I want to update the House on the latest position on the foot and mouth disease outbreak. I also want to set out how the Government are taking forward disease control measures, given our increased knowledge about how the disease has spread.
As at 1 pm today, there have been 240 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom. Some 205,000 animals have been condemned for destruction, of which more than three quarters have already been slaughtered. That is out of a total UK cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million. Out of 160,000 livestock farms throughout the UK, 1,200 have been placed under restriction because of a confirmed or suspected case of the disease. We have been able to lift restrictions on more than 660 of those farms, leaving fewer than 550 farms still restricted.
This is a devastating disease for farming and for the rural communities affected. I express my deepest sympathy for those farmers who have lost their herds and flocks and for the wider farming communities who are going through a time of terrible uncertainty and distress.
I was sorry to learn of a confirmed case in France earlier in the week. I understand that, so far, there have been no further cases on the continent. We have stayed in close contact with the European Commission and other European countries' veterinary authorities. They have all strongly supported the firm action taken in the UK to control the disease and prevent its spread. From the outset, the Government have put firm disease control measures rapidly in place. Every action has been taken on the advice of the chief veterinary officer.
Each day, we have learned more about the outbreak. Epidemiological investigations and the incubation of disease in livestock have revealed the mechanisms by which the disease has spread. As our understanding has increased, I have shared new information with the House and given daily briefings.
The disease has spread mainly through movement of sheep and subsequent mixing of animals at a small number of livestock markets. It is important to stress that the vast majority of disease spread around the country took place before 20 February, when the first outbreak was discovered in Essex.
With increased knowledge about how the disease has spread, the Government have been able to refine disease control measures. In the infected areas, we have intensified controls. Where possible, we have allowed movement; for example, licensed movements to slaughter and short movements for welfare reasons.
The Government are working to five key disease control aims. The first is to keep free of disease those areas of the country still free of it, and the second is to halt the deterioration of the disease situation in Devon. Thirdly, we aim to stop the spread of the disease in the north of England and south-west Scotland. We are increasingly seeing localised spread from sheep flock to sheep flock in Scotland and from cattle to cattle in Cumbria. Fourthly, we want to minimise the spread of the disease from Longtown, Welshpool and Northampton markets, where it has been identified that infection has been present. The fifth aim is to eliminate infection in flocks that have passed through dealers known to have handled infected flocks. Of course, we will keep that strategy under constant review.
Taking each of those issues in turn, I shall set out the action that the Government are taking. In areas that are currently disease free, we will establish a new type of controlled area within which we hope eventually to allow a more normal level of activity both in agriculture and the rural community. But in the short term, the priority will be to avoid the risk of importing the disease into those clean areas by movements of animals from areas where there is infection. In addition, we will identify any high-risk movements of sheep that took place before 23 February. Those sheep will be destroyed to ensure that any possibility of infection is removed.
In Devon, the disease has been spreading from farm to farm due to the nature of agriculture, which means that there are many small farms, dense animal populations and movements of people and equipment. The strategy there will be to have an intensive patrol to all farms within 3 km of the infected farm. Each farm will be visited and inspected by veterinary or trained lay staff to ensure that cases of foot and mouth disease are identified as soon as possible to prevent onward spread.
The large focus on infection in the north of England and southern Scotland has been mostly concentrated in the sheep flock, although there is now cattle-to-cattle spread in Cumbria. There are a considerable number of cases in that area, with the potential for rapid spread to adjacent farms and even further afield. In this case, we must still ensure that infected animals are removed as quickly as possible, and to do that it will be necessary to destroy animals within the 3 km zones on a precautionary basis.
We now have clear evidence that sheep from markets in the Welshpool, Northampton and Longtown areas were exposed to disease and there is reason to suspect that, with the passage of time, a number of flocks into which they were imported may become infected. Those flocks will be removed as dangerous contacts. The same approach will be taken to sheep handled during the high-risk period by two major dealers associated with movements of infected sheep.
That is a policy of safety first. We are intensifying the slaughter of animals at risk in areas of the country—thankfully, still limited—where the disease has spread. Provided other areas remain disease free, we can, over the next week to 10 days, consider modifying restrictions in areas that have remained clear. We are deeply conscious of the animal welfare problems posed by the movement restrictions that we had to put in place for disease control reasons. We made arrangements last week for a number of localised licensed movements that, I hope, have alleviated a proportion of those problems. We were not, however, then able to provide for long-distance movements of animals caught in the wrong place, such as sheep on tack on dairy farms in England.
I shall publish later today the principles of a scheme for moving such animals, necessarily under very tight restrictions. The general principle will be that animals can be moved within a currently controlled area, or within currently disease-free areas, or into an area of higher disease risk, but not the other way round. It is my intention that farmers will be able to apply for licences for such movement over the weekend.
Those arrangements will not, of course, deal with all the welfare problems that animals face. Some animals will be unable to move because of their condition; others will be unable to move because they are in infected areas. Where animal welfare problems cannot be alleviated by local action—meaning husbandry—we shall put in place arrangements for their disposal at public expense. That scheme will apply across the United Kingdom. Payments will be made for such animals, broadly on the lines of those adopted by the Government in East Anglia last autumn for the pig welfare disposal scheme.
I should emphasise that that is a voluntary scheme. It will be for individual farmers to decide whether to offer livestock to the scheme; acceptances will depend on certification by a vet that a welfare problem exists or is about to emerge. The licence to slaughter scheme introduced on 2 March has allowed the meat trade to begin operating again, although on a necessarily limited basis. The latest estimate of the Meat and Livestock Commission is that the pig sector is back to 78 per cent. of normal production, beef is at 68 per cent. and lamb at 30 per cent. of normal production. Veterinary advice does not recommend setting up a system of collection centres, although the option is being kept under review.
The control of foot and mouth disease is a major logistical exercise. In that task, we are drawing on the expertise of many public sector organisations, particularly those with field organisations or specialist knowledge and expertise, including the Ministry of Defence, the Environment Agency, the Meat and Livestock Commission and my Ministry's agencies. The Ministry of Defence is deploying a logistic planning team, drawn from Land Command, to provide advice on the planning and management of civil and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food resources. We have also been offered support by a wider range of private organisations. In addition, there has been international support, particularly in the provision of veterinary staff to help with the disease control programme. I am enormously grateful for all that support.
Disease control measures have had a major impact on non-farm businesses in rural areas, particularly the tourism industry. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport explained to the House what the Government are doing to help those sectors. A new taskforce has met to take that work forward. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will make further announcements next week. MAFF will continue to provide targeted advice and guidance from the chief veterinary officer on the risks associated with a range of activities in the countryside.
Movement control measures are keeping the spread of the disease to an absolute minimum. Slaughtering the disease out of infected farms and dangerous contacts is bearing down on it where it exists. An intensified slaughter policy in respect of animals thought to be at risk of developing the disease will add to this effort. As further cases emerge, we will learn more about the way in which the outbreak has developed, and that will inform any further refinements of the control policy as necessary. Of course, I will continue to keep the House informed.
Foot and mouth disease is a personal tragedy for those affected, and a body blow to the livestock industry as a whole. Again, I express the Government's deepest sympathy for those affected. I also express my support and appreciation of the state veterinary service, the farming organisations and all the others who are involved in combating the disease and dealing with its consequences. I continue to appeal to the public for their co-operation. It is important to remember that the key risk is contact with susceptible livestock. The precautionary measures should be focused on bearing down on that risk. There is no need to bring all aspects of rural activity to a standstill. While the disease is still with us, I renew my appeal to the public to avoid unnecessary visits to livestock farms, and where visits are unavoidable, to take the precautions advised.
I am grateful for the support of the House for the Government's actions. It is important that we set aside party politics in dealing with this outbreak. If the whole country works together and works constructively, we will get through this.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, and for making it available to me about half an hour ago. I start by expressing our appreciation of the work of his Ministry's officials, the vets and the others who are in the front line of the efforts being made to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease.
I reiterate our general support for the Minister and our backing for most of the specific actions that he has taken so far. On a personal note, I offer him my genuine sympathy for the substantial burden that he is carrying. The Opposition hope that the crisis is brought to a speedy and successful conclusion.
Last Sunday, the Minister said on television that the situation was under control. Since then, the number of confirmed foot and mouth cases has doubled. New cases are being confirmed this week at a much faster rate than in either of the two previous weeks. Disease has entered Cheshire for the first time, causing alarm and fear among farmers in that important livestock area. The first case is strongly suspected in my constituency in Suffolk, on the farm of Richard Easton, who today, like many others in a similar position, is extremely distressed.
Tens of thousands of diseased animals still await slaughter around the country, and tens of thousands of carcases of slaughtered animals are lying around in the open, awaiting disposal. Whatever the reason for the Minister's claim last Sunday that matters were under control, events have quickly shown how unfounded it was.
On the measures that the Minister announced, we support the Government's decision to embark on the slaughter of sheep that may have been infected through contact at the markets to which he referred. Further large-scale slaughter will clearly put huge extra strain on resources that are already stretched. I urge the Minister again to make wider use of the Army to assist the task than is currently proposed by the Government. The Army's skills and disciplines could be put to good use in the difficult task of laughter and disposal.
The Minister will be aware of the concern about the lengthy journeys involved in sending carcases for rendering. There are persistent reports that some of the lorries used are not properly sealed, and that that method of disposal therefore runs the risk of spreading infection further. Bearing in mind the backlog of carcases that is still building up, will he examine the possible use of burial on farms as an additional form of carcase disposal? That method was widely and successfully used in 1967. It is quicker and, in many respects, easier. The Army could be used immediately. Of course, I recognise that in some areas the water table may pose a problem. Will he ask the Environment Agency today to identify specific areas where burial might be dangerous on grounds of human or animal health? Will he then permit burial on farms as a means of disposal in areas that are not proscribed by the Environment Agency?
Does the Minister acknowledge that large-scale slaughter is distressing, especially for farmers who have reared their animals, but also for the wider public? Will the Government undertake a public information programme to explain more clearly the reasons for the slaughter, and why vaccination, which is widely canvassed, is not an acceptable alternative?
Will the Minister give greater discretion to vets who suspect the presence of foot and mouth disease in a herd to authorise immediate slaughter to reduce the risk of spreading infection posed by large and increasing numbers of diseased animals awaiting slaughter? Does he agree that time is of the essence in responding to all aspects of the crisis? Delays between suspecting and confirming a case, and between confirmation and slaughter, can mean that diseased animals are not slaughtered as quickly as is desirable for effective control of the outbreak.
Last week, the Minister asked me to suggest ways in which to extend existing compensation measures. I am sorry that I have not yet written to him. I warmly welcome his announcement about the pig welfare disposal scheme or a similar arrangement. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) recommended such action when he wound up the debate on 28 February. How quickly will the new arrangements become operational? How much money will be available for them?
I shall make two more specific suggestions on compensation; I may make others later. First, farmers whose cattle pass the age of 30 months suffer a sharp, unrecoverable loss of value. They are a definable, fairly small group, and they should be compensated for their loss. I stress that the suggestion is not intended to apply to farmers who can obtain licences to send their stock for slaughter. Help should be given to those who are unable to obtain or even apply for a licence.
Secondly, I recognise that industries other than farming are badly affected by the crisis. Tourism is the prime—but by no means the only—example. Cash flow problems are immediate and acute. As I said in a previous debate, many people who work in the public sector and receive their salary cheque on the 28th day of every month have no concept of the anxiety and agony of business men who simply do not know when they will receive their next income. The only permanent solution for such businesses is the control of foot and mouth disease. In the meantime, will the Government instruct local councils to grant businesses that have been hit by the crisis immediate relief from business rates?
The Minister knows that we have supported his efforts through his licensing scheme to facilitate the movement of ewes that are in the wrong place for lambing. I welcome the further measures that he has announced today. I share his anxiety that efforts to facilitate movement should not jeopardise other efforts to prevent the spread of the disease. I accept that, in some cases, requests for licences may have to be refused. Doubtless he, like me, has received reports of local administrative difficulties. Will his officials make every effort to ensure that issuing licences is not delayed by bureaucratic problems rather than veterinary advice?
I apologise for the length of my response, but much has happened in the seven days since Parliament last had the opportunity to question the Minister. There is some conflict between statements from the Minister for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Neither is present today. That conflict has caused confusion about the Government's policy on the countryside. Are people encouraged to visit it to support businesses there or discouraged from visiting it to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease? The Minister for the Environment called some parts of the countryside safe. How can any part be so described when foot and mouth disease may be incubating there? Will the Minister therefore clarify the Government's priorities, so that the public understand what is expected of them?
I agree with the Minister's statement about the gravity of the crisis. Its consequences go far beyond the livestock sector. He ended with an appeal to the whole country to work together, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I hope that that will be accompanied by a real effort in all Departments to work together and a willingness to use resources available from outside agencies and industries. I also hope that the Government will be willing to apply any lessons learned from the policy adopted in France and Ireland, if it appears that those measures are effective, and from reports written in the aftermath of the 1967 outbreak.
The whole nation has a deep interest in the urgent and successful resolution of this crisis. It rightly expects that no other considerations will be allowed to impede progress towards that outcome.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about public officials, who are working extremely hard to exterminate and resolve this terrible disease outbreak and to get everything back to normal. He is right that we should learn from the experience of others and previous episodes. I am guided, of course, by the key conclusions of the Phillips report. There are lessons to be learned from that in the management of animal disease. I am following very closely Lord Phillips' recommendations on managing the disease outbreak.
I want to do justice to the hon. Gentleman's range of perfectly proper questions. First, should people visit the countryside? Everybody wants to do what is right to help bring this outbreak to an end, and it is clear from what the tourist industry is saying to the Government that overseas visitors are not coming to our country because we have foot and mouth disease; they are even not coming to London. The domestic tourist market, which is about twice the size of the overseas one, is also constrained in the countryside. I think that that is largely because people want to try to help, so they are staying away. They are going much further than Government advice suggests.
The advice from Government is very clear: the public should stay away from farmed livestock. The risk is that the virus will be transferred from the livestock to the person, and that the person, unwittingly, will then transfer it in a sufficient amount to spread the disease. That does not mean that people should not visit market towns, or go to events in villages, or cannot admire the landscape or walk in the country where there is no livestock. The advice is very clear: stay away from farmed livestock.
On bureaucratic issues, the hon. Gentleman said that there were individual delays and anomalies. In a very fast-moving situation such as this, where control measures are having to be implemented and necessarily operated locally, there will be issues of dispute from time to time. He was right in our previous exchange when he referred to the micro-management of some of these issues. That is the correct approach. By and large, however, we have received an enormous amount of praise from farmers for the work of veterinarians and those in support. In these difficult circumstances, that speaks very well for both the farming industry and public services.
The hon. Gentleman made a fair point about the over-30-months scheme. I cannot say anything about that today, but I promise to keep the matter under review. He also asked about the cash flow of other industries and countryside businesses that are not directly agricultural. That is being examined by the taskforce that has just been set up.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on the welfare disposal scheme. Having set up the scheme in the circumstances of the classical swine fever outbreak, I envisaged right from the beginning of this outbreak that we might want to use such a scheme, as it was necessary for movement restrictions to endure and to deal with the problem of sheep on winter grazing. So it has turned out. I emphasise again that the scheme is voluntary, but it is intended to help very hard-pressed farmers and to prevent unnecessary cruelty to and suffering of animals.
The hon. Gentleman heckles me about when the measures will start. They will all be under way as quickly as possible. I am reporting to the House the on-going work that the Government are undertaking. We are getting on with it.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) referred to the immediate slaughter of animals that a veterinarian believes have the clinical signs of foot and mouth disease. In the case of almost all the cattle and some 80 per cent. of animals that have been slaughtered, the request to slaughter was submitted on the advice of the veterinarian who made the clinical examination. We do not wait for the tests to confirm the virus, although they are undertaken. If a professional veterinarian identifies the disease on clinical examination, the request to slaughter is made straight away.
On alternative strategies, I shall explain why it is necessary to slaughter the animals as soon as the disease is found, which comes as a shock to people who are not familiar with the industry. The hon. Gentleman is right. I have repeatedly explained that the animal breathes out the virus, and once it is dead the problem is of a different order. Thus it is necessary to kill the animal as soon as the disease is discovered.
The hon. Gentleman and I have a similar view on the vaccination strategy, because we are following the same professional advice. The view in the industry is unanimous. I am trying to arrange a short presentation on vaccination strategies for the media representatives who attend my daily press briefings so that the issues can be set out and those who report these matters are exposed to the same advice that Ministers receive. If parliamentarians would find it helpful to have such a presentation next week, I am willing to arrange it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] I take that as assent, so we shall do that.
I appreciate that it is one of the most harrowing things for a farmer to see his flock or herd slaughtered, even if it is for understandable disease control purposes. It is incredibly harrowing to experience on-farm slaughter, and having the animals remain on the farm to await removal only adds to the misery. We are examining further disposal routes, and we intend to make use of burial. The hon. Gentleman was right to ask me about burial. We are also looking into the possibility of opening further rendering plants specifically for this purpose. I understand that we are about to have a plant up and running in Devon, so the movement of animals from Devon up to the north will no longer be necessary. We are in discussions with the Environment Agency about what would affect the water table and what would be safe. We are also considering other routes of disposal.
There is much concern about the movement of carcases in wagons. It is not the journey that poses the risk. However, if the hon. Gentleman knows of a lorry that has not been sheeted properly or is not as it should be, I urge him or anyone else to take the lorry's licence number and report it. A Member of Parliament can report it to me.
We have received help from the armed services for veterinary and logistical purposes. We have arrangements with the Ministry of Defence, and can call on the Army for other help if it is needed.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman now has a case near his constituency in Suffolk, because that area has thankfully been free up till now. The disease must have been incubating in an animal for a fortnight or so before it emerged. He will have heard me say that it is our intention to pursue dangerous contacts that have gone into areas that we believe to be clear, which may include his constituency, and to take the precautionary measure of purchasing the animals for destruction. Our deliberate strategy is to try to keep the clear areas free of the disease.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the outbreak was under control. I do not want to get into a semantic quarrel, but when I say that it is absolutely under control, I mean precisely that. The movement controls that are in place are very severe indeed. The fact that more disease emerges does not mean that the outbreak is not under control.
There are two factors about which no one can be certain. The first is the extent of the infectivity that is still out there, and the measures that I have announced today are designed to bear down on that on a precautionary basis. The second is the geographical location of infectivity. However, we know that there are specific problems in three areas—on the English-Welsh border, in Devon and in Cumbria. What I have announced today is intended to bear down on those specific problems.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that, to date, Norfolk has not suffered an outbreak of the disease. However, I was pleased to hear him state the precautionary principle,
because the lessons of BSE must be learned. I understand the commercial pressures on the tourist industry, and the despair being felt in my constituency, where we rely very much on the weekend visitor. I hope that he will affirm that he will make it his first, second and third priority to ensure that areas that currently are free of the disease remain so.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the first priority is to bear down on the disease and eliminate it, and to avoid anything that risks spreading it. I am especially concerned to ensure that the disease-free areas stay disease free. That is why we are tracing the movement into those areas of animals that are suspected of being at risk. We are purchasing those animals for destruction. It is the Government's clear intention to keep disease-free areas disease free.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and for his customary courtesy in providing an early copy of it.
The Minister has announced plans for the slaughter of overwintering ewes in restricted areas. Will he confirm that that policy will be implemented only as a last resort and that, if possible, other measures will be introduced to avoid taking what is clearly a drastic measure?
Is the Minister aware that sheep prices in the north of England are collapsing because of the sheer number of sheep being moved under licence to abattoirs? It is possible that the low prices will mean that there is little benefit to farmers in sending sheep there. Is he also aware of scare stories to the effect that even grain cannot be exported because of the possibility of spreading the disease? I hope that we can put such stories into perspective.
What assurances can the Minister give the House about the contingency planning measures that were in place prior to the outbreak? For instance, after the 1967 outbreak, it was recommended that epidemiological teams comprising personnel from various bodies should be set up. The teams were to have two main functions. The relevant report stated:
In an outbreak they would collect information by studying the outbreak from the start, predicting its probable development and so provide information which would help in formulating measures to control it. They would also collect data for the purpose of future epidemiological studies. The teams should gain experience in working together before outbreaks occur so that they would be fully prepared when their services were required.
Will the Minister confirm that those teams were put in place, and that some of the information now available stems from their formation?
The report from which I have quoted also recommended considerable additional research into foot and mouth disease, but we learned today that the last remaining independent research facility, CAMBAC, is about to close. It was supported by MAFF and the Meat and Livestock Commission, and was a very valuable source of research, especially into pigs. At a time when we need more research and information capable of being disseminated throughout the world, does the Minister agree that it is a great shame that that facility should be closing?
I will inquire into what the hon. Gentleman says about the research programme, as I do not have the answer to hand. I can assure him that epidemiological work is under way in the Ministry. In part, it is informing the decisions that I have announced today.
Although there is a dispute between the UK and Morocco over a shipment of grain, I assure the hon. Gentleman that grain poses no risk whatsoever of spreading foot and mouth disease. That is being explained to the Moroccan authorities.
On the movement of sheep in their winter quarters, there is an order of decision making. If we can safely move them, we will, but each case must be looked at very carefully. We must ensure that lorries are disinfected, that animals are not carrying the disease and that they will not move to areas where there is a risk of infectivity. All that must be considered case by case.
We are looking at providing advice and what other support we can, although it is necessarily limited, to aid husbandry on site, if that is possible. I know that the hon. Gentleman will understand why that is not always possible, but there may be local solutions that can be adopted, including temporary housing and the bringing in of specialists to assist with lambing. The third option—it is the last resort—is mercy killing.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It is a sombre statement, but I am sure that farmers in Cumbria will accept the new controls because they want to get ahead of the disease and to get it over with as quickly as possible. We still have a problem with slaughter and disposal. I have a constituent whose beasts were diagnosed three days ago and have still to be slaughtered.
Can the Minister put the outbreak in context? It is difficult in Cumbria to put it in context. What percentage of farms nationally are affected by the disease? I know that it is difficult—the Minister is very busy—but if he had the opportunity some time to come to speak to farmers in Cumbria, they would welcome the opportunity to tell him what the problems are.
I would like to meet farmers who are personally affected. I try to meet farmers to discuss their problems, but I must stay here and manage the disease outbreak first. However, I would like to visit farmers as soon as I can, including my hon. Friend's constituents, to hear from them at first hand. Although it is hard for the farmers who are affected, at the moment, less than 1 per cent. of all livestock farms are under restriction, or affected by the outbreak.
My officials are working now on ensuring that we can speed up the slaughter and disposal arrangements. There is a serious problem in Cumbria. I want to ensure that we have all the resources necessary to deal with what has emerged and with what we are trying to prevent from emerging.
What financial help will the Government offer to those whose livelihoods and lives are being devastated by the consequences of foot and mouth disease? When the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who has responsibility for tourism, came to the House yesterday, the best that he could do was to say that the Government would be
looking sympathetically at … possible options."—[Official Report, 14 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 1036.]
I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that those living in the countryside want not sympathy from the Government, but some action now.
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has appreciated how serious the situation is now and the need to get money to those who are affected. May we have some clear indication from the Government that they recognise that many in the countryside need financial help today?
I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said about the Prince of Wales. It was a kind and generous thing for the Prince to do. I appreciate it very much. I think that the whole House knows that he has extraordinary sympathy for and empathy with farming and the rural community. I met him yesterday and was able to thank him personally for what he has done.
I want to do what I can to help. For all the animals that the Government are purchasing for slaughter because of the need to control the disease, we will pay 100 per cent. compensation. We have drawn down the agrimonetary payments. Of course, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease has informed that. We are spending money on the welfare scheme that I have announced today. That will be at a cost—an unquantifiable cost—to the taxpayer. I am looking at what more I can do, but the hon. Gentleman should not overlook the substantial public expenditure implications of what I have announced today.
Tomorrow, I shall visit the Grannox rendering plant in my constituency, which is taking thousands of slaughtered animals for disposal. Will my right hon. Friend put on record his recognition of the efforts of the work force at Grannox in dealing with the problem, which, as hon. Members can imagine, is not one of the best jobs in the world at the moment? Does he also appreciate my constituents' concerns about the transportation through my constituency of so many thousands of slaughtered animals and the environmental impact of processing the carcases? Can he give my constituents assurances on those issues?
The operation poses no danger at all to my hon. Friend's constituents. I can give him that assurance. I should also like to place on the record my thanks to the work force in his constituency. As he will know, I visited the plant a few months ago, and took the Spanish Minister with me to see it. It is a very impressive operation.
The Minister touched on alternative strategies. Is he aware that there is very strong anecdotal evidence, but not the evidence of trials, that a homeopathic remedy called borax can protect animals from the threat of foot and mouth, that it was used extensively in the 1967 outbreak, and that 7,000 farmers are using it now? Will he undertake to conduct trials to establish whether it is effective, rather than simply relying on anecdotal evidence? Will he so instruct the chief veterinary officer? Is he aware that in the 1967 outbreak, a farmer near Chester unwittingly used borax in a feed, and that although the animals on every farm around had to be put down, that farmer's cows never caught the disease? The reason why that happened was a mystery to Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food officials.
I listen to all views on the matter. The Phillips report says that Ministers should keep an open mind about alternative theories, and should not polarise debate between the professional and official view and other points of view. I shall therefore draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the chief veterinary officer, upon whose professional advice I am relying in handling the disease outbreak.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that six farms in my constituency in Newcastle—in the area where the infection probably began—have been affected, probably all by windborne infection. Has he discussed with his meteorological advisers the weather ahead of us, as the second two weeks in March are usually the windiest part of the year? Is there a potential extra risk because of the weather? If so, will he continue his tough measures, including keeping people out of the countryside wherever possible?
I assure my hon. Friend that windborne disease presents very little further risk to his constituents, because, of course, the animals that caused it were killed some time ago. The risk of windborne infectivity comes specifically from pigs. The disease is far more infectious in pigs than it is in cattle and sheep, and a large number of pigs can pump out enough virus for it to form an infective dose and be carried quite some distance by the wind if conditions are right—or wrong, depending on the point of view. Of course we are examining that issue, but it is specifically relevant to large concentrations of pigs. Fortunately—if then is anything fortunate in this—the main problem with which we have to cope now is predominantly, but not entirely, to do with sheep.
I am grateful for the Minister's statement on the movement of in-lamb ewes back to their home farms, which is particularly important. However, as thousands of ewes from my constituency are now in Pembrokeshire, we have huge logistical problems. One haulier told me that he had to make at least 12 journeys. Will the Minister ensure that those journeys are expedited—under Army escort if necessary? Will he also define "movement into an area of higher risk"? What does that mean? As a vast part of Powys could be covered by that classification, could ewes be moved into an infected area? If lambs are killed in an infected area, what percentage of the market price will farmers receive for them? Will he also give us some evidence—I ask this on behalf of my, hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik)—of a link between Welshpool market and outbreaks in Cheshire and Shropshire?
We know that infectivity has been transferred through Welshpool market. There is the possibility of a link with the outbreak in Cheshire, and the veterinary authorities are looking at that now. I promise to convey the answer to the hon. Gentleman once we know it. At the moment there is a suspicion, not a confirmation.
The price for animals that the Government are slaughtering to control the disease is the animals' market value. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to give him indicative prices—and they are only indicative, because such matters can go to arbitration if there is a dispute—I will make sure that he gets that information.
It is vital that escorted journeys are strictly controlled. Nothing would be worse for the control of the outbreak than to allow people to start moving around in an uncontrolled way animals that might be carrying the infection.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today. He is fully aware that, as of this morning, the number of cases in my constituency has risen to 32. I am sure that he will want to place on record his thanks to the local authority, which is co-ordinating all the sterling work in that area.
I have been informed by the local authority that it is taking two days to move from slaughter to burning, but I am told by farmers that it takes considerably longer than that. Those at the sharp end—the farmers—believe that we do not have this fully under control and are not operating as efficiently as possible. If we are to move to wider-area slaughter, there is a need for more resources and for personnel to carry out that work. I hope that if we undertake that, additional resources will be put into the areas.
On the disinfection of vehicles, my area is at breaking point. Everyone is doing their best, but I believe that additional resources are needed now. We need to say how quickly we will get compensation to those who have lost their livelihood by losing their stock. Some of the financial institutions are not being as helpful as I had hoped.
Finally, farmers who have been told that their stock is infected need information that is easy to understand. At present, they are having to plough through tomes of paperwork to understand the process.
I have written to every farmer trying to give information about the workings of the helplines and the front-line advice. The Minister of State, Baroness Hayman, is meeting representatives of the main agricultural banks to urge them to do what they can to help, particularly with cash flow, in the present outbreak.
I have asked that where the state has purchased the animals and an agreement has been made, the payment be made to the farmer as quickly as it can be expedited. I have also asked to be told the average time it is currently taking to make payments, but I do not have that information yet.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that vehicles have to be disinfected for every journey. The extra resources that he pleads for are coming. He is right—but we must remember that our priority is to get the animals killed to prevent the spread of the disease. At the moment there is a delay between killing the animals and moving them. I am trying to shorten that delay, and I hope that it will be possible to prevent dead animals from remaining on farms for an inconvenient and distressing length of time.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking local authorities, not just those employed by central Government, for their very hard work. I discussed the situation yesterday with Ross Finnie, the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland.
Does the Minister accept that there is a good degree of confusion, and perhaps even anger, among farmers and people in the tourist industry? Both occupations are immensely important in my constituency. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that the countryside was open for business, and the Minister has reiterated a similar message today. Does he accept that that is demonstrably not the case?
In my constituency, the Badminton three-day event, which is the largest single sporting event in the world, has been cancelled. Tomorrow's visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Chippenham, a town of 30,000 people, has been cancelled. The countryside march, involving 500,000 people coming to London, has been cancelled. Church services across my constituency have been cancelled, and schools are closed. It is simply not the case that the countryside is open for business.
If that were so, however, would the Minister really welcome it? Will not the tourist industry, for example, recover only when this appalling disease has been finally eradicated from the countryside? In the meantime, no one should try to pretend that it is perfectly acceptable for people to trudge all over the countryside—the roads, that is, not the fields; people know that they must not go near livestock farms.
As going anywhere in the countryside carries a strong risk of spreading the disease, no one wants to go to Chippenham. Surely the message ought to be that the countryside is closed for business until such time as this killer disease has been eradicated.
I agree with the final point, but not with the others. I do not think that we shall re-establish our tourist industries and other rural businesses properly until the outbreak has been exterminated and we can demonstrate that we can maintain that position, but there is no reason why people should not visit Chippenham. Indeed, there is no reason why people should not come to London, and no reason why church services should be cancelled. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about the countryside march?"] That was not cancelled at the Government's request; nor have I, as the Minister, asked for racing events to be cancelled.
If schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have been closed as a result of foot and mouth, will he give me their addresses so that I can take up the closures with the Department for Education and Employment as a matter of urgency? There is no disease control reason why schools should be closed.
As my right hon. Friend will know, the discovery of foot and mouth disease in Cheshire has been a great blow, although there may be a direct link with the markets that he has mentioned. He will also know that the veterinary investigation service is anxious for culls to take place speedily when clinical signs of the disease are readily identifiable. Will he please do all he can to ensure that if a vet has identified clinical signs, the cull follows as quickly as possible—and that, preferably, disposal by some means follows before long?
When a veterinary inspector identifies clinical signs, killing of the animals can be authorised there and then. For 80 per cent. of all animals that are culled to control the disease, authorisation is given there and then on the basis of a clinical inspection by a vet.
I agree with what my hon. Friend has said. I am sorry that the outbreak has reached Cheshire; it must have been incubating there for a while, and now it has come to fruition. I hope that we shall be able to contain it, and then to exterminate it and keep as much of Cheshire as possible disease free.
People will be relieved to learn of today's announcement of the introduction of a voluntary welfare disposal scheme. Will the Minister confirm that it will cover all uninfected animals that come not only from uninfected farms but from the huge infected areas?
I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of introducing the scheme as soon as possible. There is a build-up of animals in farms in my constituency and, indeed, throughout the country. That applies especially to pig farms. Last week, about 2,000 pigs were born in my constituency. Nature does not stand still: inexorably, the numbers rise.
Will the Minister tell us when the scheme will be up and running? Will he also tell us that it will be as unbureaucratic as possible? Will he please assure my constituents, and constituents throughout the country, that it will apply to pigs, sheep and beef, and—I beg of him—that it will be introduced without delay?
The scheme will be introduced without delay, and it will apply to all infected species. The intervention board is working on the plan now, and I hope to have it up and running within days. As I have said, it will apply across the country and is open to all species, but a vet will have to certify that a real welfare risk exists and is being dealt with. I understand the special importance of the scheme to the pig sector because of the impact of movement restrictions on the sector. The model closely follows the first use of the scheme in East Anglia during the outbreak of classical swine fever.
There have been no problems in my constituency so far, but people are concerned when they hear of the spread of the disease throughout the countryside. To be fair to business people in the countryside, however, they fully support all that the Government are doing.
Only this morning I received a call from a business man who said that he had lost 70 per cent. of his business on the day the outbreak was declared, but nevertheless he wanted all that the Government were doing to be carried through. His main concern was about the need to make clear where people may or may not go in the countryside. There is undoubtedly confusion about that, and he, like me, would like much more use to be made of local media. Would that not make the position plain, and maintain confidence in what the Government are doing? Let us hope that the outbreak could then be brought swiftly to an end.
My advice—my appeal—to the public is to stay away from farm livestock. That does not mean staying away from every market town or village; it means exactly what it says.
My hon. Friend's constituent has my sympathy. What we are doing is incredibly hard, but it is necessary. It is in everyone's best interests for us to ensure that this disease is extinguished.
The organisers of the countryside rally did not need to wait for the Government to ask them to postpone it. They postponed it themselves, because they are responsible, they love the countryside and they did not want the disease to spread.
Will the Minister ensure that the money he has announced so far will be available as speedily as possible, and that the taskforce knows of the urgent need of those involved in tourism" Some businesses have only one week left before they must close their doors and lay off staff. Rose County Foods, an abattoir in my constituency, had to lay off 100 workers for two weeks, and is only now starting to take them on again. Much of the meat that it kills and bones normally goes to Northern Ireland. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister to ensure that food supplies are properly checked by hygiene specialists, so that it is clear that they are not diseased, can be packaged in Northern Ireland and distributed to a much wider market?
Those are all fair points. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is working with officials on the relationship between Great Britain's and Northern Ireland's trade. I can give the hon. Gentleman the other assurances that he seeks, including the one about work between Ministers in my Department and the agricultural banks on the cash flow problem that he correctly raised.
The only point that I make about the countryside march is that the Government did not formally ask for its cancellation. Let me express my support and gratitude to the organisers, who took what would have seemed to them to be a responsible approach, and tried to do what they could to help the countryside through these difficult times.
Farmers need precise information about the risks that they face. Concern has been expressed in my constituency—which is, in part, an infected area—about the movement of lorries from places where there is known to be infection towards livestock abattoirs that are currently operating. We need clarity about how the system works; we also need resources to deal with the strategy set out by my right hon. Friend. Thus far, there is doubt about whether such resources are available to a sufficient extent, and in the right places, to enable the job that my right hon. Friend described earlier to be done.
The resources are being gathered. Where we need more, we are getting more. There is no constraint: the Government intend to defeat this disease.
There are at present no unlicensed movements of livestock in the country—or there should not be. I am grateful to the police for stopping livestock vehicles to check that they are licensed, and that their arrangements are not unlawful. Nothing will perpetuate this disease outbreak longer than the unauthorised movements of livestock that might be at risk.
Notwithstanding the fact that some of the countryside may be open for business, the New Forest is most definitely closed. Indeed, the district council has written to several rural businesses specifically asking them to stop their operations. Will the Minister undertake to look at the suggestions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) at the Dispatch Box yesterday for providing relief to those businesses?
The Government are doing what they can to help. We have set up a taskforce to look at the broader issues. My advice is clear. We all have a part to play in explaining this clearly. The disease risk is from the public coming into contact with farmed livestock and spreading the disease. To avoid that risk I am appealing to everyone to stay away from farmed livestock.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the licensed movement of tack animals, particularly from my constituency—a matter already raised by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey). Large numbers of sheep are there and my farmers will much welcome it. If those animals have a definite welfare problem, what price will be paid in compensation? Will it be the market price, as if they had foot and mouth, or not? Will my right hon. Friend ensure full veterinary attendance before a movement takes place? It appears that at Llanidloes abattoir something went wrong and sheep with foot and mouth ended up there and caused serious problems. Finally, my right hon. Friend mentioned that he was going to pursue with two dealers the question of what stock they had distributed around the country. Is he willing to name them?
The movements of animals that were at risk were unwitting. I am not allocating blame; I am explaining the problem and how the Government will deal with it. All current movements must be authorised by a vet. It strikes me as highly suspicious when 23 sheep showing symptoms of the disease turn up in one batch in one abattoir with a certificate from the farmer saying that they were disease free when they left.
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about movements from winter holdings. These are intractable problems. The order of dealing with them is to get movement, if we can; to manage them in their geographical location, if that can be done, which requires the co-operation of the dairy farmer; and, if that cannot be done, as an act of mercy the animals have to be killed.
Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister to get a grip on the other Departments that should be helping rather than hindering him? Yesterday the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport told people that all the beaches were open. The National Trust has closed everything, including the beaches in my constituency that have no agricultural land adjoining them. People arriving at those beaches will probably go off and get access to the beaches over agricultural land. It is no good the Home Office saying that there is no need to make any changes to election arrangements. We have town council, district council and county council elections happening now. We need action and advice.
It is very important that our response to the disease outbreak is proportionate and targeted at the real actions that can spread the disease. We are all on the same side in this. It is important that we talk to each other across Government, with local authorities and across parties to ensure that advice is clear and sensible. If there is no farmed livestock on a beach, it is perfectly reasonable for people to visit it and walk along it. I understand how, when the disease broke out, people wanted to do everything that they could to help, which meant acting on the precautionary principle. I am grateful for that, but we need to make sure that the actions that we are taking now, all of which are designed to be helpful, are targeted at the real problems associated with the spread of the disease.
Will my right hon. Friend explain the criteria that are being used to select rendering plants to deal with infected carcases? Will he give some assurance to my local farmers, who are very concerned that a local rendering plant in Cheddleton will be taking infected carcases? I am delighted that he will allow farmers to bury carcases, as they did during the 1967 outbreak, so long as the water table makes that permissible.
Burial is a route of disposal that is being considered, but it would have to be used under strictly controlled conditions. I can announce that we shall make use of burial in Cumbria, because we have found a possible site. There will certainly not be a blanket presumption that that route can be used in all places. Where it can be used and where it is appropriate, it will be used, but under controlled circumstances.
Nothing that is done with rendering plants will be done in such a way as to risk the spread of the disease. Our plan is to extinguish the disease, not perpetuate it. The considerations involved in selecting plants are wide ranging. We have to look at a number of aspects, but clearly the geographical location of the plant is one factor that we are bearing in mind.
Is the Minister totally satisfied that there is complete availability of disinfectant where it is required—at abattoirs, on farms and so on? Will he make it clear whether he now considers it necessary to have disinfectant used at exit and entry points from and into the United Kingdom as well as internally and domestically?
Very, very firm action has been taken by my Department to prevent the disease from leaving the United Kingdom now that we know that it is here. As for its being brought in, it is here already, and we are setting out to exterminate it. I have had the availability of disinfectant looked at closely. There is sufficient available. We have licensed for use new disinfectants that will serve our purpose in combating the disease. There were distribution problems, but I believe that the industry has overcome them.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for his solid principle of safety first, and urge him to continue to stick to it? May I ask him about the particular position of the small businesses of contractors who are excluded from farm premises and are of necessity losing all their livelihood? Will he ensure that the process of diagnosis, slaughter and disposal is made as speedy as possible, in the interests of all?
That is exactly what I am trying to do. We are working hard to overcome the logistical difficulties. As for the consequential effect on small businesses that would normally rely on working normally, by far the best step that I can take is to get the countryside back to completely normal working as soon as possible.
I should like to make a particular point about a slaughterhouse in my constituency that sends trailers to south Wales and Devon with sides of beef for Tesco, and naturally they have to return. There is a risk or fear of contamination. What steps are taken to ensure that the vehicles are properly disinfected?
If we are to have elections on 3 May, will the right hon. Gentleman suggest to the Home Secretary that an application for a postal vote be sent to all farmers on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food lists?
I am very keen to make sure that we stay together as one country and one community, that everybody is treated fairly, and that if they face difficulties, in as much as they can be helped, they should be helped. Yes, we inspect vehicles to make sure they are disinfected. That is an obligation on the industry. I cannot be certain that every vehicle is inspected, but we are in no doubt of the importance of making sure that vehicles are cleaned out properly and thoroughly disinfected.
I do not know the circumstances that led to the appalling incident in Llanidloes in which a farmer took 23 sheep with suspected foot and mouth to the abattoir. However, will my right hon. Friend tell me what information farmers are given about the disease by way of leaflets, videos or whatever? They might not have encountered the disease before but they must be as vigilant as can be; early detection will mean that we can soon stamp out the disease.
My hon. Friend is right to appeal for vigilance. He is also right to say that many younger farmers will not have seen foot and mouth disease previously. I have written to every farmer in the country to explain the symptoms and to set out where advice can be found. I hope that is of some practical value.
Setting aside the strong rumours that officials were inquiring as to the availability of railway sleepers suitable for funeral pyres three weeks before the first outbreak, will the Minister now answer the question that I tabled last week? I asked him when he was first advised of a potential risk to animal health from imports from Africa.
If there can be a red herring in an animal disease outbreak, that is it. This is nothing to do with imports from Africa, as far as anyone in the Ministry knows. The strain of virus, which has, of course, now been typed, is found in about 23 regions right around the world. Work is going on to find out, first, how it got into our country—I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it must have come from abroad, as it could not possibly have been incubating here for 30 years or whatever. Secondly, we want to know how the disease got to the point of first infectivity, which we believe to be the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. We are all too familiar with the rest of the story. Work is being done in the Ministry. When it is complete, I shall consult on it. I promise that the hon. Gentleman will be among those who are consulted.
The business about railway sleepers being purchased because we knew the disease was there three weeks before anything was said is another red herring.
When the Minister looks at the map of the outbreaks in Cumbria and then applies the policy of killing everything within 3 km of every outbreak or suspected outbreak, he will know that nothing much will be left in between. I and my constituents will, with deep regret, support that policy of complete extermination, provided it can be done quickly.
In Cumbria, the story is that farmers spot definite foot and mouth, there are delays in having it confirmed—understandably—and vets do not have the authority on the spot to begin the slaughter. Please can they be given that authority? We trust Ministry vets to know what they are doing—let them bring in the slaughter teams and kill the animals immediately so that the disease is not spread.
May we please have the powers to close all the roads around the area? I know that MAFF is considering that. We need those powers this afternoon—Cumbria county council is begging for them.
Finally, I know that I should not bounce the Minister at the Dispatch Box but in view of the severity of his announcement for my constituency, I should be very grateful if he could spare 15 minutes later today or at any time tonight to meet me.
The situation is extraordinarily serious in Cumbria—including in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency. I express my sorrow for what has happened to his constituents and also my solidarity with them. I give the right hon. Gentleman this commitment: if I visit Cumbria, as I am trying to do, to meet farmers' representatives—clearly, it will have to be their representatives—I shall do so on all-party basis, so I shall make sure that all the county's Members of Parliament have the opportunity to be present and to take part.
I am not advised that road closures are necessary for disease control reasons. On the question of veterinary authority, I am advised that in 80 per cent. of all the current cases, slaughter of the animals was carried out because of clinical examination by the vet, on the spot, there and then.
May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that when members of the public ask regional MAFF offices in north Wales for advice about the problem, they are referred to the offices of Members of Parliament? Surely that is not good enough. Will he ensure that people are given up-to-date advice? I realise that it is a fast-moving scene, but please can better advice be given to the offices and can they pass it on when necessary?
Finally, why was no Wales Office Minister formally invited to join the taskforce yesterday?
My understanding is that it is a United Kingdom taskforce and that the devolved authorities are represented on it. I met the Assembly's Minister for Rural Affairs yesterday to discuss the agricultural aspects of this matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we meet monthly to discuss the agenda for the Council of Ministers, but we also deal with other agriculture matters. Much of our time yesterday was taken up in discussing a co-ordinated approach on the foot and mouth outbreak. That is especially important because one of the centres of difficulty straddles the England-Wales border, while another straddles the England-Scotland border.
South Hams is mercifully free from foot and mouth all the area south of Dartmoor is also clear. Licences are the problem. Will the Minister ensure that licences for pig slaughter are speeded up for the local abattoir in the area that is free of foot and mouth—Henry Lang in Ashburton? It could be more fully used.
Secondly, will the Minister issue licences for farmers to move animals from one part of the constituency to another, where the distance is more than 6 km? Many farmers have animals stranded in various parts of my constituency that cannot be brought back to base.
I hope that the announcement I made today will deal with the second of the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, there is already some limited local movement—within a 5 km radius or for a 10 km road journey. Today's announcement is intended to help in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.
On the hon. Gentleman's first question, licensing is an issue for local authorities on the spot. However, I shall ensure that the constituency case he raises is drawn to the attention of the local supervising authorities.
The position of pigs is desperate and urgent. Welcome though the pig disposal scheme is, we cannot afford to wait a few days for its implementation. It really must happen immediately. Like the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), I have a farm in my constituency where there are 2,000 pigs. The farmer has no money at all; he has one day's feed left and by tomorrow night he will not know what to do. Can the Minister assure the House that the scheme will be implemented within 48 hours and that that farmer and others—simply as a result of a visit from a vet—can slaughter their animals in the knowledge that they will receive proper compensation?
The scheme about which the hon. Gentleman asks is voluntary; it is not one whereby we compulsorily purchase the animals. The scheme is voluntary, and application for it is a matter of commercial judgment for the farmer. I shall get it open as soon as I can. I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that officials are working on it now, both at MAFF and at the Intervention Board. To make use of the arrangements, a veterinary certificate is required to state that the welfare of animals is compromised or at risk of being compromised.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up a point that has been causing concern? He will recall that where a farmer is on a premium scheme and an animal is lost through force majeure, the farmer has to give notice to MAFF, and there is a great deal of attendant paperwork. When a farmer has had his animals slaughtered, would it be possible for MAFF to deem that due notice had been given, instead of the farmer having to sit down straight away and do the paperwork?
We are looking at how to protect the position of the premium scheme for farmers whose animals have been slaughtered. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the technical point that he raises, but I can state the principle: the Commission has allowed us to invoke the force majeure rules on the five principal livestock premium schemes. In principle, the case that he describes will receive the premium—unless there is some caveat that I do not know about. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the administration of the scheme.
As the Minister knows, the farming crisis also affects small businesses and tourism. Will the Government consider relief on rates, VAT and business rates? Councils would like to give business rate relief, but they do not have the money. Will he urge fellow Ministers to promote the marketing of tourism, both now and, especially, at the end of the crisis?
The taskforce led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is considering all those issues. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's final point—about the need to get things moving again once we come through the crisis. Clearly, there is a role for marketing and for tourist promotion.
There is no foot and mouth in my constituency, but there are several sheep farmers whose ewes are now lambing. The lambs are dying at night because the farmers cannot move the ewes back to the lambing sheds, as they cannot get a response from MAFF to get licences. Will the Minister assure us that he will put more resources into the handling of those licence applications?
As the Minister rightly wants to maintain the atmosphere of national unity, which has been prevalent in the House today, will he very gently talk to the Prime Minister and suggest that he heed the advice from the political leaders of parties in local government that it is not appropriate to hold the county council elections on 3 May?
The Minister is absolutely right to respond to the dire situation by announcing today an enhanced, more proactive slaughter policy, but may I ask him a question somewhat the converse of that asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean)? Will he assure the House that he has adequate legal cover for the extended slaughter programme as dangerous contact animals may be involved? In the interests of natural justice, will he tell the House what representations by farmers may be entertained in borderline cases? Clearly, farmers in such cases do not want to lose their stock, but, perhaps rightly, Ministry vets insist that the animals should be slaughtered.
That is a very difficult matter. I am satisfied that, on the basis of legal advice, I certainly have the powers to implement what I have announced to the House, because the overriding priority is, of course, the national interest and the Government's legal obligation to exterminate the disease. I am trying to deal as sympathetically as I can with the hard cases that inevitably occur in such circumstances, but I must tell everyone that the extermination of the disease has to be my first priority.
Does the Minister recognise that where ewes are trapped a long way from their holdings, they may be not on extensive farms but on small parcels of land? They may be on bare earth or stubble; and they may have been fed on turnip or beet tops, but now probably nothing more than big-bale straw. Many of those ewes and their lambs are dying, so the welfare problem is arising now. Will he ensure that the licence applications are attended to very quickly, that farmers to do not have to use a computer—80 per cent. of them in my constituency do not have one—and that transport arrangements are facilitated, because it is literally a matter of hours as to whether they can get their flocks back in time? If they cannot do so, the slaughter will be much more extensive than anyone would like, and rotting and bloated ewes and lambs in the field is the last thing that we want as it will create yet another major disposal problem.
Everything that the right hon. Gentleman says is true, and we shall do our best, where we can, to get the animals moved, but—he knows what the "but" is—that must be done consistently with the overriding importance of controlling the spread of the disease. With that very important caveat, I agree with all that he has said.
The chairman of my local NFU, Mr. Graham Clay, with whom I had a discussion this morning, is deeply concerned about the delays, which have been mentioned time and again today, especially as there is now foot and mouth in my constituency. Does the Minister accept that the delays represent one of the most critical features of the problem? They must be dealt with, and speed is of the essence in the slaughter and throughout the entire process. Does the Minister accept that there could be a problem with the importation of airline food, which is apparently now making its way commercially into the pigswill industry? Will he look into that matter because, apparently, it could be a source of further infection?
My understanding is that the food from airlines should not make its way into pigswill because there is a special regime for airline foodstuffs. However, if the hon. Gentleman wants to give me chapter and verse of the allegation, I will have it looked at very quickly indeed.
I am sorry that there is foot and mouth disease in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I hope that he will pass on my sorrow and regret to his constituent. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is important that we get on top of the problem as quickly as we can. That is why I have come to the House today to announce these measures, and I know that I have the support of the House in seeing them through.
What does the Minister say to my constituents, Ian and Katrin Thompson of Crust Cottage, Snargate in Romney Marsh, whose applications for a licence to move their lambing ewes were twice lost by his Department? Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, who were already at their wits' end, had to fill in the same forms for the same animals on three different occasions. As Mrs. Thompson says in her letter, a copy of which I forwarded to the Minister yesterday,
the consequences of foot and mouth are dire, but necessary; the consequences of bureaucratic bungling are not much less, but are so very unnecessary. Why, why, why?
I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is describing licensing arrangements for which the local authority is responsible, or those for which the Ministry is responsible, but, whichever it is, I shall have the constituency case drawn to the attention of the appropriate officials and get an explanation. I cannot give him an explanation today because I am not familiar with the individual case.
The Minister will be aware of the concerns raised by veterinary surgeons in Hampshire about the inadequacy of disinfection procedures and, especially, the guidance for using them. In particular, the manufacturers of the disinfectant, Virkon, which is approved by MAFF, recommend a dilution ratio of 1:100, yet apparently MAFF's guidelines recommend a ratio of 1:1,300—a difference of thirteen times. Clearly, there is a huge problem, so will the Minister give some clear guidance to farmers and vets on what to do?
In all this, I am acting on professional advice. I will have the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises looked at by the veterinary authorities. If there is an anomaly, I will ensure that it is corrected, but, in any event. I will write to him with the answer to the points he makes.
Following the very distressing news that, since 11 am yesterday, there is an outbreak in Cheshire, two miles from my family home in the southern part of my constituency. I have received numerous representations from farmers and all those involved in the rural community. Of course that raises the spectre and the deep fears of the 1967 outbreak, which affected the Cheshire plains so devastatingly. My constituents are desperate to know that the vets will be given the autonomy and authority to carry pistols and to shoot animals on clinical suspicion, as proved to be successful in 1967. They want to be able to bury the animals immediately, where clay lining can be found for the pits. Often clay occurs naturally near the farmhouses in the area. There are many mounds of buried animals from 1967 behind the farm houses, but no farmer in Cheshire has ever caught anything as a result of that successful interment in 1967.
Furthermore, there are many rumours and reports of vented lorries and of tarpaulins flying off the so-called sealed wagons that travel to the Widnes rendering plant along the main arterial routes in my constituency, so many farms are obviously within the airborne spread risk areas. Although I do not have the evidence and, therefore, cannot raise the matter with the Minister directly, which is how he responded previously, there are serious concerns. So, if he could urge the police to man those routes to ensure that that risk is stopped, my constituents would be given more reassurance.
If a state of emergency is necessary, may I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to be shy in discussing it with the Prime Minister so that the necessary powers can be taken if needed. I recognise that that would be dire in terms of the political firmament, but if it is necessary to help control the spread of the disease, I urge him to consider it carefully.
I have all the powers necessary to control the disease, and the Government will do whatever is necessary to bear down on it. That is what I am doing. I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will be anxious about road movement and, therefore, the possibility of airborne disease from the lorries. The chances of that are as close to zero as anything can be.
Hon. Members should remember that the incubation period of the disease is a fortnight on average. Of course the disease is a biological phenomenon, so there may be some movement in the profile, but it cannot possibly be windborne from the lorries; it is far more likely to come from Welshpool market. The vets have the authority to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests. That is precisely the route that has been taken with 80 per cent. of all the animals killed so far. We do not wait for laboratory tests; the vets can issue the instruction on clinical diagnoses—in other words, on first sight.
At the outset of the crisis, the Minister expressed his concern that even the time required for him to participate in debates in the House might damage his ability and that of his fellow Ministers and officials to look after the crisis as best they could. Given that that was his view then, can he put his hand on his heart and say to the House that his ability and that of other Ministers and officials would not be damaged much more severely if we were to proceed with a general election while such a crisis is raging? Or does he agree with me that any Government who went ahead with a general election under these circumstances, when they have a year of their time left to run, would fulfil the worst fears of the electorate—that the convenience of politicians comes before the interests of their constituents?
Let me say this to the farming community: while I am the Minister, I will work night and day to get the disease extinguished. That is my responsibility and public duty, and I shall fulfil it to the very best of my ability. The use of my time in the early days of the outbreak, when a response had to be devised and veterinary officials relied upon my support in government, was extremely important. That was the only point I was making. I do not begrudge coming to the House or begrudge the dialogue between us here. The testing of the Government's policies in a constructive atmosphere is the right way for a parliamentary democracy to work.
Cheshire was devastated in 1967 by foot and mouth. We now have one outbreak on the Shropshire border, but the rest of the county is still clean and we want to keep it that way. May I register again my strongest objections and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) on behalf of farmers in the east of the county about the movement of dead stock to the processing plant at Widnes? Those farmers are not convinced that the decontamination of vehicles is foolproof. I hope that the Minister will understand their concerns.
May I also express the view that rapid reaction is essential, which is probably why we went a little wrong at the beginning? I welcome the fact that vets can now shoot animals as soon as they diagnose the clinical signs of the disease and that there will be on-farm burial when that is appropriate.
There is nothing new in the veterinary authorities' ability to order livestock for destruction once they have examined them and identified there and then the clinical signs of the disease. The word of the vet is enough; we do not have to wait for the test results to come through if a vet identifies the clinical signs. I repeat that in 80 per cent. of the cases in which animals have been destroyed that is what has happened.
On the question of vehicles, the hon. Lady's constituents have my wholehearted sympathy. I am not going to take any risks with the spread of the disease. Indeed, right from the beginning, we have clamped down on movements. The risk comes not from the movement of dead animals in lorries, but from the movement of live animals from infected to uninfected herds. The incubation period for the disease is a fortnight, so the events that caused the infectivity on the Shropshire border must have taken place some time ago. We have caught it; we have isolated it; and I want to do what I can to work with the hon. Lady to keep her constituents' land and that of their friends and neighbours disease free.
It was a clear recommendation of the 1968 report on the 1967 outbreak that burial was preferable to burning as a means of disposing of carcases. In Cheshire, north Shropshire and the Maelor, 25 JCBs are working full time. The Minister has said that he will use the Army for logistical support, but will he consider using its machinery and personnel immediately to implement a burial policy?
All the points that the hon. Gentleman perfectly properly raises are under consideration. We have been using contractors to carry out the destruction work so far, and we have used burning. There are a range of reasons why, in the circumstances that we have faced so far, we have not adopted a burial strategy, but it is an option that we could use. If we require the support of the armed forces to help with the physical work as well as the logistical work with which they are already helping, that option will be available to me. I will have no hesitation in using it if I am told it is necessary, and nor will the Ministry of Defence have any hesitation in providing its support.
I am considering that option. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) suggested it for the pig sector, but it is clearly an issue for the sheep sector, too. It is not the preferred route that is being recommended to me by officials, but I am keeping everything carefully under review, including the impact on markets.
This may be the last in the long succession of questions that the Minister has answered, and I think that he has dealt with the House in a very sympathetic manner. He will have heard my question to the Leader of the House, and I hope that he will be able to deal with that matter.
Another issue relates to my constituent, Mr. Tom Fudge, of Neighbrook farm, Aston Magna near Moretonin-Marsh, who sent a load of sheep to be slaughtered this week. They made only 20p per kilogram compared to a price of 34p per kilogram before the foot and mouth outbreak. It appears that some abattoirs and supermarkets may be engaged in some form of price cutting to farmers, which is totally wrong when the price of meat in the shops is higher than it was before the outbreak. Will the Minister make representations to the slaughter industry and the supermarkets that they should give British farmers a fair price during the outbreak? Will he also guarantee that the compensation to British farmers will be based on the pre-outbreak price? If they were paid at the price of 20p per kilogram, that would be exploitation by the Ministry.
The hon. Gentleman's point about the rates that the Government pay when we purchase animals for destruction is a fair one. I will write to him setting out the average prices that are being paid. As he knows, each case can be contested and there is an arbitration procedure. I have urged the big retailers and others in the trade to behave responsibly and fairly throughout the supply chain. I have received a sympathetic and supportive response.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are particular problems in the sheep sector, because many lambs are bred for the continental market and do not meet the specifications of the main part of the United Kingdom market. They are not therefore a displacing product on the market and are not specifically bred for the main demand in the UK. Prices are depressed for market specification reasons and because supply is in excess of demand.