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16 Oct 2002 : Column 393—continued

Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend has made that charge on his own account, but I should point out that when Professor Follett, who chaired the inquiry into the science of foot and mouth disease, was asked during today's Select Committee meeting what he would like to see following the Government's action plan, he replied XAction."

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend demonstrates that the views that we are expressing on this matter command wide support in the country. People are experiencing a mixture of bafflement and anger at the Government's failure to act on a matter that they themselves have said is important.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): My hon. Friend mentions terminal 1 and flights from Ireland. Of course, a lot of the infected meat comes from Africa and the middle east, and at the Heathrow terminals that handle those flights there is no warning either.

Mr. Lidington: I hope that, if nothing else, after this debate Ministers will take the steps that they promised they would take six months ago, and ensure that fairly straightforward measures such as warning posters and amnesty bins are at last delivered.

Farmers want action on food labelling, too. Often, it is far too difficult for shoppers to find out whether the food that they buy is British and meets this country's stringent standards on hygiene and animal welfare. It is more than two years since the Prime Minister promised the National Farmers Union that he would introduce new labelling guidance to ensure that foreign goods are not passed off as British simply because they have been processed here. Yet the Government that he leads blocked a Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), which tried to give that promise the backing of law. If the Government are not prepared to look again at this issue, we will look for an opportunity to bring the matter back for further debate.

Like other businesses, farmers are struggling day by day with the cost in time and money caused by Government regulation. Too often—far too often—new rules are being brought in with scant regard to their practical impact on people who are trying to run small businesses. European legislation on nitrates and on environmental impact assessments has been gold plated in Whitehall. Burying fallen stock on-farm will be illegal from May next year, yet the Government have still given us no details on how alternative arrangements are supposed to work, or on who will pay for them. At the moment, those farmers who live within reasonable distance of a hunt can get rid of livestock carcases;

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however, the Government have their own plans for that source of help as well. That problem is causing particular anxiety in upland areas. The subject was raised with me by the National Farmers Union in Wales and the Farmers Union of Wales when I met their representatives.

The 20-day rule on livestock movements in England and Wales is causing enormous practical problems for farmers. I remember attending the Hexham auction market—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)—and listening to sheep farmers. They said that they would have to choose between going to a ewe sale one week or a lamb sale the next, because it was impossible to do both.

Mr. Todd: Since the Chairman of the Select Committee referred to one thing that Sir Brian Follett said, perhaps I can refer to another. He was questioned on the 20-day movement restrictions, and referred back to the experience of restrictions on pigs. Again, he recalled outrage at the implications, said that that industry had accepted that that was the right thing to do, and rather suspected that the same view might be taken some years hence.

Mr. Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman refers to Sir Brian Follett's original report and to Dr. Anderson's report, he will find two further things. First, they recognised that there were profound differences between the structure of the pig industry and of the sheep and cattle sectors. Both men drew attention to the serious practical difficulties that they acknowledged would be caused, were the 20-day rule to be maintained. They also said that the Government should carry out an urgent cost-benefit analysis of the 20-day rule. Frankly, the Government have known since before those inquiries were set up that this was one of the big issues to be determined. That we are still waiting for the Government to reach a conclusion again indicates a complete unreadiness to face up to the difficulties that country businesses are experiencing.

Mr. Curry: There may be a case for one set of restrictions on movement, but of course we have two sets, because we have different systems north and south of the border. Does my hon. Friend think that, in Scotland, it is the sheep, the farmers or the politicians who are more intelligent than their counterparts in England?

Mr. Lidington: It is probably not among the sheep or the farmers where a difference in intelligence, or perhaps in judgment, exists. I have seen no hint from Ministers that farms in England or Wales are at risk of a renewed outbreak of foot and mouth disease because no border is being enforced between England and Scotland. Ministers have so far been unable to explain why a system in Scotland can exist alongside a completely different, far more stringent one south of the border.

What makes matters worse is the incompetence that the Government too often display in administering their own rules. The Rural Payments Agency could not meet its legal deadline for payments to cattle farmers, and we learned this week that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs still owes some #100 million to contractors that it employed to clean up farms infected

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with foot and mouth. The memory of the Government's mishandling of that epidemic still rankles with many thousands of people in our countryside. There was inadequate contingency planning, delay in calling in the Army, confusion over the contiguous cull and question marks over its legality. The experience of many people, particularly those in the areas hit hardest by the disease, was—to quote Cumbria county council's inquiry team—one of Xconfusion, disorder and delay".

How that contrasts with the vision painted in the Government's rural White Paper: a vision of

That was a statement with which few could disagree, and it undoubtedly commanded widespread support in all parts of this country. That there is now such disillusion and discontent is above all down to the Government's blatant and repeated failure to deliver on the promises that they so glibly made.

8.18 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I am delighted that the Conservative party has at last woken up to the fact that the rural economy is an important issue. [Interruption.] It was noticeable that, in introducing the debate, the party's spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), went very wide of the topics in the motion. I am glad that he quoted our purposes for the countryside—on which we are delivering—in his closing remarks. The Opposition are catching up with Labour's 180 rural and semi-rural MPs, whose pressure on their constituents' behalf since 1997 has led to the rural White Paper, to a raft of specific economic measures, to the rural service standard, and to the rural proofing of policies. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the latter, which was described as courageous by Ewen Cameron, the Government's rural advocate, from whom the hon. Gentleman quoted so selectively.

The hon. Gentleman was very selective in the way that he addressed even the issues covered in his own motion. The Government have acted to help rural businesses and the rural economy as a whole, not just farming. The hon. Gentleman referred to the recent march in London, so let me say to him what I said at that time. There was muddle at the heart of the march. The organisers were muddled. After the march, they had to produce a 10-point argument to explain why they organised a march in London. I received a small number of letters afterwards from people who took issue with the suggestion that there was a muddle at the heart of the march. Those who wrote said that they were not confused and that they knew why they had attended the march, but they all quoted different reasons for their presence. There was a muddle at the heart of the march.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the Minister give way?

Alun Michael: I shall give way with pleasure.

Mr. Gray: After the march, the Minister made some remark to the effect that he had no idea what it was all

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about and that it was all a muddle. Will he explain why the No. 10 lobby briefing of the next day presented a different case? It was stated then that the Prime Minister knew precisely what the march was about, that he was extremely concerned about the issues raised and that he would do something about them. Why is the Minister singing a different tune from the Prime Minister?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman is a shadow spokesman on economic issues but has apparently been left out of this debate, so I understand that he needs to make his voice heard at some point. However, if he had waited a moment he would have heard me say that most of the problems listed in the motion have not appeared since 1997 but have been building up over the past 25 years. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister responded courteously to the 10 matters listed by the Countryside Alliance after the march in September. Subsequently, I responded in great detail to each of the issues. I explained where the Government stood on them, and pointed out what we were doing about them.

The Countryside Alliance knows that we take the matter seriously, because we have given it a seat at the table—a place on the Rural Affairs Forum for England. To be fair to the alliance, I must say that it has worked constructively with the Government on a series of issues, but let us have no more nonsense suggesting that there was clarity behind the march.

In his opening speech, the hon. Member for Aylesbury rightly acknowledged that any sense of grievance is aimed not only at this Government but at all politicians. The real damage to rural economies—as with urban areas—was done in the 18 years of damage and neglect under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. [Interruption.] Of course Opposition Members do not like to hear that: throughout those 18 years, they tried to blame the previous Labour Government. Even 17 years into the Conservative Government's rule, they were still looking to the previous Administration. They will therefore be reminded of their faults and of the evils of the Conservative Administration.

The Labour party was the first political party to devote a national conference to rural issues, which all the interested parties attended. The National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, voluntary organisations and the Countryside Alliance, as well as representatives of local government, animal welfare organisations and business, were there because they were able to debate with Labour MPs and Ministers the issues that affect rural economies.

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