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Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am interested in what he says about Ellesmere Port and its vistas of petrochemical plants. Does he agree that the main criterion for financial assistance should not be the degree of ruralness, if there is such a word, but the degree of the impact of foot and mouth?
Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend is correct. The Minister's letter also said that 151 English rural borough councils had been provided with financial support, but there is no distinction between those which have been hit by foot and mouth and those which have not, and those parts of the country where there was no outbreak and those were there were heavy outbreaks. That is illogical. If my hon. Friend has not been to Ellesmere Port, I am happy for him to visit my constituency, from where we can get in the car and drive to Ellesmere Port to see that it is not a rural area. It could not possibly be a rural area as there are no green fields. It has a good shopping centre and many petrochemical works.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Will he emphasise to the Minister that his constituency and part of the borough of Macclesfield make up the most heavily livestocked area in Cheshire? It is extraordinary that an area that is overwhelmingly rural and agricultural should not qualify for business assistance under rate relief, whereas, as my hon. Friend said, huge urban areas such as Chester and Ellesmere Port do. That is nonsense, but the Minister was not prepared to do anything about it.
Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember that we both sought, but were unable to secure, meetings with the Minister and the chief executive of Macclesfield borough council to put our case. The situation is crazy, and it confirms the worst suspicions of many of those who live in my borough council area that some people in Whitehall have never left the M25 area and know about no other part of the country than that just a few hundred metres from this place.
I commend Macclesfield borough council for the sterling job that it has done in providing emergency rate relief for hard-hit rural businesses out of its own pocket. However, with the proper Government support that it deserves, it could be doing even more, and that is a great tragedy. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to reconsider the council's status under Special Grant Report (No. 86) because it just does not make sense.
The fourth and final issue, and perhaps the most important and pressing, arises from the impact of foot and mouth disease on livestock markets. Again, I shall illustrate my point with an example from Tatton. Chelford, in the south of the constituency, is one of the largest livestock markets in the country. The last sale of real livestock to be held at Chelford took place on 22 February, nine months ago. Since then the auctioneers have lost, at the very least, more than £500,000 in lost commission on sales. Five full-time people have been made redundant, and 19 part-time people, almost all from low-income families, have also lost their jobs. Many other small businesses, which relied on the market trade for their income, have closed, including the country clothing stall, the fencing supplier, the hedging man and the small Land Rover dealer. I am not overstating the case when I
We all understand why markets in England had to be closed immediately the disease was discovered. Indeed, as I have already argued, they should have been closed a couple of days earlier. We understand also why they had to remain closed while the epidemic raged, but no one can understand why English and Welsh livestock markets are still closed today, two months after the last confirmed foot and mouth case in the whole country and long after similar livestock markets in Scotland and Northern Ireland have reopened.
To an extent, Chelford market has taken matters into its own hands. Last month it began holding digital auctions in which sellers could look at digital photographs of the stock. I am happy to pay tribute to the fact that one of the Government's rural recovery schemes even contributed a couple of hundred pounds to provide the digital camera. I am glad to say that the auctions have been a moderate success, but I have to tell the Minister that they may pose a much greater risk to biosecurity than live auctions.
According to farmers to whom I have spoken in preparation for this debate, buyers do not, of course, rely on the digital photograph but go from farm to farm to check out the stock. That poses enormous risks of cross-farm contamination. If everyone went to Chelford market, they would be registered and disinfected together and be able to be traced if there were ever a problem. None of those measures applies to a digital auction.
Despite the overwhelming case for reopening livestock markets such as Chelford, they are still closed. What is more, they have been given no idea from the Government about when they might open. As Gwyn Williams, partner of Chelford market, said in a letter to me last week:
All businesses have to plan for the future and we are no different. We need to investigate possible further investment, decide upon employment issues including staff requirements and possibly reorganise the way in which we run some of our non agricultural auction sales . . . To date, despite a multitude of proposals having been put to DEFRA by our National Livestock Auctioneers' Association and despite several promises having been received from DEFRA, we have received no draft conditions for the reopening of markets post FMD, nor have we received any clear signal as to when, provided there are no further cases, we will be able to reopen."
The auctioneering industry is under greater pressure now than ever, not only for economic reasons, but also, it would appear, from several vociferous pressure groups who are against the reopening of livestock auctions."
It would be helpful if it could be pointed out quite clearly to all those in authority that neither the farming industry nor the livestock market industry played any part whatsoever in the introduction of foot and mouth disease into the UK."
In the interests of promoting and protecting the whole rural business community, it is essential that livestock auctions are reopened as soon as possible and, through our National Livestock Auctioneers' Association, we are attempting to garner support from all the major farming organisations.
I would be grateful if you could do what you can in order to assist in putting pressure upon Ministers and DEFRA to make some positive contribution to promoting the reopening of markets."