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Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD):
Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that, although the additional top-up payments to the hill farm allowance are worth,
on average, about £800 per hill farm, the average losses to hill farmers, certainly in my constituency, are between £10,000 and £20,000? That is scant compensation.
Chris Huhne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right: the amount of compensation bears no relationship to the losses that many people are suffering. The reality is that those losses are being suffered, as the Secretary of State must know, in many cases by the most vulnerable and the smallest members of the farming community. We might not get the big guns and the NFU asking for special schemes of support, but I hope that he is listening, for example, to the Tenant Farmers Association, which is pressing for exactly that.
Mr. Reid: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State should have announced both a light lamb and an older ewe welfare disposal scheme for the whole UK, so that farmers in England, Scotland and Wales could all benefit?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is clear that we need a welfare scheme. It is not enough merely to talk about compensation after the event; it is important to ensure that the impact on the market for farmers is dealt with. As he points out, not just farmers with light lambs but others in the sheep sector are struggling.
It is estimated that 40,000 sows are awaiting culling and that the number is growing by 4,000 a week. There is virtually no market for sow meat in the UK; 99 per cent. of it is usually exported. However, the abattoir in Essex that usually handles 70 per cent. of sows for export is currently within the control zone and not taking any animals. With no market for these animals, their numbers are building up on farms; that causes animal welfare issues, with overcrowding creating all the usual problems. Indeed, increasing feed costs mean that it can now cost £20 a month to feed a sow. The situation will only get worse as the number of unsellable animals increases. Will the Government listen to farmers and intervene now in instances where the suspension of exports in particular has created a surplus of animals across the UK?
DEFRAs animal health budget is not devolved, because England, Scotland and Wales are one epidemiological area. Will the Minister assure us that his Department will foot the Bill for animal welfare and market support measures in Scotland and Wales?
Mr. MacNeil: I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing out the non-devolved aspect of the budget and I draw attention to the commendable argument made by the National Farmers Union in Scotland, which has asked for a mere £15 per head welfare compensation scheme. That is a low price; it is not top dollar by any means. It is a sensible request for bottoming out, to which the Secretary of State has unfortunately not yet listened.
There is one enormous difference between the 2001 outbreak and the outbreak today that the Secretary of State did not point out. The outbreak today was ultimately caused by a facility that was inspected and regulated and licensed by his Department. There is therefore a clear responsibility that must cover Scotland and Wales as well as England.
David Maclean: The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing for payments to be made for an economic cull in Scotland, England and Wales, as opposed to the so-called welfare cull that Scotland has claimed all along is the purpose of exterminating 250,000 lambs.
Chris Huhne: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the degree of damage to hill farmers across the UK associated with the Governments responsibility for the facility in Pirbright means that this is a special case. The Government have to consider their own responsibility and address that.
I was interested to hear from the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has much greater legal knowledge than I have. It is clear that DEFRA has a moral, and probably a legal, obligation to get British farming back on its feet. Furthermore, it has an obligation to ensure that what happened at Pirbright never happens again. That a Government facility through institutional negligence has been the source of the outbreak is a national disgrace and the people responsible must be held to account.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now onwards.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Having broken out of the Whips Office, I wish to use my re-established ability to address the House to talk about the effect that foot and mouth has had in my constituency of Brigg and Goole. In particular, I want to talk about the pig industry and the severe problems that have been caused, even though my constituency is some way from Pirbright and all that happened there.
First, let me add to the comment made by those in the farming industry, other commentators and, in fairness, in the Oppositions motion that swift and decisive action by DEFRA when the outbreak was first notified reduced its potential to spread. As the British Veterinary Association says in its briefing for the debate, the overall approach was highly successful in that regard. However, that does not mean that there have been no problems, or that there is nothing more that the Government could do to help.
I also want to speak a little about animal welfare. Having chaired the associate parliamentary group for animal welfare, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his officials in DEFRA and other agencies take a strong interest in animal welfare and try to do the right thing, even if they do not always do everything that I tell them they should do. It was therefore unfortunate that the shadow Secretary of
State accused DEFRA and its agencies of a disregard for the welfare of animals that arose out of either callousness or stupidity. I notice that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) did not repeat that remark in his opening speech, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will accept that many of us in the House would not accuse his officials of that.
In the past few days, I have visited Stuart Teanby, a pig farmer in Winterton where I live. Stuart has a small operationrun by just himself and one otherwith a weaner unit producing pigs that are reared and then moved on to other farms for fattening. I also met John Godfrey, who is not my constituent but farms so much in my area that I sometimes feel that he owns most of it. From John, I heard how the outbreak has hit someone right at the other end of farminga huge organisation with large numbers of pigs to be dealt with. However, both are suffering from the consequences of movement restrictions and both feel there are things that DEFRA could do to assist.
I have spoken before in the House about the need to support our pig industry, which is unsubsidised. The industry has high animal welfare standards, particularly when compared with other methods of production in other countries, but that brings additional costs; in addition, increases in feed prices this year had already added another burden on to the sector. When movements stop, weaners are still coming into the production chain at a rate of about 66,000 a month and, between the ages of 12 to 22 weeks, they grow at a rate of 900 g a dayor 2 lb as I prefer to call it. A unit such as Stuarts is rapidly filled, the pigs continue to grow, the welfare conditions deteriorate and, as I know from my days in the Whips Office, fighting and bullying can break out. Anyone who knows anything about pigs will know that they can cause a lot of damage.
The partial lifting of the movement ban helped only to a certain extent. The day before I visited Stuarts farm, he had finally been able to sell on 880 pigs. He still had too many, but it was a start. However, the price had collapsed and he had to sell each pig at about £14 less than his production cost. That is a loss of more than £12,000, which he, as a small farmer, can ill afford. In the past, the Government have helped the pig industry with storage schemes to allow the throughput to continue and to keep a decent price. It will be some time before the market naturally balances out again and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will consider implementing such a scheme again.
The other issue for both Stuart and John is the culling of sows, which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned. The market was stable and lucrative before the outbreak; now, there are major problems both financially and in animal welfare terms. About 200,000 sows are slaughtered each year in the UK. There is virtually no domestic market for this meat; 99 per cent. of the meat is exported, most of it to Germany, and EU restrictions effectively stop the trade. As the hon. Gentleman said, the flow is largely handled by one abattoir in Essex, which cannot export at the moment. The result is not only that we have the 40,000 extra sows that he mentioned, but that the figure is growing by about 4,000 every week.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): My hon. Friend has asked about Cheales abattoir in EssexI think that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) also referred to it. In answer to their points, may I point out that we are in discussions with the European Union about allowing animals to be slaughtered at the abattoir and then exported? We do understand the pressures and we are involved in discussions.
Mr. Cawsey: I am grateful for the Ministers remarks. I will await developments with great interest, although an awful lot of sows will still come on to the market very quickly. We know what the result of that will be.
I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said about risk sharing and our need to develop systems to deal with such issues in the future. However, they are not in place now and, in the circumstances, I believe that a national sow disposal scheme should be put in place. I fear for the welfare implications if nothing is done. The British Pig Executive tells me that there are abattoirs that would be willing to slaughter sowsthe Minister may be interested to learn thatand that rendering capacity exists. Obviously it would be for the Department to calculate the figure, but we estimate that the 40,000 backlog could be disposed of for £3 million. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire told Ministers where £2 million of that £3 million could come from, so perhaps the Department will look at that. When one considers the problems for farmers and animal welfare, £3 million is not an awfully large amount.
These are difficult days, even in places that are well away from the affected area. I know that there are many issues relating to other sectors, but we have limited time and many other eminent Members are better qualified than I to talk about them. I will curtail my comments in the hope that the deep concerns of the pig sectors are understood by Ministers and that they will take urgent action to address them.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I am grateful for the chance to participate in the debate. The Opposition have accused the Government of incompetence over their handling of foot and mouth. In the few minutes available to me, I would like to read out the indictment. I respect the Secretary of State greatly. He comes to this with clean, fresh hands, and I hope that he will purge some of DEFRAs policy delusions. The policy delusions from 2001 are largely responsible for the present state of affairs. My criticisms might be rather harsh, but the Secretary of State is exempt from many of them, perhaps until we reach the compensation package.
The first charge against the Government is that they have refused to admit what caused the 2001 catastrophe. DEFRA is still obsessed with markets and farmers moving animals about. Of course, once foot and mouth started, because dirty food came into the country and there was a failure to spot foot and mouth at a pig farm, animal movements exacerbated the situation, but they did not cause foot and mouthdirty food coming into the country caused it.
Mr. Martlew: The right hon. Gentleman, like me, was deeply involved in the 2001 situation. Surely the farmer living at Heddon-on-the-Wall who did not boil pig swill or examine his animals was the cause of the 2001 outbreak.
David Maclean: The hon. Gentleman has got that quite wrong. Where did that filthy food come from in the first place? Foot and mouth did not suddenly spring up at Heddon-on-the-Wall or Catterick Army base. It had to come into this country from a foreign source. This is my second point: the Government did nothing to protect our borders and then failed to detect foot and mouth at Heddon-on-the-Wallthe farm had been inspected. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foodlater DEFRAwas obsessed by controlling farmers and markets and covered up the fact that it had not taken the necessary preventive action to stop foot and mouth in this country. Of course, DEFRA is still obsessed by controls on markets and farmers.
Thirdly, based on these self-delusions, repairing Pirbright was not a priority. After the discovery that the drains were clapped out, clearly part of the thought process was, Well, thats not too important because it doesnt really cause foot and mouth. Foot and mouth is caused by farmers moving animals around the country. The Secretary of State says that no one actually said that the drains were leaking, but surely it stands to reason that if one gets a report saying that drains are ancient and clapped out, one automatically thinks that they are probably leaking as well. The Government cannot escape from their responsibility by saying that no one told them about the leaking drains. The guilty man is not the Secretary of State, but the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who did not put up the necessary funds to fix those drains. That man is now the Prime Minister.
My fourth charge against the Government is that once foot and mouth started, they initially made frantic efforts to blame Merial and to try to exempt the Institute for Animal Health from responsibility. DEFRAs attempt to blame someone else when its laboratory was at fault was despicable. DEFRA was the guilty party and it remains as such. At the end of the day, it will probably have to pay in court.
The Governments fifth mistake was moving slaughtered animals around the country. They were horrified by the spectre of more burning pyres, although why they did not go for animal burial I do not know. They added to the risk. Of course, they say that the lorries were sealed and that vets drove behind them looking for any blood and guts dripping out, but the very fact that dead foot and mouth animals were being moved from infected premises to incineration plants along highways in clear zones added unnecessary risk. I assume that that happened because, for purposes of media handling, it looked better on the telly than burning cows.
A sixth charge of incompetence against the Government is that farmers outside the protection and surveillance zonesperhaps inside as well, but certainly outside, in Cumbriawere left utterly in the dark about what to do. No one told them anything. If farmers had been watching the telly or listening to the radio, they would have discovered that animal movements had been banned, but many were not doing so. They also were not linked,
like computer geeks, to the DEFRA website every minute of the day. However, the only information for farmers was on that website. The Government must consider how they communicate with farmers outside the zone during a catastrophe such as foot and mouth. They should not assume that everything can be done through the website. It is expensive to send letters by post, but that is probably the only way in which farmers can be given adequate warning.
The seventh charge is that the Government did not seem to have carried out forward planning on the licensing of animal movements. It took DEFRA days and days to issue licences and guidance on whether farmers could move their cows across the road for milking and on casualty animals going to slaughter or abattoirs. That should not have happened. Surely, after 2001, a manual was sitting on a shelf that said, If foot and mouth happens again, this is what we do on the licensing regime. All the local and county council inspectorates should have had that manual so that those responsible for issuing licences could have turned to the relevant page and processed the licences on the morning after the outbreak occurred. Instead, they seemed to be making things up as they went along.
The eighth mistake was the false all clear. The Government said, Weve eradicated foot and mouth from Surrey. It wont happen again chaps. Carry on! However, that was negligent and should not have happened.
The ninth mistake was the failure to start markets expeditiously outside the protection and surveillance zones when it became clear that foot and mouth was being contained in Surrey and Berkshire. Yes, the markets were started eventually, but it probably would have been utterly safe to start them 10 days earlier and that would have saved an awful lot of the desperate costs that have been faced in Cumbria, the north of England, Scotland and Wales.
The 10th charge is that the 20-day standstill period negated the point of starting the markets. The Government said, Well, weve got the markets started, but then imposed a 20-day standstill period. What on earth was the point? Yes, the standstill is now down to six days, so a farmer who was operating under a 20-day standstill and is on the fifth day has only one more day to go. For all new farmers the period is only six days. However, again, this is part of DEFRA thinking, Farmers cause foot and mouth and farmers moving animals are the guilty party, not us, Guv.
The 11th charge is that the compensation package announced by Ministers is grossly insulting, given that farmers are losing £10 million a day through no fault of their own. If farmers had caused this through dirty farm practices or bad welfare standards, there would be a certain culpability, but farmers are utterly innocent and have a grossly inadequate compensation package.
My 12th charge against the Government, although I congratulate the Secretary of State on standing firm, relates to the Scottish cull. Let hon. Members from north of the border come clean. This is not a welfare cull in Scotland, but an economic cull. There might be merits in an economic cull to compensate farmers, but if there are merits in such a cull in Scotland, there could be merits in an economic cull in England.
I am glad that the Government are not paying money to the Scottish Executive for participation in an economic cull. The welfare considerations are utterly different this time. In 2001, millions of animals were starving to death or trapped in fields with water up to their ankles. Animals were suffering. However, while animals are not suffering at the moment, farmers are suffering economically. The answer is to get the markets started as soon as possible. We could do with a better compensation package, but that should apply to the whole country. Scotland should not be separately funded on economic grounds.
My 13th charge relates to the confusion over access controls. DEFRA rightly banned hunting and all hunts complied, but people could ride hundreds of galloping horses over the fields, or walk over the fields, provided that they were not hunting. DEFRA let its prejudices rise to the surface.
I summarise by saying that the Government are guilty of negligence because they still delude themselves about what causes foot and mouth. They did not issue guidance manuals in advance, they failed to repair their own laboratory and they failed to communicate with their customersthe farmers. They failed to deal with market consequences and they were prepared to operate double standards throughout the United Kingdom. They failed in their prime duty of preventing this contagious disease from spreading.
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