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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): There has been a number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in my constituency and, given the parlous state of agriculture, that is a catastrophe for farmers and for many in the allied industries. I have spoken to Mr. Cleave in my constituency a number of times; he tells me that the work of MAFF and the MAFF vets is excellent and wants me to pay tribute to them. Nevertheless, I must raise a number of points on behalf of my constituents.
The first point relates to agrimonetary compensation. The Minister will be aware that all the eligible European Union countries draw that down. We hoped to hear from him a date when the money could be drawn down for our agriculture industry.
My second point concerns consequential loss. There is now much feed and fertiliser that is unusable. Agriculture has lost a great many markets. The market for exporting sheep has disappeared, and towards the end of last week the sheep price was about 30 per cent. less than the day before the announcement. Will the Minister consider some heads of consequential loss, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) said, for cattle that are nearing the 30-month limit?
Of course I cannot promise compensation for consequential loss--no previous Government have, and I do not believe that any future Government will. Am I taking a hard look at what could be done in the circumstances? Of course I am, and I am especially mindful of the animal welfare consequences, just as I was during the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia. There is a distinction between those farms that have suffered consequential losses as a result of their animals having been purchased and destroyed for disease control reasons--I understand that it is possible to insure against that--and those that are caught by movement restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the condition but are not affected by it themselves. It is harder to get insurance against that.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, discussions are continuing between the Ministry and industry representatives, including from the NFU and the National Pig Association, on how we should handle the problem, because I believe that a scheme should be put in place. The discussions arose out of the classical swine fever outbreak.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Can my right hon. Friend give any details on the situation in Wales, and specifically in north Wales, where there is great anxiety? Does he remember the occasion, a year or more ago, when I brought a deputation of the leadership of the Flintshire NFU to see him? He received them well, discussing matters with them for well over an hour. They have asked me to ask him what help he may give, in any way, shape or form, on loss of earnings, and whether there is to be any compensation, bearing in mind the terrible blow that is now falling on family farms. I express my thanks to him for his reception of the earlier deputation.
Mr. Brown: My right hon. Friend and the leadership of the NFU in Flintshire did indeed make a very persuasive case, and I am not surprised that he echoes it now. I cannot add anything on Wales to my statement on the current foot and mouth outbreak, which covers the whole of the United Kingdom, not just England.
We have been able to confirm positives relatively swiftly, but it takes longer absolutely to confirm a negative, because the virus could be incubating but not yet showing up in laboratory tests. All the comfort that I can give to my right hon. Friend's farming constituents today is that we have not had any further positives confirmed, and the passage of time, with continued negative test results, is a cause for hope.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): The Minister will be aware of the role it is thought was played by imported meat in the recent outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia. He will also be aware of the huge anxiety in the industry about the effect of illegally imported meat and, indeed, imported meat generally. He will also be aware that the supermarkets and those who speak for the food industry have been saying that there will be no problems for consumers because the shortfall that results from the current restrictions on our domestic industry will be made up by imports of foreign meat.
What measures does the right hon. Gentleman plan to put in place to ensure that there is the greatest hygiene and safety surrounding legally imported meat? He will know how much anxiety farmers and others have about that.
Mr. Brown: The regulatory regime is essentially the one that I inherited from the right hon. Lady when she was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She will readily understand that the problem is not the regime itself but whether our enforcement of it is working as thoroughly as we who make the laws intend.
It is fair to say that there is a trade problem with import substitution. I am very conscious of that and want to do everything I can to help the domestic industry, consistent with doing the most important thing which, as the right hon. Lady will appreciate, is to isolate and extinguish the disease.
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): I, too, commend my right hon. Friend on his prompt action in trying to stop this terrible outbreak. What discussions is he having with the industry on possible insurance-based arrangements for consequential loss?
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Discussions were opened with the industry--including, in particular, the NFU and the National Pig Association--as a result of the classical swine fever outbreak. Controlling diseases in pigs necessitates movement restrictions, which may well have to be placed on farms that do not actually have the disease and will never have it. Such restrictions are imposed entirely for reasons of disease containment. Because of the modern ways in which the industry works, that can have economic consequences for the farm businesses.
Who should pay for those losses? I am making it absolutely clear that it is not the taxpayers' responsibility--no previous Government have ever thought that it was. However, it is fair to consider whether it is the responsibility of the industry as a whole to make some arrangement to compensate farms that are under movement restrictions for the burden that they bear on behalf of the whole of the industry--which, of course, has a vested interest in disease control. Those discussions, which are a result of the classical swine fever outbreak, are continuing.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I am sure that the Minister will sympathise with the two farmers in my constituency who were the innocent victims of the outbreak which, sadly, started at a third farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall in my constituency. Both men were reaching retirement age and have seen their life's work destroyed at a stroke. Those commuting into Newcastle this morning will have had the reality of the situation brought home to them at the sight of the 150 yd long funeral pyre of burning carcases by the main road leading into the city.
An animal welfare group based near Norwich first reported this farm and the conditions on it in mid-December. That led to an investigation by the RSPCA, but I understand that no further action was taken. There were subsequent visits to the farm by Northumberland trading standards officers and MAFF officials, yet nothing was done about the conditions at the time. Will the Minister thoroughly investigate that situation?
Mr. Brown: I have looked into that last point. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when veterinary officials inspected the farm, there was no trace of disease in the farmed animals. The chief veterinary officer has satisfied himself that that is the case. Nor were any welfare infringements discovered. As the hon. Gentleman rightly
The hon. Gentleman's constituents have my sympathy, and that of every right-minded person, for what they are being put through. He is absolutely right to say that the huge blaze at the edge of the motorway last night and in the early hours of this morning provided a highly visual reminder to those travelling into Newcastle of the consequences of this terrible outbreak.