Environment Agency is whether the area will be restored to its greenfield status, so that the people who live around it can try to get back to normal as soon as possible. I received a letter from the Minister at the beginning of the foot and mouth outbreak telling me that the Environment Agency was responsible for such projects, but I have now had a letter from the Environment Agency saying that the future of the site and the question of its reinstatement should be directed to the Department.

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Tonight, I am doing just that. I hope that the Minister will have the answer, but if he does not I can tell him that the people of the parish of Oakford would like an answer. I urge the Minister to look into that situation, which is causing a huge problem. If the pit is not to be used, why was it put there in the first place—and why is it still in that state?

Another parish on the other side of my constituency has a problem, too. My constituency covers 600 square miles, so the two places are quite a long way apart. Burlescombe is just off junction 27 of the M5, near the A38, which goes to Wellington. During the election campaign, several people from the parish expressed to me their concern about material being stored off the A38 in sealed drums, watched over by security guards. Since the election I have had more telephone calls from constituents expressing further concerns about the material being stored in Burlescombe. They had also seen trailers clearly containing carcases, with only tarpaulins over the top, and with no motorised cabs attached, abandoned in lay-bys off the A38.

People are very concerned about that. We have all heard that in other sites in Devon, some of the ash from the pyres may be contaminated, and the people of Burlescombe want to know what the parish is being used for in terms of storing carcases or other material connected with foot and mouth.

Again, I ask the Minister to investigate for me. As a Member of Parliament, I have not been able to get answers to my questions. Can he tell me what is going on in my constituency? If he reassures me, I would like to go and take a look to reassure myself that my constituents' fears are unfounded. The parish is a long way from any foot and mouth outbreak; it is "clean", and my constituents have a right to know what is being done on their doorstep.

I shall now talk about the support—or rather, the lack of support—for businesses affected by foot and mouth. I shall give the Minister an example of that by reading a letter that I received this week from a farmer in the hilly sheep country north of Tiverton. Like many farmers, the people on that farm have diversified. They keep special breeds—rare sheep, which are kept for their wool alone—and have set up on farm a business manufacturing woollen garments and gifts with the wool from their own sheep.

The wool cannot leave the farm, and because those sheep are sheared in winter, the last shearing was in January. The farmer has therefore had no income since the beginning of the outbreak of foot and mouth. She wrote to me:

My constituent asked me what was happening to all the money that we keep hearing about—the millions of pounds and all those schemes that are supposedly helping people who, through no fault of their own, are not only finding it tough but are almost at the limit. I shall not read the rest of the letter, because although my constituent knows that I am raising her case in the House tonight, in all fairness, and for obvious reasons, I do not wish to give her name and address. These people are on the edge, and it is no good Ministers standing up and saying that there is a million pounds for this or a million pounds for that; they need help, and they need it quickly.

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I have another letter, from Devonshire Heartland Association, which is focused mainly on Crediton, Tiverton, and the rest of mid-Devon. That organisation says that because of the crisis it has lost half its members, who cannot afford the membership fees.

The tourism industry in my constituency is in dire straits. There was an awful lot of good will among many people and organisations that voluntarily raised money to help. They were not simply looking to the Government for handouts. Many people in the west country contributed to the green welly campaign, for example, including local newspapers such as The Western Morning News. When the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), came to Devon, it was promised that that fund would be matched, pound for pound. Now we find that that did not include any corporate donations. There is a feeling in Devon that the Government have reneged on a promise that was designed to support and help the people I have just described.

We have just read of the report of the New Local Government Network, a think-tank close to the Government. It has, astonishingly, suggested a £3 a night tourism levy. I hope that the Minister will recognise the plight of the tourism industry and reject any such proposals.

The Government have told us that the small business loans guarantee scheme is available to help those who have problems as a result of foot and mouth. A written answer shows that only four tourism businesses have been awarded such grants. Where is the money going? I received a letter from my regional development agency saying that so many millions were going on this and so many millions on that. The money is clearly not going to the people who need it or to the sharp end. I believe that it is being spent on jobs for the boys—to the people who are analysing the problems, offering consultancy and doing everything but putting the money where it should go and should have been received weeks ago.

We should look at how this public money is being used. It is certainly not helping my constituents, and I believe that it should. It is incumbent on the Government to check how public money is being used, because clearly it is not going to the right place.

There was expectation of support for the farming community in Devon through the First Aid music festival, which was planned for the bank holiday weekend at the end of May. Small businesses and farmers in Devon had expected that to be another fillip that would help them, but the festival was cancelled. There was speculation that public money was spent on the event, which was then cancelled. I should like the Minister to look into that. Why was it cancelled? Was public money spent on it? If so, why is public money being used in that way, when farming, tourism and associated businesses in the county of Devon and in my constituency in particular need it?

These people will not survive, through no fault of their own. I refer not just to those who have had confirmed cases of foot and mouth but to many other businesses, all of which are inter-related. Some people are still stuck on their farms after many weeks, some can see no future and many are looking to the Government for the answers. I hope that the Minister will give me some answers tonight.

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7.18 pm

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