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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the scale of the problem, although that must be obvious to everyone. I thank him, too, for his kind words for those fighting the disease in the field--the civilian and military officials who are bearing down on the terrible outbreak.
The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions, and I shall try to do justice to all of them. I do not think it right to try to turn this matter into a party political issue. The political climate is highly charged at present, but we are discussing a disease outbreak in livestock. The techniques for dealing with it are well understood, and we should be able to discuss the matter in terms of disease control rather than those of party politics.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman the factual answers to his points. There are two types of welfare scheme. There are three welfare livestock movement schemes, and about 90 per cent. of more than 48,000 applications submitted have been approved. On average, movement licences are being processed and issued in less than three and a half days from the date of receipt.
On the livestock welfare disposal scheme--a more vexed matter--4,600 farmers have entered 1.6 million animals for that. That is an enormous number of animals, and, to date, only 48,000 have been slaughtered. The 22 abattoirs dedicated to the scheme have the capacity to slaughter around 280,000 sheep, 60,000 pigs and 25,000 cattle each week. Some 230,000 animals are scheduled to be slaughtered over the next few days, and the scheme is being got up and running.
The hon. Gentleman asked about statistics. I shall not repeat our exchange of last Thursday, but we are trying to put together a comparable series of figures. I do not think that he can charge me with publishing "good news figures": I gave the House the facts as frankly as I could in my statement. This terrible outbreak is not "good news". We are doing all that we can to bear down on it, and that should unite the House rather than being a cause of division.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the contiguous cull. He understands as well as I do why that raises difficult issues for individual farmers. He urged us to get on with it and to cull out dangerous contacts within the 48-hour time frame that we set ourselves. I took it from that that he
The Government's policy is clear: as I said in my statement, we keep vaccination under review, but I shall not move to a vaccination policy without considering all the issues involved, including several difficult ones that we have discussed before. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman did not say whether the Conservative party takes the view that vaccinated animals should be culled out afterwards or should live on. Was he advocating a firebreak vaccination policy, or was he trying to dampen down the disease? Those questions must be answered before a strategy is embarked on, not afterwards.
The hon. Gentleman asked about stocks of vaccine and contingency arrangements. Yes, we have adequate stocks, as I have told the House on previous occasions; and, yes, contingency arrangements are in place, explicitly relating to the outbreak in Cumbria, where the disease is at its most intense. He asked about the number of slaughterers working: the figure for Great Britain is 457.
The hon. Gentleman referred to suggestions from the Conservative party that we should have acted sooner on a range of things. On 11 March, he first suggested that we should bring in the Army; but, in fact, Baroness Hayman had written to the Minister for the Armed Forces on 9 March, requesting a range of logistical support. On 15 March, the hon. Gentleman suggested that we commence on-farm burial; in fact, on-farm burial was first used on 2 March. On 13 March, he suggested that veterinarians should be able to authorise immediate slaughter; in fact, that had been MAFF policy since 22 February--more than 95 per cent. of cases are confirmed on that basis.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to agrimonetary compensation and asked me to confirm that it is paid out on the basis of currency movements rather than compensation for foot and mouth disease. That is true, but it should be remembered that the previous Conservative Government did not pay out a penny of agrimonetary compensation. It was the foot and mouth disease outbreak in this country that informed our decision to draw down the agrimonetary compensation, in order to get aid swiftly to hard-pressed livestock farmers. Moreover, we have negotiated arrangements with the European Union for the payments to be made early.
Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend will know that, on Friday, an outbreak was confirmed at Ashes farm in Ruswarp near Whitby. I congratulate all those who so swiftly tried to nip the problem in the bud effectively. Obviously, the tragedy is that contiguous damage has occurred to livestock, but, given the sense of partnership and the mood in our local community, the lack of bipartisan agreement in the House this afternoon would be found offensive. People in Whitby who have worked with me and people in the NFU office in Whitby who have worked so hard to help people get through the difficult decisions that have been needed will find that lack of agreement most offensive.
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the heroic efforts that are being made in the farming community, and in rural communities more broadly, to work with the Government and especially local officials to bring this disease outbreak to a conclusion. He is also right to draw attention to the particular issues and set of problems that confront us in dealing with the outbreak as it affects hefted flocks and moorlands. The issue is important in the area that my hon. Friend represents, on Hexham moor in Cumbria and indeed in the south-west as well. The Government are looking at what can be done to try to contain the disease in the very special circumstances of hefted flocks on moors without having to cull out all the animals on the moorlands.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I, too, thank the Minister for providing us with a copy of his statement a few moments before the debate. I also associate the Liberal Democrats with the words of congratulation and thanks for all those who are working in the field in a demanding and often distressing job.
May I turn to a few practical issues on which, I am sure, many hon. Members have been approached by farmers in their constituencies? On 26 February, I first raised the issue of cattle going beyond the over-30-months limit. What compensation will be offered to those farmers? For those who cannot move their animals and who are now facing horrendous animal welfare problems, will the Minister increase resources to the Intervention Board? That seems to be one of the main problems in clearing the whole issue.
Will right hon. Gentleman speed up the processing of movement licences for those in unaffected areas, where farmers have waited, sometimes for weeks, to get licences, despite having agreed the sale of their animals with others in unaffected areas? Will he also consider allowing farmers to reclaim the costs of vets' visits, which many of them are now finding very onerous? Those vets' visits are absolutely necessary because of the current FMD outbreak.
Finally, on a more local issue, will the Minister now undertake to instruct the Highways Agency to lay disinfectant matting on the Tamar bridge? He will know that that is a major issue in Cornwall, which is relatively free of the disease, but which is, of course, right next to Devon, which has a significant hot spot. Many farmers and many members of the public simply cannot understand why disinfectant matting cannot be laid on the bridge to provide at least some protection for the farms in south-east Cornwall.
I am advised that the issue of disinfected mats is rather more symbolic than real--that is the professional advice to the Government collectively--nor can I give the hon. Gentleman any comfort on the recovery of the costs of private sector veterinary visits. On movement licences, which he perfectly properly mentions, the best way forward for those in the unaffected areas is to work towards relaxing the movement controls in the disease-free areas, so that movements from farm to slaughterhouse are more easily facilitated. That is the right policy approach, but I cannot yet make an announcement. As soon as veterinarians advise me that it is safe to do so, of course I will.
On the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the welfare disposal scheme, he is of course right. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the scheme has turned out to be very popular. About 1.6 million animals have been offered to the scheme, so extra resources are required to administer it, and extra resources are being moved in. We keep the scheme for over-30-month cattle under review, but I have nothing new to say about that today.