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5.30 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): It is a privilege, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to catch your eye from the Back Benches for the first time in nine years or so—something that I hope to do on rural matters on many occasions in the years ahead. As you can imagine, the Bill is of pressing importance to my constituents in Richmond, Yorkshire, in the Yorkshire dales. Ours has been one of the hardest hit areas in the whole foot and mouth crisis, which is one of the worst events with which I have had to deal in almost 13 years as a Member of Parliament. We have had 39 cases of foot and mouth disease, deep human and animal hardship, and huge losses in the local tourism industry.

Other hon. Members who represent similarly affected constituencies will agree that it is hard to imagine from central London the effect on the feelings, way of life and economy of the parts of our country that have been hit so hard by this disease. The farmers who have suffered it on their farms are among the most robust and stoical people one could ever come across, anywhere in the world. However, their stoicism has been tested to the limit this year by desperate animal welfare problems and severe economic consequences, as well as by the fact that those difficulties have been accompanied and exacerbated by some of the worst instances of bureaucratic bungling, mismanagement and, sometimes, indifference that I have ever come across.

We cannot consider the Bill in isolation from that record. Indeed, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) made the same point from the Labour Benches. We cannot consider granting to a Department new and rather sweeping powers without looking at how it exercised its powers over

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the past year. The matter cannot be considered in isolation. The Secretary of State used as one of the justifications for urgent legislation—indeed, this was the only justification that she gave—the argument that there had been protracted legal cases involving farmers who objected to culling. She gave the example of Thirsk, which is situated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). However, one of the reasons why those legal cases and disputes arose was that farmers no longer had confidence in the exercise of the Ministry's powers, because of the way in which the outbreak had been handled until that time.

So I fear that the Government are introducing legislation to deal urgently with a symptom of the problem, rather than with its actual cause. We in this House are law makers. That is our principal job. In the end, we are judged collectively by the laws that we make and by whether they are good. It is our collective experience in all parties that, if measures are rushed in their conception, introduced without reasonable consultation, unlikely to command wide support—a point mentioned by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow)—or presented via weak arguments from the Front Bench, they are unlikely to be good law. Sadly, all those factors are present in the Bill. There is no clear reason why these measures alone, rather than others, should be introduced today, except a degree of frustration in the Department with some people who have argued back, a desire to ensure that the Government can always get their way, and, from a financial point of view, a little bit of meanness thrown in.

The Government would be in a far stronger position to introduce these or any other measures if they had announced, at this stage or previously, the establishment of a true, public, open and detailed inquiry into the origins and development of foot and mouth disease, and if they had said that any emergency legislation that was necessary now, in the interim, would be subject to review after consideration of the results of such an inquiry. They would be in a far stronger position if they had a comprehensive plan about how they would tackle foot and mouth disease if it were to arise again in the next few months. However, they have presented nothing of that sort to the House. There is simply this measure on its own. No comprehensive plan has been put forward to the House, nor even a list of measures that must be urgently effected to tackle the disease more competently than before. We have not heard about a wider contingency plan. In fact, we have not heard much about the previous contingency plan. I know that the Government claim to have had a contingency plan when they were asked about the purchase of railway sleepers, but they seem reluctant to give it to anybody.

I have seen a written answer from the Under-Secretary, which said that the contingency plan had been placed in the Library and that it is published on the Department's website. However, as far as I can tell, it is not on the Department's website today and the Library has no knowledge of it. I hope that the Under-Secretary will undertake to publish—or republish if he has already published it—the contingency plan that was followed by Ministers when this year's foot and mouth outbreak began.

Mr. Morley indicated assent.

Mr. Hague: No argument, such as that the Government are having an inquiry and that that is part of a bigger plan

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and urgent list of measures, is available to Ministers during the debate because they are not doing such things. They refused to hold a true, public and independent inquiry despite the comments made by the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) when he announced the inquiry on BSE. He said that BSE

Do such factors not apply to this case? Has it threatened the livelihood of thousands of people throughout the farming and food industry? Yes, it has. Has it cost the taxpayer huge sums? Yes, it has. Has it caused difficulties in our international relations? Yes, it has been a disaster. Do we not have the same responsibility as we had for BSE to examine the development of such disastrous circumstances through an equivalent inquiry?

Mr. Martlew: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I am glad to see him speaking from the Back Benches. I remind him that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made the announcement, the Opposition said that an inquiry on BSE was not necessary and, when they were in government, they refused to hold such an inquiry. It was two years later when the Labour party, which was then in government, apologised for the fact that an inquiry on BSE had not been held.

Mr. Hague: I recall the Opposition's policy because I was Leader of the Opposition at the time. We did not oppose the establishment of the inquiry, and all of us who were even slightly connected with the matter when we were Ministers co-operated fully with it. There is no reason why Ministers today should not co-operate with a similar inquiry into the origins of the foot and mouth outbreak. What misdemeanour was so serious that it cannot be openly aired in such an inquiry? What evidence is so dangerous that it cannot be brought out in public? What gaps in the Government's handling were so wide that they cannot be publicly aired? By what standards can we have an inquiry into BSE and not foot and mouth, except by the standards of hypocrisy that the Government have set on other occasions?

An inquiry is not being held because the attitude of the central personnel in the Government—not necessarily the Ministers specifically involved with the matter—is that disaster in the countryside is an inconvenient news story, rather than a major policy matter that should be resolved. That is why they slapped down the Minister for the Environment when he said that there would unquestionably be a public inquiry, because we would want to know how the disease took such hold. We have not heard from the right hon. Gentleman on that subject—I am not sure whether we have heard from him about any subject since he was slapped down by Downing street for making the statement.

I have three major objections to the Bill. First, it is not based on a sound, independent, considered and comprehensive analysis of what happened and it is not

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accompanied by such an undertaking with the Bill as an interim measure. Secondly, the Bill places an onus on farmers that the Government are not prepared to carry. The public inquiry in Devon, which is the most authoritative assessment so far, said that the Government's handling of the crisis was lamentable. Its first recommendation was:

The authors of that report raised an important point, which is my third objection to the Bill.

It is now clear that we need urgently to take tougher action on bringing food into the United Kingdom—or the European Union, if that is the level at which such decisions should be made. It is incredible that passengers on an aeroplane can still bring meat into the country, provided that they claim that it is for personal use. Large quantities of meat are being brought in, in this way, and sold on to markets.

Recent examples—I know that these are the most lurid—have included: a cargo declared as vegetables that included 15 dead monkeys and an anteater; another that contained a whole freshly slaughtered deer; maggot- infested fish; and live crabs in a suitcase. In March, baggage handlers at Heathrow refused to handle a suitcase that was leaking blood and covered in maggots. The Government have to deal with those problems quickly, to prevent not only foot and mouth but many other diseases, such as brown rot in potatoes, or classical swine fever, which came to this country last year.

If the Government expect farmers to improve their biosecurity, it is time the Government improved the biosecurity of the entire nation. They are proposing to pay 75 per cent. compensation initially, then 100 per cent. if DEFRA officials—applying some as yet unspecified criteria—are satisfied that biosecurity has been maintained on a farm. In any fair system, it would be the other way round. There should be a presumption that 100 per cent. compensation should be paid, unless it could be shown that biosecurity had been insufficiently maintained, in which case 75 per cent. would be paid. Would Ministers apply their criteria to themselves? Would they agree to receive 75 per cent. of their salary initially, and get the balance only if the biosecurity policies of the nation were judged by a third party to be secure? I cannot see the Minister being gripped by enthusiasm for such a proposition.

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