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9.16 pm

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): I believe that the increased powers that are sought by Ministers are justified, as long as they are balanced by responsibilities that are taken on by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirmed that DEFRA hopes to pay all compensation within three weeks. That is one of the responsibilities that the Department should be taking on if it is expecting to have increased powers.

I dealt with the case of a farmer who had to wait many weeks for his compensation merely because of a computer fault. In the event, I managed to get the problem sorted out in 24 hours. However, that sort of thing should not be happening.

In Staffordshire, the National Farmers Union, trading standards officers, vets and other officers worked well together during the outbreak. Inevitably, however, there were delays and huge frustrations for farmers. I believe that the proposed wider powers will help to speed up the process. The disease would have been slowed if the cull had been conducted with more rigour, so those powers are justified if they hasten the ending of future diseases.

Farmers were quick to criticise, but they cannot have it both ways. If they want things sorted out quickly for their benefit, they cannot hold out and introduce unnecessary delays either to maximise the money that they receive following negotiations about compensation or for other reasons.

Many Members have told the House about cases where the preventive culling of animals was not justified. In Dilhorne, in my constituency, apparently healthy sheep were moved on the authority of a private vet, and then found to be infected. That caused the unnecessary further loss of animals and of local livelihoods. I agree with my

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hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that we must examine animal movements, especially of sheep, and control the scale of them, for welfare reasons and because of concerns about the threat of disease being spread.

Farmers have a basis for complaint about illegal imports. I have raised the issue before on the Floor of the House. We must do more to control illegal imports, whether they come in on the back of a lorry or are brought in personally. There are anecdotes about Customs officers following a trail of blood from suitcases. I do not know whether they are true. However, it is ludicrous to allow people to import in that way. When a school party from my constituency went to France, its members could not even take a bag of beef-flavoured crisps into the country. We must make sure that our standards match those of other countries and stop those imports.

I do not see why farmers should not receive compensation as an incentive to comply with biosecurity measures.

Mr. Russell Brown: Schedule 1 refers to adjusted compensation. During the foot and mouth outbreak, did my hon. Friend, like me, receive phone calls from people who were doing their utmost to ensure that they did everything correctly and had full biosecurity, although neighbouring farms were doing very little—in fact, some people did nothing to prevent the spread of the disease to their farms?

Charlotte Atkins: I certainly did; that caused a good deal of anger in my constituency and along its borders.

We must ensure that biosecurity measures are clearly defined so that farmers can easily comply with them. The Government have a proud record on compensation. After all, they introduced 100 per cent. compensation for animals infected with bovine tuberculosis; the previous Government did not act in that way. Many farmers in my constituency, which has been seriously affected by bovine TB, have reason to be grateful to the Government for conceding that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) spoke movingly of the impact of foot and mouth and the scale of the devastation in Cumbria. Staffordshire was not the centre of the outbreak this time round, although it was in 1967. Even though it became officially free of foot and mouth at the beginning of October, there is still great concern about the impact of the disease on the county. For instance, we still have no open livestock markets, six months after the last case, which has had a huge impact on places like Leek in my constituency, as markets obviously set the market price for animals. It is ludicrous that farmers get one stock price for all their animals, whether the poorest or the best lambs are on offer. The area surrounding Leek is farmed by hill farmers, and the market also plays an important role in breaking down the isolation that many of them suffer. Many of those farmers earn less than £5,000 a year, so they are not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, Staffordshire Moorlands district council has paid out nearly £100,000 to help agricultural workers who have lost their jobs in the Moorlands. However, those housing benefits could be the tip of the iceberg, because the knock-on effects on the rural economy could have a much a greater impact, which we have yet to experience.

A lot of participants in our debate have acknowledged that foot and mouth did not just affect farmers. That is why the Bill is important; we must not focus just on the

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impact on farmers, who have a responsibility to recognise the knock-on effect of the disease on the rest of the economy. I was delighted that the Government recognised the impact on tourism and local businesses. I was particularly pleased that the Treasury and Advantage West Midlands finally agreed that Staffordshire should benefit from the rural recovery fund grant scheme. So far, £700,000 has been awarded in grant aid since June. One firm in my constituency that benefited was the Peak School of Hang Gliding in Wetton. It was decimated by the foot and mouth outbreak and although the grant will not help the firm to recover the money that it has lost, it will see it through to the future. It will ensure that the firm can invest in computer equipment, regenerate its business with a web page to attract further trade, produce its own publicity leaflets and buy new equipment.

Although Staffordshire has not been at the centre, the outbreak has had devastating effects. We must allow the Government to take on increased powers. Of course, the powers must be properly scrutinised in Committee—that is the role of a Committee during the passage of a Bill—and we should support Second Reading tonight.

9.25 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I shall be brief. I apologise to the House for not being present all afternoon—I was in the Chamber for the opening speeches, but afterwards I had to attend the Public Accounts Committee hearing. I look forward to the National Audit Office inquiry into foot and mouth next year and the PAC hearing that will follow. I hope that we may see the Minister at that time next year.

The Bill shows all the signs of being hurried. I cannot support it on Second Reading because of the wide-ranging and sweeping powers that it confers on Ministers. The Bill states that it is immaterial whether animals are affected with foot and mouth; it is immaterial whether they have been in contact with animals so affected; it is immaterial whether they have been exposed to the infection of foot and mouth; and it is immaterial whether they have been treated with vaccine.

If we were giving the powers to a Department that had the confidence of farmers, I might consider supporting the Bill, but the farmers in my constituency, South Norfolk, have very little confidence in the Department. That is a result of the way in which classical swine fever was handled—I am pleased to say that we were able to avoid foot and mouth directly, although we suffered from the indirect effects—the way in which the re-establishment of pig movements was handled, a range of issues relating to pig farrowing, the new regulations being introduced for laying hens, and the mix-up over sheep's brains and cows' brains. My constituents do not have confidence in the Department, so I cannot support the wide-ranging powers.

Furthermore, I cannot support the compensation regime. I know that the Bill is designed to provide additional powers to tackle foot and mouth, but from reading the clause headings, such as "Extension of power to slaughter", "Adjusted compensation"—downwards, of course—"Treatment: power of entry", "Slaughter: power of entry", "Slaughter: warrants", "Refusal and obstruction of inspector" and "Deliberate infection of animals", one could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the

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outbreak was entirely the farmers' fault. There may be some farmers who behaved improperly, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) that the assumption should be 100 per cent. compensation in the first instance. There should be a prima facie assumption that farmers are entitled to that.

The final reason why I cannot support the Bill is that it ignores the most important issue—it has been mentioned by so many other speakers that I hope the Minister has heard it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the hon. Members for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is no longer in his place, and many others spoke about illegal imports. The Minister should speak to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and to Mr. Richard Broadbent, the chairman of Customs and Excise, and get that issue sorted out. We have rats, bats, gorillas, monkeys, porcupines and anteaters coming into Heathrow unchecked, and the Government are doing practically nothing about it. It is about time that they did.

The Bill gives far too much power to the Minister, more or less unchecked, the compensation regime is wrong-headed, and the Bill makes no mention of the central problem—illegal imports.

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