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6 Nov 2002 : Column 337—continued

Mr. Morley: I understand that point. I can give an assurance that we expect the risk assessment and the evaluations towards the end of this month. We will then hold public consultation on that, and consultation on any potential changes or recommendations that flow from that. I can also give an assurance that, whatever regime is put in place, the intention is to have it agreed in time for the spring movements in early spring next year. That is a clear timetable, which takes account of the needs of the livestock industry.

As I said, I am surprised that Members in the other place have pre-empted the studies that are still going on and have gone against veterinary advice about the minimum proportionate movement restrictions. They have passed primary legislation which requires that a 20-day standstill would have to lapse eight weeks after the last confirmed case of an outbreak. Even if I thought that the measure was serious and proportionate—I appreciate that it gives an opportunity for a debate on the 20-day rule, and I understand why people may want to discuss that—the eight-week period does not make much sense to me. Eight weeks is not very long after the last known outbreak of a major epidemic. There could well be further risks, which could last beyond eight weeks. It is an arbitrary cut-off point, which we cannot accept.

I accept on behalf of the Government that there need to be strict controls on movements during the outbreak, and that those will be different afterwards. I accept the reasoning behind that, and it is what we have done through the range of exceptions from the 20-day rule that have been progressively introduced during the year, which have relaxed the controls. Some veterinary advisers feel strongly that we have gone too far. Again, it is a question of balance, recognising and responding to the legitimate concerns and needs of the livestock industry, while following the best veterinary advice and minimising risk. We are reviewing the rules.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that the amendment is not serious and does not belong to the Bill. It is certainly a vehicle for discussing the 20-day rule and we have no objection to debating the issues, because they are serious. However, the amendment is flawed and I ask the House to reject it.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I start by acknowledging that the Minister has made it clear that sensible people believe that in the case of a crisis such as the one that we endured during the foot and mouth epidemic, movement must be restricted. He is right to say that, with the exception of a very few

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people, the entire House and the whole industry would acknowledge that. The issue is for how long movement should be restricted.

The 20-day rule was imposed to deal with what the Secretary of State described during her statement as the horror and tragedy of foot and mouth and with the problems that movement would have caused by exacerbating that crisis. The logic was that by preventing livestock from leaving a holding for 20 days after new animals had arrived on it, the disease would be confined to an individual farm, so the rule became part of the interim foot and mouth arrangements.

Some 10 months after the last confirmed case, the industry recognises that the need for the rule must be debated again. We should not underestimate the effect that it is having on the livestock industry. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will have heard from farmers in their constituencies who are suffering because of the continuing imposition of the 20-day rule. The Minister said—revealingly, I thought—that had the 20-day rule been in place before the outbreak, its spread would not have been so great. That is a self-evident truth, but from that we surely cannot make the judgment that we should have as an on-going precaution for all time a 20-day rule, just in case there is an outbreak of foot and mouth or any of the other diseases to which it might apply.

A restriction on movement cannot be a permanent precaution; it can only be a reaction to a problem that may arise when we hear about a confirmed case or outbreak of a significant disease. I would be very worried if the Minister were considering the imposition of such a rule as a permanent precaution against possible outbreaks. Perhaps he will intervene to reassure me.

6.45 pm

Mr. Morley: I make it very clear that we are indeed considering permanent movement restrictions. Such restrictions are designed to deal not just with an epidemic, but with future animal disease risk. I do not think that the majority of the agriculture industry is against the idea of movement restrictions. People want to discuss measures that they consider to be proportionate and effective, and which take account of the other points that have been raised. I must make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is about reducing risk for the future and protecting our livestock industry, following advice from our chief veterinary officer, our chief scientist and two independent inquiries. Is the hon. Gentleman saying, on behalf of the Conservative party, that he would ignore the advice from those bodies?

Mr. Hayes: What I am saying on behalf of the Conservative party is that if the 20-day rule in its current form was allowed to continue in perpetuity—

Mr. Morley: I am not saying that.

Mr. Hayes: I am glad that the Minister is not saying that. If the rule were allowed to continue in that form, the British livestock industry would be decimated.

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That is the simple fact of the matter. If the Minister does not believe me, perhaps he will listen to the National Farmers Union.

Paul Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I shall quote from the NFU. I am sure that that will inform and inspire the hon. Gentleman's intervention and make it even more incisive and cogent than his interventions usually are.

The NFU states—I am sure that this reflects the views of farmers with whom I have dealt around the country, and I am sure that it reflects the opinions expressed in the Minister's communications with farmers:

As I said at the outset, I do not pretend that we do not have to consider movement restrictions. We need a sensible balance. The Secretary of State said earlier that there must be a proportionate level of control and a balance between costs on industry and necessary precautions. Most of us would accept that.

Paul Flynn: The NFU is, not unexpectedly, as conservative as ever and refuses to accept change where change is essential. If the 20-day rule becomes permanent, why does not the hon. Gentleman encourage non-contact ways of marketing animals, which worked successfully during the foot and mouth epidemic? I refer to marketing through direct sales, video links and the internet, which not only reduces the risk of infection but reduces the suffering of animals by reducing the number of journeys.

Mr. Hayes: That is a good point, but it would require massive change in the livestock industry. The hon. Gentleman is right that some change is taking place. There are new and more innovative ways of trading, but the idea that that could be switched on like a tap, and that suddenly the livestock industry can change the habits not just of a lifetime but of generations, many of which are embedded in local culture and local business practice, is fanciful. He is right to suggest that we should aim at such additional means of selling products. However, it will not happen tomorrow, and unless we do something quickly to ease the burden that the 20-day rule is placing on the industry, there will be much less of an industry to regulate. He would not want that to happen any more than I would; I know that he is a generous and intelligent man who shares many of my perspectives on these issues. He is right that we need to consider more innovative ways of dealing with these matters, but they cannot be used immediately, although we are faced now with a significant problem in the livestock industry, as is reflected in the comments of the NFU.

Mr. Peter Atkinson : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Perhaps he can defend the NFU from the

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brickbats that have been travelling in its direction from Newport. I remind him of what the NFU said about the movement scheme:

That is the NFU's view.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, there is widespread consensus about the need to be moderate and practical in these matters, but that consensus must strike the very balance that the Secretary of State identified in her statement between sensible precaution and the costs and burdens imposed on the industry. My suggestion to the House, which is reflected in the Lords amendments, is that that burden is currently falling too heavily on the industry.

We have heard once again from the Minister that a detailed cost-benefit and risk-assessment analysis will be considered. We are aware of that, although it is not likely to be implemented until February. I understand from him and the Secretary of State that we are likely to know more about that later this month. That is good and healthy, but it will not please the industry or impress those who are currently struggling to maintain businesses, many of which are on the very edge commercially. We should not view this matter outside the context of the overall problems that farmers face. I do not need to remind the Minister or the House of how profound those difficulties are, especially in the less-favoured areas and among sheep farmers and some of the people represented by the hon. Members who are present in the Chamber. Those people will not receive well a conclusion to the deliberations that does not recognise that the existing regime is too punitive, costly, regulatory and burdensome for them.

I should like to refer to a matter that has not been aired in detail so far this evening, although it may be as we continue. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, in many cases the rigidity of the 20-day rule is encouraging abuse. Farmers face an unpalatable choice between breaking the 20-day rule and going out of business. That is not an acceptable choice for us as responsible Members of this House to impose on the industry.

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