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Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am interested in what he says about Ellesmere Port and its vistas of petrochemical plants. Does he agree that the main criterion for financial assistance should not be the degree of ruralness, if there is such a word, but the degree of the impact of foot and mouth?

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend is correct. The Minister's letter also said that 151 English rural borough councils had been provided with financial support, but there is no distinction between those which have been hit by foot and mouth and those which have not, and those parts of the country where there was no outbreak and those were there were heavy outbreaks. That is illogical. If my hon. Friend has not been to Ellesmere Port, I am happy for him to visit my constituency, from where we can get in the car and drive to Ellesmere Port to see that it is not a rural area. It could not possibly be a rural area as there are no green fields. It has a good shopping centre and many petrochemical works.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Will he emphasise to the Minister that his constituency and part of the borough of Macclesfield make up the most heavily livestocked area in Cheshire? It is extraordinary that an area that is overwhelmingly rural and agricultural should not qualify for business assistance under rate relief, whereas, as my hon. Friend said, huge urban areas such as Chester and Ellesmere Port do. That is nonsense, but the Minister was not prepared to do anything about it.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember that we both sought, but were unable to secure, meetings with the Minister and the chief executive of Macclesfield borough council to put our case. The situation is crazy, and it confirms the worst suspicions of many of those who live in my borough council area that some people in Whitehall have never left the M25 area and know about no other part of the country than that just a few hundred metres from this place.

I commend Macclesfield borough council for the sterling job that it has done in providing emergency rate relief for hard-hit rural businesses out of its own pocket. However, with the proper Government support that it deserves, it could be doing even more, and that is a great tragedy. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to reconsider the council's status under Special Grant Report (No. 86) because it just does not make sense.

The fourth and final issue, and perhaps the most important and pressing, arises from the impact of foot and mouth disease on livestock markets. Again, I shall illustrate my point with an example from Tatton. Chelford, in the south of the constituency, is one of the largest livestock markets in the country. The last sale of real livestock to be held at Chelford took place on 22 February, nine months ago. Since then the auctioneers have lost, at the very least, more than £500,000 in lost commission on sales. Five full-time people have been made redundant, and 19 part-time people, almost all from low-income families, have also lost their jobs. Many other small businesses, which relied on the market trade for their income, have closed, including the country clothing stall, the fencing supplier, the hedging man and the small Land Rover dealer. I am not overstating the case when I

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say that the closure of the livestock auction at Chelford has torn the heart out of the rural community in that part of Cheshire.

We all understand why markets in England had to be closed immediately the disease was discovered. Indeed, as I have already argued, they should have been closed a couple of days earlier. We understand also why they had to remain closed while the epidemic raged, but no one can understand why English and Welsh livestock markets are still closed today, two months after the last confirmed foot and mouth case in the whole country and long after similar livestock markets in Scotland and Northern Ireland have reopened.

As Mr. Rodney Bacon of the north-west NFU said in a letter to me last week:

Alan Gardiner, the chairman of the Cheshire county NFU, phoned me today because he knew that I was leading this debate and emphasised that the reopening of the livestock markets is now the most important issue facing local farmers.

To an extent, Chelford market has taken matters into its own hands. Last month it began holding digital auctions in which sellers could look at digital photographs of the stock. I am happy to pay tribute to the fact that one of the Government's rural recovery schemes even contributed a couple of hundred pounds to provide the digital camera. I am glad to say that the auctions have been a moderate success, but I have to tell the Minister that they may pose a much greater risk to biosecurity than live auctions.

According to farmers to whom I have spoken in preparation for this debate, buyers do not, of course, rely on the digital photograph but go from farm to farm to check out the stock. That poses enormous risks of cross-farm contamination. If everyone went to Chelford market, they would be registered and disinfected together and be able to be traced if there were ever a problem. None of those measures applies to a digital auction.

Despite the overwhelming case for reopening livestock markets such as Chelford, they are still closed. What is more, they have been given no idea from the Government about when they might open. As Gwyn Williams, partner of Chelford market, said in a letter to me last week:

He then says, as I have pointed out, that the market has not been held since February. He continues:

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With the indulgence of the House, I should like to read more of the letter. It is extremely well written and makes the points more elegantly than I could. It continues:

Mr. Williams makes a good point; there is a strong rumour afoot in the farming community that not reopening livestock auctions is part of a secret DEFRA plan to restructure the industry. The Minister might use this opportunity to quash such stories, which I am sure are untrue.

Mr. Williams goes on:

Mr. Williams is of course referring to an entirely separate debate about food import controls. Many people in this country do not understand why the Government do not introduce them.

The letter ends:

I read that letter at length because it raises such important points. I should be very grateful if the Minister responded to Mr. Gwyn Williams' points.

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