|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I was not being coy. It was only set up this morning. I was there when the Prime Minister agreed with various interests that it would be an important and valuable asset. Its terms of reference are: to continue to monitor the wider difficulties posed by FMD for the rural economy as a whole--that goes wider than MAFF, which understands the agricultural implications; to look at the specifics of immediate advice which could be given, for example, on restarting tourism in ways which did not compromise disease; and to look at the longer term possibilities for kick-starting the rural economy at the end of the outbreak.
Lord Hooson: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. I am always dubious about using military terms such as a task force which suggest immediate action with drastic steps being taken. One often suspects that the setting up of an organisation so entitled is a propaganda front which sounds fine but will have few co-ordination powers and will soon be forgotten. However, in setting it up, the Prime Minister seems, at last, to be aware of real rural problems. If it were an effective task force, it could be of great benefit to the country. It is high time such a task force was set up. My point relates to all political parties of whatever complexion. For many
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned some of the immediate problems affecting the rural community. I sometimes gain an impression of a lack of grass roots common sense when dealing with some of the problems faced by the rural community at present.
Perhaps I may refer to my experience when I was a Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire. Oswestry, the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, bordered on mine and was at the centre of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in 1967. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will follow. He was on the committee of inquiry into that outbreak. Being adjacent to the main centre of the outbreak, I knew a good deal about it. I had the impression then that people got down to the problem more effectively. For example, when animals had to be slaughtered on the farm, a JCB was brought in immediately; the animals were slaughtered, buried in a trench on the farm and quick lime to a depth of about a foot was placed on the carcasses. That occurred on many farms in Shropshire. No risk was taken. The carcasses were not delivered somewhere else.
I compare that situation with a story I heard this morning about the movement of carcasses from Anglesey to the Cheshire depot for rendering in so-called sealed lorries. The odd thing about the sealed lorries was that various limbs were protruding from them. Those bodies are being moved many miles from Anglesey to the rendering plant. Why were they not buried in Anglesey and quick lime put on them? I do not know whether the Minister knows the answer.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I apologise to the House because I am delaying matters. However, one has to answer some issues at once. Burial is an option but only when we do not cause more problems in environmental terms than we would solve by burial. Water tables are very high at present. Noble Lords will be well aware of that following flooding. We cannot go against the Environment Agency's advice about contaminating water courses through burial in circumstances where it is not satisfactory. It is an option; it is assessed as an option.
The other difference is that in the 1967 outbreak one was dealing with 20 or 30 animals on a farm. We are dealing now with very large numbers, of sheep in particular. That means that burial is logistically much more difficult.
As regards sealed lorries, if people have the numbers of lorries which have had limbs protruding I shall be happy to follow that up. We have to be careful about anecdote. Strong measures are taken to ensure that corpses are disinfected and the lorries sealed and tested
Lord Hooson: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I am very impressed by her knowledge. I accept the point about the high water table and understand that that can be an effective argument in certain areas. I still believe that burial is possible in some areas.
I heard on the telephone about an infected farm in Dumfries where cattle had been slaughtered at the weekend but the sheep were still about yesterday. The point has already been raised about the ineffective co-ordination in some areas. The noble Baroness cannot answer for particular failures in certain areas. But who is in charge of the different areas? Is an officer appointed in a specific area to be responsible for slaughter, co-ordination and so on?
I understand what the noble Lord says. However, the Chief Veterinary Officer has made clear his priorities in terms of slaughter. Pigs have to be slaughtered at once. We have worked through the night when we have had cases of pigs. The next priority is cattle. The next priority is sheep. That is related to infectivity. When one has a resource that is not infinite, one has to prioritise.
Lord Hooson: My Lords, what is the logic of the projected slaughter of the unaffected pregnant ewes which have been away wintering? What is the justification for that? In her introductory remarks, the Minister said that if the sheep are within five kilometres of their home base it may be possible to return them to that land. Few ewes away wintering will be within five kilometres of their base. That scheme is a non-starter. It seems an enormous waste to get rid of pregnant ewes in this way if there were a possibility of arranging suitable transport between the wintering area and the home base--assuming that neither is an affected area. Surely it is possible to allow movements to their home base.
I turn to the economic, social and psychological effects of the outbreak. As many noble Lords know, I have lived in a farming community most of my life. I live in mid-Wales. One sees the effect on rural communities, described by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. It is almost as though the towns were in a state of siege. The high streets are empty, the shops are empty, the pubs are empty and the hotels are empty. The problem is very serious. Farmers are in despair. I noted this morning in The Times, I think, that in Devon, which has also been affected, the police were persuading farmers to give up their shotguns because they feared that they were becoming suicidal.
I understand how farmers in remote farms can get to that state of mind. The public do not fully appreciate the economic, social and psychological effects of the outbreak. The Minister of Agriculture has been effective in his presentations on television, talking about what the Government are doing, but they now need to take effective action. The have to do something that shows that they genuinely appreciate the effects on the rural community.
Questions have been asked as to whether it is possible to expedite the payment of sheep subsidy. Can we be assured that we have exhausted all the help that is available from Brussels, which has to be matched by funding from this country? If we have not, we should make sure that we have everything that is available. Are there any emergency funds available in Brussels other than the ones that have been mentioned?
We also have a Chancellor with a large surplus. It is said that Scrooge was a prudent man--good, sound and ethical up to a point. However, Scrooge went over the top, and the Chancellor is in danger of doing the same. He must appreciate that we have a national crisis that affects the whole of the rural community, which has not done very well under this Government so far. In the next week or so, I hope and trust that the Government will demonstrate by their actions that they are doing something about the rural community and the effects of the outbreak.
Lastly, I do not dispute for a moment that the Government are tackling the immediate problem in the right way. The priority is to get rid of the disease from this country. However, thereafter the Government must look at the problems of the rural community as a whole. I should be delighted to hear confirmation that the task force is intended to produce an effective long-term plan for the countryside. I missed that in the Minister's original announcement. Such a plan has been long overdue from this Government and their predecessors. The foot and mouth outbreak has highlighted the condition of the countryside to the rest of the country. I hope that something is now going to be done about it.
Lord Plumb: My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for updating us on a situation which has apparently got worse while we have been here talking. I join many others in thanking her for her co-operation during recent weeks. The situation has been tough for her and for all concerned with rural affairs, particularly the agricultural industry.
I ask the Minister to convey our thanks to Jim Scudamore for the tremendous job he is doing. His presentations have been very helpful. I also convey our thanks to all the veterinarians who are working in this tragic situation. At this moment, while we are here talking about the problems, they are working out in the fields and buildings.
In yesterday's debate on hunting, many people stressed the importance of animal welfare. That is a concern for all of us, as my noble friend Lord Byford said. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, also make a moving speech about that.
In today's debate on a national disaster and the state of agriculture as we see it now, we have to consider all aspects of welfare, not only of animals, but of the farming families who are suffering from the stressful business they are in. I could not help but wonder, when my noble friend Lord Inglewood was speaking, how many other noble Lords have been able to speak in debates on foot and mouth disease of their own experiences that day.
In times of adversity, people often get together. Perhaps at this moment the consumer begins to realise that food does not grow on supermarket shelves. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells made a noble speech yesterday, referring to the lack of understanding between rural and urban people. He gave a fine example of maintaining our national sport in the countryside without interference. As a farmer, I thank the right reverend Prelates for the tremendous support we always get from them on rural affairs. Today we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. It is a comfort to know that their thoughts and prayers are with the farming community at this time. Through the Rank Centre and the Royal Showground at Stoneleigh, the Church is bringing together a number of associations concerned with stress and creating a fund to give modest help to those in need. I am president of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, a very fine body which has raised a further £120,000 during the past two weeks. However, its work is increasing and we are having great difficulty keeping up with the requests--they are not demands--from many farming families for essential expenditure such as groceries.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, I served on the 1967-69 foot and mouth inquiry. I am of an age when I can remember things from 35 years ago much more easily than things that happened last week. Today's disaster is like a holocaust for me. I was in among it on the previous outbreak. Having been a member of the committee of inquiry that reviewed the 1967-68 outbreak, I have more than a passing interest in what is happening today.
There are a few fundamental differences between the outbreak then and the one now. First, that outbreak was almost entirely confined to the dairy herds of Shropshire and the north Midlands. As my noble friend Lord Biffen will know from his own experience during that time, the outbreak in Oswestry started very near to where he lives.
On that occasion, the scale of the outbreak involved some 400,000 head of stock over a period of approximately eight months. It is significant that to date, in just over three weeks, already well in excess of 100,000 animals have been affected. As I said, in the previous outbreak the spread pattern, which was much tighter, was concentrated in the counties of Cheshire and Shropshire. The present outbreak has already penetrated most of the important livestock growing areas.
In that context, therefore, I make a strong plea for two things. Perhaps I am a little more bold than my noble friend Lord Soulsby, who referred to this issue. First, I believe that there should be an immediate and permanent ban on all swill feeding. It accounts for only a tiny proportion of feed for pigs. Secondly, far greater effort should be made to police all meat and other food produce at the point of entry into this country, as in the case of the United States, Australia and various other countries with which we deal.
I should have been in Washington today. I did not go because of the importance of this debate. If I had gone to Washington and if I had been honest, as I would have been, I would have had to declare that I had been on a farm in the past 24 hours. They would have taken me apart. They would have taken away my shoes and steam-cleaned them, and they would have made sure that everything that I was carrying was checked and double-checked and that I was not carrying anything that might spread the disease.
Having started in pigs, the disease is believed to have been transmitted by air to a local beef and sheep farm and, from there, via an extremely modern lairage at Hexham to the now famous Longtown market and into the trading fraternity. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to that fact. He said that farmers expressed their surprise that animals are moved in that way through dealers and traders.
It may help to develop an understanding of the entire business if I provide some statistics. In 1967 there were some 400,000 livestock farms, some 500 auction markets and over 2,000 abattoirs. Meat was retailed through over 30,000 outlets. Today, less than half that number of farms have livestock, there are well under half the number of auction markets, the abattoir numbers have reduced to under 400--less than one-fifth of the previous number--while there are approximately 10,000 retail butchers. The supermarket involvement in retailing started in 1967, but it is worth identifying that in 1977 supermarkets accounted for 25 per cent of meat sales. Today, they account for 75 per cent of meat sales, with butchers selling only 13 per cent of the total. The other 11 per cent is sold through freezer outlets.
Therefore, a picture can be built up of a significant shift in the number of producers, with the greatest reduction occurring among pig producers, of whom there are fewer and fewer every day. There has been a drop in the number of abattoirs and a corresponding dominance by the multiple retail outlets. The
Therefore, a picture emerges which demonstrates in clear terms the trading armlock in which the supermarkets hold the livestock farmer fraternity. It is, of course, the armlock which was referred to recently by our Prime Minister. I believe that we have ignored it for far too long and we are now beginning to reap its whirlwind. In a Question that he posed in this House only last week, the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, reminded us that the present price offered to farmers for their stock is 60 per cent less than it was before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, yet the consumer is paying 40 per cent more. Let us reflect on that for a moment and consider the situation in which we find ourselves.
Criticism has been levelled at the role of auction markets and livestock traders and the part that they have played in the spread of this outbreak. It is clear that it is the reduction in the number of abattoirs from over 2,000 to less than 400 which has contributed significantly to the need for animals to travel that much further. The same logic applies to the reduction in auction markets. So far as concerns sheep, the questions that we must address are: why is it done in that way and does it adversely affect the welfare of sheep?
I shall answer the second question first. All livestock in this country and, indeed, in the European Union is moved according to the legislation set out under a 1998 order concerning the welfare of animals in transit. That order not only specifies the type of vehicle, it also specifies the hours travelled by stock and by the driver. It is fair and reasonable to assume that such specifications are being adhered to.
It is worth acknowledging the vast change which has taken place in the entire motorway network since 1967. It permits rapid movement and allows stock to be taken from one part of the country to another. It is only in an emergency of the type that we are experiencing currently that it presents a problem. Therefore, it should not be seen as sinister except in so far as it is a direct consequence of the economic pressures which are at work.
Secondly, I turn to the workings of the trading fraternity. In order to understand them, we must remember what has happened with regard to the number of people who look after sheep. Not only has the number of sheep keepers reduced substantially but the vast majority has shed what was previously considered to be essential labour. By the year 2000, 75,000 producers were looking after some 40 million sheep, whereas in 1967, 120,000 with helpers were looking after less than 30 million sheep. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that, during a similar period, the number of workers, excluding the farmers themselves, reduced by approximately 75 per cent. As we know, some 40,000 farmers and farm workers left the land last year.
The result of those so-called "efficiency" changes is that the farmer is carrying out a great deal more of the work on a larger farm unit in order to receive less income. Therefore, in addition to the form-filling that he must do, the time that he has to market his stock is considerably less--hence the need for reliance on the trader. Perhaps we might reflect on the fact that on a typical Northumbrian stock farm of 380 acres, in 1976 it took 85 lambs to pay the rent. On the same farm in 1999 it took 323 lambs to pay the rent. In 1990 it took 0.6 lambs to buy a 100-litre tankful of road diesel but in 1999 it took 1.6 lambs to do so. In terms of machinery, it took 291 lambs to buy a medium-sized tractor in 1985 but in 1998 it took 700 lambs.
Noble Lords will know that this is lambing time. We have already discussed the difficulty of moving ewes. We also know that spring is a moveable feast. It starts in the south and moves north, often taking four or five months to get to the top of the country. What is not realised is that before lambing takes place the farmer collects up all the stock that has not been sold between the spring of the previous year and the present late winter and early spring and either sells it direct to the abattoir or takes it to the live market. That market is invaluable to the extensive livestock industry. It relies on the bids of the traders and many farmers dispose of varied lots of stock there. A trader who is knowledgeable can find outlets for the various classes of stock.
The sheep sector in particular is now the butt of much unfair criticism. It has been hammered by the consequences of BSE in cattle and by the associated trading hiatus. It is now being hammered as a consequence of maintaining the ridiculous practice of swill feeding of pigs and of our inability to repel imports of contaminated meat. Its own practices, which are based on practical necessity as a result of inexorable economic pressures, are under scrutiny but it is the reason for those economic pressures that perhaps has to be questioned.
We now have to establish how to rid ourselves of foot and mouth disease for all time. We need to set up systems to prevent its re-entry and, more than anything else, we need to have a proper and comprehensive debate and to redevelop agriculture in a way that is sustainable not only for people but also environmentally and ecologically. That approach needs to be sustainable in the medium and long-term. If we do not do so, we should court disaster of monumental proportions.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate, although I have to admit that the situation is becoming increasingly depressing. I pay enormous tribute to the Minister for working night and day to help to solve the current crisis facing British farmers.
The knock-on effects of foot and mouth disease are truly horrendous for all sections of society, especially for our rural society. There are already rumours of no shooting this coming winter. As one who is involved in tourism, I suspect that visitor numbers may fall
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned people walking their dogs in the country. I strongly echo her concerns. Only this morning, I was talking to a friend who lives in Oxfordshire. She drives daily down the M4 to exercise her dogs in Hyde Park.
I must declare an interest as someone who has been trying to farm for the past 22 years. When I started I had 17 men and farmed 1,200 acres. Today I have four men and I farm nearly 1,400 acres. That is a sad reflection on the way in which farming has changed during that short period.
I thought that, like the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I should speak from a personal point of view. I have looked up one or two interesting facts and figures which I shall relay to noble Lords to show how serious is the problem that faces farmers today. Ten years ago, I was selling wheat for £112 but today I am lucky to get £60. Ten years ago, barley was £120 but today it is just £68. The price of a loaf of bread or a pint of lager has certainly not decreased; in some outlets, the price has more than doubled during the past 10 years.
On expenditure, in 1990 I spent £30,000 on chemicals but last year I spent £41,000 on the same amount of chemicals. Likewise, 10 years ago, I spent £13,000 on fuel but last year I spent £28,000. Ten years ago, a 100-horsepower tractor cost £16,000 but today it costs £28,000. Likewise, a 15-foot combine has doubled in price during the past 10 years.
I hope that those figures show how tremendous the pressure is on arable farmers. One must not forget the cruel timing of the weather, which can dramatically affect yields. Last week, when we should have been sowing our spring crops, we had--this is no exaggeration--nine-foot snowdrifts and no electricity for four days. While I do not blame the Government for that, it shows the extraordinary circumstances that face farmers through no fault of their own.
All noble Lords will know that last autumn was one of the wettest on record. As such, the area of winter-sown crops is dramatically down--in our case, it is down by about 65 per cent. I like to think that we try to farm in the most efficient way possible but last year we lost money, as we did the previous year. There is a limit to how much longer one can go on sustaining such losses. Not unnaturally, the banks are greatly concerned. It will be interesting to see whether we get a response to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Williams, on the role of the banks. If I find it difficult to farm, heaven only knows how smaller farmers on less good land are going to survive.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear that once again I want to raise the question of biofuels--I gave her notice of that. In the Budget, the Chancellor directed further substantial sums of money at the gas industry to encourage it to produce cleaner road transport fuels--LPG and CNG. A duty rate of the order of 6p per litre is proposed. Why is a similar rate of duty not offered to the biofuels industry? Biodiesel and bioethanol are environmentally at least as good as gas. The indicated duty rate for biodiesel--25p per litre--is not a fair rate compared with that for gas and will not encourage the production of sufficient amounts of fuel to have an impact on air quality, to which the Government are rightly committed. That approach looks like blatant discrimination by the Treasury against the agricultural biofuels industry and favouritism of the gas industry.
Will the Minister confirm that MAFF fully supports a UK biodiesel industry that is based on a major increase in oilseed cropping, which will bring some much-needed prosperity to the countryside? Will she further confirm that she and her ministerial colleagues have done and will do all that they can to persuade the Treasury to treat the gas and agricultural industries equally in this regard by providing the same rate of duty for both fuels? I grow oilseed rape, which I export to Germany and Austria, where it is turned into biodiesel. Why do I have to export it? Can we not do the same in this country?
With agriculture on its knees, a real boost to biofuels would do much to meet the Government's environmental policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it would give British agriculture a viable lifeline, which it desperately needs at this vital time.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I find this a very moving debate. It was impossible to listen to the speeches made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood without being struck very forcibly by the real disasters--easy words--that are happening in our countryside at present.
I am not a farmer. However, I live on the South Downs and the few fields that my wife and I own are let for grazing to the local Plumpton Agricultural College. Looking at the about-to-lamb ewes in a paddock adjacent to our house this morning, I wondered whether or not they would be alive when I return home at the end of the week. Sussex, thank God, is not yet an infected area; I hope that it never will be. Nevertheless, I asked the shepherd who looks after our sheep, and many more on the top of the South Downs, what was to happen to his pregnant ewes over the next few weeks. His answer--and I am very grateful to the Minister for her clarification of this point--was that, it being not yet an infected area, he thought the sheep would lamb in the fields, including ours.
I then asked him what he considered to be the difficulties of that. He put them in the following order of ascending importance: first, the weather; secondly, the fact that he was now the only shepherd in that area,
Having looked at the sheep this morning, I received two pieces of mail through my letterbox. One was from the Countryside Agency. In pursuit of the Government's wish that the South Downs should become a national park, it has issued a very clear pamphlet entitled A national park authority: making it work for the South Downs. Perhaps I may read to your Lordships the short mission statement:
Living in Sussex, how do I reconcile these two pieces of paper? The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, who I am delighted to see resuming his place, talked about Radnor. I would like to speak a little about the South Downs in this connection, on a somewhat long-term basis, as a possible national paradigm for seeking solutions. Others have spoken much more knowledgeably than I can about the immediate present dangers.
The area of the South Downs consists of working farms--not just beautiful peaks, dales and lakes. It is an area of about 600 square miles. Our statistics may not be entirely accurate, but we reckon that it contains 600 farms, producing approximately 50,000 lambs per year. It is natural country for sheep; they love the chalk grassland; they are our natural lawn mowers. Active farms are needed to provide a beautiful landscape that is worthy of conservation. If many of these farms, some of which are quite small, go bust, there will be fewer sheep, fewer cattle, more scrub, more thistles, more nettles. It will not be set-aside land. It will be unfarmed, totally unkempt land. In those circumstances, no one will want to make great use of the new access that they have just been granted.
Under the supervision of the board that I chair, we have 2,200 kilometres of rights of way. With the co-operation of our local county councils, we quite rightly closed them all 10 days ago. Who will want to use those rights of way if, walking along them, they see only derelict, empty land covered in weed?
But there is another side of the coin. It is estimated that in the South Downs we have 30 million visitors per year. We are very lucky to live in a prosperous part of the country. Many of those visitors come prepared to spend a few pounds--a pint of beer, local sausages, cheeses and cider--and take something home with them. That is a potentially huge market for the farmers and those who work on the Downs.
Our challenge will be to meld in the farmers with the future national park. If the ramblers, the tourists from abroad and from this country, the walkers, can then be encouraged to spend money on local produce and eat local food in a local pub, as well as spending money on bed and breakfast accommodation, that would be a solution acceptable to all of us. In that process, they would have the opportunity to discover unusual birds and rare wild flowers and to explore our cultural heritage in the form of many old, archaeological sites on the Downs, if that was what they wanted to do.
In very broad language, that is what we are trying to achieve. For the past year we have been working on a South Downs enhancement scheme, which is about two months from completion. All the local NGOs, the Countryside Agency, and I hope MAFF, will put their signature to it. I shall be delighted to send copies of it, when ready, to any noble Lord who is interested in it. We hope that it will meet the twin objectives of the vision of a national park, to which I earlier referred, in a very busy part of England, and retaining the involvement of the local farmer and helping his pocket.
Perhaps I may quote one or two examples of what we have in mind. One is that the environmentally sensitive agreements (ESAs) and the Countryside Stewardship schemes should be made permanent rather than lasting for five to 10 years. In that way, not only would the farmer have certain knowledge of his income from both or either of those schemes, which in our part of the world have been fairly successful, but it would also mean that the reversion from arable to grassland was a permanent feature; and, following on from that, to broaden the objectives of both the ESA and the countryside stewardship schemes to include a wider range of landscape restoration and enhancement objectives.
I hope immediately and practically to introduce a South Downs marketing scheme. "South Downs", after all, is a very good brand name. We would start with lamb, move on to beef, add charcoal, and later perhaps venison and game birds. In the course of that, we would give some empowerment--a dreadful word, but I cannot easily find another--to local farmers. The involvement of the local farmer in this scheme is essential. It is the Downs to dinner plate scenario. Of course, we shall have to build up our own reliable supply chain: the involvement of local primary
All of that must be set in the wider context of reform of the common agricultural policy. It is noticeable that the social effects of what the CAP achieves, particularly in terms of stimulating the rural economy, have proven to be the opposite of what the original EEC wanted; that is, fewer jobs, less local employment, larger farms, remote off-farm management and often corporately-owned businesses running farms. But if our farms are to survive in a globally competitive-free market, which is not going to change, we must think along new, more diverse lines. To achieve that, we need a national push in the right direction.
I was interested, as was the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said in relation to the DETR task force considering the wider rural economy. I should like to hear more about that. But there are two ministries on which I have my eye in this context. The first is the Treasury. Money is needed. For example, to quote one idea, why cannot there be tax incentives to create local marketing co-operatives, with a real incentive, through that tax help, for farmers to work together?
Secondly, we need MAFF to pay serious attention to constructive, forward thinking. During the debate on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill I asked the Minister several times to obtain a commitment from MAFF to reply to the management plans on which the national parks work so hard and which often receive no reply at all. I obtained no reassurance on that point. But it is exactly the sort of thing MAFF should be doing. I hope that, arising out of this disaster of foot and mouth disease, MAFF will move forward to look at a long-term strategy for our farming industry and at putting money into it.
I note that MAFF has a new policy and corporate strategy unit. I have great hopes for it and I hope it will not prove disappointing. If we are to build and restore our countryside and enhance it in the process in co-operation with local farmers, we will need some wholehearted support from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, in rising I say to my noble friend that I hope she will take on board that the immediate actions taken in this crisis were firm but flexible. I should like to express my thanks to the Minister for Agriculture and also to my noble friend the Minister in this House, who, with her office, has always been available and willing so that we can obtain answers swiftly. I thank her for that.
In the report my noble friend gave us today in relation to the limited movement of animals to the abattoirs it is good to hear that pork has reached 75 per cent, beef 60 per cent and lamb 35 per cent. Those steps are putting British produce back into the market. But can my noble friend say, in relation to the now 205 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease, how many of the new cases result from movements that took place before we were aware of the disease? Are such cases still arising or are they completely new cases? I am sure my noble friend will reply when she responds to the debate.
Another point which alarmed me was the reports in the media this morning that pregnant ewes may be slaughtered. I am sure that that news alarmed many other Members of your Lordships' House. If those animals cannot be moved back to the farms, is it possible to revert to what used to happen; that is, that they lamb where they are and help is given in the form of temporary buildings? It would be a shocking state of affairs if uncontaminated flocks and uncontaminated pregnant ewes had to be slaughtered. I hope that my noble friend can respond to that. It would be a disaster for many farmers who are already reeling and mean the end of the road for many others.
I was pleased to hear, following the meeting of the Prime Minister this morning with members of the agricultural community and business interests, that a task force will be introduced which will be overseen by the Minister for the Environment. The tourist industry is a big industry. Of the £12 billion it earns, £9 billion results from day trips. But people will not visit areas such as Cumbria, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, because the reason for such visits is the chance to walk around freely and that cannot happen at present. Hoteliers and shops will suffer and the effects will be felt throughout the whole community. So help is needed in that area and it is good to know that the task force will be looking into that.
As we heard in response to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, we know now that the task force will not only look at the immediate future but will also look into the long term. The inquiry into foot and mouth disease--how and why it occurred and where it came from--is also welcome. But we need a longer and more intensive look at the whole future of the agriculture industry.
It has been said that the future is not about intensive farming. But that point should be thrown into the conundrum also, as should the role of the supermarkets and large abattoirs, some of which are actually owned by the supermarkets. All that needs to be considered.
What is the future for the agricultural industry? Can we give it a better and more permanent future? Time after time, because of the misfortunes that have occurred, we ask whether this or that can be done to keep the industry thriving. But all the hotels, shops and businesses which are connected with the rural industry and depend on people visiting those country areas are also suffering. It is therefore vital that we examine the agriculture industry and ask what is needed to make it
We must look at the underwriting to secure the long-term future as well as dealing with the short-term problems. I know that my noble friend will take that message back from this House, a message that many speakers will repeat in this debate tonight time after time.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned his interest in 30 acres of pasture land. I echo that. I too have 30 acres of Somerset pasture land. I believe that that makes me a people's landowner. But above all, although it is an interest, I can truthfully say that it is barely an influence on my opinions on the matters being discussed this evening.
What is an influence is the fact that I live in Llanyblodwel, in which parish originated the foot and mouth scourge of 1967. No one who lived in that community and through that period can remember other than the anguish and the sense of bewilderment and of loneliness which captured and held captive the rural community. Although much was done to repair the damage caused by that foot and mouth epidemic, no one can believe that the scars disappear that easily. The character of today's debate shows that your Lordships are conscious of that; hence the current anxiety about the progress of this epidemic.
The 1967 epidemic was terminated by a most thorough and highly constructive inquiry conducted by the Duke of Northumberland, on which my noble friend Lord Plumb served with such distinction. The inquiry had many advantages, one of them being that it dealt exhaustively with the footnotes of the problem rather than going for the headlines. The headlines are most attractive. Organic farming, intensive husbandry and the CAP are enticing concepts but are not susceptible of immediate and constructive action.
I want to deal with one aspect of the current foot and mouth epidemic and put it into context. A task force has been suggested. I hope that all the inquests will be delayed until the epidemic has concluded because the longer it proceeds the more lessons we shall learn. However, the lesson that is already evident was drawn to our attention by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. It is the speed with which the Ministry reacted. In today's circumstances, seeming individual delay causes frustrations and those have been represented here tonight. However, as regards the broad strategic management of the epidemic, the speed between discovering the virus and imposing the restrictions could hardly have been shortened.
Yet we know that in that blink of time the epidemic has spread nationwide. That is the horrifying aspect of the present situation and is in stark contrast with experience in Shropshire and the adjacent counties in 1967. I want to dwell upon that because the distinguishing feature of contemporary agriculture is to some extent size but above all transport and movement. I want to make five points about present British agriculture which makes Oswestry market in 1967 a very different place from Oswestry market today. I want to confine my comments to sheep, although with qualifications they could be applied to other aspects of husbandry.
First, in 1967 there was practically no export trade. Today, the sheep trade is heavily influenced, if not dominated, by a powerful export market, with all the movement that that implies. Secondly, there is a changing pattern in meat retailing, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Plumb. The rise of the supermarkets has concentrated meat distribution substantially and it would be a bold person who would assert that that has come to an end.
Not unconnected with that, but not dependent on it, is the substantial diminution in the number of abattoirs available for the processing of meat. I suspect that somewhere in between those factors--it is a subjective judgment, it is anecdotal and cannot be demonstrated--that the role of the dealers in the sheep trade is infinitely greater than it was when my father, as a tenant farmer, dealt in sheep and other agricultural produce.
It is almost as though today a great deal of livestock is treated as a commodity and not a matter of animal husbandry. That change has also had a powerful impact on movement. If one goes to Oswestry market today, looks at the wagons which convey the animals to and fro and remembers the corresponding wagons used in 1967, one begins to appreciate the enormous change that has overcome British agriculture, particularly as regards animal husbandry.
Given those circumstances, perhaps this was a scourge waiting to happen. I cannot assert that and I do not do so. However, even on the limited evidence that is available, this foot and mouth disease has spread with a rapidity which totally belies our previous experience and can be demonstrated as part of the modern process of agriculture; that is, to move more and more into a situation that is created and encouraged by the single market.
I shall not use this occasion to raise the foghorn of dissent about British relationships within the European Union. However, I say that when we proceed with policies that are designed to create the benefits which are presumed to derive from the free operation of the market and by the use of resources in that context, we must never overlook the other factors which must be balanced in that process.
The pursuit of the single market can be understood by our recent historical and political development but it is not a terminus; it is not an end in itself of our relations with Europe. It is a factor subject for constant consideration and adjustment. I believe that
However, we are learning that the epidemic, coming as it does at a certain point in the fortunes of the countryside, has a most horrendous implication. For that reason, I hope that when we come to the point of inquest--and may it come soon--we shall not be afraid to re-examine many of the political fashions which have held sway over recent years including what has been perhaps an insular approach to the problems of animal hygiene. We should be wise to state that no imports of animal products shall come from countries which have an endemic record of foot and mouth disease. We owe that as a minimum obligation to the farming community in this country.
There are lessons to be learnt from the highly contemporary character of this foot and mouth epidemic. Those in the countryside will look to Westminster for sympathy and understanding and a preparedness to stretch minds. I hope and believe that that process will start in this Chamber.
Lord Luke: My Lords, once again, I am daunted by the expertise shown by Members on all sides of the House during the debate. I was interested in the most thoughtful words of my noble friend Lord Biffen and want to take up one point that he made. He said that sheep in particular were being treated by traders as a commodity. We have recently become only too well aware of that. If sheep are a commodity, why do they have to move around? I understand that these days the usual trade in commodities in done from one computer to another and the produce being traded is never moved. The problem we face here is that the produce is moved, and perhaps that is a matter which will arise after all this is over.
We are without doubt in the middle of a national crisis, and I believe that it is rapidly becoming a national emergency. I do not have very much optimism as a result of the fact that, when the weather is supposed to be much less favourable to the survival of the virus, the number of outbreaks appears to have increased almost day by day and is now double the figure last week. Everybody's priority is to eradicate the disease as quickly as possible. As has been said most clearly by my noble friend Lady Byford, we on these Benches support the Government's efforts to do all that they can, as I am sure they are, to achieve that. However, many questions arise from the outbreak which will need to be addressed at the proper time. Some of those questions may be relevant now.
Perhaps I may put a few questions to the noble Baroness, although I have not given her prior notice of them. The Minister said that no one had yet established the entry point of the virus into this country. Are there any indications that more than one entry point may be involved? That may or may not be significant.
Are the Government satisfied that the way that the campaign against the disease has been run places enough emphasis on keeping groups of outbreaks sufficiently isolated? I ask this because it appears that in the 1967 outbreak, to which my noble friend Lord Biffen referred, the one great success was to keep the outbreaks tightly grouped together in a small area of the country. The incidence of outbreaks in that area was much greater than in any of the groups of outbreaks that we are experiencing at the moment. Can anything be inferred from the present situation as to what may happen in the worst case scenario, which I dread?
The relaxation of the controls on movement in allowing carcasses to be taken to renderers in sealed wagons and cattle to be transported from safe farms to safe abattoirs sounds a trifle risky. I point out that just one human error in one consignment could lead to further disaster.
I understand that today there has been an outbreak in the Loire Valley in France. Are we doing anything about importing meat products from France as a result of that, or do we believe that it is a completely one-off outbreak?
One of the industries that is most affected by this epidemic has already been mentioned several times this evening: tourism. My noble friend Lord Inglewood and the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned it. Tourism businesses are losing many millions of pounds. Rural tourism maintains some 400,000 jobs. I understand that the tourism authorities have advised the Government that tourism business so far is running at some 75 per cent below normal for this time of year. Rural tourism should now be worth around £150 million a week. Cancellations have overwhelmed the industry, and thousands of potential visitors from overseas have cancelled, even those whose destinations were to have been Edinburgh, London and other cities.
We welcome the setting up of the task force to look at how to re-establish the tourism business in the countryside, among other things. It will, however, have a monumental task in this particular area. I agree with the Minister that, by and large, compensation must be limited to those who are directly affected by livestock losses, but is it not possible for compensation be paid to self-catering and guesthouse businesses on farms where foot and mouth has struck, because at the moment they are completely stuck?
The countryside is in a desperate plight for various reasons with which your Lordships are familiar. I am worried about signs of relaxation of certain controls. The use of the phrase "slight risk" worries me, because any risk is to be avoided if possible. I allude specifically to the different advice given by our Chief Veterinary Officer and his Irish counterpart in regard to racing in that country. Surely, they cannot both be right. Is the Army to be involved? There has been a good deal of talk about it. Surely, because speed is of the essence in dealing with outbreaks, soldiers would be extremely useful and fit, which is probably one of the important matters.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I want to spend most of my few minutes on foot and mouth disease, but first I should like to thank the Minister for listening to the debate carefully and making so many helpful interventions. She must be undergoing great strain at the present time. I remember the 1952 Dumfries outbreak of foot and mouth which occurred soon after I started farming after the war. I have very great sympathy for my noble friend Lord Inglewood on whose farm foot and mouth has broken out this week. It is not all that far from my own farm, which fortunately is still free. I hardly dare answer the telephone in case it is bad news; and certainly I cannot bear to go home at the present time for safety reasons.
My noble friend Lord Inglewood, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and others referred to the total sterilisation of country life at the present time. There are no meetings and social activities. Farmers and their wives who have foot and mouth disease on their farms are in a distraught and dreadful state. Children are unable to go to school. Every farm road end has a gate across it with disinfectant, straw and sawdust. Altogether, farming is going through an even worse time than two or three weeks ago.
In that context, many farmers ask how on earth one can contemplate holding a general election on 3rd May of this year. Democracy means close reaction between candidates and the people and meetings. We cannot do it all by post. I hope that the Prime Minister very carefully bears in mind that it will be a very odd election if it proceeds at the present time.
Before coming to the brief point that I want to make on foot and mouth, I should like to echo all that noble Lords and noble Baronesses have said today about the plight of farming. Farming really is in crisis. The CAP needs to be reformed, but my worry is that that will inevitably mean less money for agriculture. I could see it coming all along. We already see the change from headage to modulation in the less favoured areas. I know of no livestock farmer in Scotland who will receive more money under the new scheme of LFAs; nearly everyone will receive substantially less. They thank God that they will get 90 per cent this year, 50 per cent less next year and then they are on their own. It is a very grave worry. The Government's moves in reforming the CAP have brought very disappointing results.
I very warmly support what the noble Baroness has said about the slaughtering policy to deal with foot and mouth. I praise the Minister's staff and the vets who work their hearts out. I hope that the Minister will pass on these words to the Scottish Executive, because I speak as much for Scotland as for England. We praise the staff and the vets. We praise the president of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, Jim Walker,
I fear that the Minister's staff on both sides of the Border, in England and in Scotland, are overwhelmed and overworked. I do not know for how long they can keep up the pressure. They need extra physical support. I do not know where additional vets and other skilled operators will come from to help them stamp out the disease.
Are we taking too long to confirm outbreaks? A vet sends samples to the laboratory. They take a few days to come back. In previous outbreaks of foot and mouth if a vet came in and saw the disease the livestock were shot straightaway. There was no delay in getting scientific laboratory proof before action was taken. Those two or three days are fairly crucial. Also crucial is the time it takes to obtain a valuation, which has to be done on live beasts. In a crisis such as this, most farmers would accept the word of a good valuer if the beast had already been shot.
Can we really expect--noble Lords on all sides of the House have considered this matter--to get all the livestock that are likely to have to be slaughtered in the next week or two to the rendering plant at Widnes? It is hard enough to load 30 live bullocks into a truck, let alone getting in the same number of dead beasts that perhaps have been lying around for a few days. There is then the long transport to Cheshire from Scotland or from the south of England. The Government may have to think of an alternative or additional rendering plant if that is the way to go. In terms of concern in the countryside, there is an advantage in going to a rendering plant because the funeral pyres--I saw them burning when I was last in the north--are very distressing to those involved.
The Minister has given the best answer that she could in relation to ewes about to lamb. The noble Baroness could not have gone further than to say that with short distances, something should be fixed up if possible, but that, as a generalised state, will be difficult to organise. However, the thought of having to slaughter fit and well ewes just because they cannot be got to their home farms is most distressing.
The Minister was very helpful on the issue of the inquiry and the task force. We want a narrow and concise inquiry--the Phillips inquiry took far too long--on why the outbreak started. How did the infected meat get past the Meat Hygiene Service or other inspections? Last week I asked the Government a question. I was told that no meat was imported from countries where foot and mouth was endemic. I believe that it is endemic in South Africa and South America. Yet, we are still importing meat from those countries. We need to look at the matter very carefully indeed.
The Minister was helpful about grants. I now know of the £160 million, but that is agrimony which we are owed. That is not new money. I know where to get the LFA money after 19th March and the beef special premium, the sheep annual premium, the suckler cow and the extensification early in April. But that is all money that we are due. However, it will be a helpful cashflow in these terrible times.
I hope that the Government will be as administratively flexible as they can in terms of the European Union-- the Minister used the right word--the force majeure. Technically animals that have been slaughtered are not on the farm for retention periods. That must be overcome by a simple administrative act, otherwise many farmers will be disqualified from gaining certain grants that are due in the spring.
I should like the Minister to clear up one matter. The newspapers are not very clear on the issue. Some have said that one can restock after 30 days. I cannot believe that anyone would contemplate that. I believe that it will be nearer six months before one could consider it safe to restock farms. That means six months with no income and one has to then use the whole of the capital resources from the valuation to purchase new stock. That is very worrying.
The next problem that has been put to me several times is the issue of grass parks. This is the month when grass parks are let. Farmers take two, three or four fields here and there. That is important relative to the IAACS forms which are due in in the middle of May. If one does not have one's grass parks it affects one's IAACS forms. Can there be some flexibility here? It is no use saying that one can go to an auction mart and let off the grass parks now because we cannot get together. Anyhow, who will rent a grass park if they do not know whether they will be able to use it in May, June or July? That is a very important part of the agricultural economy. We shall need greater flexibility, bearing in mind the intransigence that is so often taken up over IAACS forms.
My last point has been touched on by many noble Lords. It is the important issue of tourism. I cannot overestimate this matter. It was been brought home to me by the Dumfries and Galloway council and the convenor that tourism has dropped like a stone in Dumfries and Galloway. Millions of pounds a week have been lost in Scotland. Hotels have a 60 per cent drop in room-lettings; conferences have been cancelled; and bed and breakfast lettings for the poor hard-up farmers are non-existent. Tourism needs an injection of help now because this is the beginning of the tourism season, working up to Easter.
I hope that the Minister will think carefully about that matter relative to compensation. I know and appreciate that there are principles here and principles there, but every now and again a principle has to be breached when a crisis is more important.
I have made these points, which not only highlight the problems of farming before foot and mouth, but how they have got much worse under foot and mouth. I wish the Minister well in trying to contain the disease as quickly as possible and in getting us back to normal farming again.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and the Liberal Democrats for having first put down the Motion. I must declare an interest as I own a flock of pedigree Texel sheep, a flock of Shetland sheep and a flock of Welsh Badger sheep, and I also live in the countryside.
I shall try in some small way to explain what a terrible feeling it is to be living with the threat of this virus and when it may strike and what the outcome has to be. One's heart goes out to those people who have already had their breeding flocks destroyed. The sadness that hangs over the areas which have been affected is difficult to explain, but it is a worrying time for everyone who lives in farming areas. They feel that they are sitting on a time bomb.
I have been listening whenever I can to the news and I get updates from the MAFF Internet site, but I was bemused when I saw and heard the Minister of Agriculture say on television on Sunday that the epidemic had been contained. On Sunday evening, the new number of farms affected by the outbreak was the highest so far--25 that day. How can the Government try to spin something so tragic and so important to so many people? They will lose faith and trust in the Government. But the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has tried today to give a more realistic summary of this awful situation. I thank her. The messages should be open, with no cover-up.
Both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches have been offering prayers for the farming communities. I expect that the Methodists have too. We are living with a plague which can strike at any time. Many farmers feel isolated and need support, but sometimes the messages coming from MAFF are confusing. I ask the Minister to try to do something about that. I telephoned MAFF on Saturday to find out about getting a licence to move some of my in-lamb ewes on the farm. I telephoned Northallerton, who told me to ring animal health in Leeds. Leeds told me to ring back to Northallerton. I asked whether I was in an infected area. Both Leeds and Northallerton said no, but the website said that I was. The website map conflicts with the information given. On Monday my secretary telephoned again and received the same answers. Will the Minister please ensure that the website information is correct and kept up to date and that the map is readable?
With all the modern forensic expertise, surely it is possible to find the source of this epidemic. Where did the virus come from before the sheep became infected on the Northumberland farm? If it was from the swill, it must be possible to track the source. It is vital that it is found; otherwise, another epidemic might develop in
It is of concern to many people that sheep have been moving and crossing borders without notification. Will this outbreak make people more responsible, or will it continue to happen? I live on the edge of Wensleydale. A blanket of gloom settled over the dales when we heard of the first case in North Yorkshire at Raygill House Farm, between Bainbridge and Hawes. I send every sympathy to Mr and Mrs Lambert. How did that farm become infected? Was it from jackdaws or was it from a knacker who came to collect a cow that had died? They had a milking herd. They had not bought any stock from a market in recent times. Can the Minister tell your Lordships how that farm became infected? The Minister of Agriculture is so confident that the virus is "under control". But is it?
Last night I read in the Evening Standard that the Ministry of Agriculture is considering the slaughter of up to half a million pregnant ewes because they cannot be returned to their lambing quarters. With spring coming, why cannot they lamb where they are? It is possible to build shelters for the lambs out of bails of straw. It is horrible to think of healthy in-lamb ewes being slaughtered when they might never get the disease.
We are facing a national disaster in more ways than one. The countryside is vulnerable and the people who live in it are even more vulnerable. I have to ask the Minister, who I know has worked, and is working, very hard, whether enough basic information is getting to the people. I am sure that sales of Jeyes fluid have gone sky high, but I am told that Jeyes fluid is not effective in killing the foot and mouth virus. Many people do not have a computer with a website. They cannot get the necessary information.
I asked the local district nurse what advice she and her colleagues had been given. They had not been given any advice about going onto farms. So she told me, "We ask the farmers if they want us". People are trying their best, but they are feeling in the dark at times.
Farmers with livestock have had problems with people walking their dogs on farmland. I have spoken of this before in your Lordships' House, but I would ask the Minister whether she read in the press about the Yorkshire farmer who, anxious to protect his cattle from foot and mouth disease, was attacked after trying to prevent two men with unleashed dogs from walking across his land. The farmer was taken to hospital, having been beaten up. The men shouted that they did not care about foot and mouth disease. It has not helped having the right to roam legislation.
Challenging people who think they can go anywhere is not easy, as that farmer experienced. With village police having been taken away, there is little support for country people trying to protect their animals. I have had a wooden gate smashed which was chained. When I replaced it with a metal gate the chain and lock were cut and removed. This was not on a right of way. But those who did it were dog walkers.
Farmers at this time need consideration and correct information. Barriers are being put up. The countryside may take a long time to recover from this tragedy. It will need help so that everyone can enjoy and relax in what we should all want to protect.
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I share the sense of powerlessness in the face of what is clearly a national disaster. As my brother Prelate said, farmers know that we have them very much in the prayers of the Church. Through our parish priests and members of our congregations, we are doing all we can to support farmers in the rural parts of England. I am glad of and reassured by the radical measures being taken to tackle and eradicate this disease. I am grateful, too, for the Minister's dedication and hard work in this cause. Through her, we should thank all those who work to support her.
What I am most concerned about is the people affected by this outbreak--their future as well as their present. That is because what I detect from those living in our largely rural diocese is that the most destructive aspect of this disaster is fear. Fear takes hold because we do not know what is going to happen and how many lives and livelihoods will be affected by it.
There is a fear that this may bring about the end of farming as we know it. We have seen a series of crises, of which foot and mouth is only the most recent, which have underlined how enormously vulnerable is farming in this country. The food industry that plays in a global market and the principles of free trade--which are not at all the same as the principles of fair trade, on which we are focusing this fortnight--have led us, the consumers, to expect our food to be plentiful, available all the year round and to be the very cheapest, no matter the cost to quality, how it is produced and where it has come from. Faced with this, the farming industry that I see in Dorset and north Wiltshire contains many people who cannot see at all the way ahead for their industry.
Secondly, there is the fear of isolation, both personal and corporate. When they padlock your gates, having taken samples for testing in the laboratory, and then go away, you become a prisoner locked in your cell. You have to decide which members of your family should stay in or stay out. I know many farmers' wives who are caught in a conflict between their role as mothers and wives and their other, equally important role at present as breadwinners. When I visited a north Wiltshire primary school last week, all the children missing were from farming families. They must stay isolated until sentence is passed.
Here I join in the plea that the inspections are made and the animals executed as quickly as possible. While there are helplines and friends, and our parish clergy and rural chaplains speak on the phone, farmers, many of whom work very much on their own, are now also physically and emotionally on their own. It is very dangerous for the health of any community to find a group within it who feel themselves to be so enormously isolated.
Thirdly, there is the fear that the farming community, and all that they are losing, may be doing so because in some sense they have brought it on themselves. First there is a prudential question: have we forced farmers to farm wisely or only for the short term? I think of the closure of a number of abattoirs, forced to do so by the enormous costs in the wake of the BSE scare and crisis. Yet that must be one of the contributory factors to the extraordinary notion that animals are being driven all over the country to be killed for food.
Then there is a theological question: have we worked with the grain of creation as good stewards of the earth's natural resources? Many fear that we have not done so and that we have been colluding with something essentially immoral in the way we have gone about resourcing and stewarding our farming industry.
Farmers cannot diversify quickly and, in the light of our current experience, the Government's White Paper on the countryside seems to have ignored a major area which needs scrutiny, consultation and some agreed solutions. We cannot leave all these problems to drift around among the forces of chance and economics. In that connection, I should like to echo the series of inter-related questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in her speech earlier this afternoon.
There is a huge problem of great seriousness which must be addressed now, but there is also a major long-term concern for the future of farming in the life of the nation. Farming and life in the countryside is not an industry that we can detach from how we live. If we are serious about remaining a whole nation where we value each other's contributions and bear each other's burdens, we need to consider a far more serious and integrated policy for the future of farming than that indicated in the White Paper.
It looks like we are going to need a new White Paper altogether. I say that because if the Government were to give a signal that the White Paper will no longer do as a blueprint for the future for the whole of the countryside in the face of this crisis, then I believe that a huge surge of confidence, a confidence that is not there at the moment, would sweep through the rural communities. They would feel that, at last, they were being heard. I think that it is extremely important that we do this. People living in the countryside do not believe--however unjustified this may be--that an essentially urban government hear them or are even able to hear them. A signal from the Government, indicating not only how to tackle the immediate crisis--I say again that I am grateful for all that is being done--but also a signal that we need to look again at the way in which farming is related to the management of the countryside, with all the economic problems that that will raise, would be enormously welcome and would raise confidence. People's lives are at risk because they are being undermined by fear almost more than by anything else. That is because they feel the fear of the unknown. I hope that the Government, with due consideration--I do not expect the Minister to make any immediate decisions this evening--will be able to give an assurance that there will be a future for the rural communities that will be a partnership, and that it will be a future that will give people hope when, at the moment, all they can see is blackness.
We all know that the crisis in the countryside did not begin in February of this year. Indeed, well before the last election in May 1997 there was a crisis rapidly developing, the origins of which lie in the long-term neglect of the rural infrastructure by successive governments and in the agricultural policy which has locked us into volume production and forced farming and increasingly towards intensification and industrialisation without tackling the social and environmental consequences.
After the last election, the present Government in many areas--to use a phrase that they used--"hit the ground running". However, in relation to the countryside, many of us felt that they hit the ground, stuck their heads in the sand and refused to listen to voices which were telling them how badly things were going wrong.
In February of this year came foot and mouth disease. The country was already in serious trouble. There can be no doubt at all that anyone listening either to this debate or any news bulletin will know that our countryside is now in free-fall.
I am coming to what I think are relatively minor criticisms in the context of all that is going on, but may I first pay tribute to the Minister in the House. As others have said, she has taken time to answer personal and what must at times have seemed very petty questions and queries from anyone who approached her. Her competence in handling this crisis can be in no doubt to anyone.
Perhaps I may also, as others have done, pass on through the Minister the tributes that I have heard from people who are directly involved with the MAFF staff on the ground. The only problem is that they are plainly--hopelessly, in some areas--overstretched.
May I also ask the Minister to pass on to her department comments I have heard, some of which have been echoed in the House, not least most recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham? What we want from the Minister's department is the truth. We want to be told straight. When we hear the Minister say that the epidemic is under control but then see the news bulletins and read the figures, we cannot marry the two. We do not want to be reassured or to be told what it is thought we would like to hear unless it is accurate. We would rather have the reality.
Secondly, we would like to see--it may be in place but the message is not coming across--not that the Ministry is responding to the outbreaks as they happen but that it is ahead of them and has in place proper contingency plans should things, heaven forefend, get even worse than they are now.
Perhaps I may mention a matter which has been raised already by the noble Lord, Lord Luke; that is, the question of racing. There are many, many farmers who are very concerned that racing is still continuing here. We understand that the assessment is that racing in a limited way presents no risk. Farmers are even more concerned to learn that, first, Ireland takes a different view, and, secondly, that France--having confirmed its outbreak at 11.30 this morning--with immediate effect suspended all racing and other gatherings of animals in the two departments concerned. I understand that the movement of all livestock, including horses, throughout France is allowed only with a special permit and disinfecting.
It may be that we are right and they are wrong, but can we have some reassurance and clear guidance? I say this particularly to the noble Baroness because she is, of course, the Minister for the horse. There are quite a number of small horse shows continuing to take place, some of them without clear guidance as to what may or may not be done and as to whether proper precautions are being taken. Can the Minister reassure us that proper guidance is being given to organisers of events of that kind and that proper procedures are in place to ensure that no undue risk is taken?
Other noble Lords have spoken of concerns. which I am also hearing, about the time that it is taking to both confirm outbreaks and to slaughter animals. We very much hope that it is not simply a question of having standby "sharp shots", if I can call them that--people from the Army--in readiness but that adequate numbers of competent slaughtermen will be found to deal with the outbreak. Ideally, valuation should take place after slaughter rather than having animals waiting around for that reason.
Perhaps I may also, through the Minister, pay tribute to the people who are doing that work, which must be beastly, particularly when it involves, as it very often does, very, very distressed farmers. I have what I hope will not be regarded as an inappropriate criticism. Among those carrying out this job are people such as--I name only three of them because they are all over the country--David Jones of the David Davis Foxhounds; Roy Savage from the Teme Valley Foxhounds; and David Morgan from the Radnor and West Hereford. Those people are going to their neighbours and killing their livestock--and at night they have been watching on television Ministers from the noble Baroness's department voting to put them out of home and job. Will the Minister pass that back?
Among the criticisms I have made, perhaps I may add some praise. I am grateful that in the face of criticism--in particular from Ireland--the noble Baroness's department has allowed some movements under special licences for welfare reasons. Farmers are under the most enormous mental strain. To put a man or woman in the position of seeing his or her livestock suffer or of taking a risk and breaking the law to get them back or to deal with them is an impossible one. I am grateful that the present concessions have been made. I would ask the Minister--particularly in regard to animals which are about to calve or lamb in places where they cannot remain--to give great thought to allowing particularly carefully-supervised movements in such cases. The burden and the risk of people breaking the rules--I suspect many of us know people who have done so--is too great.
There was a question raised about disinfectant. I look forward to the answer because when I put my name down for any of the approved kinds of disinfectant two weeks ago, I was told that I was number 300 on the waiting list of my local agriculture supplier. I have yet to receive a call telling me that the stocks are in. In the meantime, we are doing our best.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness's department for allowing the market to start again and for allowing people to send their animals to slaughter. However, I am getting call after call from people who are horrified at the sums they are being offered in a situation where they have absolutely no choice but to accept. Let me echo what was said by a noble Lord who spoke earlier: will the Ministry look carefully to see whether there is an element of profiteering in what is going on?
As other noble Lords have said, it is not only the agricultural part of the economy which is in free-fall--I use that phrase again. Others have spoken about their particular parts of the world; perhaps I may speak about my village in Somerset, Exford. It has a population of 400 people, virtually all of whom work in or near the village. It has three shops, two hotels, a petrol station, a hunt kennels, which is the largest employer in the village, a farrier and a repair workshop.
The village relies entirely on farming and tourism. During the winter months, from October through to April, it is country sports tourism--people who come for the shooting or for the hunting. At this time of the year, when hunting stops elsewhere, farmers in particular from all over England go there to stay when they finish their lambing and their calving to follow the hunt, which goes on until the end of April.
I have received information from a local group which formed two years ago when people could see the crisis coming. The group called itself "Endangered Exmoor". People could scarcely have known then what they would be facing two years on. The post office is down 50 per cent on its business. The White Horse Hotel is empty; there have been 40 cancellations
There is great gloom, and I readily understand the noble Baroness's department. It is not possible to extend compensation into all the areas where people are losing money. However, among all the headings of gloom there are rays of what seem to me to be real hope. One example is that Tindle Newspapers, the publishers of the local paper, the West Somerset Free Press, announced this week that it had established a hardship fund of a quarter of a million pounds for small businesses like its own--for people who either need immediate hand-outs to keep going or interest-free loans where the bank would not help. I imagine that there will be other people like that throughout the country; however, I should like to see the Government taking a lead in getting that kind of support up and running, and we have yet to see that happening. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, about the Government talking to the banks. I very much welcome the task force that has been set up under the Minister for the Environment. These are the kinds of areas that I hope he will look at immediately. They are crucial.
In time, foot and mouth will be overcome. But the majority of us are fearful about how much or how little will be left of our countryside afterwards. Businesses will close; properties and homes will be sold; local families with local connections, with small businesses and small farms, will have to leave those communities. A vital link will have snapped. If we really value our countryside, we should be valuing those people too, especially, as the Minister acknowledged in her opening remarks, because they are the people who have shaped the countryside and we must look after them.
Finally, perhaps I may take up the points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. What we look for now is not only competent action to deal with this crisis; we look to the Government for a lead. What we need is a department of rural affairs--not merely a task force--which will set about the job that desperately needs to be done; namely, to draw up
There is presently a vacuum in the countryside. We look to the Government to put an end to the divisions that have marked the past four years and to take us forward, so that we have a countryside which is not dependent on subsidies or hand-outs, but which is dependent on enterprise and can regenerate itself and produce once again a living and working countryside. If we can do that, if we can have that leadership, then perhaps after all some good will come out of this bad business. As someone once sang, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone". We do not have our countryside at the moment; and how we miss it. Perhaps we shall try to take better care of it and its people after these events.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Baroness--a privilege that I have enjoyed a number of times in the past few days--because she is so knowledgeable about the countryside and is so articulate in expressing her views.
I should declare an interest in so far as I have been engaged with agriculture all of my life and still am. I have cattle, and fortunately for the moment they do not have foot and mouth disease. Like so many other speakers, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on her excellent, knowledgeable and diligent introduction to the debate. The work that she has done in the Ministry of Agriculture and her knowledge of what goes on is remarkable.
It is right to say that farming and the countryside are going through the deepest crisis that they have been through for years--my noble friend Lord Inglewood said "for a century", and I think he is right. Over the past four years we have seen the price of wheat drop from £130 a tonne to £60 a tonne; we have seen the price of milk drop from 26 pence a litre to 13 pence a litre. Admittedly, things are now getting better. Those were the terrible economic afflictions of the countryside. That in itself was enough. But to that was added the BSE crisis and the slaughter of the animals that took place; then there was swine fever and the slaughter of animals; now there is foot and mouth disease. It really is a wonder that there are any animals left in the countryside at all. I agree with the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that it is difficult to see how this disease can be described as being under control. I do not know how one controls a disease which is of its own volition free to move around from place to place.
All this goes much deeper than finance and compensation. A farmer or his family may have built up a herd for 40 years and possibly longer, and to see the animals destroyed, each of which may have a name and each of which may be a personal friend of the farmer, is heart-breaking and morale-breaking stuff. All of a sudden, there is total silence on the farm. A farm once alive with noise is now cacooned in an eerie silence, with dead animals. That has an effect on the farmers, on the locality and on the countryside--an affect that goes far wider and far deeper than being just one of the hazards of an industry, or one of the hazards of a particular way of life. It delves down into the emotional, psychological and even spiritual core of people. It is no wonder that a Member of Parliament told me the other day that one of his constituents had said that she had removed her husband's guns just in case. Indeed, it is no wonder that a newspaper article today reported that the police have done the same thing.
There is an attitude of despair, not just among farmers but also in the countryside as a whole. Who will be the next victim? When will this wretched disease attack? As is so often forgotten, agriculture does not just provide food; it affects, for better or for worse, the entire landscape of the countryside. The environment is deeply tied up and affected by agriculture. Tourism is a vital ingredient to the countryside. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood asked earlier, who will go to the Lake District if you cannot walk when you are there?
So what happens to the bed-and-breakfast people? They lose out: they lose people and they lose money. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, told us a short while ago how in her part of Somerset 40 guests cancelled their bookings with a hotel in Exmoor. People had to be laid off. This crisis goes far wider than just a farmer with a few cows. It is the effect on the countryside as a whole. We are talking about a successful countryside, which means all those who are involved within the countryside; for example, in businesses, shops, transport, holidays, recreation, the environment and of course the wildlife. All the latter depend on a successful agriculture.
It is not the fault of the Government that we have foot and mouth disease. That is one of the hazards of life. I pay tribute to the way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, its officials and the Ministers have reacted to it. I have in mind, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She has been so sensitive and so knowledgeable about the situation.
The present despair in the countryside is the accumulation of disasters of which foot and mouth disease is the latest torpedo. There was to have been a huge march this Sunday because--I hate to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because she is a
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|