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Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentlemen will forgive me, I must give way briefly as I am mindful of time and this is a short debate. I give way first to the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).

Mr. Cameron: Will the right hon. Lady and her Department give careful consideration to the implications

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of foot and mouth for zoos and wildlife parks, such as the Cotswold wildlife park in my constituency? The park was badly affected by foot and mouth and had to close. It was not told exactly what to do when the disease broke out. It wanted a decision about vaccination, but no decision was made. It had a meeting with Ministers—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) has now departed—but nothing seems to have been done.

I know that these issues are small in comparison with the farming industry as a whole, but they matter to wildlife parks and zoos. Should they not be considered, not only by the right hon. Lady's Department but in the full independent public inquiry that the Government ought to establish?

Mr. Llwyd rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I think that, for the sake of good order, the Secretary of State should deal with the first intervention now, and perhaps respond to the hon. Gentleman later.

Margaret Beckett: I shall do so if that is your preference, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that it is sometimes convenient for a couple of interventions to be dealt with together.

I have taken on board the point made by the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). If we can add anything to what has already been said, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will deal with it—but this is exactly the kind of issue that we need to look at in the future, irrespective of the form taken by examination of these events.

Mr. Llwyd: May I ask the right hon. Lady to ensure that there will be no further confusion between officials from the Department and officials from the devolved Administration in Cardiff? It has been the devil of a job to obtain correct information, and the problems have been exacerbated by the Department's saying that this is a devolved matter while those in Cardiff have said that it is a matter for the Department. The right hon. Lady's predecessor could not answer a number of the questions either. I am not sniping; I am genuinely asking the right hon. Lady whether the lines of demarcation can be made clear, so that the problems are not exacerbated further.

Margaret Beckett: I assure the hon. Gentleman that our aim is always to maintain clear demarcation lines, clear understanding and clear agreement between us and the devolved bodies. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Minister is an expert in these matters. He will certainly encourage productive liaison and relationships.

The farming industry and other sections of the rural economy are likely to face further severe difficulties in the autumn, when traditionally there are a large number of livestock movements. However successful we are in bringing the tail of the outbreak to a halt in July or August, there will still be a need for substantial controls over movement of livestock in the autumn and winter to ensure that we keep a grip on the disease, given that undisclosed disease could still be present in the national sheep flock at that time. The more speedily we eradicate the disease, the sooner we can consider greater flexibility of movement.

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The Government are working hard with industry representatives to plan for the autumn, to establish what movements could take place without an unacceptable increase in disease risk. I hope to be able to say more later this month. At the same time, we are assessing the implications of the likely restrictions in autumn livestock movements for support arrangements in the livestock sector and have had preliminary discussions, which are continuing, with farming leaders.

We shall be using the increased capacity available for serological testing of sheep to continue to the staged clearance of infected areas, alongside a planned approach to testing in disease hot spots. That is designed to help us obtain a better picture of the level of disease in sheep in particular ahead of the autumn livestock movements, and also to make it easier for us to demonstrate to our European Union partners, in due course, that we have a basis for the phased resumption of exports.

Let me say in parentheses that although much is said in the House about how the Government have not done enough or not done it fast enough by those who wish solely to impute blame to the Government, enormous credit is due to all involved in the hugely increased capacity for serological testing, given its scope for tackling the disease. I speak from memory, but I believe that when the disease broke out we had the capacity to run about 400 tests a week. We have now reached the 100,000 mark or thereabouts, and are heading for a target of between 140,000 and 180,000 by the autumn, probably by October. As I have said, enormous credit is due for that, but it has not always been forthcoming.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Margaret Beckett: Yes, for the very last time.

Paddy Tipping: My right hon. Friend has just looked forward to the autumn. Will she look forward a little further? Given the crisis in agriculture that has been happening over a number of years, and the hunger for change that this particular crisis has caused stakeholders in the countryside, can she say a word about the independent commission on food and farming that is currently envisaged?

Margaret Beckett: I can say a word, but it will not be much more than that. I can certainly confirm that the Government have every intention of setting up such a commission and are in continuing discussions about it. I agree that there is a hunger for a more sustained and thorough look at the long-term prospects for the countryside and the agriculture industry, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are more than anxious to foster the debate that is taking place.

We are working closely with our European partners, especially the Commission. Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer, and David Hunter, director of the departmental agriculture group, will be in Brussels

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tomorrow to update the Commission on what we are doing to eradicate the disease, and to discuss the difficulties that we shall face in the autumn.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Beckett: I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not. I really ought to finish as this is a very short debate.

We have always said that there will be an inquiry when the outbreak is over and that it will be thorough but not long drawn out. We all want to get at the facts and to identify what could have been done better, but also to identify what was handled extremely well—although the exact nature and form of the inquiry remain, as ever, a matter for the Prime Minister

Without prejudice to the issue of an inquiry, we have also always said that there are lessons to be learned from the epidemic, including on disease control policy for future outbreaks. We need to consider the case for better animal identification, especially for sheep, improved movement records, the possibility of controls on the movement of cattle and sheep, as there are already for pigs, and stronger controls on the import of meat. My Department is already co-ordinating a cross-Whitehall initiative to improve activity in this regard. In the longer term we need to look at better biosecurity by markets, dealers and farmers. The Commission has announced a review that will cover some, if not all, of these issues and we are helping to organise a conference in Brussels in the autumn to provide a forum for discussing future foot and mouth disease policy options, including vaccination.

I acknowledge the real problems in rural areas, from the immediate consequences and aftermath of the disease to the long-standing deterioration in rural services over which the Conservative party presided with so much complacency for so long. We are not complacent. We are determined to work with all who have real concern for rural areas to deliver real, long-term improvement. It is on that, not on the empty rhetoric of Opposition Members, that in time we shall be prepared to be judged.

4.56 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I am sorry that the Secretary of State could not give way, but I appreciate the time pressures. I have a number of questions to ask and I certainly hope that the Minister for Rural Affairs, will endeavour to answer them in detail.

As the debate is entitled "The Countryside in Crisis" we can acknowledge that the fact that the countryside has been in a near permanent state of crisis in recent years is why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had to go. Unfortunately, so far—I stress, so far—there is little evidence that the new super-Department has yet undergone a cultural transformation. Indeed, wherever I go people tell me that, under a new name, MAFF lives. Most of us want to see it die. Crisis management remains the over-riding characteristic.

The tragedy is that after the disasters of BSE, the collapse of the pig market and lower grain prices, farming was just beginning to get back on its feet when it was hit by the foot and mouth epidemic. We cannot avoid facing up to the fact that for many years under successive

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Governments we have dangerously lowered our defences against monitoring and controlling the spread of disease. So far we have had only crisis response to deal with the situation.

The number of vets in Government service has undoubtedly been reduced. The independence of much of the advice available to Government has been compromised because most of the institutions have been forced to bid for commercial contracts alongside their Government work. As a result it is extremely difficult for those in pursuit of commercial contracts always to give advice that might be required but could prejudice their ability to attract new contracts. I hope that the new Department will address that.

In a crisis an urgent response is needed. Farmers everywhere are understandably becoming anxious about the scale of livestock movement restrictions. The Secretary of State gave some indication of changes to the restrictions, but also made it clear that the restrictions would continue into the autumn and winter. What honest prospect does she have of a timetable for reopening export opportunities? If that does not happen in a few months, we shall have to address yet another crisis. Ministers must be aware that a general 20-day restriction on movements is unworkable for many farms and a more flexible approach is needed.

I hope that in the inquiry the Government will not only look at movement restrictions and vaccination options, but will also consider the possible role of quarantine in dealing with animal disease. There is scope for building that into a system in a way that we have not done to date.

Right now, many sheep farmers face ruin if the ban on sheep exports remains in force during the autumn. In my part of the UK, it is estimated that up to 70 per cent. of the lambs produced are dedicated for export, mainly to France. I am sure that Ministers will understand that, despite the fact that we in the north of Scotland have, to date, remained a foot and mouth free zone, if that market is closed the consequences will be disastrous. Will Ministers consider the introduction of a welfare scheme for unmarketable ewes and lambs? Will they also seek private storage aid for the thousands of tonnes of lamb that currently have no market? At the start of the outbreak, I suggested that such measures would be necessary and, as the months go by, they become more and more urgent. I am concerned that Ministers do not yet appear even to have opened discussions. I hope that they will do so.

The area that I represent is also a major pig-producing region: half the pigs raised in Scotland are produced in the north-east of Scotland. Like areas throughout the country, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of pigs due to the market difficulties, although they were just beginning to resolve themselves when the crisis struck. Indeed, some operators had got back into profit for the first time in two or three years only a month or two before the disease struck.

At the start of the epidemic, the market for cast sows was inevitably lost, because 90 per cent. of them went to the plant where the outbreak was first discovered. The problem is that there is no effective market for cast sows. Will the Government consider a welfare scheme for culled sows? It will be urgently needed.

The House will realise that I represent a quality livestock area, so there is no livestock sector that is not important to the north-east of Scotland—as is the case in

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many parts of the UK. I was pleased by the Secretary of State's announcement of the reintroduction of the over-30-months scheme on 23 July in Scotland and on 30 July in England and Wales. That will remove one uncertainty that has been worrying many producers. It may be a forlorn question, but will the Minister for Rural Affairs tell us whether there will be any consideration of the extra costs incurred by those farmers who have to retain cattle for several months? They have to feed cattle which have no productive use, so it would be proper to expect additional compensation to be allowed for animals which have—to use a colloquialism—been eating their heads off.

We have been living with the effects of BSE for a long time. My strong concern is that the beef export regime is unworkable and that it is unfair to British producers. I have raised this matter in the House previously: technically, we have lifted the ban, but, practically, we have not. As the number of BSE cases in the UK continues to decline, while it is still rising on the continent, it is time for the Government to press for a standard EU-wide regime that will at last enable prime British and Scottish beef once again to reach tables throughout the world. Let us not deceive ourselves: that is not happening at present.

I pray in aid a lady who deals in meat in northern Italy; she rejoices in the name of Francesca Piccolini. She said that throughout the period of the beef export ban she had scoured the world looking for beef of the quality that she had imported from Scotland, but that she had conspicuously failed to find anything of such quality. We can still produce that quality beef and get it on to the table—even in the House of Commons, where the beef supplied is produced in my constituency. However, we cannot put beef of that quality on the table of foreign purchasers because the regime does not allow us to do so. That is absurd and must be addressed. I hope that Ministers agree.

Of course we require a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak. I agree with the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that we must press the Government hard on that point. I remain dissatisfied when I am told that we have to leave it to the Prime Minister, who will ensure that there is a proper inquiry—whatever that is—when the outbreak is over, even though we do not know when that will be.

I understand the argument that an inquiry cannot be started perhaps until the outbreak has finished, but it would help if we knew what kind of inquiry it will be, that it will be public—we have had no such assurance—and who may submit evidence to it. I find it odd that the Government do not recognise that that is probably in their own interest, given the rumours circulating that suggest that there is even Government complicity in the spread of food and mouth disease—nothing that I accept, but Ministers must know that it is being said. Surely it is in the Government's interest to make it clear now what form the inquiry will take.

The catalogue of disaster clearly shows that a fundamental review of our approach to disease control is required. Our defences have been lowered under successive Governments, and we need to address the extent to which the reduction in the number of vets, the compromised research institutions and the cuts in customs

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control have contributed to the increasing problems of disease, and to find out what needs to be done to put it right.

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