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Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Thank you, Mr. Winterton, for chairing this morning's proceedings. I am pleased to have the opportunity to initiate a debate on an issue that is of critical importance to my Northumberland constituency, to that of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)I am pleased to see him here todayand to those of all Members who represent upland areas of the north. Naturally, there will be considerable discussion of the foot and mouth epidemic, which is still very real, particularly in Yorkshire, where there is a regular stream of new cases. Today, however, I want to focus on the legacy of foot and mouth and the crisis facing upland hill farmers in the north.
Some of the legacy of foot and mouth is glaringly obvious to anybody who journeys in Cumbria or in Northumberland: empty fields, generations of breeding wiped out, and ruined lives. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who I am pleased to see in his place, will have witnessed that at first hand. His constituency continues to suffer the live effects of foot and mouth. In mine, there has not been a case for several months, although a couple of weeks ago a renowned flock of sheep was slaughtered as a precautionary measure.
What is not obvious to the public is the impending welfare crisis looming in the upland areas, as our farmers ponder the fate of hundreds of thousandsperhaps millionsof unsaleable sheep. Nor is the further fall in farm incomes obvious. Before the foot and mouth epidemic, farming incomes, particularly those of hill farmers, were historically low. Some estimated their annual incomes just before the epidemic at about £4,000, although others would describe that as extremely optimistic. Since the outbreak, incomes have fallen even further, and I shall say a few words about the recent effect on prices.
A third important aspect that is also not particularly visible is that, in respect of dealing with the aftermath of the crisis and the future of farming, we are suffering from a lack of political leadership. I do not mean to be aggressively critical of the Minister. Decisions on the future of farming are extremely complex and detailed, but the Government must establish their promised foot and mouth inquiry. They should also set up the policy commission that I believe was promised in the Labour party manifesto, so that the future of farming can be examined. We are just two days away from the recess, but that commission has yet to be established.
The matter is urgent, given the problem of unsaleable sheep and the fact that we are about six weeks away from the deadline for decisions. Traditionally, in six weeks' time the sale of light lambs from the high hills begins. In my own constituency, the Hexham and Northern marts will sell tens of thousands of light lambsHerdwicks, Swaledales and Blackfacesduring August and September. Normally, they are exported to Mediterranean countries. Southern France, Italy and Spain in particular delight in these small, tasty lambs, which the UK market has rejected. We import most Mediterranean food and eat it with great enthusiasm, but the traditional light lamb of the hills of
It is interesting to recall that before the foot and mouth disease epidemic, we exported 30 per cent. of our lamb crop. At best estimate, the epidemic has taken out 3 million lambs or 15 per cent., which leaves about 3 million lambs that cannot be exported and will have to be absorbed into the UK market. That has caused the price to fall and it will fall further. A 20 kg Suffolk-cross lamb currently fetches around £27, which is about £12 less than last year, and the main sales have not yet started. It costs around £30 to put a lamb into the market, so hard-hit farmers will lose around £3 per lamb.
A solution to the problem of light lambs might be to extend the welfare slaughter scheme to them, but if the meat is sold in supermarkets, it will displace meat from normal fat lambs that would have been sold instead. A more palatable alternative might be a slaughter scheme and long-term store. However, at some stage the meat will have to come out of cold store and enter the market. There would also be a huge logistical problem because slaughtering 2 million sheep is a huge task and abattoirs in the north-east would be unable to cope.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The hon. Gentleman will be aware of a further problem if animals are sent to abattoirs on the other side of the border in Scotland because, despite earlier help from the Scottish Executive, there is a ban on the movement of animals across the border for slaughtereven clean animals from clean areas.
Mr. Atkinson : I am aware of that and the Minister may be able to explain the mystery. We were told originally that animals from Northumberland could go for slaughter in Scotland but, as the right hon. Gentleman said, that is not happening. There has been a breakdown in communication between the Scottish Department with responsibility for agriculture and our own Department.
Apart from light lambs and surplus fat lambs, a third problem to add to the general misery concerns breeding ewe lambs, of which the north of England is a major producer. They are traditionally sold for breeding to farmers in the south, Yorkshire and the west country, but they cannot be sent there because of movement restrictions. Farmers in the south do not want to buy stock from infected areas and prefer to buy from non-infected areas for the sake of safety. One cannot blame them, but there will be a considerable surplus of breeding ewe lambs on the market. Farmers in Cumbria, Northumberland and Yorkshire who have been hit by foot and mouth disease and had their flocks slaughtered may buy some and opportunist farmers with spare grazing may also buy them, but there will be a considerable surplus.
The Minister could help by sorting out the confusion concerning the movement of fat lambs which cannot be sent to market because of movement restrictions. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced in the House recently that the movement restrictions were being lifted. That was welcomed as good news because it meant that we could sell fat lambs from the north to the large abattoirs in the midlands and the south. A problem has arisen since then because the Department insists that the transporter carrying the livestock makes the journey from farm or collection centre to abattoir non-stop, but the drivers' hours regulation specifies that they cannot drive for more than four hoursit may be four and a half hourswithout a break. That effectively means that a livestock transporter can go no further than it could drive in four hours; for the sake of argument, that would be about 160 miles. The big abattoirs in the midlands are therefore out of reach for our fat lambs. Farmers in Northumberland have to sell their lambs to local abattoirs, which are accustomed to cope with 3,000 or 4,000 lambs and are largely in the butchery and industrial trade. At this time of year, however, the Hexham mart alone would be selling about 8,000 or 10,000 lambs. Clearly, that is a problem.
I mentioned a political vacuum at the top and that needs to be addressed urgently. As we know, the system of funding hill farmers has changed from the hill farm compensatory allowance to what is called the hill farming allowance, but it is still unclear how it will affect farmers in upland areas, particularly in respect of their income. It may place onerous and unreasonable inspection and environmental burdens on farmers who have already suffered a huge drop in income.
We need a proper announcement about the foot and mouth inquiry, and the policy commission to be set up so that it can begin to take evidence and consider how farming might develop in future. I did not hear the Secretary of State speak yesterday, but I have seen a press cutting or two. It seems to me that she said nothing that indicated to farmers Government thinking on the future of farming. The German Agriculture Minister made some suggestions about less intensive and more organic production. I do not agree with those suggestions at all. I would sooner side with Lord Haskins, whose recent report presented a slightly different vision of farming: the need to improve efficiency, cut costs and become more competitive. I believe that that is the inevitable future of farming.
We do not want mixed messages. We need to know the Government's thinking on how farming will develop. The Government must announce as quickly as possible whether they intend to introduce a buy-up schemea buy-up to slaughter scheme or a buy-up for storage scheme. Farmers need to be reassured that there is a Government out there who care about them. They have lost their Ministry of Agriculture and they want to know if the new Department will encourage and take care of them.
Finally, Northumberland, Yorkshire, Cumbria and the other upland areas have a wonderful tradition of livestock breeding. It is always said that arable farmers are trained, but livestock farmers are born. Handling
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I am glad that the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) introduced this debate. He is right to point out that there is a crisis in northern upland farming. The boundary between my constituency and his passes through the Cheviot hillsone of the most drastically affected upland areasand the problems that he described are ones that I, too, have experienced. It might be hard to find our constituency boundary in that vast and largely empty territory if it were not for the small number of people who maintain the hills in the form that tourists want to see. They husband and shepherd sheep flocks primarily, and hill cattle to a more limited extent, not to mention wild goats, for which a warden has recently been appointed. It is a remarkable area, but it could face a drastic loss of the qualities that visitors appreciate if upland farming is not rescued from crisis.
The crisis began some time ago. The dangers to upland farming have continued over a long period. They were, of course, exacerbated by the BSE crisis, so the foot and mouth outbreak hit an industry that was already in a very poor state. The difference between the current crisis and the foot and mouth outbreak in the 1960s is that this time it hit an industry in much worse condition.
We have had many debates and questions about the details of what the Government are doing and what they should be doing, so we do not want to go over that ground today. However, foot and mouth is a negative influence on the state of upland farming and there is continued anxiety about what will happen. Farmers report that vets are warning them of the possibility of a further outbreak due to the identification through blood testing of sheep that are carrying the disease. There is therefore a great deal of anxiety about whether it will break out again. The most drastic effects are the loss of lamb exports and the complete disruption of the trade.
As people look ahead, there is a feeling that many who have had sheep slaughtered, particularly those whose sheep either had foot and mouth or went into welfare slaughter, will not go back into the industry. Hill farmers traditionally provided lowland sheep farmers with breeding stock. The hill farmers are looking at people that they know in the lowlands and observing that they are unlikely to go back into large-scale sheep farming. There will therefore be no market for the breeding stock from the hills, and that is a major worry for hill farmers.
Hill sheep are of course an organic product in all but name. They are not registered as an organic product but the way in which they are producedgrazing naturally on our hillsmakes them, in the sense that most people would understand it, an organic product, the future of which is seriously threatened.
We need to look at what is happening in the lowlands. Prices are down from 175p to 125p a kilo on lowland Suffolk lambs. I was talking to a farmer who was selling horned Blackface sheep for carcass export at 270p a kilo before the foot and mouth outbreak; after the outbreak the price is 150p a kilo because there is no export market. No business can stand that level of reduction in prices, and certainly not the frail hill farming industry. Hill farmers cannot continue taking less than the cost of production, which they are doing now and have sometimes had to do in the past. However, in the past the good times have evened out the bad times. Now there is a run of bad prices and no prospect of the situation improving.
Most hill farmers say that they would like to get their returns on livestock in the marketplace. In principle, they are looking not for a subsidised market but for a genuine one. However, they do not have a genuine market because there is an export ban. The Government must recognise that we are in an artificial situation and any intervention that they undertake is not part of a policy of market distortion. They must try to preserve the industry so that it can get back into a position where it can compete in a genuine market, which we do not have at the moment.
Some aids that are meant to help hill farmers are not helping at the moment. The sheep annual premiumthe headage paymentis calculated on the price in Europe. The price in Europe is high at the moment because our hill farmers cannot get their lambs there. Their premium is down due to the combined effects of the high European price and the exchange rate. At a time when the system should be helping hill farmers, it is giving them the lowest possible annual premium. The number of ewes has decreased by 25 per cent. in about a decade. Let us consider what has happened to them since the foot and mouth outbreak: 20 per cent. have been culled and 30 per cent. used to be exported, leaving 10 per cent. of ewes from that reduced flock on the market.
We need to know what short-term measures the Government are prepared to take to try to stabilise the market and what the long-term prospects, which are especially important to hill farmers, are. Do the answers lie in environmentally focused support? That is the message that farmers have been getting for some time and we are all party to giving it to them. Given the way in which the economics of farming is going, my party believes that there must be environmentally focused support to avoid the loss of farming from the hills. That must be the way forward, but that has not yet been proved in the eyes of hill farmers because there are an awful lot of gaps and missing figures in the equation. If the answer for the future of upland farming lies in a substantial environmental contribution from the nation, there are still problems. First, livestock are central to conservation. We cannot pay farmers to mow the Cheviots and clip the grass on the Ministry of Defence ranges that cover large parts of my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hexham. Yet the grass hillsides form the scene that the tourists expectit is they that make the Cheviots so distinct.
Livestock, therefore, cannot be written out of the equation. There must be some way of running a viable livestock business in the hills, even at the lower levels of intensity that we now have. To make a proper contribution to preserving the traditional upland
On an environmental basis, help must aid smaller as well as larger farmers. I was talking to a farmer who was investigating the countryside stewardship scheme. In order to participate, he would have to get rid of three quarters of his livestock to receive £2,000 income. However, he is looking ahead at ways of keeping the farm going for his son, so that there will be a future generation hill farmer there to look after the hills. Obviously, the scheme will not work for him. It will work for a large farmer, with a big acreage, who can get tens of thousands of pounds from stewardship schemes. That is probably a sensible bargain from the nation's point of view, but it will not work for the smaller hill farmer. That must be carefully examined.
A background to the situation is the attrition of services in remote areas, which makes it increasingly difficult for people to live and work there. This week, the county council told us that it plans to charge £300 to every pupil over 16 to travel to school. What does that say to a farmer living in the hills, or even more, to a farm worker such as a shepherd living in a remote position on a modest income with a family of youngsters going to school? There are many other examples of how the attrition of services is making it very difficult to keep farmers or shepherds in the hills.
Many discussions take place on the assumption that we are talking only about farmers. Believe it or not, there are still people employed in agriculture who draw a wage and do not have assets that could contribute to their retirement. Their income is limited, but their future is absolutely vital to the hills. The whole cultural life of the Cheviots has been built round shepherds, who have included great musicians, even poets and all sorts of people of tremendous talent who have lived and worked in the hills.
The Government play a large role in the area and are vital to the equation because they, in the form of the Ministry of Defence, are the biggest landowner in much of my constituency. In many respects, they have been a conserving farming landlord. Much of the area concerned is also national park. Within the area, there is short-term despair and long-term pessimism. I hope that the Minister can dispel that despair and change that pessimism by practical proposals to make farmers realise that it is worth hanging on in there, and that there is a future for hill farming. At the moment, they do not feel that there is one.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I do not normally tune into "Farming Today", because it is at quarter to 6, which I find somewhat premature. However, when one has hayfever and catarrh, one often ends up listening to programmes when one did not intend to. I caught the back end of Lord Whitty on that programme, following which it was commented that he would make a statement in the House of Lords today that would be repeated in the Commons. I thought that
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : Lord Whitty is responding today to a starred Question on the subject in the Lords. I think that he was asked what his response to it was going to be and that he indicated that he would make his response clear.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) because, in giving the broad picture, he has precisely set the scene for the particular cases that I wish to raise. By way of background, since the general election was called, in my constituency and the immediate neighbouring constituencies, mainly in the Ribble valley in Lancashire, we are approaching 100 outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, 400 farms culled as contiguous premises and 300,000 animals slaughtered.
I want to focus on a particular category of farmers: those who are not afflicted by foot and mouth disease, but are unable to carry on their business because they are in areas that are under heavy restrictions. I have enormous sympathy with farmers who have been culled out as either infected premises or contiguous premises. Although they receive payments for that compulsory slaughter programme, I would not wish to minimise the sheer trauma that such culling brings to a family, especially when they have built up a herd over a long period. We know about the problems to business that have come increasingly to the fore in relation to the lack of cash caused by the decrease in tourist numbers. However, the plight of farmers who are still trying to make a livelihood is too often overlooked. I therefore want to do something that I rarely do, and highlight two individual cases that illustrate the problems of those farmers, who are all in the uplands and less-favoured areas. Almost all the infected areas in my constituency are upland areas.
I start with the case of Gary and Gill Schofield, a young couple from Heber farm in Buckden, which is right at the top end of Wharfedale in the high hills. Mr. Schofield is only 33. He has been a tenant farmer for seven years and has a small family and a big overdraft, with loans on top of that. He raises 150 beef animals and has 900 ewes, which normally yield a crop of about 1,200 lambs. Because he is in environmental schemes, which are specifically aimed at reducing levels of fertility by restricting the use of fertiliser, there is not enough fertility on the land to keep the lambs over winter. He could, at a pinch, keep his breeding sheep, but nothing more, because he does not have enough lowland ground and snow covers the tops in winter. So his only substantial income comes from selling his lambs down the hilland one cannot sell lambs at the moment.
What would be Mr. Schofield's normal pattern of business if foot and mouth had not happened? In September or October he would sell his breeding lambs down to the lowland and sell his draught sheepewes that have done three or four years' service breeding in the uplandsdown the hill to do another three or four years in the lowland in the milder conditions, because they can no longer take the more severe upland conditions, but can still have a productive life in the kinder conditions in the south. He would also take down his male lambswetherswhile the half-horned lambs would go to export. The mule wetherscrossbreedswould be sold as store lambs or fattened on the lowland, perhaps until after Christmas.
What is the situation now? He has to keep his breeding lambs and draught lambs on the farm because he cannot sell them off it. He has to buy in expensive food to keep them going. They occupy the land that is needed for his normal breeding flock, which is therefore over-grazed. The land is under pressure and the stock is under pressure, so a welfare problem is looming. He wants to keep his breeding sheepthat is the heart of his enterprisebut he cannot keep his male lambs and his mules. He also has store cattle, which he is keeping on and fattening rather than selling them in July at 10 months old, which is what he would normally be doing now. That means that he needs bought-in feed, which sucks in capital, and the store cattle occupy the cattle sheds needed for his over-wintered cattle.
Mr. Schofield faces an impossible situation. He is left in complete uncertainty, with no information about what will happen, and he has had no income since February. This young couple are not dog-and-stick farmers; they are really trying to make a go of things in difficult circumstances, putting their whole life into it. His business is under pressure, his stock is under pressure and his land is under pressure. At some point there must be an intervention to relieve that pressure and make sure that he receives some income.
Another young couple, Matthew and Tracy Harrison, live at Stories House farm in Elslack, which is up the Aire valley from Skipton and close to the heart of the foot and mouth outbreak. It is in the Ribble valley, which is the epicentre of the epidemic. Tracy Harrison wrote to me. I did not solicit the letter; it just happened to come in the post when I was applying for the debate. She said that while she can appreciate the problems faced by farmers when their livestock has been culled, an income could be generated. The cleansing operation itself is remunerated and there is a payment for the stock. She wrote:
We are now in a D band that has no end. 20 lambs were able to be taken to the slaughterhouse".
My husband and I are both under 40, with 3 children under 10 and in no rush to retire. Our standard of living was not superb in the good old days of 2000, but at least we could look forward to making things better. It's not working though, and we need help."
We must bear in mind, however, farmers who are caught in infected areas and who have already suffered years of economic recession. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham said, they have seen the mechanisms change by which hill allowances are paid. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, the sheep premium is at an all-time low because it is based on the European price. Those farmers have nothing. They are stuck. An enormous welfare problem is building up with regard to the stock, as is an environmental problem because the welfare schemes will be shot to pieces. There is no choice other than for them to be shot to pieces. The only way to assist is to let some of the steam out of the pressure cooker. If that does not happen, the farmers will not be able to continue. The land will suffer, a welfare problem will result, and not merely the ecology but the business environment of such a precious area as the dales will go down with it. I hope that the Minister understands the problem. There must be an intervention to take the pressure off those farmers, or they will not be around this time next year.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I and my party heartily welcome the Government's intention to introduce genuine medium-term and long-term strategies and a commission on food and farming, which should specify precisely the future for agriculture in general and hill farming in particular. This morning's debate is about the short term and urgent matters.
Slightly disappointingly, we still do not know who will lead the commission or its intended timetable. A fundamental question is in the minds of an awful lot of hill farmers today: is there a future in hill farming? They are wondering whether to do whatever is necessary now and jump all the hurdles and whether, having tackled all the logistical and other problems that have been so eloquently described this morning, their upland farming ultimately has a future. That is one of the biggest questions that must be answered as quickly as possible, even though we must take evidence. One problem is that the future will relate more to environmental stewardship than to agriculture, and that will not suit everyone. It is not how many see their future in farming, but it is fundamental to what happens to people who operate on the ground.
We are talking about the short term and urgent matters. In the short-term category, it has been clear for some time that hill farm incomes have been getting lower and are too low. Of necessity, people, including those in hill farms, question the likelihood of those incomes being driven up through farming activity. Prices are still weak and seem unlikely in the short term to improve, and it is almost impossible for many farmers even to sell and therefore receive any income at all.
Hill farming allowances are being considered. That has changed the way in which support is received and created considerable alarm and despondency in the hill farming community. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many are wondering whether now is the time to give up. That will have huge implications for many different Government policies. Perhaps the Government could help in a planned and managed way by reconsidering the potential of a retirement scheme. I know that the Government have considered the matter several times and have decided that such a scheme would not be appropriate, even though common agricultural policy funding could be used for it. I urge the Government to reconsider opportunities for a relatively small-scale retirement scheme that could put some structure into how farmers organise their futures. A retirement scheme should be part of the overall broad strategy to help hill farming.
The export of so-called light lambs is such an urgent problem that we are dealing with weeks, not even months. When I heard hon. Members speak about welfare, it struck me that there is a welfare problem not only with animals but with farmers and their families. We need to consider that and what farmers want from the Government. Obviously, they know that there are huge problems in the aftermath of foot and mouth disease and so on, but we need a clearly thought-out policy to deal with the immediate situation.
It would be nice to use all the available evidence and set a policy in the context of a medium and long-term strategy. However, we do not have time to consider all the ramifications of subsidy mechanisms, problems with
The Government must come up with urgent short-term measures to deal with the real problems that have been described this morning. The word that everyone wants to see in Government policy and decision making is "flexibility". Inflexibility has been a feature of the implementation of decisions in the aftermath of foot and mouth in my part of the world and in the north. Having jumped over a number of hurdles, farmers have been obstructed by the way in which regulations have been implemented.
Unless there is real flexibility and management on the ground to deal with the circumstances of the dozens of individuals who have been affected, we shall have a huge problem in a few weeks' time. It will be interesting to hear Lord Whitty's answer to the relevant starred question this afternoon.
This debate is taking place only two days before Parliament rises for the summer recess, and many people will be looking to the Government to make a reasonable announcement about how they intend to tackle a problem that is likely to come to a head while Parliament is in recess. I hope that the Minister will provide at least some comfort by saying that the Government have not only considered the issues, but have clear plans for solving that problem.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on initiating the debate, which comes just two weeks after a similar debate that was secured by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). Two members of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) have made the same points that were made then and rightly so.
During the previous debate, which I think was the Minister's first appearance in this Chamber in his new incarnation, he rightly said that this forum provides the opportunity for a less partisan approach and a greater exploration of the issues. I agree with him entirely. I hope that he will accept that it behoves him to respond as fully as he can to the various points that have been raised and to the questions that have been asked. He has a considerable amount of time available and I certainly do not intend to encroach too much on it. He will have ample opportunity to reply to the debate.
I should like briefly to refer to the previous debate in this Chamber. The point was made, which the Minister fully accepted, that in the absence of proper information the rumour mill runs riot. All sorts of stories do the rounds in the farming world and in the farming press, for that matter. They may or may not have any
As my right hon. and hon. Friends have pointed out, the disease continues. Although all the epidemiologists told us that it would have a long tail, there is no sign yet of that tail shortening. It seems to run somewhere between three to five outbreaks daily, with no lessening. We are now in July, although one might not think so today, and we have had quite a lot of much warmer weather and sunshine. We were told that such weather would help to overcome the disease because the virus would be less viable and more quickly destroyed. There is a great deal of worry about what is really happening.
The other issue that was touched on in the previous debate is serological testing, which we believe is being carried out on quite a large scale. I hope that the Minister can tell us a bit more about that testing and its structure. It is obviously not just to establish where there may have been undetected infection: is it concentrating on certain areas or types of sheep or farming?
Mr. Curry : If farmers on the periphery of infected zones or within them are to be able to restock farms that have been culled out, large-scale serological testing is vital so that farmers who are being restocked have the assurance that they are not importing the problem.
Mr. Paice : My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I referred in the debate two weeks ago to the conflict that arises when some farmers opt to restock with sentinel animals and others opt to be clear for four months. If a sentinel animal goes down with the disease it can destroy a neighbouring farm's opportunity. That is a serious issue and I hope that the Minister will address it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham rightly highlighted the impending problems of the sheep and hill cattle industry, which I referred to a fortnight ago. It was widely referred to in the debate on the Floor of the House last Thursday and again today. By reciting the problems of Mr. and Mrs. Schofield and Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon illustrated the problems in a way that simply talking about national figures of 5 million sheep cannot do. He graphically demonstrated how serious the problems are for those who desperately need to get rid of some of their stock this autumn, partly to generate cash flow and partly because they do not have the physical resources to keep them as they have neither buildings nor feed.
Some farmers sell ewe lambs down the hill, as my right hon. Friend said, for others to keep on as breeding ewes in my part of the world. It is essential that those new lambs are kept alive whenever possible, because the consequential cost to the sheep industry would otherwise be disastrous. The problem is that, even if the farmers find some tack or agistmentwhatever the word may be in a particular area to describe overwintering on someone else's landin an affected area and are allowed to move their stock, they do not have the money to pay for that.
Almost all right hon. and hon. Members have referred to light lambs that are just beginning to come on stream and the absence of a market for them. I hope that the Government will not allow the controversy over live exports to blur the issue. The question of whether lambs are sent alive or in carcass form is secondary to finding a solution to the problem. I am not suggesting that we re-open exports any quicker than would be wise, but we must work out what is to happen to those light lambs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham rightly said, even if we could persuade supermarkets and shops to take them, they would only replace other lambs, or red meats as the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said.
I make no apology for returning to questions that I asked the Minister in the House last week, and I hope that he will now give us answers, because the industry wants to hear them. It is being constructive about possible ways forward and, having seen its correspondence with the Minister's colleagues and officials, I know that these points have all been put in writing during the past weeks. Will the Government allow any live sales to take place outside the infected areas? Sales could take place in East Anglia, where there is traditionally one big sale per yearnot of upland sheep, although I appreciate that upland sheep would not often come into it.
What does the Minister think about the Scottish highlands, which is another provisionally free area? Huge sales of sheep traditionally take place at Lairg and other places in August and September. Will the Government allow those markets to take place? We must consider also the licensing system. My understanding is that the licensing system for the transport of animals allows movement only for breeding or slaughter. Will the Government amend the regulations to allow movement for further growing and fattening, assuming that other criteria are met? There is also the issue of a welfare scheme for light lambs, as my hon. Friend mentioned.
I asked last week about corridors through infected areas, which would allow sheep to move from one provisionally free area to another. I cite all the sheep in the north of Scotland, to which I have just referred. Many of those sheep could come to central and eastern England as either store lambs for fattening or ewe lambs for breeding stock. The Government have already accepted that we can transport livestock from an infected area to an abattoir in a free area for slaughter. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham described the problems with drivers' hours on that, but the principle is conceded. The Government should designate one or two road corridors through south Scotland and northern England, so that we can move the sheep in northern Scotland to areas where they are required. That would be of some help.
Those ideas have all been put to the Minister previously, but before I give him ample time to reply, I should speak about other issues relating to the foot and mouth crisis and the uplands. I am beginning to pick up information about the clean-up process that is being undertaken on farms that are being slaughtered out. People who have gone through that awful experience have told me that the process is becoming more inconsistent. At the outset, farm tools and machinery had to be individually disinfected; cobbled floors and
Alun Michael : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. As he has raised some anxieties, I extend to him my invitation to hon. Members in previous debates to provide me with informationthe why, when and whereforeabout anything that appears to be inconsistent or wrong. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that rural myths circulate in the same way as urban myths. A story is put about, but no one can put a finger on its origins. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall investigate anything that needs investigation and try to ensure that inconsistencies are dealt with. However, if we do not get the information directly, and have only a general account of a suspicion of a developing problem, it is difficult to take the necessary action.
Mr. Paice : The Minister makes a reasonable point. Subject only to the agreement of the people who provide me with information, I am happy to pass the details to the Minister. He referred to rural myths, which arise because of a lack of information, a point that I made earlier. The clean-up process needs to be tackled with consistency, according to what is acceptable.
The Minister will no doubt have seen a copy of last week's Farming News, which reports the problem of the payment of welfare cheques. I understand that 97 per cent. of farmers who put animals into the welfare disposal scheme do not receive the money within the 21-day target set by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Worse still, a quarter of applicants are waiting more than 50 days for their cheques. Although I do not have the details of individual cases, the matter is reported in the press and I hope that the Minister will look into it.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will forgive me for referring to a case in his constituencyhe may also have received copies of the correspondence from Northumberland Estates about problems in the uplands concerning grouse shooting. I hope for a moment that we can put to one side people's different views about grouse shooting, which is a huge economic activity and thus vital to welfare and employment in the uplands.
Mr. Beith : Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I want to say that not only have I received the correspondence, but the Minister handed me a reply to my letter on the subject at the start of the debate. The Department yesterday issued a press release indicating that grouse shooting would be open under licence in
Mr. Peter Atkinson : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. The agent of Northumberland Estates has obviously been very busy. I have not yet had my reply from the Minister but I reinforce what my hon. Friend said. In my constituency and in the north Pennines, grouse shooting is a huge and significant industry. It attracts large numbers of extremely wealthy people who stay in local hotels, which employ people for the shooting season. The proposed restrictions would have devastated the economy.
Mr. Paice : I look forward to the Minister's confirmation of what has apparently appeared in at least one letter of reply. I have not yet written to the Minister on the matter, because the letter went to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who passed it to me for today's debate.
The next issue that I want to raise concerns the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs. Hon. Members may wonder why I am digressing but, in fact, the foot and mouth crisis seriously affected that organisation. In many of the hills and upland areas it plays a vital role in bringing young people together and enabling them to share skills and knowledge. In his former career as a youth worker and subsequently, the Minister has taken a great interest in youth organisations; I am sure that he appreciates the importance of the young farmers' clubs. They have lost about £450,000 as a result of the foot and mouth restrictions, because meetings, events and activities could not take place. Mr. Peter Jackson, the president, has pursued the matter diligently. He was incorrectly informed by way of a letter to the noble Lord Carter from Baroness Hayman that the Countryside Agency would deal with the funding shortfall. However, the Countryside Agency has now clearly stated that the terms of reference laid down by Government under which it is allowed to operate do not allow it to consider the claim that has been put forward by the young farmers' movement.
I am a former member of that organisation and extremely proud of it. It has missed out on the help that the Government have made available, and I hope that the Minister will respond to its concern. I believe that either he or his right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs met young farmers last weekone of the Department's Ministers certainly did.
I endorse the call of the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall for a retirement scheme. It could be introduced under the umbrella of the rural development programme and would be of benefit in some areas. However, we need a much clearer understanding of the future of agricultural policy. The Government are talking about a commission, which would be welcome, but we must avoid any regimented plan that smacks of a soviet approach. We must understand what the
We must balance the demands on farmers in this country with the lack of such demands on farmers in other parts of the world. Our farmers cannot operate under the serious domestic constraints that have been imposed for valid reasonswhether to do with animal welfare, the environment or food safetyif they have to compete in the British marketplace with products from abroad that have been produced where such constraints do not apply. What matters more than anything else in our long-term vision for agriculture is how we address that issue, whether by import controls or by somehow guaranteeing a premium on prices in this country. That will be the most crucial issue affecting the viability of farming in the uplands and lowlands in the years to come.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on initiating the debate, which gives us an opportunity to consider again some of the serious and complex problems that were caused by foot and mouth disease. I will try to respond to all the issues that he raised, as well as those raised by other right hon. and hon. Members. I thought that he spoiled his speech at the tail end when he accused the Government of a lack of political leadership and wrongly alleged a political vacuum. He may have been referring to his own party as that comment certainly does not apply to the Government.
The hon. Gentleman should have the fairness to acknowledge that over the past five weeks we have established a new Department. Other changes in Government structures have taken a year to complete. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rightly said that speed is of the essence when setting up the right government structures to deal with rural affairs, the environment, food and farming in an integrated and grown-up way. It is hardly fair to suggest a lack of leadership and immediacy.
The new Department was established in parallel with other efforts to achieve a joined-up approach to food and farming, environmental issues and rural affairs. The hon. Gentleman criticised the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but admitted that he had not read it. That speech was an early attempt to spell out the direction of policy.
We are setting up new structures and trying to look further ahead at a time when the Department's resourcesnot just in London, but throughout the regionshave been stretched to the utmost by foot and mouth disease and consequential issues. Some environmental issues have to be confronted immediately and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is displaying leadership in Bonn today, grappling with crucial long-term problems.
Simultaneously, we have invested massive time and effort with officials throughout the Department in tackling the immediate problemsdirect and indirectarising from foot and mouth disease. I chair the rural task force, which was established to respond to foot and
We have all heard about the tragedy of farming families and similarly I heard harrowing accounts of how difficult it is to keep businesses going through the winter, to remain competitive and to survive into the new year. We have had to engage directly with those problems at the same time as ensuring that everyone understands the need for biosecurity to avoid the spread of foot and mouth disease. We have also tried to open up footpaths in the countryside where it is safe to do so. It is one heck of an agenda to confront in five weeks and we have tackled it with leadership and a sense of purpose. I allow the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to withdraw his criticism of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Mr. Peter Atkinson : I should like to make it clear that I was not accusing the Minister or his officials of idleness. I was able to visit the disease control centre at Kenton Bar, Newcastle and I was most impressed by the stupendous efforts made by the staff there and by the long hours that they were working.
The point that I was trying to makein a friendly, unaggressive wayis that Ministers have caused the vacuum by, for example, not determining the policy commission. We have been waiting for some time for the policy commission to be set up; with two days to go, we still have not been given any names. The problem of upland livestock has also to be resolved. We have known about that problem, which has been raised in debate by my hon. Friends, for some time. We should have a decision by now on whether there is to be a scheme.
Alun Michael : It was worth giving way to the hon. Gentleman, first because of his acknowledgement of the hard work of the Department staff. We in the House sometimes overlook that when we visit the regions. I hope to visit several of our regional offices to see the problems directly and meet the people working there. I have been impressed by the degree of commitment that I have seenpeople are coming back after having dealt with the disease, day and night, for perhaps six weeks, with their motivation intact. They say, "We must get on urgently with the farm visits and other recovery work."
Against that background of the intensity of work, I shall comment on the two points to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. There is a commitment to establish the policy commission on food and farming and for it to take a thorough look at the future. It is important to get it right. If we do not get the right people, the right structure and the right brief, the resulting inquiry may be interesting, but it will not carry us forward in the direction we want. We are determined to get it right. There will be an announcement as soon as we are sure that we have done so. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that a delay of a few weeks to get the right composition, structure and brief is a small price to pay.
The comments that have been made about the need for an inquiry are simplistic. Ministers have stated clearly that their priority is to eradicate foot and mouth disease and to deal with the immediate problems. We are as seized as anyone of the need to ensure that all the lessons are learned and that the facts and issues are brought out into the open. It is always easier to say what should have been done in retrospect. Writing history in retrospect is easier than writing it as it is being lived. The facts should be brought out and the lessons learned.
We have also said that, without prejudice to the findings of any inquiry, immediate lessons can be learned from the epidemic, in regard to matters such as disease control policy for future outbreaks. The case needs to be considered for such changes as better animal identification, especially for sheep, improved movement records, controls on the movement of cattle and sheep similar to those that exist for pigs, stricter enforcement of controls on imported meatDEFRA is co-ordinating a cross-Whitehall initiative to improve our record in that areaand better biosecurity by markets, dealers and farmers. A balance must be struck because wherever one imposes a restriction, in the interests of safety and avoiding problems, it causes problems for the industry, as several hon. Members have illustrated.
Mr. Paice : The Minister and his colleagues have resisted the phrase "public inquiry" that has been used by Opposition Members. I shall not go into that, but could he assure us that the inquiry will be in public even if it does not use the legal terminology of a public inquiry?
Alun Michael : It is not my place to take us in that direction. We want the inquiry to be open and effective. As the hon. Gentleman will knowbecause they have been trailed over many timesall sorts of issues are involved. A public inquiry has constraints. It has to be conducted in certain ways; it has time scales that may not please Opposition Members. The question of which discussions and hearings should be held in public requires considerationI understand the distinction that a public hearing need not necessarily be a formal public inquiry; I have dealt with a number of decisions on establishing inquiries. One has to make it possible for all evidence to be given in as open a way as possible. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to have the right inquiry. I live in hope that when the nature of it is announced we shall have his enthusiastic support.
Mr. Curry : I hope that the Minister will tell us what he means by eradication before an inquiry, whatever its nature, because that could well rumble on for a long time. He mentioned drawing on the analogy of pigs in looking at movement restrictions for cattle and sheep. The proposed 20-day rule is based on what has been established for pigs. Can the Minister give us any insight into how the responses to that proposition are being analysed? When does he expect to reach a conclusion? Is he thinking of considering a different scheme from that originally set out, as it has evoked an enormous response? That is crucial to the future of the live option, for example.
Alun Michael : I understand the concern that the right hon. Gentleman expresses. The trouble with all such matters is that everyone wants an immediate decision. That is understandableto someone trying to run a business and waiting for an issue to be dealt with, a delay of even a day or two can seem enormous.
The Government are reviewing the proposals on standstill movements in the light of responses to the consultation exercise, which my colleague Lord Whitty is examining. Our aim is to move from considering just the current foot and mouth disease outbreak to looking at future disease controlincluding the issues of biosecurity, animal identification and licensing. We intend to allow fuller veterinary and economic assessments to be carried out. In the meantime, the current movement licensing controls will continue. I am not in a position to go into further detail, but I shall be happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman.
This is the fifth debate to which I have responded in two weeks. That illustrates the seriousness of the problem and the sense of urgency that hon. Members have in raising matters on behalf of their constituents. However, since the previous debate, we have not discovered a magic wand that will suddenly resolve the problems and straighten out a complex set of issues. We have heard today about a mixture of short-term problems, medium-termand in some cases, short-termrecovery issues, and many matters requiring a longer-term perspective and consideration of major changes in the way in which we do things. Some hon. Members, in making the case for their constituents, have included all three of those in one sentence. I shall do my best to respond, but I might jumble them a little, because they are interrelated, which goes to illustrate the complexity of the subject with which we are dealing.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised, and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) responded to, almost on my behalf, the problem that the estates office at Alnwick castle has identifiedI am sorry if I do not pronounce that correctly, but we do things phonetically in Wales. I will try to learn.
In respect of grouse shooting, we examined the veterinary assessment of the risk of shooting parties in infected areas and took the decision, which was announced yesterday by way of news release, that grouse shooting should resumeunder licencein such areas. That means that grouse shooting will be able to go ahead in most parts of England from 12 August, through the licensing system. The veterinary assessment of the risk of shooting parties spreading foot and mouth disease resulted in a decision that the Foot and Mouth Disease Order 1983 should be amended to allow licensed grouse shootingI stress the word "licensed"in infected areas. No licence is required for grouse shooting outside infected areas, but it is prohibited on premises subject to form A or form D restrictions. All shooting parties should, of course, observe basic disease control precautions, as walkers are required to do.
Licences for shooting in infected areas will not be issued for premises within 3 km of an infected premise. I am sure that that will be accepted as sensible. For the first 30 days following the preliminary cleansing and disinfection of an infected premise, shooting will not be permitted within 10 km of that premise. That is consistent with decisions that have been taken on other
To be clear on the matter, licences will not restrict the numbers of the shooting party and there will be no change in the current provisions in the 1983 order that allow the occupier to shoot in infected areas with a party of up to three without licence. To avoid any doubt, separate measures will be brought out by the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland. That is part of the important job of opening up the countryside, and I hope that Members are aware of the approach that the Government have adopted in relation to footpaths.
Mr. Beith : The Minister referred to form A and form D restricted areas. If shooting can take place without a licence in non-infected areas and with a licence in an infected area, what does that mean for those restricted areas? Does it mean that no licence can be obtained for an area covered by form A or form D restrictions?
Alun Michael : I believe that that is the case. The licensing system will be for those areas that are not covered by form A and form D restrictions. I am pretty sure that I have understood that correctly. I may return to the matter later, but if I do not I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman.
Where there is no need for footpaths to be closed in order to control the disease and ensure that there is adequate biosecurity, we want to see them open. It is important for people such as the individuals from Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Devon who came to see me yesterday that there is clarity about where the countryside is open, so that they can start to re-establish their businesses. Those businesses may be vulnerable during the coming winter unless they are able to re-establish them quickly.
Such organisations are subject to collateral damage in the same way as the young farmers referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. Other organisations such as the Youth Hostels Association, with which I have been associated in the past, have experienced a massive loss of income, which will affect not just their ability to keep their balance sheet in order but their ability to invest. We will certainly examine those issues. I have received a letter from the young farmers and have agreed to meet them to hear their concerns
Mr. Curry : Barely five minutes of the debate are left. Everyone is especially concerned about whether upland farmers can sell the autumn crop of lamb. Will the Minister please deal with that crucial issue and with livestock movements in the time that remains?
I was asked what eradication meant. Basically, we want to reduce the disease to a minimum in every part of the country and then to nil as soon as possible. That will be difficult, and is hard to predict exactly how long it will take. Ministers have always included in their warnings fears about the possibility of additional outbreaksand rightly so, as I think people will agree following events in recent weeks.
Everyone involved is clear that controlling foot and mouth disease and safeguarding animal welfare must continue to be our primary concerns when considering autumn livestock movements. We are therefore proceeding on the basis of veterinary and scientific advice. Full details will be published as soon as possible, but the arrangements for the autumn will cover the following aspects: first, the possibility of holding livestock markets in counties that have been free of foot and mouth disease for three months or more and where testing has been completedthat touches on a point that several hon. Members raised: secondly, the possibility of some relaxation in the criteria covering livestock movements outside infected areas; and thirdly, the possibility of promoting the domestic consumption of lamb, in particular, and of negotiating with the European Commission for an early resumption of pigmeat and sheepmeat exports, while not disrupting the domestic food supply chain. We are formally raising with the Commission the possibility of private storage aid as an approach and have discussed with it both the possible adaptation of the livestock welfare disposal scheme to handle the disposal of surplus lambs and the possible use of quota suspension or buy-out.
I understand that hon. Members would like to hear the announcement towards which those proposals are a staging post. Quite honestly, if we could say more, we would be delighted to do so, because we are as keen as Opposition Members to be as clear as we can with farmers about the situation that is affecting them. Again, however, I am sure that it will be understood that the negotiations involve difficult decisions, and it would be wrong to rush through a decision before everything had been thought through.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred in passing to a case in Wiltshire, which we discussed briefly in a previous debate. I understand that the sample has now been confirmed as negative. There has been some delay in getting that information. I do not have the full details, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. However, it appears that the news is better than we had feared.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) illustrated the problem that we are discussing by referring to an individual farming family, and he was right to do so. Statistics do not tell the story of how foot and mouth disease impacts on a farmer who