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Many noble Lords mentioned the crucial question of compensation, which is a hugely difficult area. But I say to the Minister that, whereas compensation is clearly being paid to farmers who have contaminated stock, there are others in restricted zones who cannot get their stock to the abattoirs under the scheme presently in place, many of whom have associated businesses. I sincerely hope that the Government will look favourably on them because they are a special case.
My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned a number of issues to which I wanted to refer. He was right in his references to the countryside stewardship scheme and the bringing forward of some of the payments due over the next six months. That would certainly help the cash flow problems of those farmers in greatest need.
Another highly crucial point was mentioned; that is, the question of imports. As I understand it, we rely largely on a certification scheme conducted by the importing countries. Clearly that has failed and I join with other noble Lords in asking the Minister what the Government will be doing in the future to ensure that we do not encounter these problems again.
A point made by my noble friend Lord Ferrers was the possibility of raiding the agri-monetary and agri-environment pots. But those sums of money have been allocated for other purposes. There may be a short-term advantage in using them, but we must not draw down on those sums which have been specifically dedicated for other rural and agricultural purposes.
I regret that we have not had the opportunity of debating the rural White Paper. It is a great shame. I and many other noble Lords put pressure on the Chief Whip, but he decided, in his wisdom, not to give us time to debate it. Unfortunately, with the present crisis, it is difficult to debate it this evening. But I should quickly like to make one or two points in that regard.
Looking beyond the ghastly tragedy that we face at the moment, we must ask where farming is going. Global trading is something with which we shall have to live. But as we have seen, it brings its problems. Retailers and consumers must now make every effort to support our home markets. Producers must be given every encouragement to exploit local demand through good marketing and assessment of consumer need. We have not done that enough in this country; we must develop it and develop it fast.
That leads me on to the question of local abattoirs, to which the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred, on this and many other occasions, as have other noble Lords. I realise that the Government have finally woken up--they have been woefully slow to accept the problems--to the fact that there is a need to reduce the bureaucratic costs of local abattoirs. However, it was brought to my attention the other day that the Food Standards Agency is now imposing additional restrictions on the abattoirs which may well negate any advantages to be found in the Government's new initiative. A letter was written to the Minister the other day from a number of sympathetic parties, which said,
I referred earlier to red tape and I hope that the Government will continue to look at ways of reducing it. In 1997, the Better Regulation Task Force, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, looked at that very problem and put forward 21 recommendations. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those have been implemented and how many are likely to be implemented?
The recent White Paper was helpful. It was pragmatic and put forward some useful ideas. However, I thought it was a little short on agriculture and a little long on bureaucracy. I welcome the switch to environmental payments. Unusually, I take issue with my noble friend Lord Caithness. He said that farmers cannot be farmers and park keepers, but I believe that they must be. The farmers manage the country and they must take responsibility for the land which they manage. However, they cannot do so if they do not have the proper support.
Some of the environmental payments are welcome and I welcome the change to agri-environment schemes. However, they must be targeted more effectively, they must be more regional and farmers must be paid for the true cost of managing the countryside. Paying them under a system of profits foregone, which is the case in some of the ESA areas, is a nonsense. If paid under a system of profits foregone, in this day and age they would be picking up a minus figure!
Clearly, farmers are taking every advantage to diversify. However, it is essential people realise that diversification is only helpful; it is not the panacea for the countryside. If we do not have a healthy, profitable agriculture to maintain the whole rural infrastructure,
I feel that I have said enough, other than again to commiserate with those who are suffering. I hope and pray that the Government, with all the help that they have, can bring this dreadful crisis to an end as quickly as possible.
The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the crisis in the countryside today. I must declare an interest as a farmer and a landowner. I am a farmer with a small "f" because I have only a small Charollais pedigree sheep flock. But that flock means an awful lot to me. I have been building it up for many years from scratch and it is just beginning to achieve some success.
I live in a local exclusion area, the local outbreak being five kilometres from my farm. Since that initial outbreak in Staffordshire, some eight more have been confirmed within 10 miles. The funeral pyres are burning and the countryside is rank with the evil smell of smoke.
I was fascinated to listen with great interest to my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, who explained in great detail how the disease spreads. I noted today on the wire the following reply from a government spokesman. When asked whether the disease was under control, the spokesman replied,
I well remember the outbreak of 1967. Some 460,000 animals were slaughtered and the countryside was closed down--quite rightly. It all happened in the area in which I live. That outbreak began at Oswestry and was confined to the surrounding counties. In those days animals were not generally hauled long distances to slaughterhouses; there were very many more abattoirs. But today the requirements of the consumer have changed. Supermarkets are the main sellers of a vast range of quality meat and meat products. But they must be cost-conscious in the sourcing of fresh meat supplies. Such cost awareness often involves the use of large and conveniently placed abattoirs at strategic sites.
Today, far too many of the small slaughterhouses have gone. Animals are bought by dealers at, say, Carlisle market to fill an order from a supermarket chain. The collection operation is launched by the buyer or his agent or dealer: say, 20 beasts at Carlisle, a further 10 at Northampton, six at Uttoxeter and so
The most local and first case in Staffordshire arose on a farm owned and run by such a dealer. He had 460 cattle on his holding and had bought a small bunch of cattle at Northampton market. One of those beasts developed foot and mouth. Large mileages are covered and holding farms may be used to rest the animals overnight while they are collected and assembled. The potential for the spread of disease, especially one as highly contagious as foot and mouth, is easy to see. I have never been in favour of the movement of live animals for export--my farming friends will pillory me for saying that--because I believe that for welfare reasons an animal is best slaughtered close to home with minimum stress, which provides better quality meat. Carcasses can be transported in refrigerated trucks anywhere these days.
Another matter which must be looked at very carefully is the practice of feeding swill to pigs. If swill is obtained from reputable and clean sources and is cooked to the right temperature for the correct time it is perfectly all right, but some farmers cut corners. The Waugh brothers' swill unit at Heddon-on-the-Wall was the source of the original outbreak. To all intents and purposes, it was not a well-run establishment and had been visited by MAFF officials on 22nd December last. I quote from an article in Farmers Weekly on 8th March:
That unit is typical of a small number of such farms which exist in the United Kingdom. They should not be in business. In Staffordshire, less than a mile from my farm, is a farmer who feeds swill to his pigs. The smell of cooking is appalling; it makes people physically sick. The farmer has recently been convicted on two counts of failing to comply with environmental orders to limit or curtail the stink of the cooking. That case has taken a very long while to come to court. The person in question was fined a minimal amount. I believe that he was fined £300 on each count with £200 costs. The day after the court case he was at it again. Last Thursday he was served an abatement order by environmental health officers for setting light to materials, including rubber tyres, the smoke from which fire was thick, jet black and acrid. Meanwhile,
Perhaps I may ask the Minister--I have given the noble Baroness notice of the question--how many farmers have contravened the movement restrictions since they came into force some two weeks ago. How many cases, or impending cases, are there in the Midlands, especially as in Staffordshire we now have three or more confirmed outbreaks and a large restriction area? What action is being taken to prosecute such infringements; and what are the fines? What cases so far have been to court; and what was the result?
As a keen racing man, with few winners under my belt, I find it reprehensible that the racing authorities have not banned racing in the UK for the duration of the present crisis. We are talking about a potential national catastrophe in terms of food supply, tourism and agriculture. To my recollection, all racing was halted during the epidemic in 1967. The MAFF website--it is an excellent source of information, especially at present, and I commend MAFF on it--states that hunting, shooting, fishing and point-to-point races are stopped. Why therefore has not racing? I am sure that it could not be that point-to-pointing is associated closely with hunting, but that horseracing has a much wider following. Even the former champion jockey, Willy Carson, does not support the continuance of racing while this epidemic is still with us. I know that racing people's livelihoods are at risk here, but the risk to the agricultural community, and everything connected with it, from the spread of the disease is potentially catastrophic. Racing is a pastime; farming is a business.
I firmly believe that following this epidemic and the previous difficulties of swine fever, BSE and more, it is vital that a wide-ranging inquiry and review into agricultural practices be instigated. I believe that the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister has already mentioned that matter. It is absolutely vital that British beef, lamb and pork regain their envied position of top quality produce, and the consumer must be confident that these products and the methods by which they are produced are safe and to the highest standards of welfare. The consumer will have to pay a fair price for such excellent products.
First, a possible solution might be that all farmers should be members of an organisation such as Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb--FABBL. Such an organisation would be empowered to carry out spot checks on farms, with statutory powers to inspect records, medicines, welfare practices and animal accommodation, among a number of issues. If a
Secondly, I believe that finished stock should be slaughtered at abattoirs no further than a certain distance from their farm of abode, minimising stress and improving the quality of the meat. If supermarkets do not like such an arrangement, that is tough luck on them. They have profited well out of the farming industry for many years. It is time that they gave something back. The vast numbers of miles covered by dealer's cattle while being assembled must cease.
Thirdly, the feeding of swill is an outdated and potentially risky practice. Noble Lords much more knowledgeable than I have already said that for reasons of public health it should be banned and banned now.
Fourthly, the movement of animals between farms and markets should be rigorously monitored and checked. I understand that electronically implanted tags are becoming available for farm animals. Can the Minister provide the House with any information on that matter? We need to have full traceability of all farming livestock. Farming practices in this country must become the very best in the world.
Finally, this epidemic is a disaster for the agricultural community, encompassing farmers, vets, feed suppliers, tourism and everyone connected with agriculture and the countryside. I applaud the Government in their firm attitude, even though they could be doing slightly better--every government can. I pay tribute to those who are working very long hours to try to eradicate the problem. Theirs is the most difficult and harrowing of tasks. Their workload is enormous.
I feel so terribly sad for those farmers whose lifetime's labours have gone up in smoke from the funeral pyre. The economic damage to those tottering on the brink may well push them over the edge. I urge the Minister to consider the allocation of financial support. I cannot help but note that this is a tragically sad event, and that it would appear to take a disaster of this magnitude to force the Government to turn their attention to the well-being of the countryside community and the food producers. Action must be taken to ensure that never again can such a disaster be allowed to happen. I sincerely wish the Minister well in her very difficult task.
Lord Brennan: My Lords, as so many noble Lords have said today, this is a sombre time for our countryside and for our nation. The countryside is not separate from our nation. The Government stated in their White Paper last autumn:
After BSE, swine fever and the impact of very low competitive prices internationally, it is really a crisis--I use the word carefully--when we now have this foot and mouth outbreak. It is a situation in which two objectives should apply. First, those who do not live in the country should recognise, as I am sure all do, the social and economic suffering that is presently being undergone by those who live in the country. Secondly, and very importantly socially and politically, there should be solidarity between those in cities and those in the country. Such objectives of recognising the problem and illustrating the solidarity that is required are best achieved through action by government?
I have no commercial or technical farming experience, but I do have a home in the country. I have spent a considerable amount of time lately talking to my friends about the grave problems that they and their society, in which I play a small part, are presently facing. They identify three issues, which I commend to the House for attention. The first is the scope and treatment of the foot and mouth outbreak; the second is dealing with the social and economic aftermath of it; and the third is the need for a coherent food policy for this country for the future. I shall take them in turn.
First, as your Lordships in different speeches have illustrated, but it can be said pungently in one sentence, the foot and mouth outbreak has resulted in complete disruption of rural society in this country. One cannot overstate it. It is that bad. Secondly, such a crisis demands effective government action. There have been many questions to my noble friend the Minister about details of the programme to counteract the outbreak, but the prevailing sentiment that I have observed is that the Government's present actions are effective. One must remember that, geographically, numerically and logistically, this is an entirely different problem from that of 1967. It is major. It requires innovative solutions. There is no perfect remedy day-by-day. The Government are doing the best that reasonably can be done.
Thirdly, most important is the need for the Government to show sensitivity to the needs of the countryside and its community at this particular stage. I do not mean that sensitivity should be demonstrated in some palliative sense, but rather in a practical manner. It is appropriate that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture and my noble friend the Minister should speak to the farming and countryside community. It is very important indeed that representatives from the Treasury, civil servants and Ministers alike, should do the same. That would demonstrate not only sensitivity, but a preparedness for dealing with the problem when the solutions to it in the aftermath are required.
Fourthly, I turn to candour. That word is rarely used in politics. When used in a legal context, it is designed to indicate that people will say what they think, why they think it and what one should know about it. I cannot imagine that any rational observer of the Government's actions over the past few weeks could not but agree that they have shown candour.
Lastly, in this first sector of my remarks, I turn to action to address the scope and treatment of the problem. I listened carefully to the erudite analysis put forward by my noble friend Lord Soulsby. I did not find it satisfactory. It was illuminating, but not productive of future action. I cannot believe that there is not open to scientific investigation a system of vaccination that would solve this problem. Heads are shaken, but why is that? Only 10 years ago, vaccination was stopped. That was done for market reasons. The result has been that vaccination without insurance--here I refer to partial vaccination rather than a total system--is completely ineffective. Insurers will not insure unless vaccination has taken place, but people will not vaccinate unless there is insurance. Many with more experience than I shake their heads in dismay. However, there may be a different solution and it is certainly worth inquiring into that. Are we to contemplate--century after century, as it turns out--this kind of mass slaughter as the only remedy against a prevailing disease? We would not accept it in human beings. Why should we do so in animals? To those who shake their heads, I say that this is certainly worthy of inquiry. I therefore commend the Government's task force which will look at the effects of this outbreak on the wider rural economy.
I turn now to the second sector of my remarks; namely, how to deal with the aftermath. I listened attentively to the helpful intervention of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. He wanted to see a new beginning. I do not agree that that is what we should embark upon. We should not seek a total new beginning. The right reverend Prelate set his remarks in the context of a Government White Paper that he said was not enough. I disagree with him. The White Paper was a serious attempt--the third in 12 months, following A New Direction for Agriculture and the Action Plan for Farming, introduced by the Prime Minister--to improve rural England. It is not a new beginning that is required, but rather building upon this White Paper. I invite the Government to note the following suggestion. They talk about rural regeneration and a seven-year plan of £1.6 billion. That was written four months ago. What we need now is a greater sum of money over a shorter period of years effectively to regenerate our rural communities after this crisis.
In addition, the White Paper said a great deal about supporting small rural business; the Phoenix plan. How inapt it now appears after this disaster, the Phoenix plan. But it involves £100 million; it is a start and it should be developed upon. I invite the Ministry which deals with this matter to put to their Treasury colleagues the following suggestion: that that £1.6 billion, that £100 million and all the other amounts that figure in the White Paper, which are payable over years, pall into insignificance at the losses currently being incurred week by week. I assume, being a relative political novice in the House, that there exist in government contingency funds for real national crises.
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