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Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend has done well to secure this debate on behalf of his constituents. He paints a sombre picture of conditions in his constituency resulting from the outbreak. Will he remind the House how long it has been since an outbreak of foot and mouth has been recorded in his constituency? That would reinforce his message about the time that has elapsed since the last outbreak while Ministers continue to insist that the facilities should not be reopened.

Mr. Osborne: As I said earlier, the last outbreak of foot and mouth in my constituency occurred on 29 May—a full six months ago—yet Chelford market remains

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closed, as does every other livestock market in England and Wales, even though livestock markets in Scotland and Northern Ireland are open. I recall that Scotland had a large number of cases of foot and mouth. Will the Minister, who has experience of both English and Welsh agriculture, explain why English and Welsh livestock markets are being treated differently from livestock markets in other parts of the United Kingdom? He must end the damaging uncertainty and give a clear signal as to when livestock markets in England and Wales will reopen, because businesses cannot continue in such uncertainty.

Mr. Bacon: In speaking about livestock markets, my hon. Friend paints a picture of administration by DEFRA that inspires confidence in no one. In the light of that, does it surprise him that farmers have little confidence in either DEFRA or the proposals now being introduced, which many regard as draconian, in the Animal Health Bill? If DEFRA had a track record of greater administrative competence, it might have gained more trust than it currently has.

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In my constituency, DEFRA is regarded with great suspicion—although I recall from my time at MAFF that that Department was not highly regarded by the farming community either. There is an extraordinarily high degree of suspicion among farmers in my constituency about what DEFRA is up to.

There is also great frustration because of the delays that many of my local farmers have encountered in their dealings with DEFRA. I have sent several letters to the Department to which no replies have been received, and I believe that I have not received replies to several written questions, but my experience pales into insignificance compared with that of farmers I have met throughout the period. They tell me of hours spent on the phone, hitting the redial button, trying to get through on engaged lines, trying to get livestock movement permits, and so on.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: There is one point that my hon. Friend has not yet raised in his excellent speech on behalf of his constituents: it is the current Government's unfortunate record on payments to farmers. If the payments were made on time, farmers would at least have some cash flow, however limited. Will he urge the Minister to make prompt payments to livestock farmers whose life at the moment is hell?

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I have been told—I do not know whether it is true; perhaps the Minister can clear up the issue—by my local NFU branch that there are now administrative delays in getting payments to farmers because of bureaucratic problems at DEFRA—

Mr. Winterton: Strikes.

Mr. Osborne: Whatever the cause, it is creating further hardship for our farmers, so I urge the Minister to sort out the problems. When farmers are expecting a cheque from the Department, there is nothing more frustrating after all the hardship that they have experienced than the failure of the cheque to arrive, owing to simple administrative reasons or industrial action. It is inexcusable that delays continue.

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We had a rather pathetic letter from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who explained that the delays in dealing with correspondence and written questions were due to administrative problems caused by winding up MAFF and creating DEFRA. That begs the question why that was done in the middle of a foot and mouth epidemic. It was a crazy bureaucratic rearrangement. Whatever the arguments are for whether there should be a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, it was a crazy thing to do in the middle of a foot and mouth epidemic. Farmers in my constituency are paying a price for those Whitehall shenanigans and rearrangements.

Mr. Bacon: On the question of payments, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the issues that exacerbates the problem is the marked contrast between the slowness of the Ministry in paying and the rapid payments that farmers used to secure at livestock markets?

Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.

I am happy to say that farmers receive pretty prompt payments from Macclesfield borough council, which my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I know so well. Livestock markets provide immediate income. Indeed, they are vital. A market such as Chelford in my constituency is essential to farm-to-farm sales that keep the cash flow of farms going.

It would be interesting to hear from the Minister, in the many minutes that are available to him, whether the 21-day restriction that has been imposed on moving animals to markets and then moving them off farms back to markets, and so on, was introduced only for the foot and mouth epidemic. Once the Government finally decide that they can reopen livestock markets, will the 21-day limit go? If it is a more permanent feature, it will remove—I am not sure whether this is the correct agricultural term—liquidity from the market. It will prevent many farmers who move stock to and from livestock markets such as Chelford from carrying on their trade.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): My hon. Friend mentions livestock markets, and has referred to the lost commissions of the proprietors of the Chelford market, which amount to about £500,000. Has any estimate been made in my hon. Friend's constituency of the loss suffered by farmers in other rural businesses as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic?

Mr. Osborne: I have not seen any figures, but I imagine that they are considerable. The £500,000 that the Chelford market estimates it has lost relates only to lost auction sale commissions. The market proprietors were expecting commissions and sales to be much improved this year, had it been a normal agricultural year. They have also lost money because stallholders are no longer there, and the same applies to other passing trade.

A separate problem has been created because the proprietors have had to open a car boot sale on Sundays, which causes great distress to people who live close to the livestock market. There are many direct and indirect costs.

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I shall bring my remarks to an end so that the Minister has plenty of time to respond to them.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I have not spoken yet.

Mr. Osborne: Indeed. If other Members wish to contribute to the debate, they are more than welcome to do so.

I hope that the Minister will appreciate that I have tried to be as reasonable as possible in putting the case for my constituents. I have not resorted to party political point scoring—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) laughs, but I have not engaged in an attack on Labour's understanding of the countryside. I have not referred to many of the things that I used to write when preparing the Agriculture Minister's party conference speech, as opposed to his NFU annual conference speech.

I have tried to bring home to the House, through a series of specific examples from my constituency, the real hardship that foot and mouth continues to cause in the area which I represent six months over the last outbreak, and two months after the last outbreak in the country generally.

I have not gone on at great length about the recent past—I have not sought to betray entirely the agreement that I made with the Minister's private secretary. Instead, I have spoken of the hardship that farmers who escaped the virus but have not escaped the consequences of it now face. I have talked of the crippling losses to rural businesses, such as Stockley working farm, and made a plea for support for my local council. If any council in Cheshire is rural, it is my borough council. Most important, I have urged the Government to reopen the livestock markets that are vital to the revival of agriculture in Britain. In the remaining 40 minutes, I look forward to hearing about my constituency from my colleagues and to hearing the Minister's response.

9.50 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Mr. Deputy Speaker, you represent a rural area. While in the Chair, inevitably you have to be impartial, but I am sure that you will have recognised many of the problems of your own constituency in what my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said, even though Cheshire is much more livestock-oriented than the east of the country.

I support entirely the case advanced by my hon. Friend. I must emphasise both to him and the Minister the fact that I have represented an agricultural rural constituency for 30 years in this place. In addition, I come from a family that has been closely associated with farming for more than 150 years, so I speak with understanding and knowledge of the countryside, rural communities, farming and agriculture. I used to accompany my late father onto farms when I was only three or four years old, so I have a great and close affinity with farmers. What my hon. Friend said about the farmers of Tatton and their present position is accurate to the word, the letter, the crossed t and the dotted i.

From time to time, I fear, the Minister seems to believe that Opposition Members are making up stories about the problems faced by their farmers. As I understand it, he represents a central Cardiff constituency; if there is a farmer in it, I should be surprised. Perhaps he will say that there is but, as far as I know, there is not. I hope,

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therefore, that he will listen to those of us who speak on behalf of farmers and support the case that my hon. Friend made on behalf of his farmers.

The Macclesfield and district branch of the NFU and all the associated NFU branches in the area support 100 per cent. the views expressed by my hon. Friend. I want to emphasise that because we are not here, as he said, to make party political points. We are lobbying and making representations on behalf of farmers and those who work in the countryside. Perhaps it is only in times of crisis and war that the countryside and those who work in it to maintain it and produce food are properly appreciated. The farmers of Tatton, like those in many other parts of the country, have gone through a war—the foot and mouth epidemic, which hit them horribly.

Like my hon. Friend, I shall refer to Chelford market. I hope that he will not mind me saying that, for 25 years, the market, which he described in detail, along with the valuable role that it fulfils—was part of my constituency. I know Marshall's—Frank R. Marshall as it used to be called—in Chelford market well. Even now, with the permission of my hon. Friend, I frequently visit the market because, of course, it is important not only to the farmers of Tatton, but the farmers of my Macclesfield constituency as well.

On the importance of Chelford market, not only does it pay regularly and promptly the farmers who bring in their stock to sell at the agricultural centre in Chelford, but it gives them a fair and transparent price for their stock. They are not held over a barrel by the large superstores, which have done so much damage to farmers, particularly in recent times to the farmers in Tatton and in Cheshire as a whole.

I hope that the Minister for Rural Affairs, who is to reply to the debate, will respond positively to the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton that the Government announce the opening of cattle markets and auctions in the immediate future, if we are to save many of them from liquidation and going out of business.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who is the shadow agriculture spokesman, told me tonight that, regrettably, there is talk that two important cattle auction markets may be closing. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton asks me from a sedentary position not to name them, but they are important auction markets with an excellent reputation, and they may well close. That must not happen to Chelford, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton.

Sadly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton said, the Minister for Rural Affairs was not prepared to meet a delegation from Macclesfield about the second matter that I shall discuss—the business rate relief scheme resulting from the foot and mouth epidemic. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will announce promptly that the auction markets, particularly Chelford, will be opened at an early date, to prevent further financial hardship for those who run that excellent auction market, which is so important to Cheshire and a much wider area, and also for the benefit of the livestock farmers of Tatton and the adjoining constituencies.

I am happy to give way if the Minister wishes to intervene. If not, I shall move on to the matter which probably prompted him almost to rise: his reluctance and that of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport,

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Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, myself and the chief executive of the borough council when we requested a meeting to express our concern about Macclesfield borough's ineligibility for assistance under the scheme.

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