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Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I am glad to have the opportunity to raise a matter of pressingindeed searingimportance to my constituency. I welcome the Minister, who is making his debut for DEFRA, which I am told is Welsh for "wake up", or something like that. I am not sure how good his Welsh is, but perhaps he will clarify that in due course.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : Let me clarify for the right hon. Gentleman, as my Welsh is perfectly adequate to the task, that the spelling is different but that "deffra" means "awake!". The Department for Environment, Food and Regional Affairs is certainly wide awake.
Since the election was called, in Craven, which is within the area of North Yorkshire that I represent, and in the neighbouring parts of Lancashirenotably but not exclusively the Ribble Valleythere have been 86 confirmed cases of foot and mouth, nine cases of slaughter on suspicion and 345 premises culled out as part of a contiguous cull. About 39,000 cattle and 219,000 sheep and lambs have been slaughtered since the election was called.
First, I want to praise Dr. Steve Hunter, who is the director of operations in Yorkshire, for his handling of the matter. However, in doing so, I also give thanks to all those who have worked to tackle the disease and who have not been thanked enough, including the secretaries in what was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the administrators, the Army, the vets and those in local authorities who worked hard to contain the outbreak and find a way through it.
The key fact is that businesses in my constituency, including farming, were closed down long before the first outbreak of foot and mouth there. The outbreaks in Hawes, in Wensleydale in North Yorkshire, in Lancashire, to some extent in Cumbria and in Bradford had frozen all normal activity in my constituency for weeks before an outbreak occurred within its boundaries. The shutdown had enormously wide ramifications even before the disease affected the constituency itself. Because foot and mouth arrived there relatively late and intenselyin Craven, the intensity of the disease rivals that in Cumbriafor many businesses, especially in the tourist trade, the summer has been shot through already. Businesses in Malham Dale, Grassington and Three Peaksindeed, all those in north Craven and the Pennine daleslive largely off tourism, especially but not exclusively during the summer months. For many of them, the real crisis will be winter survival. Even when the last case of foot and mouth is dealt with and the last farm premises have been cleansed and can look forward to restocking, the business crisis will be only beginning for some businesses and will be in full torrent for many of them.
The Government made allocations under the rural recovery programme via the rural development agencies. In Yorkshire and the Humberside area, the money£2.5 millionwas allocated when foot and mouth was confined largely to the Wensleydale outbreak. Cumbria received £11.8 million. I am sure that my colleagues from Lancashire will point out the similar discrepancy between the sums that Lancashire constituencies will get and the sum for the whole north-west. Both allocations pre-date the incidents in Craven and most Lancashire constituencies.
We must also consider the Government's scheme to match funds raised by charity. In Craven on Wednesday, the Craven Trust was launched with a target of raising £1 million. People are generous, have lived near the crisis and have seen its searing effects closely, so I think that that money will be forthcoming. The Government promised to match such money, but the scheme ended two days ago.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the right hon. Gentleman also note that the same problem has arisen in the west country? The Western Morning News launched an excellent "green wellie appeal", but it seems that the Government are again backsliding on their original promise to match funding.
Mr. Curry : I merely wish to point out what is happening in my constituency and its neighbouring areas, because the epidemic started much later there. That does not mean that the problem does not exist in many other parts of the United Kingdom.
On aid for tourism, I am in favour of trying to encourage overseas visitors back to the United Kingdom. I merely point out that in the Yorkshire dales, for example, 90 per cent. of our visitors are national rather than international, and that of that 90 per cent., 80 per cent. are regional. We want to attract people back from Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield and Sheffield.
I have raised the subject on four previous occasions. I have seen the Minister, and was one of the first Members of Parliament to meet the new Secretary of State, to whom I am grateful for responding so rapidly to my request to meet her. I raised it in the Queen's Speech debate and following the foot and mouth statement. Each time, Ministers told me that I had an excellent point and that they were reviewing matters and taking them seriously. I thank them for the sympathy, but that will not put any people back in business and keep them there. I do not want sympathy; I want Ministers to do something about the problem now.
There is also a problem of bottlenecks in cleansing and disinfecting. It is fair to say that, in my constituency, most people regard the operation up to slaughter, culling and transport to have been carried out not merely efficiently, but with great sensitivity. Recently there has been much more controversy, because certain things went wrong with a cull that happened close to Skipton, as such incidents always seem to, so it was much more public than the others. Since then, some groups of people have been desperate to find anything that has gone wrong and any little incident has been magnified into fiction worthy of Harry Potter, of whom I am a devotee. Myth has run riot, partly because little proper information was issued at the beginning. Now, the smallest fragments of circumstantial evidence are woven into tremendous horror stories.
Once a cull is over, the animals have been carted off and the sheeted lorries have disappeared, the real problems begin. There have been problems with people not being allocated a case officer for long enough, and with the rotation of case officers. It is rather like when a relative dies: everyone is busy until after the funeral. The busyness keeps them occupied, but then they have to cope with what follows. People have not been given adequate information about what follows. Different case officers are involved, so the information that farmers get about what they can dowhether they can make hay or store ithas differed from farmer to farmer and from place to place. The timetables have differed. There has been no consistency.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I draw hon. Members' attention to my connections with farming, which are set out in the Register of Members' Interests. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who have lost their stock need the Government to give a lead on the role of British agriculture? If we are to get such people back into agriculture, they must make important economic decisions after the six-month quarantine period. They will have to buy expensive stock, which will take time to reach peak production. They are wondering whether it is worth going back into agriculture, and we need a lead from the Government to get them back.
If negligence and non-observance of the rules in the agricultural industry have contributed to the spread of the disease, let us hear about it and see the evidence. If there are to be prosecutions, let us have them. Far too
I also draw the Minister's attention to the circumstances of children in my constituency who have come from farms where culling has been taking place to sit public exams. There is evidence that the cull in my constituency coincided precisely with the period of public or internal examinations and of standard assessment tests. Will the Minister ensure that examination boards understand that individual children might have been under great pressure when taking exams?
I want now to deal with the farm crisis that is looming in the autumn. I said that the business crisis will continue well after the cull and when the disease has, I hope, been eradicated. The end of the epidemic does not mean that farming will escape. We already know that the new premium is at an historic low because of the price on the continent. Even after the cull and welfare disposal, which will take care of 3 million to 3.5 million lambs that would have gone into consumption, there will still be a surplus of 1.5 million to 2 million on the home market because of the closure of the export market, which would normally take 6 million lambs a year. Many of those would have been the lighter lambs. The Government need to consider their response. There is a case for aid to private storage, and there might also be a case for a Government scheme to remove some of the lighter lambs. Otherwise, we shall have immensely low prices and we shall simply move from the present crisis to the resumption of the economic crisis that was a four or five-year constant for agriculture before foot and mouth hit.
I want to talk a little about the aftermath of the crisis. Some farmers who have lost all their stock might be able to quit the industry. To be frank, they might be better off economically than they would have been if they had quit before the epidemic struck. Others might be able to stay, and the process of restocking could accelerate the development of scrapie resistance in breeding flocks, which would be a small gain. Those people might also think a little about the management of their systems. I have been struck by the fact that many farmers are so busy running their farms that they can no longer think about how they manage them. They are run off their feet: they have shed all their labour and pared things down to the bone and they work every hour that God gives simply to keep things moving from day to day.
It is also true that the industry, particularly the sheep industry, will emerge smaller but perhaps fitter from the crisis. We all acknowledge that there was a significant surplus of as many as 3 million sheep. That fact has given rise to the great myth that somehow the foot and mouth epidemic was a vast, planned economic cull to scale the industry down to size. However, it is none the less true that, following the crisis, we are able to examine factors such as stocking densities and management systems.
There are some reflections for the Department that I would like to bring to the Minister's attention. It is true to say, although I say it with some caution, that the DepartmentMAFF as washas become rather disconnected from the industry that it is supposed to be supervising. It was a tremendous shock for it to discover that in my constituency farms did not all sit in nice, compact holdings. They were scattered over many different locations and were fragmented. Had that sunk in sooner, perhaps some of the movement permissions that were granted earlier would not have been granted, in recognition of the risks involved.
The Department has lost knowledge of the industry. That is partly because ADASthe old Agricultural Development Advisory Servicehas been floated off, and partly because the staff of the Department largely fulfil a gendarme role in policing the giving of grants. The issue is serious and needs to be addressed.
It is a myth that we need more vets. We need many more people at the technical level, such as animal health officers, because vets are doing many jobs that they should not do. We need far more competent people at the level below vets. They would have helped a great deal with the crisis. Vets should be integrated fully into the mainstream administration of the Department. It does not make sense for the vets to be in separate hierarchies, parallel to the main administrative organisation. That has been a real problem in the handling of the epidemic. Vets are not supposed to be managers and it is much more effective if they are integrated into the management system.
In my experience, the Department has been reasonably good at giving statistics. I have no complaint about the statistics, once the indigestion caused by data protection legislation had been overcome, although we need to examine the effective workings of that legislation.
The Department is not good at communicating issues. Halfway through the epidemic, the word "biosecurity" suddenly appeared and the concept was treated as if it was an eternal truth that everybody had taken in with their mother's milk. I did not have the faintest idea what biosecurity wasI thought it was an organic washing powder. Suddenly, farms were being told that they were breaching the rules of biosecurity, but it is only in the past few days that a video has been produced to tell farmers what biosecurity is. They can hardly be reproached if they are suddenly told that management systems that have operated for generations are somehow dangerous.
There is still no piece of paper setting out for farmers the route from cull to restocking. We know that it is difficult and complex, but a timetable is necessary, setting out the steps and showing who does what and who approves what. To have in one's hands a piece of paper that sets that out clearly is important. The problem partly arises because of the Department's reliance on the wretched internet. In my constituency, most farmers are not connected to the internet and old-fashioned bits of paper are of a great deal more use to many people than a constant reliance on electronic communications, which are irrelevant to many farmers. Perhaps that will change.
We must reflect on media handling. Department officials have been thrust into the cauldron. I attended a meeting 10 days agoa sort of anti-cull protestto which people had come from all over the country. It was not violent, but it was extremely rowdy. It was an outdoor meeting of about 400 people. It is the sort of thing a politician has to doit is good training, and when one has finished one is glad to have dealt with it.
A few days later Steve Hunter had to deal with a similar meeting, but it is not the job of officials to be in that political forum. Ministers ought to do that job. We need to think hard about where the role of officials ends and that of Ministers begins. The crisis has placed officials in front of the media more and more, taking the flak. They are inevitably asked to respond to political questions. All that they can say is, "Sorry, I carry out the orders." However, people shout and scream from the audience that they should denounce those orders. There should be a sensible review of that matter.
We need to look again at co-operation between Departments. It is an old story, but the epidemic has shown yet again the problems that arise if there is no proper coterminosity. In addition, we need to reflect on the circumstances in which vaccination might have a role. It is simplistic to say that there is a clear choice: that we should either kill or vaccinate. We all know that it is a great deal more complex than that, but the sooner that is spelled out, so that the argument can be conducted on sensible scientific territory, the better.
Finally, I come to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown). We must avoid saying that because foot and mouth disease and BSE have happened, agriculture is heading for a radical departure. I do not believe in radical departures, and in any case such matters have to be agreed at European level. BSE has probably had a greater impact on the continental way of thinking than foot and mouth, which will simply push us further in the direction in which we were already going. That is not a bad thing. We must think much harder about what we want from farmers and about what public good farming is delivering. We must then crystallise our thoughts about what we are willing to pay for that public good, especially in terms of food productionhigher quality and going upstream in food productionof recreation and of the environment.
People want a better balance between the broad economic sectors in the countryside, and between the ecology and the industrial activity there. This debate gives us a chance to set that out in an intelligent fashion, bringing people with us, rather than giving the impression that everything that went before foot and mouth was somehow a culmination and a preparation for the epidemic and that we will now go back to a new annus mirabilissome anno domini in which everything will change. The world is not as simple as that. A sensible evolution is not only imperative: it is inevitable. The more signposts that we can put along that roadway, the better it will be for everybody.
I am grateful for the Minister's attention, and look forward to his reply particularly his reply to the first part of my remarks, so that my concern about those schemes having come to an end may shortly be abated. Then we shall know that he has really woken up.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who spoke with real feeling and practical knowledge of the difficulties that affect his constituents. He sketched out some of the longer-term issues that face rural communities. Before I come to those, I should like to point out to those in Parliament and elsewhere who try to run a divide between rural communities and urban ones that the foot and mouth outbreak has implications for the urban community. There are two examples in my constituency. A maggot farm in Clipstone that sells angling equipment has had difficulties because people from urban areas have not been able to go out to the countryside. For the same reason, a textile company in Hucknall in Nottinghamshire that makes high-quality visible protective clothing has seen its sales drop and the business is in peril.
Of course, there are real problems in the countryside. The significant lesson of the foot and mouth outbreak is the importance of tourism to the countryside. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wants to get people from Leeds and Sheffield back into the countryside. In the Peak district we must get people from Derby, Nottingham and Leicester back. It is all very well for colleagues from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to go abroad and promote our countryside in Europe and America, but the reality is that we must get local people back. One of the dangerous political divides that have arisen in recent years is that between urban and rural areas. We must recognise that the two interrelate. However, I have been impressed by the importance to the countryside of walkers, climbers, anglers, canoeists and birdwatchers. It is clear that pubs and bed-and-breakfast places have faced real difficulties. The significance of closing the rights of way network throughout the country has only just been realised.
I was tempted to read some of the research undertaken on the subject, and came across a helpful paper written by Peter Midmore, professor of rural studies at the university of Wales, on the economic value of walking in rural Wales. His conclusions were striking. He found that, each year, walking and climbing bring £77 million into Wales and contribute to 4,250 jobs. He compared the cost to the public purse of the subsidies for farming and agriculture and for the tourist industry. The public cost for climbing and walkingthe leisure businesswas £433 a job, whereas that of supporting jobs in agriculture in Wales was almost 10 times higher, at £4,279.
I was also struck by the Scottish natural history survey of 1998, which showed that open air recreation accounted for 29,000 jobs in Scotlandalmost the same as farming. The Countryside Agency in England has not been slow to follow that: it found that on any given weekend more than 7 million people visited the British countryside, that the main source of transport was by foot and that the majority of visitors lived less than 30 miles from the places visited.
The implications for rural communities, following the closures caused by the foot and mouth epidemic, are significant. It is bizarre that some local authorities still deny it. Lincolnshire county council has done little to reopen its footpaths. East Yorkshire, another county with tremendous tourist potential, has done little, as has
Paddy Tipping : I am aware that bodies such as the National Trust have been quick to enter into the discussion and that beaches and coves were opened early. Tourism and outdoor recreation are indeed important.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Dartmoor national park has been closed for far longer than necessary, and that when national parks are closed people do not visit the area? Does he agree that the Government should give special help to tourist attractions in the national park areas and to hoteliers who are on the verge of bankruptcy?
Paddy Tipping : We need to examine the measures that have been put in place to help rural businesses. One of the questions that will arise at the end of the crisis is how successful those measures have been. I suspect that they will not be as successful as was thought at the outset. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that it is vital to reopen Dartmoor as soon as possible. Again, I look to my right hon. Friend the Minister to say something on the subject.
People visit the countryside because of the landscape. There is a symmetry between what farmers and landowners do and what tourists want from the countryside. As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said, the outbreak will lead to an acceleration of thinking on the subject. Like him, I do not think that it will lead to anything radical: I believe that the bones of a new approach are already in place.
In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, many farmers and landowners are looking for alternative businesses. We must reconsider how the planning system works in rural areas. There is much evidence to suggest that there is a black economy of industry that brings wealth into the area, taking place with no planning permission in farm buildings throughout the country. That is of little detriment to the countryside and I hope that we will take the opportunity to ease planning conditions.
In the longer term, there will be a move away from the manner in which we support agriculture. The common agricultural policy will face radical reform that will be driven by the enlargement of the European Union, not by the current crisis. As new countries such as Poland and Hungary enter the EU, it is inconceivable that the CAP will not have to change. Change is driven by foot and mouth and the other crises of the past four or five years: BSE, low commodity prices and overproduction. The strength of the pound against the euro has also been a factor.
That process will not be painlessit will be extremely painful. It will be timetabled over a number of years. It is clear that, however much is done with organics, local marketing and the development of a market in energy crops, commercial farming faces real difficulties and big challenges. That is why I tell the Minister that whatever the difficultiesI know that there are real difficulties with colleagues in the Treasury about retirement and outgoer schemeswe must give farmers whose capital, livelihood and family are tied up with their farmstead a chance to leave with dignity and some money in their hands. The problem is one of new entrants and substitution and we must work hard to develop a system to allow change in the countryside.
Many people, and particularly incomers to the countryside, want a countryside that is preserved in aspic and does not change. I had hoped to go to the Yorkshire dales this coming weekendI am a Yorkshire lad from the urban textile town of Halifax. One of my favourite walks is to the top of Buckden Pike. I used to take my children there, and as we looked down over Upper Wharfedale the kids would say, "Nothing's ever changed." However, in Upper Wharfedale, everything had changed, from a land that was soggy and woodland to one that was intensively used. The challenge is to make and plan such change
I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that all the voices in the countryside, not only landowners and farmers, are crying out for change. We do not have long to act. I welcome the suggestion of an independent commission. We must move quickly. The sign of DEFRA's success will not be a change of nameplate on the door of Nobel house, but a change that creates a new and living countrysidea countryside that is in stark contrast to the barren fields and desolation that we see in many parts of England and Wales at present.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): There is a widespread belief in many rural communities that the Government do not understand the depth of the crisis and how it has affected so many different businesses and people. The Prime Minister has said that we are on the home straight, however bumpy it is. Perhaps we are over the worst, yet many businesses are entering what should be their more lucrative period with much trepidation.
We hope that hotels and small businesses connected with tourism in Devon and Cornwall are now facing good weather and many visitors. It has been estimated that 97 per cent. of them have been affected in some way by foot and mouth. Small businessessometimes even micro-businesses comprising one or two peoplethat always live to a certain extent on the precipice are now clearly faced with possible disaster. That such businesses would not be readily connected with farming has been a difficult problem for some district councils considering
Large agricultural shows such as the Royal Bath and West show and the Devon and Cornwall show are the shop windows for many small businesses, which market themselves and take a huge number of orders during the few days of the show. The orders keep them going for the rest of the year. They have other opportunities to market their products, but the shows are key. A further problem is the temporary closure of an enormous number of National Trust houses and attractions. They have their own problems with admission fees, but what about their ice-cream suppliers and so on, which are often micro-businesses?
We want the Government to understand the depth of the crisis and how it has affected small businesses in rural areas. It has been dealt with principally by the provision of hardship rate relief. As has already been said, that has now ceased, but many businesses are still suffering considerably as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. We want an extension of that relief. When it was introduced, it was intimated that the Government would review the position before the end of the three-month period to determine whether it would, in fact, be extended. The case has been made, and I hope that an announcement will be made that the scheme will be further extended for a minimum of three months.
The scheme does not deal with all businesses that have a rateable value of up to £12,000. I understand that about 3,500 applications have been made nationally. We were told that a £12,000 limit would include 75 per cent. of all businesses that might be affected. If only 3,500 have made applications, something is seriously amiss. Consideration should be given, perhaps during the extension of the three-month period, to raising that limit to, say, £50,000, so that businesses that are affected can obtain some relief.
Apart from agriculture, tourism is probably the economic activity that has been most affected. In many tourist areas, there is a feeling that England has missed out considerably in terms of Government support for tourism compared with Scotland and Wales. Many of the hardest hit areas of tourism are in England. A significant increase in marketing support and promotional activity is necessary to benefit tourism.
One of the other aspects that we should consider is why we did not learn enough from the 1967 outbreak and the 1969 report. Although many comparisons made are erroneous, as the 2001 FMD outbreak is significantly different from that of 1967, comparisons can be made about the effects and how the disease can be controlled.
I hope that the Government will agree to hold a full, open and independent public inquiry. Many peoplenot only those involved in foot and mouth but the entire countrywant to understand how the Government handled the matter. Indeed, in my area, a telephone pollthey are not always entirely accuratetaken by
We need to do more, and quickly. Many lessons can be learned in the absence of an inquiry, such as how farmers' and local markets can be encouraged in local towns. The Government are putting public money into the regeneration of small market towns, but is it not nonsense to continue to allow planning applications for out-of-town shopping centres at the same time as we are trying to regenerate towns? Joined-up thinking is necessary to reap the benefits of both. Larger out-of-town shopping centres have benefits, but they should not undermine local town centres. We need planning permission that avoids one competing with the other and public money ultimately having to be put into town centres.
Long discussion on food and farming policy is necessary. Many of us have been calling for that for some time. Before the commencement of foot and mouth disease, it had become apparent that the common agricultural policy and other factors had had an impact on farming. We have been producing more and more and creating surpluses, there has been a reduction in world prices, and farm incomes have rapidly disappeared. If there can be an advantage to a crisis such as this, it may be that it will concentrate minds and create real change.
People sometimes say that everything that happened before foot and mouth was bad and that everything after it will be all right. Although there is a place and a niche market for the smaller, local, organic farm supplying produce for the local town and its restaurants and shops, and such farms may produce local cheeses and meats, they can never supply the need for wider food production. The larger agribusinesses will continue to thrive, operating on a national and international scale, supplying large supermarkets and food processing businesses.
Surely, however, a place must remain for the less intensive, more traditional food production farming units, which even now comprise the vast majority of farming enterprises throughout the country. They still provide a significant amount of the food that we want, including an enormous amount of food for processing. Day by day, week by week, year by year, they continue to trade and to be profitable in their own rightif we discount the problems of FMD for the moment. They have been looking after, enhancing and producing the very countryside from which tourism and the whole country benefit. Somehow, however, despite being a significant number, they have been excluded from the debate.
We need to incorporate such farms in any future policy decisions. Yes, we want to move away from more intensive farming and promote organics as a niche, but we will never reduce significantly the large number of farming enterprises that fall between, not being hugely intensive or totally organic, but provide much of the food that we eat. We should not neglect them, because they also provide the countryside that is so important to
I hope that one of the effects of foot and mouth will be that we take a good look at how we produce our food, and at how the rural economy could fit together to include all types of business. However, let us not forget that an enormous number of farmsoften family farmsthat have operated quite satisfactorily for a long period, may feel alienated by a policy that considers only agribusinesses and smaller, organic businesses.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Opposition spokesman at 12.10. Before that, at least three people want to speak. With a little self-discipline, they may all be able to do so.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I shall do my best to follow that advice, Mr. O'Hara. The debate is not an opportunity for a long discourse on the origins of foot and mouth in relation to the current crisis. I want to focus on the implications that the outbreak has for the way in which the Government deliver services to the farming community and, specifically, to the culture and performance of former MAFF services that are now the responsibility of DEFRA.
This crisis has demonstrated a number of things to which those of us who have been close to farming and to MAFF have frequently drawn attention. First, this is a Ministry that does not naturally develop strategies for the delivery of its services, or for the future of the industry that it seeks to guard and help. Several speakers have made lucid arguments concerning the fact that a strategy has been lacking for some time, and have pointed out that a rural strategy that encompasses the role of farming in the future is desperately needed.
Secondly, the Ministry has never had a good track record with regard to contingency planning or preparedness for dealing with major crises. As I said in the House a few days ago, a major outbreak of foot and mouth disease was not an unknown possibility, as it has happened before. However, although it is an eventuality on which much administrative time was spent in the 1960s, there is plenty of evidence that the Ministry had little in place to guide it on how to deal with an outbreak on this scale. It lacks preparedness and long-term thinking for dealing with such major biological crises.
Thirdly, the Ministry has had an introverted and defensive culture, which has made it peculiarly hard for it to engage with other parts of the public service or with other groups that may be able to assist it in dealing with such crises. That is evidenced by how slow it was to engage with scientific expertise to give guidance on the mapping of the crisis and how it would spread across the country. The issue of the engagement of the Army in logistical tasks also provides evidence to support that opinion. I recognise that this is a politically sensitive matter, but it was apparent to me at an early stage that the Army's help was required, because the Ministry was ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the task facing it in some parts of the country, and yet it went into denial for a critical few days before recognising that that was necessary.
However, it should also be pointed out that MAFF officials are tremendously nice people. Reports from my constituency, where there were eight cases of foot and mouth disease, support that point: there was positive feedback on the ground concerning how the officials did their work. They were sensitive: they recognised that the tasks that they had to perform were awful and that they were working on other people's property and destroying their livelihoods. They conducted themselves with a degree of sensitivity and tact that must not be lost. Although I will talk about some of the things that must be lost if MAFF is to change into a Department that serves rural areas far better than before, that local feel was present, and it was appreciated by people who were going through the worst experiences of their lives. It is only fair to point that out.
However, a painfuland, occasionally inconceivableamount of bureaucracy was sometimes imposed. I handled cases in which, to apply for a local movement, a form had to be completed that had to be sent to Nottingham, from where it was transmitted to Cambridge, before being routed back through the process. The apparent reason for that was that it did not seem possible for MAFF to devise a one-stop process for dealing with the matter. To resolve it, two regional service centres had to be involved.
Similar problems arose with regard to the welfare scheme. Some cases in my constituency had to go through an appalling process. It has been remarked that often the worst-hit farmers did not have foot and mouth disease on their farms but were restricted in their movements and activities. There were some awful welfare cases, and sorting some of them out took up a significant amount of my time. That the wrong rates were set for the welfare scheme was not helpful. Most of us who know a reasonable amount about the subject would have said straight away that the rates were too generous. They produced a secondary marketplace into which everyone immediately dived, thereby overloading the bureaucracy. That could have been spotted immediately.
The paperchase process was then imposed on people seeking to go through the welfare scheme. I have local examples of that, one of which is someone who did not have lifting gear available to deal with carcases, and was told by one person that it was his responsibility to provide it, but by another that the Ministry could do so. The muddled communication was bad news for local farmers.
The compensation payment arrangements also provided plenty of room for complaint. They were often slow. They were sometimes unfair in certain respects, and I have taken up such cases separately with the Department. In one critical areathe payment for previously redundant farm workers to carry out certain cleansing tasksthe arrangements in my constituency were so woefully slow that people who lived on little money in the first place were often denied any income for six to eight weeks. First, someone would check off the payment in Stafford, move it to London to be authorised again, and then to Alnwick, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), for someone finally to pay it off. I cannot understand how we can tolerate such jobsworth bureaucracy when dealing with a crisis.
The blood tests, which were critical in finally clearing up the cases in my area, were slow. Someone made another mistake and missed a critical farm, which delayed the process, so restrictions were in place for far longer than necessary. The people might be nice, but what a painfully bureaucratic muddle there was. To call the operation byzantine would seem only a mild criticism.
Communications were awful. The example given earlier on vaccination was right, as the explanation of what vaccination meant was muddled. Various meanings of that word never got through to some farmers, although most farmers in my area grasped the issue reasonably clearly. To the public and the media, the dichotomy was clear between vaccination, as a way to save animals, and the alternative, to kill them. As most of us know, that is a woefully simplistic view of a complex subject.
I hope that, as a result of the change of nameplate on Nobel house, there is a powerful change in the culture, management style and key management personnel in the Department that delivers such key services. We cannot accept that such a level of bureaucracy should be applied to a critical sector that needs regeneration, new thinking and new strategies. I find it hard to conceive that some of those involved will be able to deliver such powerful change in the future.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) on initiating the debate, as the issue has had an enormous impact on my constituency, not only on the blighted farmers and those who have been directly affected in terms of tourism and agriculture but on people in the towns and villages who are related to or know those farmers. A dark cloud hangs over the areas that have been directly affected by the disease.
My right hon. Friend was right to say that when there is a withdrawal of information, the rumour mill can and does take over. I have heard daily rumours on how the disease has spread and where it will go next. We need to fill the vacuum to ensure that the rumour mill is displaced.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of foot and mouth in my area. As I said, its impact has been felt not only by those directly affected: the contiguous culls sometimes affect 16 other farms. We can only imagine how many animals are taken out with each outbreak.
It has been said that the vast majority of culls have been carried out sensitively, and I thank those involved for that. However, that is sometimes not the case. I have had a letter from John Barber of the Lancashire Rural Stress Network telling me of a cull that took place in West Bradford. There were not many animals, and they belonged to the lady who runs the post office. The road was not closed, and passers-by who had become attached to the animalsincluding some childrensaw the cull taking place and were affected by what they saw. I ask the Minister to ensure that it is stressed yet again
Compensation has been mentioned, and I pay tribute again to the charities for the role that they have played during the outbreak. I should like to think that the Minister will today announce new initiatives to support those affected by foot and mouth, rather than withdrawing the initiatives that have already been announced, some of which were inadequate in the first place. I hope that he can reassure us that some of the schemes that have been started will continue and that some of the problems that can be more clearly seen now that we are way down the line can be properly tackled.
Hon. Members have mentioned the future and the fact that it might be six months before those who are affected by foot and mouth can restock. I want to know about the long-term future. I also want to know about the long-term future of those who get compensation. I heard today of someone whose animals were culled virtually at the start of the outbreak, but who still has had no money, while others, whose animals were killed a month ago, have had theirs. There might be difficulties in that regard.
Are farmers supposed to live on the compensation until they can restock? If they have to eat into money that is earmarked for the replenishment of stocks, there will be so much less when they finally get round to restocking. We must reconsider exactly what the money will be used for. We have heard about new entrants, but we should talk about the old entrants who want to stay in farming. We must ensure that they are properly compensated and can support themselves during this difficult time. It has been stressed that it would, ironically, be better for some people if their stock got the disease. People who are not involved in dairying have been unable to move their animals and have had no income since the outbreak of the disease. We need to reconsider what compensation and support can be given to such people.
I ask the Minister yet again to restate that the Government will hold a public inquiry into the disease so that farmers and those involved in the industry can give evidence. People want to know how the epidemic started and spread. There are rumours that helicopters were involved and about foot and mouth living on the beaks of birds and being spread by vermin. Indeed, there was a suspicion that MAFF officials were spreading the disease by not properly disinfecting premisesnot deliberately, of course.
I was delighted when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs visited Gisburn in my constituency, which houses the DEFRA headquarters for the outbreak in my area. She also met several people involved in tourism, and we need to see what more can be done in that regard. Absurdly, the tourism industries are often those that diversified out of farming in the first place because there was no money in it. Now, they have been clobbered because there is no money in tourism that is related to farming, as agriculture has been blighted.
I ask the Minister to re-examine cases where businesses can prove that their income and turnover have gone down by a considerable percentage, and to give them special relief. Conservative Members have
Mr. Beith : I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for ensuring that we share the last few minutes of the debate between our two constituencies, both of which have been seriously affectedmine from end to endby the foot and mouth outbreak. The few areas that have remained clean throughout the outbreak are of course affected by the secondary effects that have spread into the towns as well. In the limited time available to me, I would like to list some of the serious problems, some of which are less obvious to the outside world than they are to those of us in the area.
Many businesses other than farming are adversely affected. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) mentioned agricultural shows. From now until the beginning of October, there is one every Saturday in my constituencybut not this year. All the businesses that exhibit at the shows will lose out badly as a consequence. A sweet seller told me that 95 per cent. of his business was at those shows. He has no source of income this year.
Many other businesses serve and provide for agriculture, and investment and even day-to-day spending are no longer taking place in those businesses, because the income is not there to provide for it. Some of those businesses are medium-sized rather than small, employing quite a few people, and have therefore not been significantly helped by the schemes that the Government have announced so far. People employed in such businesses who have been laid off, such as drivers and mart workers, have had no source of employment throughout this year and have no prospect of it in the near future.
Tourism businesses of many kinds have been affected, but especially those dependent on hill walking, canoeing, pony trekking, and other activities that have been restricted. That has particularly affected the Wooler area in my constituency.
Outdoor clothing sellers and manufacturers have had a terrible year. One famous national firm has taken to selling outdoor clothing in the car park of my local supermarket, because all its normal business outlets at the shows have disappeared. I do not suppose that it can begin to replace the business, because people do not buy clothes for activities that they do not engage in.
There are other, quite surprising victims. Specialist cheese producers have been prevented from using unpasteurised milk by foot and mouth restrictions, even though the scientific basis for this decision seems very doubtful indeed. Their cheese entirely depends on the use of unpasteurised milk.
Farmers and others who let grass parks have not been able to let them at all this year. That includes a variety of organisations, including in one case a church in my constituency, a substantial part of whose income comes from letting grass parks that have been gifted to it by previous generations.
Some in the farming industry are affected by movement restrictions. People who want to move clean cattle are not able to sell before the animals reach 30 months, because of movement restrictions, and lose financially if they have to go into the over-30-months scheme. The Minister has written letters saying that the Government are trying to find a solution. What is the solution, and will it deal with the substantial losses that the restrictions are causing farming businesses?
Farmers are prevented from moving cattle to the Ayr abattoir for slaughter because of restrictions placed at the Scottish border by the Scottish Executive. I have taken up that matter with the Scottish Executive, who have been helpful in changing and relaxing some restrictions. Cattle from an infected area exactly identical to one just over the border are not able to go to the nearest available slaughterhouse in Ayr, just because they are on the wrong side of the border. There is no scientific or veterinary differencethere is simply a national boundary. Suddenly, cattle from clean areas are not allowed to cross the border. According to the Scottish Executive, this is because there has been an outbreak in North Yorkshirewhich is much further away than the abattoir is from my constituencyand they must maintain a restriction at the border. That is an unfair and unreasonable decision. Farmers wanting to move grain and oilseed rape from contiguously culled farms are not able to carry on their business.
In my constituency, there have been disposal problems. About 130,000 carcases have been buried at Widdrington, with a number of errors made in the way in which it was first done. About 3,000 carcases were burned and the ashes now have to be taken away from the sand dunes where the burning took place, because they cannot safely be left. The areas around Widdrington deserve compensationfor communities and even for households.
The Government should start a national scheme to reduce the council tax for those communities. That would provide direct help to those households that suffered from the burning and the fumesand from anxiety about the health risks that they were exposed to when the massive burials were taking place. Previous Ministers have met my constituents. The Prime Minister met them, as did the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who was then a MAFF Minister, and the former Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). They expressed sympathy and said that there would be some kind of Government help for the communities affected by that disposal activityhelp in the form of Government investment and so on.
I welcome the new Minister, but people expect a lot from him. They regard all those promises and commitments as binding on successor Ministers. New evidence has strengthened their case for help for the
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I welcome the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) in his latest incarnation as Minister for Rural Affairs. He comes with the support not only of his own party, but of the Opposition. I was interested to read recently that, in his time in the Welsh Assembly, he was highly regarded by Welsh farmers. I hope that he manages to extend that regard in England.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. He brings a wealth of knowledge, not only because his constituency is seriously affected but because of his experience as a former Minister in the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; he has many years' expertise on agri-policies and the like.
As my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have said, the sorry saga of foot and mouth continues. My right hon. Friend listed the impact that it has had on his area since the Prime Minister said that we were on the home straight. Tens of thousands of farmsand familiesare still affected by the crisis and, as so many hon. Members have said, many other businesses are affected. I shall not repeat the list, but it is generally understood that the disease has implications far beyond farming. Indeed, as the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, they go beyond rural areas, and are now affecting urban areas.
I join my right hon. Friend in thanking the many people who have been involved, who are widely respected by the real sufferers, including MAFF staff and others. They have treated with sensitivity what has been a dreadful scenario for the farmers concerned.
The first issue of substance is the present fluctuating situation, and I hope that the Minister can explain it to us. We had no new cases on Sunday and four yesterday. It has been like that for some time, and we expect it to continue for some time. People want to know the truth about the outbreaks. Questions are being asked about dangerous contacts that have been slaughtered but not tested because no one knows whether they would be confirmed cases. Indeed, as happened on a farm in Wiltshire last week, some slaughtered animals have not appeared in any statistics. We do not know why they were slaughtered. Can the Minister shed some light on that? As my right hon. Friend said, wherever it happens, myth starts to run riot if people do not know why animals have been slaughtered. People start to make up their own stories about why it might have happened.
Next is the cause of new outbreaks. The Secretary of State said that last week that there was no evidence of walkers having transmitted foot and mouth disease. She is probably right, but there is no evidenceone cannot prove a negativethat they did not do it. As my right hon. Friend said, the same applies to all comments, including those of the Secretary of State, about farmers and farm contractors and machinery spreading the disease. We need to be clear whether there is evidence of
Will the Minister speak about the serological testing that we understand is going on in many parts of the country? To what extent is it taking place? What findings are beginning to emerge as to how endemic the problem is, especially in the sheep flock? I was concerned to read the latest information this morning, which is that Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, says that the recent cases of foot and mouth in the Brecon area mean that it has been there for "several weeks". That is worrying, and I would welcome the Minister's comments on it.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched on the first point I wanted to make on unrecoverable losses. On 27 February, the Opposition highlighted the problem of cattle going over the 30 months and the immediate devaluation that it created. It is somewhat regrettable that the Government have even now done no more to deal with that than make sympathetic noises. There is an issue about cattle on the over-30-months scheme, which have not generally been moved off farms. Using pre-outbreak statistics, my estimate is that there must be about 200,000 such animals awaiting disposal.
There are other unrecoverable losses. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said the other day, he wrote to MAFF in April listing our proposals for compensation for unrecoverable losses, and there is still no prospect of any positive response.
I also want to ask the Minister about the disposal and methods of marketing of store stock. We are now beginning to approach the periodAugust, September and Octoberwhen hundreds of thousands of store lambs and store cattle are brought off the hills and traditionally sold in large store-market arrangements, often in a temporary purpose-built fairground, so to speak. They are sold to lowland farmers for onward growing and finishing. What thinking has the Department done on how it can help in the disposal of these hundreds of thousands of animals, especially sheep? They have to be sold, as there is no facility to keep them on, so how can that be accommodated?
I stand to be corrected, but I understand that farmers have an option to restock with what are described as sentinel cattle. If the cattle catch the disease, it proves that it is still around, and if they do not, it means that it is not. Farmers also have the option of not keeping stock on the farm for four months after disinfection. Problems arisethey have done so in Scotlandwhen two adjoining farms take different routes, and the farmer who opts for the four-month clearance period finds that his neighbour has sent in sentinel cattle. If those cattle go down with foot and mouth, the consequences for the farmer who opted for the alternative are serious. Some rationale must be established.
No one suggests that there be a full inquiry until the disease is resolved. Every effort must be concentrated on that first, but there must be a full inquiry afterwards. The Secretary of State has refused to accept that it would be a public inquiry, as she says that that would
We need to know what took place. If it takes a little longer but we get to the bottom of the matter, that is how it should be handled. A programme tomorrow night on Channel 4 will examine the background to the period, especially March, when the disease was clearly out of control, despite what the then Minister was saying. It was not until the meeting on 21 March that the Government accepted advice to aim for a target of slaughter within 24 hours of diagnosis. The Government then took more than a month to achieve that target.
Many questions have arisen for the Minister to deal with and I will not encroach upon his time, so I conclude by saying that some of this morning's debate has concerned wider issues of the countryside and DEFRA, which are important. I have not spoken about them because of the lack of time, but I hope that the Minister will persuade his colleagues in charge of parliamentary business of the genuine interest in this matter. Perhaps a full-scale parliamentary debate on the future of the countryside, even on the Adjournment, would be appropriate.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) on securing this debate and on the constructive manner in which he introduced it, which set the tone. That tone was reflected in the final remarks of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), speaking for the Opposition. We need constructive and searching debate on this issue. One of the strengths of Westminster Hall is to introduce that sort of atmosphere to the debate.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman started by paying tribute to all those who worked hardand continue to do soto eradicate the disease and to respond to many of the problems that have arisen. Last Wednesday, I visited the west midlands, where I saw officials returning from an exhausting and demanding period on the front line dealing with foot and mouth disease, and then immediately beginning the work of trying to give urgently needed advice and help to farmers and businesses. For them, the immediate future is as demanding as the period that they have just gone through. The impact of foot and mouth disease on rural areas has been complex and wide-ranging as well as devastating. All three of those characteristics were reflected in the debate.
I welcome the opportunity for the debate, but the time is too tight to cover the myriad issues raised. I undertake to write to colleagues, especially on specific and detailed points, and copy those remarks to others who have taken part.
The right hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the nature of the business crisis. I am committed, as are the Secretary of State and my other colleagues, to delivering action, not words. He was also right to say that at present, relief schemes are limited to the end of June. We are assessing the needs in the light of pressures and developments, and will comment on that more fully shortly.
In relation to the Government matching charity funds, which was an issue raised by some hon. Members, that reflects the Government and the public showing generosity. The money donated is used with a flexibility that only the voluntary sector can provide in practice. The steps generally taken by the Government to encourage giving, such as the tax relief provided by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other such incentives, also assist in making that money as effective as possible.
The right hon. Gentleman said something important when he urged people not to jump on everything that goes wrong, or to help with the spreading of unfounded rumours. I share his liking for Harry Potter and agree that myth is fine in its place, but is not helpful to decision making at a time of crisis, or to those trying to decide their way forward in difficult times.
For a Welshman such as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) to ask the Government to get rid of the rumour mill is a triumph of hope over experience, but I agree with the sentiment and I hope that all hon. Members, individuals and organisations concerned will help. Should there be concerns or worries, it would be best if the facts or rumours are provided to us and my colleagues and I will try to look as quickly as possible into any problems that arise. An example is the reference made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire to a case in Wiltshire. I understand that testing and analysis has taken some time to complete. As soon as we have the facts, I will write to give them to the hon. Gentleman and others.
Similarly, in relation to Brecon, I understand that it is true that disease has been identified on farms at the bottom of the hill. Testing of the sheep that have moved on to the beacons is still being carried out and results will be available shortly. My officials are in contact with officials at the Welsh Assembly because, of course, we are all in this together. I undertake to provide that information when it is known. If we are given concerns, we will do our best to get to the bottom of them rapidly and to provide information. However, I appeal to everybody not to treat rumour as fact and confound the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is right that one cannot prove a negative. However, on both sides of positives and negatives, we must work with the available evidence. We should not be like the individual who throws paper balls in the air and says that that scares off the elephants. When it is pointed out that there are no elephants in the air, it is said that that proves that the practice is effective. I am trying to make the serious point that it is more
In his introduction, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon also referred to prosecutions. He will appreciate that it is difficult to provide evidence when rules have been breached. It is for the local authority to investigate whether there have been breaches of the law or regulations, and we will want prosecutions to occur in those circumstances. I agree that we should not talk up situations or beliefs unless there is evidence. It would be wrong of me to give a blanket assurance to stop prosecutionshe will agree that the matter is not that simple. We should try to be as clear as possible and not allow false impressions to develop.
The hon. Members for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and for Ribble Valley asked for assurances that there would be an inquiry to get to the bottom of events. We have repeatedly given such an assurance, but it would be irresponsible to bandy about words, such as public inquiry, which have specific meanings. The use of such terminology is not casual and the worst possible outcome would be to end up with a long-delayed and bureaucratic inquiry. We must deal with the emergency, eradicate the disease, bring business back into action and do the things that are currently putting pressures on officials, and then have an inquiry that gets at the facts quickly and clearly, and genuinely gets to the bottom of events. That is the approach of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but we must be clear about the sort of inquiry that will best serve the public interest and the interest of those affected by the disease.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the video about biosecurity. We have tried to give out clear and crisp messages in the light of events surrounding foot and mouth diseasein some cases, messages that we thought were clearly understood by those directly involved. The video was issued because the message needed to be clarified.
The right hon. Gentleman was also right to underline the choices for farmers who have been directly affected and who must decide about compensationwhether to restock or to change direction. That is not for the Government to dictate, and I have talked to officials about how to ensure that that advice is available. A survey in the west midlands that I saw last week highlighted the impact on farmers and other businesses. It also showed that 80 per cent. of the businesses had not sought advice and that 60 per cent. had made no change to the way in which they carried out their business or marketing and had no plans to do so. That shows that we have a big job to do.
I have tried to deal primarily with the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman. I shall write to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about the matters to which he referred. The issues are complex and 10 minutes is an extremely short time in which to respond to what has been a first-rate debate. I agree that we need plenty of time in which to debate such matters and I hope that Conservative and Labour Members can agree on a mechanism to allow such a debate to take place.