|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I certainly understand what my hon. Friend says, and there is no doubt that compensation and consequential loss are greatly exercising the minds of all those involved in this tragic crisis, but much greater than that is the spirit of fear that is engulfing agricultural communities, whether or not their areas are affected by foot and mouth disease. I have today been contacted by Jonathan Barber, eastern region secretary of the National Sheep Association. He has two main areas of concern: first, the speed at which the virus is spreading is, in his view, completely out of control and, secondly, there are not enough people to deal with the problem. That is the fear engaging the minds of people in East Anglia and all over the country, even in those areas fortunate enough, at the moment, not to be affected directly by foot and mouth.
Mr. Yeo: My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience of the industry. The same fear exists in my constituency, as the disease appears to be spreading, despite comments from the Prime Minister. A case was confirmed in a constituency neighbouring mine, just the other side of the county boundary in north Essex, so the disease is getting closer to Suffolk and Norfolk. A real feeling of fear exists in farming communities there, and it is increased by what appears to be the lack of urgency in the measures being taken in some parts of the country to get on top of the problem.
We have backed the main steps that the Government have taken to date. We want to continue a bipartisan approach, so far as we can, to what is clearly a major national crisis, but it is our duty, as the Opposition, to speak out when we believe things are going wrong and the Government's response is inadequate. Since we last debated foot and mouth, there have been worrying signs of dither and confusion inside the Government. To claim, as the Minister regularly does, that the situation is under control may please the Prime Minister, as he ponders his election timetable, but it is in stark contrast to the facts on the ground.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that, even now, we are getting mixed messages from the Government and different Departments? I have just received by fax a copy of a leaflet that Derbyshire county council is issuing in the Peak district, which receives more than 20 million visitors a year. It urges:
Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I was going to come to it shortly. Conflicting messages are now coming out of different branches of government. Indeed, I sympathise particularly with the position of
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): The Conservative party has had five weeks to propose the swifter and more effective policies described in the Opposition motion. I scoured the records this morning and could find no trace of any such policies from the Conservative party. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has introduced the policies, including the pre-emptive slaughter policy, to deal with the crisis? Are not the Opposition jumping on the back of a national crisis to make political capital? [Interruption.]
Mr. Yeo: The intervention of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) does him little credit. He has in the past taken part in some of these debates in a rather better informed and constructive manner. Had he attended any one of the five previous occasions on which the subject was discussed in the House, he would have heard me and my hon. Friends suggest specific and constructive measures, and I shall do so again today. Now that he has forced me to do it, I shall remind the House of how many days ago we said that certain things should be done.
Let me go back to Sunday 11 March, a pivotal day in the crisis. The Minister said on television that the situation was under control but, on the same day, I called for the Army to be brought in to tackle the backlog of unburied carcases and unslaughtered animals. In the 10 days since, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease has trebled; the number of unburied carcases is rising by 16,000 a day; and, in the last six days, the number of animals awaiting slaughter has risen by two thirds to well over 100,000.
If the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh had been paying attention, he would have seen that the policy that we were recommending would have addressed the situation. Indeed, instead of making complacent and unfounded claims, the Minister would have served farmers and the whole country better if he had acted on the constructive suggestions that I made on 11 March, which were repeated on a wider front two days later by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
It is now 10 days since we called for the Army to be given a hands-on role in carcase disposal; it is seven days since we called for vets to be given discretion to order and carry out slaughter on suspicion; and it is five days since we called for on-farm burial to take place wherever it is environmentally safe to do so. Not one of those common-sense steps has been taken. As a direct result, the crisis today is far worse than it need have been. Farming today is in dire peril and it deserves a far more urgent response from Ministers than it is now receiving.
Secondly, vets must be given authority to order the immediate slaughter of animals when there is clinical evidence to justify it and to ensure that the slaughter is carried out at once. That policy was successfully pursued in 1967, and the delays that are occurring are extremely dangerous. There is growing evidence that the disease is spreading from farm to farm, and leaving 100,000 animals wandering around in the open air while they await slaughter is simply folly.
Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My understanding is that a vet has only to make a telephone call to obtain permission to go ahead with slaughter on clinical grounds. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that not even that call is necessary when we know that many vets in the field are fresh to this problem?
Mr. Yeo: We are receiving reports from all over the country of several days' delay from when vets want to carry out the slaughter to when it takes place. If the hon. Gentleman listens to what is happening outside the House instead of reading out Labour party press releases, he might be better informed before he intervenes.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): My hon. Friend is probably not aware that, in the Select Committee on Agriculture this morning, the chief veterinary officer acknowledged that there were problems in getting animals slaughtered quickly enough. He recommended that, instead of using pistols as in 1967, vets use two drugs, Expirol or Euthatal, and he said that he would look into it.
Mr. Yeo: I am glad to hear that the Government are belatedly considering assisting vets to carry out an extremely urgent task. I hope that no more time will be lost before the problem is addressed. Whatever the message from central Government, we know that delays are occurring and we run the risk of inspection spreading still further.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am glad that my hon. Friend makes that point. I was in Worcestershire yesterday talking to a friend of mine whose pedigree longhorn herd was put down on Monday. There has been no cattle or livestock movement on or off that farm for three months. It is clear that the disease spread from another farm where the animals were not slaughtered sufficiently quickly.
Mr. Yeo: The fact remains that even on the Ministry's figures, the number of animals awaiting slaughter is growing rapidly. It is 108,000 today and was about 60,000 a week ago. The problem is getting out of control. The Government are behind the game.