I beg to move,
That this House expresses its deep concern about the increasing extent of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, its appreciation of the work the vets and others involved in efforts to contain the disease and reduce its effects and its sympathy for farmers and those involved in other businesses in rural areas whose livelihoods are under such severe threat: supports the Government's objective of containing the outbreak and the measures it has announced so far; but regrets that the Government has not acted more swiftly and effectively in tackling the crisis; and urges the Government to take immediate and practical steps to help the worst affected areas of the country, including the adoption of a strengthened slaughter policy, an increased role for the army in disposing of carcases, the deployment of more veterinary resources and a business rate exemption for affected businesses.
You may be anticipating events, Mr. Speaker, in asking the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) to move an Opposition debate.
Britain's livestock industry is in peril. The rural economy is haemorrhaging. There is visible evidence day by day that the gathering crisis is growing. As of last night, more than 100,000 animals were awaiting slaughter and more than 80,000 carcases were rotting in the open air. In the six days since the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last came to the House to make a statement, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease has risen by more than two thirds, to 411, and the number of animals condemned for destruction has almost doubled to 350,000.
The crisis is spiralling out of control. The Prime Minister's bland words a few moments ago could have been spoken only by a man ignorant of what is happening in his own country, is contemptuous of those communities whose prosperity his policies have done so much to damage and is still refusing to devote the resources that the crisis requires for its resolution. [Interruption.]
Contrary to the politicking of which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food accuses me from his sedentary position, let me make it clear that the Opposition will continue to give the Government full backing for measures that are necessary and effective if we are to get the disease under control. Even when they are unpopular, as with the large-scale cull proposed last week, we shall not shrink from giving our support if it is right to do so.
I pay tribute again to vets and others in the front line for their efforts to contain the disease. I offer my personal sympathy, too, to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his departmental colleagues. They are carrying a heavy burden on behalf not just of Government, but of the nation. They are clearly working under enormous pressure.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the divisional veterinary officer in Staffordshire faces a difficult situation? A constituent of mine, Christopher Jackson of Bagots Pigs, finds himself in breach of welfare regulations because his pigs have given birth to piglets, causing overcrowding, yet he has been told that he can neither slaughter nor move the pigs, and the divisional veterinary officer has said that he has had absolutely no guidance from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and. Food.
My hon. Friend raises an important point; the farmer whose position he describes so succinctly is by no means alone in facing such difficulties. The Minister will have paid careful attention to my hon. Friend's point and I hope that, in the course of the next 24 hours, someone in the Minister's office will be able to get a message to my hon. Friend's constituent to deal with that impossible situation.
Above all, our hearts must go out to farmers: working with livestock is not just a job—it is a way of life. The men, women and children who see the animals that they have reared prematurely destroyed are losing not only their livelihood but part of their family. I hope that the thoughts of every hon. Member are with them at this time of profound distress.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), one of my constituents is in a similar predicament. He has 2,500 sheep in Staffordshire; he wants to bring them back to Worcestershire but he cannot move them because of a D notice on the Worcestershire farm. Sadly, we have foot and mouth in Worcestershire. He, too, has an incredible animal welfare problem: his sheep are trying to graze in muddy fields where there is no grass and the ewes are lambing. In normal circumstances, he would be prosecuted on animal welfare grounds. Will my hon. Friend put to the Minister the case for such animals to be culled under the programme?
My hon. Friend is right. She describes a problem that faces a large number of farmers. We have raised it with the Minister, and I know that he is very conscious of it. The solution is not easy. We do not want to weaken the measures that have been taken to try to curb the disease, but it is those measures that prevent many farmers from moving lambing ewes to the places where they want them to be. As a result, there are serious animal welfare consequences. I know that the Minister will have taken note of that point; I intend to return to it later and to suggest a way forward.
We are also concerned about the effect of the crisis on other industries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition proposed a new scheme to give businesses in rural areas financial help in the form of a loan of up to £10,000, repayable, when they return to profitability, by a surcharge on future tax bills.
In the past half-hour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) has returned from the British travel trade fair in Birmingham, where he met people from throughout the country who are charged with the difficult task of supporting the tourism industry. People are becoming frustrated and angry at the lack of positive action. They have received plenty of sympathy and warm words, but they want clarity and financial help to deal with a cash-flow problem that becomes more acute day by day.
On financial packages, will my hon. Friend focus on national insurance contributions? Perhaps such contributions could be deferred in order to keep people in employment. Will he seek an assurance from the Government that no interest will be payable on deferred tax and VAT?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes two important points. Like many Conservative Members, he was disappointed by the lack of tangible measures to help from the Minister for the Environment, who spoke yesterday after the second meeting of the taskforce. My right hon. and learned Friend has proposed an extremely practical way to help—relief from national insurance contributions—that, no doubt, could be introduced quickly.
My hon. Friend will be aware that compensation for farmers whose livestock had to be killed as a result of foot and mouth is paid at today's market price and that that is well down on recent prices, which themselves were low enough. Will my hon. Friend press the Government to ensure that compensation for destroyed herds and flocks is paid at a reasonable rate and not at today's market price?
The Minister will have heard that point. He was shaking his head as my hon. and learned Friend spoke—I believe that compensation is now being paid at pre-crisis levels. However, the point is important and the fact that my hon. and learned Friend felt it necessary to raise it shows that the message about the basis on which compensation is paid has not yet been effectively communicated to all the farmers in his constituency and in many other constituencies.
The Minister has very clearly stated that no consequential loss payments will be made. Will my hon. Friend seek assistance from the Ministry to help those farmers who have received no income for the past five weeks and are facing severe hardship because their farms are covered by a form D, or are in an exclusion zone?
My hon. Friend describes a problem faced by a large number of farmers. We have made it clear that, given the severity of the problem on this occasion, we believe that it would be right to give help for consequential losses to a number of carefully defined farmers. Without such help, many farmers will find that survival is a matter of weeks, possibly even days, and unless the principle of providing help for consequential losses is accepted, a chilling message will be sent to them, because there is no other prospect of their receiving any kind of relief.
If the principle of help for consequential losses were accepted, where would the hon. Gentleman draw the line? My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food invited the hon. Gentleman to write to him a few weeks ago, so will he inform the House where the line would be drawn?
We have already suggested a number of categories, one of which includes farmers whose cattle pass the age of 30 months, at which point the value of the cattle suffers an unrecoverable decrease. Movement restrictions can prevent farmers from realising the market value before cattle reach the age of 30 months. They are the sort of people to whom compensation should be paid for their consequential losses.
I certainly understand what my hon. Friend says, and there is no doubt that compensation and consequential loss are greatly exercising the minds of all those involved in this tragic crisis, but much greater than that is the spirit of fear that is engulfing agricultural communities, whether or not their areas are affected by foot and mouth disease. I have today been contacted by Jonathan Barber, eastern region secretary of the National Sheep Association. He has two main areas of concern: first, the speed at which the virus is spreading is, in his view, completely out of control and, secondly, there are not enough people to deal with the problem. That is the fear engaging the minds of people in East Anglia and all over the country, even in those areas fortunate enough, at the moment, not to be affected directly by foot and mouth.
My right hon. Friend speaks with great experience of the industry. The same fear exists in my constituency, as the disease appears to be spreading, despite comments from the Prime Minister. A case was confirmed in a constituency neighbouring mine, just the other side of the county boundary in north Essex, so the disease is getting closer to Suffolk and Norfolk. A real feeling of fear exists in farming communities there, and it is increased by what appears to be the lack of urgency in the measures being taken in some parts of the country to get on top of the problem.
We have backed the main steps that the Government have taken to date. We want to continue a bipartisan approach, so far as we can, to what is clearly a major national crisis, but it is our duty, as the Opposition, to speak out when we believe things are going wrong and the Government's response is inadequate. Since we last debated foot and mouth, there have been worrying signs of dither and confusion inside the Government. To claim, as the Minister regularly does, that the situation is under control may please the Prime Minister, as he ponders his election timetable, but it is in stark contrast to the facts on the ground.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, even now, we are getting mixed messages from the Government and different Departments? I have just received by fax a copy of a leaflet that Derbyshire county council is issuing in the Peak district, which receives more than 20 million visitors a year. It urges:
Help us to protect our countryside-don't visit unless you have to.
How does that compare with what was said yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, who told people to visit the countryside?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I was going to come to it shortly. Conflicting messages are now coming out of different branches of government. Indeed, I sympathise particularly with the position of county councils, which simply do not know what instructions they should give people who want to visit their areas.
The Conservative party has had five weeks to propose the swifter and more effective policies described in the Opposition motion. I scoured the records this morning and could find no trace of any such policies from the Conservative party. Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has introduced the policies, including the pre-emptive slaughter policy, to deal with the crisis? Are not the Opposition jumping on the back of a national crisis to make political capital? [Interruption.]
Order. I appeal to hon. Members not to shout. The farmers and the families about whom we are worried might misunderstand hon. Members if they shout across the Chamber.
The intervention of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) does him little credit. He has in the past taken part in some of these debates in a rather better informed and constructive manner. Had he attended any one of the five previous occasions on which the subject was discussed in the House, he would have heard me and my hon. Friends suggest specific and constructive measures, and I shall do so again today. Now that he has forced me to do it, I shall remind the House of how many days ago we said that certain things should be done.
Let me go back to Sunday 11 March, a pivotal day in the crisis. The Minister said on television that the situation was under control but, on the same day, I called for the Army to be brought in to tackle the backlog of unburied carcases and unslaughtered animals. In the 10 days since, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease has trebled; the number of unburied carcases is rising by 16,000 a day; and, in the last six days, the number of animals awaiting slaughter has risen by two thirds to well over 100,000.
If the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh had been paying attention, he would have seen that the policy that we were recommending would have addressed the situation. Indeed, instead of making complacent and unfounded claims, the Minister would have served farmers and the whole country better if he had acted on the constructive suggestions that I made on 11 March, which were repeated on a wider front two days later by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
It is now 10 days since we called for the Army to be given a hands-on role in carcase disposal; it is seven days since we called for vets to be given discretion to order and carry out slaughter on suspicion; and it is five days since we called for on-farm burial to take place wherever it is environmentally safe to do so. Not one of those common-sense steps has been taken. As a direct result, the crisis today is far worse than it need have been. Farming today is in dire peril and it deserves a far more urgent response from Ministers than it is now receiving.
Let me call once again for the Government to announce this afternoon that, first, the Army will be deployed more comprehensively than at present. It is no disrespect to the service men and women who were sent yesterday to Devon to point out that it is a ludicrously feeble use of a major national resource. The Government must make the full engineering and logistic assets of the Army available at once. With the number of unburied carcases mounting at the rate of 16,000 a day, it is grossly irresponsible not to allow the Army to engage directly in a task that is plainly beyond the capacity of those now addressing it.
Secondly, vets must be given authority to order the immediate slaughter of animals when there is clinical evidence to justify it and to ensure that the slaughter is carried out at once. That policy was successfully pursued in 1967, and the delays that are occurring are extremely dangerous. There is growing evidence that the disease is spreading from farm to farm, and leaving 100,000 animals wandering around in the open air while they await slaughter is simply folly.
My understanding is that a vet has only to make a telephone call to obtain permission to go ahead with slaughter on clinical grounds. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that not even that call is necessary when we know that many vets in the field are fresh to this problem?
We are receiving reports from all over the country of several days' delay from when vets want to carry out the slaughter to when it takes place. If the hon. Gentleman listens to what is happening outside the House instead of reading out Labour party press releases, he might be better informed before he intervenes.
My hon. Friend is probably not aware that, in the Select Committee on Agriculture this morning, the chief veterinary officer acknowledged that there were problems in getting animals slaughtered quickly enough. He recommended that, instead of using pistols as in 1967, vets use two drugs, Expirol or Euthatal, and he said that he would look into it.
I am glad to hear that the Government are belatedly considering assisting vets to carry out an extremely urgent task. I hope that no more time will be lost before the problem is addressed. Whatever the message from central Government, we know that delays are occurring and we run the risk of inspection spreading still further.
I am glad that my hon. Friend makes that point. I was in Worcestershire yesterday talking to a friend of mine whose pedigree longhorn herd was put down on Monday. There has been no cattle or livestock movement on or off that farm for three months. It is clear that the disease spread from another farm where the animals were not slaughtered sufficiently quickly.
Although there is ground for criticism, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in Cumbria, the time between clinical diagnosis and slaughter has been reduced to between 24 and 36 hours in most cases?
The fact remains that even on the Ministry's figures, the number of animals awaiting slaughter is growing rapidly. It is 108,000 today and was about 60,000 a week ago. The problem is getting out of control. The Government are behind the game.
My hon. Friend will know that Mr. Huntbach, who suffered the second outbreak in Cheshire, which was seriously devastated in 1967. attempted last Friday night to call the Ministry, as did the local vet. There was no answer and no answering machine, so the telephones are not being manned 24 hours. Having failed to contact the Stafford office, he tried Worcester, which told him to call Stafford again. Eventually, he was given a fax number, but it took 24 hours before contact was made. That is where the delay is occurring. The offices need to be fully staffed now.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I should make it clear that the Opposition's quarrel is not with Ministry officials at the sharp end, who are working under enormous pressure and are clearly overstretched, but with Ministers and Labour Members, who claim that the situation is under control when plainly it is not. They say that delays are not occurring when they obviously are. It is not the fault of officials that they are not available to answer the telephone 24 hours a day; it is obviously beyond their capacity to do so.
The Minister must know about the countless delays. The Government's claims are absurd. Farmers and hon. Friends call me six or seven times an hour every day with examples similar to the case outlined by my hon. Friend. If I am getting those calls, the Minister's office must be receiving ten times as many. It is not helpful to make claims that are plainly unfounded.
On a related matter, the disease was diagnosed at Higham Lane in my constituency on Sunday. Some heifers with blisters were shot on Monday, but 250 cows were still alive yesterday. The Atherstone hunt kennels are across the road. The hunt's servants are qualified as slaughtermen and could be deployed to kill the animals. Does my hon. Friend agree that political correctness is preventing those people from being used to assist in the crisis?
I shall address the problem of resources to carry out the slaughter in a moment. My hon. Friend makes an important point.
The third policy is the need for the immediate introduction of on-farm burial, which was used widely in 1967. On Monday, the chief veterinary officer described burial as the ideal option. The Environment Agency should already have indicated where the water table makes burial unsafe for human health reasons. Piles of rotting carcases are themselves a serious environmental and health hazard, and I find it hard to believe that there are no areas where on-farm burial can safely be used.
There are a number of differences between the 1967 outbreak and the present one However, it is over four weeks since we first learned of the problem, and the Environment Agency should by now be able to advise on those parts of the country where on-farm burial would be a safe alternative to other disposal methods, and I am disappointed that it is still not being used to a significant extent.
Does my hon. Friend accept that most farmers know exactly where on their land they could bury animals, whether or not there is a high water table? Will he acknowledge that in 1967, when the problem was tackled within 24 hours at most, stock was buried on farms and there was no adverse reaction whatever from that process?
The fact that no damage appears to have been done by the widespread use of on-farm burial is important. As my hon. Friend says, farmers will usually know what parts of their land are suitable. They should be able to establish, perhaps just by a phone call to the regional office of the Environment Agency, whether approval can be given straight away. Regional offices will also have information about the location of aquifers and so on, so there should be no difficulty getting an immediate answer. It is hard to understand why that quick, simple disposal method is not being more widely used.
Will my hon. Friend press the Minister for an immediate decision, and not just a general assurance that he will look into the matter? Certainly in Worcestershire, with the rendering situation as it is, thousands of can ases will be lying around not for days but for weeks. This matter needs immediate attention.
My hon. Friend is right. It is clear from the figures that I have quoted that, far from being kept under control, the problem is getting worse day by day. As I said, between Monday and Tuesday, the number of unburied carcases rose by 16,000. If that is to continue for any length of time, it is an alarming prospect.
The country cannot understand why the simple, common-sense measures that we are calling for are not being implemented immediately. On wider policy issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) mentioned, the Government must stop sending out conflicting messages. Even within the Ministry last Thursday there was confusion about whether the proposed new large-scale cull in Cumbria included cattle. That caused alarm in the region, and the position was later clarified, but it underlines the need for an accurate presentation of any new Government measures.
Now we are told that the cull, which last week was said to be a necessary tactic to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease, may be postponed. On what basis was the original decision taken? What has happened to make the policy less urgent? Some of the questions that I faxed to the Minister's office last night are relevant. In particular, what is the scientific advice for selecting a 3 km radius for the clean-ring strategy, and for excluding cattle from the clean-ring strategy cull?
Confusion has also emerged because of contradictory statements about the countryside. The Minister has, quite properly, issued warnings about not visiting livestock areas. He has been consistent in that and we support him, although it is becoming harder now to judge which farmland is a livestock area because clearly a lot of it does not have livestock. We should err on the side of caution. However, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which seem to be unrepresented here. are telling a very different story. Indeed, it might have been helpful if Ministers who are supposed to be responsible for the taskforce had taken the trouble to attend the debate. Given the lack of understanding shown by the taskforce of the scale and urgency of the problem, they might have benefited from being here because they would have learned a bit more about the problem.
Everybody has noted what my hon. Friend has just said. Given the importance of the national crisis, the urgent need for steps to tackle it and the constructive measures suggested by my hon. Friend, can he explain why, of more than 300 Labour Back Benchers, fewer that two dozen are present?
I am afraid that I cannot shed any light on that but, as my hon. Friend knows, it is part of a pattern. When the crisis in the countryside is debated, the Government Benches tend to be thinly populated.
Last week, the Minister for the Environment spoke about what he called "safe" areas. Can the Minister of Agriculture enlighten us about how a safe area can be identified, given that the lengthy incubation period means that even areas that do not have the disease may be about to suffer an outbreak? Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment told us that the countryside was open for business. That statement has confused the public because it suggests that there are differences of view inside the Government. It creates the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire described in relation to Derbyshire county council, which must decide whether to reopen rights of way and footpaths.
The right approach is to say that getting foot and mouth disease under control is the overriding aim. Nothing should be done that might jeopardise progress towards that goal. Even non-farming businesses that are suffering, such as tourism, will benefit most if foot and mouth is contained and exterminated. That is the only permanent solution to the problem. Timely action along the lines that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and I have been suggesting for some time will help to achieve that solution, curb the spread of foot and mouth disease and rebuild confidence in the countryside. Further delay by the Government will raise fears that they are still not ready to respond on the necessary scale.
The subject of timely action brings me to a further point. The Minister will be aware that, for some days, rumours have been circulating that his Ministry was making specific preparations to deal with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease some weeks before the first case was confirmed. I have no means of knowing whether those rumours are true. If they are, the implications are very profound indeed.
Will the Minister make clear to the House at the earliest opportunity—this afternoon, I hope—exactly when the Ministry was notified of any suspected cases of foot and mouth disease? Will he also explain the basis on which the Ministry makes contingency plans to deal with foot and mouth? Are those plans regularly updated? If so, in what way? Is there an explanation for the fact that someone who has been approached to supply timber sleepers in case incineration is required has told broadcasters that she had not been contacted by the Ministry since the 1967 outbreak? If the contingency plans involve regular contact in the normal course of events, I hope that the Minister can explain why that person has suddenly reappeared on the list in that rather unusual way.
My hon. Friend suggests another important line of inquiry, which reminds me to ask the Minister whether any officials in the British Government had contact with officials in other Governments and European Union institutions prior to the confirmation of the outbreak in Britain on 19 February. As I said, there are persistent rumours relating to several different aspects of the outbreak. At the very least, there were suspicions in the Ministry about the possibility of an outbreak occurring. Even if the Minister was unaware of such suspicions, I am sure that he will want to make inquiries among his officials to find out at what level and in which offices they might have arisen.
Let me return to the resources that are available for curbing the spread of the disease. I understand that there is now a shortage of vets. Is the Minister satisfied that the private sector is being used as much as necessary? I hope that resource constraints are not preventing more use of vets from private practice. Are retired vets being returned to the state veterinary service, or are there obstacles to prevent that from happening? Some retired vets may have invaluable inexperience of foot and mouth.
Will my hon. Friend also seek to discover whether any positive attempt has been made to recruit members of the veterinary profession? I understand that it is relatively easy to pick up additional veterinary resources from abroad, but it has been reported to me that, for whatever reason, a lack of attention has been paid to options such as approaching private veterinary practitioners in this country to see whether they have spare vets who could help to deal with the outbreak.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He has a great deal of experience in the industry and, like others, he shares my concern that there may be a repository of expertise that is still not being fully utilised. Earlier in the week, we heard from the chief vet that he was concerned about the shortage of vets and about overstretch among those who work in the state veterinary service.
Where slaughter is delayed, is full use being made of the slaughtermen attached to hunts? That issue has already been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). I understand that the Countryside Alliance is ready to make additional slaughtermen available at very short notice. I hope, therefore, that whatever the reasons for the mounting numbers of unslaughtered animals, the figures are not increasing because of any reluctance on the part of officials. Such officials will not necessarily be in London; they could be in the regions. Will the Minister confirm that appropriate instructions have been given to regional offices to ensure that they take advantage of that resource? Furthermore, can slaughtermen employed in abattoirs that are currently closed because of the outbreak also be deployed?
Now that we are four weeks into the outbreak, clear regional differences are emerging. Of course, the overriding aim is to contain the disease and to prevent it from spreading, and no risks must be run that would jeopardise progress towards that goal. The Minister has previously acknowledged the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) with regard to ewes in the lambing season. These problems are now acute in a number of areas. I recognise the difficulty of trying to alleviate them without running unacceptable risks such as those that I have mentioned. However, is it possible on a short-term basis to authorise vets in private practice to license limited movements of sheep over short distances? Could vets issue such authorisation when they, in conjunction with farmers and any other local people who are directly concerned, are satisfied that it is safe to do so?
I should like to mention two further questions that I faxed to the Minister last night. Why are only sheep traced from markets to be destroyed, and not pigs or cattle on the farm where the sheep are now located? What is the scientific advice concerning infectivity of dead animals, not least with regard to attacks by foxes or other vermin, and how does that relate to the ban on meat imports from foot and mouth countries?
I should like to speak about many other detailed matters, but I know that many hon. Members want to raise important constituency matters and I must leave time for them to do so. This is a crisis that is getting worse, not better, and which needs to be at the top not only of the Minister's agenda, but of that of the Prime Minister. More than one industry is now suffering serious damage and time is of the essence in the response. The Opposition are ready to back any emergency measures that are needed to tackle the problem. The Government should now act with greater urgency and on a bigger scale than hitherto. I commend our motion to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
expresses grave concern about the very serious effect of the current foot and mouth outbreak on farmers, the livestock industry and the wider rural economy; supports the firm and rapid action taken by the Government to control the spread of the disease, identify outbreaks and slaughter and dispose of animals that are infected or `at risk'; pays tribute to all those who are continuing to work around the clock to combat this devastating disease; endorses the Government's policy of intensifying disease control measures in areas of high infectivity and working towards modifying controls in areas that have remained free of the disease; expresses deepest sympathy to those farmers whose herds and flocks have been slaughtered in order to control the disease; and welcomes the Government's provision of financial support to farmers including
£156 million in extra agrimonetary compensation and a preliminary package of measures to assist the wider rural economy including temporary business rate relief for affected businesses.
Hon. Members will notice that the amendment is not very different from the motion. I hope that we can continue to deal with matters in a relatively bipartisan manner.
I wish to take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the latest position on the foot and mouth disease outbreak, and then set out the Government's response to the matters that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) perfectly properly raised.
At 1 pm today, there were 410 confirmed cases in Great Britain and one case in Northern Ireland. Out of a total United Kingdom cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million, 390,000 animals have been authorised for slaughter, and 262,000 have already been slaughtered.
There are two confirmed cases in cattle on farms in east Holland, and two suspected cases. The link appears to be a slaughterhouse in Holland where sheep imported from France were slaughtered. A European Commission decision to block exports is expected later today.
The Dutch Government have declared an intention to use ring vaccination. The Commission is applying strict conditions, including the early slaughter of vaccinated animals. An emergency meeting of the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee will take place on Friday.
Out of 160,000 livestock farms in the UK, 1,937 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 1,077 of those farms, leaving 860 still restricted.
Outside the worst affected areas, there are restrictions on movement. One of my constituents, who has a sheep farm, wanted to move his sheep for lambing. He was told that he could not. He wanted to move them so that they could have some grass because they were running out of food and needed attention. In 48 hours, he got four different versions of what he could do in the ensuing week. Will Ministers look into that urgently, and provide strong, clear and consistent guidance so that farmers who are worried to death know what they can do within the rules?
As other Conservative Members can tell the right hon. Gentleman, those matters have been much discussed in the House over the past few weeks. The whole of Great Britain is a controlled zone. There are no unauthorised, unlicensed movements of livestock—at least, there are not supposed to be. A range of schemes has been designed to help the trade and animal welfare. I will say more about that later.
Following on from the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), on Thursday, the Minister announced a voluntary welfare disposal scheme, which, we believed, would affect sheep and pigs. On that day, I asked the Minister when it would start, and whether it could begin within 48 hours because people were desperate. Nearly a week later, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office in Leicester has received no communication from MAFF to explain the way in which the scheme will work. Mr. Stevens in my constituency is absolutely desperate. Will the Minister apply his ministerial toecap to the posterior of his officials to ensure that they communicate with people on the ground? Mr. Stevens can then get on with slaughtering his fattened sheep within 24 or 48 hours.
As the person who devised the scheme over the long, hot summer last year for the classical swine fever outbreak, I am as keen on it as anyone.
It all sounds so easy, but there are special problems in the sheep sector. A small part of the market—approximately 37 per cent. —is working normally, but the market price for the product that people want to move has collapsed. There is a question about the rate one would pay under the welfare scheme for animals that are coming into it without disrupting the part of the market that is working normally. The Intervention Board is considering that with the industry.
The hon. Gentleman may shout, "Delay, delay, delay", but people will not willingly offer their animals for a scheme without knowing what they will be paid. Frankly, I do not blame them. If hon. Members will allow me, perhaps I can make some progress.
I always give way to hon. Members, and I shall, but I wish to make some progress first.
The development of the disease in the United Kingdom continues to reflect the pattern that we identified from the start. The continuing rise in outbreaks largely reflects the spread of infection before the first outbreak was confirmed. The spread mostly occurred in sheep, which do not always show clear symptoms. As a result, further waves of outbreaks have occurred because of local spread.
We still cannot know how many outbreaks there will be. However, leading epidemiologists are working on predictions which I will, of course, share with the House. We expect the rising trend to continue and new cases to occur for a considerable time. As I have said before, this is a devastating disease for farming and for the rural communities affected by it. I have on a number of occasions expressed my sympathy to all those suffering at a time of uncertainty and distress. I do so again today, and I know that that is an expression that unites the whole House.
The Minister will know that two of my constituents spoke on the radio today on the timing of the notification of the outbreak. One of the people, Mr. Mike Littlehales, said that he had been called up by a lady in MAFF who wished know how it could update its records in case of a further outbreak of foot and mouth. Mrs. Fran Talbot had a similar point to make.
If we do not know exactly when the outbreak began—it having started and first been notified in Essex, but having apparently originated in Northumberland—and if it turns out that there was notification at an earlier stage, that would be very serious. Will the Minister be good enough to ensure that we have full published transcripts and details of the operational plans, so that the suspicion that the outbreak started at an earlier stage will now be made clear?
The first case of foot and mouth disease in this country of which I was aware was that in the Essex abattoir, and the case on the farm adjacent to it. I was notified on the Tuesday night during our week's recess that there was a suspected case. I understand that my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman had also been notified. The following morning—the Wednesday morning—that case was confirmed to me. On the Thursday night of that same week, I was told that there was a suspected case in Northumberland, at Heddon-on-the-Wall. That case was confirmed on that Friday. I telephoned the Prime Minister, who was in the United States of America, and later on that Friday we imposed complete and absolute movement restrictions by declaring the whole of Great Britain a controlled area by 5 o'clock that same day. That is the sequence of events. Officials in my Department, and Ministers, were not aware that the infectivity was present in the country for an earlier time period for the simple reason that it was not.
Perhaps it will be easier, Mr. Speaker, if I deal with this urban legend at the appropriate point in my speech, because urban legend it is.
There are times, Mr. Speaker, when I think that I am talking to myself. What I said was: perhaps it would be easier if I dealt with this in the appropriate passage of my speech. I will then take interventions on the point, if anybody wishes to perpetuate the myth, or, indeed, raise another one. Perhaps the Martians have visited us, or something like that. But for the minute, I will make some progress because I want to deal with the perfectly proper points that have been raised by the Leader of the Opposition and by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I would like to consider the way in which the Government are dealing with the disease, and I will take interventions that arise from what I say. However, I ask the House to let me say it first.
From the outset, we rapidly put in place firm disease control measures.
That action, and every action since then, has been taken on professional advice, and, in particular, on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, Mr. Jim Scudamore.
I want to deal with that famous urban legend—the question of MAFF having known about the outbreak in January on the basis of inquiries made by MAFF staff about supplies of railway sleepers. I understand that there is a similar legend about disinfectant supplies from another supplier company, and the answer is the same. The rumours that we knew in January are completely untrue. The Government first learned about a possible outbreak on 20 February. The first case was confirmed on 21 February.
I understand that, in January, my Department's animal health office in Staffordshire carried out a regular foot and mouth disease contingency planning exercise. This is conducted every year; there is nothing unusual about it. Staff were contacting vets, slaughtermen, disinfectant suppliers and suppliers of railway sleepers for incineration. It is sheer coincidence that the exercise took place a month before a genuine outbreak, but coincidence it is. If the question is why we rang that particular supplier after other suppliers had been rung—I understand that that is a caveat to this urban legend—the answer is that the Department was checking prices.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way because I want to talk to him about that exact point. I quote not a Martian, but a MAFF spokesman who said today:
From time to time we do emergency planning exercises. We are not aware if this was one of those cases.
Can the right hon. Gentleman understand that it is deeply worrying when MAFF officials say that there may be a planning exercise going on, but they are not sure? The very person they approached about railway sleepers says that the last time he was approached was 1967. That raises suspicions and mere abuse about Martians does not answer them.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the sentence I uttered before he intervened, he would understand that that particular supplier was contacted because the local office was checking prices. In other words, it was getting the competitive rate. That is the answer and that is all there is to it. The exercise—the local area offices' update—is conducted annually region by region. There is nothing unusual in it. We check the availability of a range of items that we might need to procure from time to time. The exercise is not an invention of the Labour Government—exactly the same procedure was carried out under the previous Government, and perfectly properly.
I want to make a procedural point. A number of people in business, whether they be farmers or those associated with tourism, or the trout farmer in my constituency who cannot move any of his fish, are affected by the crisis. Members of Parliament are receiving an increasing number of telephone calls from concerned constituents, so it might be useful if the Minister elaborated on policy. Are such people able to claim compensation? Can they get some restrictions lifted? I have been telephoning his Department, the staff of which have been diligent and courteous, but can Members have a dedicated helpline so they can get action taken on requests that they make?
I have written to all Members setting out the helplines and contact lines and a regular daily update is provided for Members of Parliament, which I place in the Library of the House, the Government Whips Office, the Opposition Whips Office and the Whips Offices of the other parties. That front-line information is available.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He has just given the House the serious news that his Department's epidemiologists predict many more cases and that the crisis will go on for a considerable time. In those circumstances, it would be grossly irresponsible of the Government not to put in hand measures to bring in the Army to deal with the crisis. What measures are in hand to do that?
I am torn between explaining what we are about to do, which includes dealing with the point made by the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton—Brown), and taking interventions. I shall take the interventions. Then, if the House will allow me, I shall make progress.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. My point follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold said. The Minister says that he expects a number of outbreaks to occur for some time. Obviously there is concern in tie countryside—not just in agriculture, but in the tourism industry, which has added significance—so, although I realise that it is difficult, can he give any indication of the time scale that he has in mind?
Perhaps I did not make clear enough what I intend to do. Once I have the result of the epidemiologists' work, I intend to put it in the public domain. It is currently being "peer-group assessed", but I understand that it will reach me very soon—within days rather than weeks. When I have seen it, I will share it with everyone else here, and we can make our own assessments. As those who are familiar with such exercises will know, it will not give a detailed timetable, but it will include a range of possible times, so it will give us all something to work towards.
I intend to share the information with the House rather than keeping it to myself, just as I have done in the case of every other piece of information that has come to me.
I am afraid that it is. May I explain why in summary now, and deal with the issue in more detail later?
It is clear now, as it would not have been clear a fortnight ago, that in Devon, Cumbria and southern Scotland, and potentially in the midlands and on the Welsh-English border, there are concentrations of infectivity in such amounts that we are no longer dealing with the emergence of the original spread of the disease in animals. We are now dealing with animal-to-animal infection. There is sheep-to-sheep infection in Cumbria, and I regret to say that we are certain that there is cattle-to-cattle spread there as well. Those circumstances underpin the need for more rigorous action in pursuit of the existing policy in Cumbria and southern Scotland.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman after I have explained the proposals for the area that he represents. I think that that would be fairer.
Before I finish the business about urban legends, there is one about the Antec disinfectant company. It is effectively the same as the railway sleeper issue. Antec's chief executive officer has claimed on the radio that MAFF must have known about the presence of foot and mouth disease, because we contacted the company in November to discuss supplies. The procurements and contracts division has confirmed that it did speak to the company in November, but that was part of a normal contractual discussion, and we have a normal supply-chain relationship with the company. I must say that I am very tempted to look into that! Anyway, all this is urban legend.
I know that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is affected, and I have something to say about it. If he will let me deal with that first, he can intervene later. I know that more needs to be done in his area, and I want to say what that "more" is.
Since 23 February, all animal movements have been at a standstill. Since 2 March, tightly controlled arrangements have operated for animals outside the infected areas to be transported directly to slaughter for human consumption. I understand from the Meat and Livestock Commission—I know that Members will be interested by this—that the pig sector is back to 85 per cent. of normal production, and that the figures for beef and lamb are 60 per cent. and 38 per cent. respectively.
As the Minister knows, I have written to him about that. My constituency contains a major abattoir, to which livestock is brought from as far away as Wales, travelling through highly infected areas of Devon. That is causing enormous concern in the greater part of Cornwall that currently contains no infection. Farmers are saying that there is surely some risk in bringing cattle such a long way through highly infected areas, and I think they would appreciate some response from the Minister.
The risks involved in the licensed movements are extremely low, although I understand the nervousness and concern. The question that is usually raised concerns the spread of the virus by air—the plume from the animals. I am giving a presentation in the Department on Friday to discuss questions relating to the disease and how it is spread, and also to vaccination. However, as I told the Select Committee on Agriculture this morning—the chief vet has confirmed this—the dangers of a spread of the virus by a plume are essentially associated with pigs. The risk of animals in transit such as cattle and sheep spreading the virus by that means is vanishingly small. That is the veterinary advice to me.
I give way. I do not want to be discourteous to the House, but, at the same time, I want to make some progress.
The Minister is being helpful. He is answering all the interventions with great courtesy and as clearly as he can. I am grateful that he is putting information in the Library, but may we please have presentations such as the one to which he just referred; can there be presentations specifically for Members of Parliament? Many hon. Members' constituencies on both sides of the House are now affected. It would be helpful if we had some clear presentations from his officials and others on the points that he has touched on.
Yes. I want to meet the hon. Gentleman's request in two ways. If there are hon. Members here on Friday—I know it is not a convenient time for hon. Members—who would like to come to the presentation at 10 o'clock at the Department, which has been arranged primarily for journalists and broadcasters, they may do so. I extend an invitation to any hon. Member who would like to come to that presentation to ring my private office. I will arrange for a seat to be reserved for them. They can see the same presentation is being given to the journalists.
I shall also arrange to have the entire presentation repeated midweek at a time that is convenient for hon. Members, so that there will be a second chance to see it. More than that, at the second presentation, I will arrange for the epidemiology to be presented by someone who is qualified to do so, so that hon. Members can have an insight into that, too.
I am sorry that Labour Members do not want the House to be properly informed, but I wish to raise with the Minister the question of the adequacy of information. The website is not up to date. The maps are not detailed enough to establish where outbreaks are occurring. When I rang a ministerial office today about the MPs hotline, the staff thought that there was some sort of hotline and said that they would come back to me with a number, but they have not done so yet.
The information that the Minister says is in the Whips Office is not there; I have just been to ask for it. We have not had that information, but it would help enormously if more information could be provided more systematically.
The daily update that is intended for Members of Parliament is in the House Library. I am sorry if it has not got through the usual channels. It was supposed to, but the usual channels do not always work as well as they should, and I can say that from personal experience. I had guessed that things had improved since my day, but perhaps they have not. My intention is that the information be available for all Members of Parliament, which is why I put it in the Library. It is supposed to be more regularly available.
I should like to deal with the point that was properly raised about animals that are trapped by the movement restrictions. It is a serious problem. The whole country is under movement controls at the minute. I recognise that we have created considerable animal welfare difficulties for farmers, particularly in respect of lambing, calving and farrowing. On 9 March. we introduced arrangements for limited local movements of animals. As of yesterday, we had issued 6,400 licences under those arrangements in England. In addition, this week, we are bringing in arrangements to allow animals to be moved on longer journeys, subject to strict controls on the cleansing and disinfection of vehicles. I know that that sounds arduous, but it is vital as a disease control measure.
My right hon. Friend may have been planning to address this point anyway, but I would be grateful if he addressed reports that Devon trading standards office has received reports of more than 200 illegal animal movements in the past few weeks. Is there any substance in those reports? If so, is that not extremely worrying ?
I cannot comment on the volume. There have been reports of illegal movements of animals and where people are caught, they will be prosecuted. I beg people not to do it. There is no easier way of keeping the disease outbreak going than illegally moving the animals without licence. We all have common cause in this.
If the animal welfare problems cannot be addressed on the spot or by licensed movements, animals can be entered into a new voluntary welfare disposal scheme. Payments will be made. It is, the intractable nature of the sheep sector that is causing the delay.
I questioned the Minister about this matter last Thursday. This afternoon, he has given an explanation of the delay, but he assured me last week that a voluntary animal welfare disposal scheme would be introduced within a matter of days. I cannot stress enough to the Minister how important that is; it is dreadfully important. We hope such a scheme will be Introduced within 24 hours. Will he assure the House that the level of compensation will be reasonable, at market value and will reflect the many weeks in which cash has been paid out to feed animals well beyond the date at which they otherwise would have to be fed?
If that sounds insufficient, let me say also that I am looking carefully at what can be done in the short term to help sheep farmers; they are not the only people who have been hit, but they have been hit the hardest. In the medium term, we are looking at what we can do to help the industry to get back on its feet. In the long term, we are looking at what sort of industry we want in this country; in other words, how we get the industry closer to the marketplace, how we make it more sustainable and how we make sure that the support payments impact on the farmer's income, rather than on the number of sheep.
To do that, I am looking hard at proposals for genotyping the national flock to make it resistant to scrapie and BSE. I am looking closely at the work of the hill farm taskforce to see how we deal with the medium-term questions involved in the hill farm allowance and what better use can be made of rural development regulation to underpin hill farmers' incomes. I have opened discussions, in general terms, with Franz Fischler and the Commission to examine the issues around the sheep premium review, which is due now in any event.
I am looking at whether the Government might want to do other things specifically to help those people caught by this terrible outbreak of the disease. Among those are whether we should offer extra help to those who want to take their agrimonetary payment, their premium payments—which we have managed to get protected by the Commission—and perhaps something else, as part, potentially, of something like an early retirement package for those who, frankly, have had enough and wish to retire. We will look at what we can do to help those who wish to be on-goers in the industry and at whether a restructuring of the whole support package might be the right way forward.
I will not be imposing anything from above. This will all require careful thought and discussion, not least with farmers' leaders and with individual farmers on the ground. These issues are under active consideration in Government. We are discussing what can be done now, what can be done in the medium term and, above all, what is the long-term prospect for the industry and how we best structure the support package. I intend to share those ideas with others and not impose them from the Government; I would like to get a consensus on them. We all realise that some things have to be done in the sheep sector. We would want those to be done in any case, even without this disease outbreak.
I thank the Minister for the way in which he is treating the House on this matter. He will have heard my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) about the sheep farmer who has 2,500 sheep in Staffordshire that he is unable to move. What can I tell the farmer about the measures that the Minister has mentioned concerning applying, on animal welfare grounds, for the sheep to be culled, with some compensation? Whom does he apply to? What time scale is the Minister looking at? Can that farmer apply now? Under what time scale can the Minister possibly offer a compensation price?
I am trying to get the scheme open very quickly, and by that I mean in a matter of days. I am trying to get the price to a level that is as decent as possible, but it will not please people who refer back to what the market price was before the outbreak. I would advise the hon. Lady's constituent, if the animals are not yet infected, to look first at whether it is possible under the new licensing arrangements to move them from clean area to clean area. The second option or route would be to try and manage the problem on the site, or on a neighbouring site. However, from her description, the fact that the forage has gone means that that route is probably not possible.
The third route is intended to be the route of last resort. The Government are not offering a convenient, state-sponsored market. I must state that as firmly I can, because I know what people would really like in these circumstances, and I cannot provide it.
The drop in the number of animals going to abattoirs would lead one to expect a rise in prices, but that has not happened. Is that due to a big increase in imports? Secondly, have the Government made progress in finding the source of the outbreak? I understand that the strain of the disease indicates that it was brought in from abroad. Is not it about time that we banned imports from countries that have had any incidence of foot and mouth in the past for year or so—especially South Africa, which might be the source of the disease?
The South African bit is another red herring. In fact, we ban meat and other products that carry infectivity from all the regions around the world that have foot and mouth disease. However, it is no good for the hon. Gentleman on the one hand to call for bans on countries rather than regions, then for other hon. Members to say that they hope that I will be able regionalise the problem in the United Kingdom later. We can approach the problem in one way, or the other. I have high hopes that we will be able to regionalise the problem, as the extermination measures begin to bite.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify the question of movement of animals over distances of more than 10 km? The MAFF website invites farmers to apply for licences, but I understand that the Ministry's Leeds office has not issued any licences to farmers who want to move animals. There is an important animal welfare problem, especially for ewes in lamb and cows in calf. Those animals are going to give birth imminently, and many farmers in my constituency will have to move animals distances of up to 15 miles. They want clarification about what they can do to speed up the process.
A welfare scheme is in place that should facilitate the movement of clean animals from uninfected areas that are subject to movement restrictions but nothing else. The scheme provides for a single journey to the holding—either the animals' home farm, or elsewhere if other arrangements have been made—where they are to lamb. If that is not happening for the farmers in her constituency, I will pursue the matter for her. The Ministry's preferred route with regard to dealing with animals moving from areas that are subject to movement restrictions but in which there is no infectivity is that, on welfare grounds, the animals should be moved under licence. The journeys to the home farm will be strictly controlled and probably escorted, and completed in a single run. If my hon. Friend will draw the difficulties being experienced in her area to my attention, I will have the matter pursued by my private office, either later on today or tomorrow.
The Minister has explained the difficulties with the voluntary welfare scheme with regard to sheep, but may I urge him to consider opening the scheme for pigs tomorrow? I telephoned his private office last Wednesday about the case of Mr. Richard Webber. Last Wednesday, he had 400 pigs that could not lie down. That is a very serious welfare problem. The Minister had a pig welfare scheme in place last year, and I urge him to open a similar scheme tomorrow.
The hon. Lady is right, and makes a perfectly fair comment. I want to open the pig scheme as quickly as I can, to cover exactly those circumstances that she has described. The preferred route for disposal of pigs is to get the chain working normally. Much of it is working normally but, as we found out from the classical swine fever outbreak in East Anglia, problems emerge very quickly when the chain is not working properly. Such problems require decisive action, and the hon. Lady is right to press me on the point. I will get on with the matter.
May I tell my right hon. Friend how much the whole House appreciates the manner in which he is handling this debate and all the issues that are being raised?
I wish to ask about travellers with regard to containment and contamination. Where a travelling group arrives at an infected area, is the advice to the police that they should be asked to stay there or should they be moved on, as many people want? My fear is that if travellers are moved on, they simply become another vector for transmission. I do not know whether MAFF has issued guidance and advice on that issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. The House seems to like me so much that it keeps calling me back here. I am not sure whether to take that as a compliment.
My hon. Friend invites me to give either one piece of unpopular advice or another piece of unpopular advice. Travellers, like everyone else, should stay away from farmed livestock. If they have been in contact with farmed livestock, they should take exactly the same precautionary measures that everyone else has to take before moving. My advice to everyone is to stay away from farmed livestock.
I wi11 take a few more interventions but then I really would like to make some progress, because there are some things that I know right hon. and hon. Members want to hear—even if they pretend not to.
I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way. As he will know, there are nearly 1 million sheep in Powys. In the 1967 outbreak, it was very common to put a calf in with the sheep because they show early warning signs of the disease. I gather from what was said in the Select Committee this morning that this is exceedingly difficult. Only 5 per cent. of sheep actually show signs of the disease. Will the Minister consider this practice and also the use of cull cows, which are of very low value?
That is a perfectly sensible livestock management practice, and I commend it. Cattle can act as markers for sheep flocks.
Will the Minister contemplate, in extremis, allowing slaughter under the welfare disposal scheme first and sorting out the payment and compensation afterwards, if need be?
I understand the sensible thinking that underpins the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However, this is a voluntary scheme and it is difficult to ask people to deliver animals to a voluntary scheme and then argue about the money afterwards. If the hon. Gentleman reflects on his time in business, does he think that he would have done the deal first and haggled about the payment afterwards? Frankly, I think not.
Mr. Chris Ruatle:
I had a meeting with five farmers in my constituency on Monday. In Wales, in the Vale of Clwyd, we have many small farms, which send only two or three animals to slaughter at a time. Those farmers asked whether it would be possible to send their two or three animals to a central location if their vehicles were disinfected when they left the farm and got to the central location so that the animals could be collected by a large wagon and taken off to slaughter.
That is a perfectly fair point. At the beginning of the outbreak we were considering whether collection centres might be a viable route. I am advised that at the moment they are not, because of the risk and the need for intensive management of some centres. As the situation progresses, I hope that it will be possible to put such arrangements in place. I hold out the prospect of such an option in the future, but I cannot announce it now.
I should like to make some progress, because I know that the House will be interested in what I have to say next. As the disease has incubated and revealed itself, our understanding of the outbreak has increased and we have been able to refine the disease control strategy. On 15 March I set out our safety-first strategy of intensified efforts in the areas of the country where the disease has spread and, provided that other areas remain disease-free, modification of restrictions in those unaffected areas.
Outside the infected areas of the country, the rest of Great Britain remains a controlled area. Movements are allowed only under strict, licensed conditions. We are aiming to protect those parts of the country so far free of the disease. The precise geographical definition is still subject to epidemiological advice. but, broadly speaking, it is Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde valley, much of eastern England, part of the south coast and south-west Wales. We shall not permit welfare movements into those currently disease-free areas.
In his statement to the House yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment reported on the work of the rural taskforce. I reinforce his message by urging the public to continue to stay away from farmed livestock and to take special precautions in infected areas. At the same time, however, I want to make it clear that a range of country activities can be safely undertaken, particularly in unaffected areas. That is the best way to help rural businesses, which depend on visitors and tourism.
In the areas in which we are intensifying our efforts, the greatest concentration of infection is in the adjoining counties of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway. Those two counties account for more than 40 per cent. of all confirmed cases, and substantially more of those confirmed recently.
I sense that the Minister will soon come to the extended cull. If so, will he help the House on one point? In dealing with the killing of healthy animals, what steps will he take to safeguard the blood lines of specialist flocks? Several specialist groups of cattle, pigs and sheep could effectively be eliminated if a whole flock were to be destroyed under the extended cull scheme. What does the Minister have in mind?
A later passage of my speech will deal with that point, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman is on to a perfectly proper point.
I should like to make a little progress before returning to specialist breeds at the relevant point in my speech.
The infection has mainly been concentrated in the sheep flock, although there is now cattle-to-cattle spread in Cumbria. The potential for rapid spread in that area makes it necessary to destroy sheep and pigs within 3 km of the infected farms, as I announced last Thursday. The chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamure, visited Cumbria on Monday to speak to local farmers and their representatives, as well as veterinarians. He explained the reasons for the slaughter of sheep and pigs within the 3 km zones.
In carrying out the programme of destroying animals within those zones in Cumbria and south-west Scotland, we shall look sympathetically at the scope for protecting rare breeds, wherever possible. We are discussing how best to achieve that with representatives of farmers of rare breeds.
The Minister's point is of great concern to my constituents and those of all right hon. and hon. Members who represent Cumbria. He said that he would seek to preserve specialist herds. If those herds are wiped out, there will be no question of replacements being purchasable from off some other shelf. If they are gone, they are gone for good, and the farmers concerned will face no possibility of rebuilding their businesses and livelihoods.
The Minister said that he would seek "wherever possible" to protect those herds from the effects of the wider cull. Earlier today, he also said that the Dutch were considering a ring vaccination scheme around the area in which foot and mouth has broken out in the Netherlands. Vaccination is a highly complicated and sensitive issue, but if that is the only mechanism by which we may keep some rare herds in existence, will the Minister consider it?
May I extend to the Minister a repeat of the invitation that many people in Cumbria have offered him? I know that he is busy, but if he could come to the county, an awful lot of people would like to see him.
What the hon. Gentleman says is true. My earlier outline plan would have taken me to Cumbria this afternoon. I said previously that I would tell all the county's Members of Parliament when I would visit Cumbria so that we could meet on a bipartisan basis with, at least, farmers' leaders and representatives of the veterinary profession to discuss what is being done, and why and how. I know that there is much interest in all those points. I should also want to look to the future and discuss a recovery plan and the future shape of the industry once we have defeated the disease.
I have never ruled out vaccination. I am not an enthusiast, and I should take a lot of persuading before agreeing to it. The professional advice that I have had goes against it, for all the reasons that we have previously debated here. I have not ruled out vaccination in the context of rare breeds, although I am not certain that it would achieve the result that the hon. Gentleman anticipates.
We are taking specific interest in rare breeds and shall do whatever is necessary to protect them. However, if animals get the disease, they must be destroyed. There is nothing that I, or any Minister in my position, can do about that.
Let me make some further progress. I want to say something about the situation in Devon, which is also very serious. As I explained to the House last Thursday, our policy in Devon is to carry out intensive patrols—veterinary inspections—every 48 hours on all farms within a 3 km radius of an infected farm. That work is intensive and must be undertaken by people with veterinary knowledge. Its purpose is to ensure that cases of foot and mouth disease are identified as soon as possible and dealt with, by quarantine and slaughter.
Like all our actions, that measure is under constant review, but it is designed to try to prevent mass culling in the peculiar circumstances of Devon farms—where the farm structure is relatively small and the farms are close together. Everyone in the House will understand what that means with regard to the risk of spreading infectivity. I appeal to everyone to co-operate with the authorities in Devon over that intensive and focused disease-control strategy, designed to defeat the disease before it spreads further and necessitates more widespread culling.
As we have already discussed, and as the hon. Member for South Suffolk emphasised, there are serious logistical issues in Cumbria and in Devon in relation to slaughtering and disposing of infected animals. There is much interest in that matter in the House. In essence, the House is saying to me, "Why can't it all be gotten on with quicker? Why can't the animals be killed and removed immediately? Don't you need to do all this faster?" I want to set out exactly what we are doing to try to increase the rate of all that and of the disposal of carcases. We are acutely aware of the need to reduce the time between confirmation and slaughter and the time between slaughter and disposal.
Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition made a number of suggestions for action to help speed up our response to the disease, and they are reflected in today's Opposition motion. They are all helpful suggestions and I shall address each in turn.
The first is to allow vets to slaughter on suspicion of foot and mouth disease. Following the early cases of the disease, the Government's policy has been that vets can authorise slaughter on the basis of their clinical judgment. For some time, more than 90 per cent. of all cases have been slaughtered without the need for laboratory tests. The reason is obvious: we now know that we have foot and mouth disease in this country, so it is not necessary to confirm each case. In almost all cases, the judgment of the individual veterinarian is enough.
The second proposal—also perfectly sensible—is that the Government make an appeal to vets from abroad to come and help in the fight against the disease. Probably our largest bottleneck in the control of this extended outbreak is veterinary resource—we need vets. In the first week of the outbreak, we made such an appeal, and 70 foreign vets are already in the country, seven are arriving today and up to 30 will arrive next week.
The third proposal is that the Government bring final-year veterinary students into the front line against the disease. We have already done so. More than 100 have been appointed to work alongside the state veterinary service, and we hope that a further 70 will join soon.
It was also suggested that we employ retired vets. We are recalling retired vets to the colours—making use of their skills and services. We are increasing still further the number of vets involved in fighting the disease. More than 1,000 vets have already been appointed to the SVS; that compares with the 220 who would normally be employed as fieldworkers. In Cumbria, we have increased the number of Government vets from 14—the number on 28 February—to 64 on 7 March and, as of Monday this week, the number is 101. The extra numbers are being drafted into Cumbria because it is necessary to do so.
Has the right hon. Gentleman discussed the possibilities with the president of the British Veterinary Association? I was speaking to him at lunchtime and got the distinct impression that no such discussions had taken place and that the private sector could probably help a great deal if it was asked to do so.
The private sector has been asked to help. The communications take place between the chief vet and the president of the association, so the chief vet, not I myself, would conduct those discussions. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House earlier today, the rates of pay offered for the work have been increased, and I hope that the new rates will be attractive to some vets in the private sector. Many of this country's approximately 22,000 vets are in private practice, especially in small animal practices that they have built up themselves over many years, and it is not easy for them to put their private work to one side and suddenly work temporarily for the Government and then return to private practice. I appeal to those vets who can help to do so. We have upped the rates of pay to try to make the work more attractive, and I hope that that helps.
The Leader of the Opposition's fourth suggestion was to make more use of burial to dispose of carcases. We already use burial, but, admittedly, in a small number of cases. We are in favour of using burial where appropriate, but I should tell the House about the constraints on doing so. There are geological factors, such as the risk of contaminating water sources and, especially in the Cumbrian hills—as those who know the area will readily accept—there is shallow top soil with granite underneath, which makes burial not such an attractive option. Herds and flocks are much larger compared with 1967, so much larger burial sites would be needed. We are working closely with the Environment Agency to identify and use suitable landfill sites for the burial of carcases.
Is it true that the divisional veterinary officer for Cumbria has sought for weeks to assure Ministers that everything was under control and that resources were available when, in fact, it now turns out that what he was saying was simply untrue and was misleading Ministers?
That is not a fair picture of events. If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall spell out what we are doing to reinforce the normal state veterinary service presence in Cumbria, so that we have a veterinary and a non-veterinary team sufficient to tackle the growing task there.
I shall deal with the disposal routes before taking an intervention.
Burning and burial are not the only disposal routes; we are also using rendering plants. Four plants are already operating, and we intend to have six in use by the end of the week. We also plan to use dedicated slaughterhouses and rendering for at-risk animals that do not have the clinical symptoms of foot and mouth, but those abattoirs will, of course, have to be specifically dedicated to the task.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for all that he is doing to deal with the situation, but can he assure the House that he is now able to make an order to ban the spreading of liquid condensate, which relates to rendering plants? I understand that the consultation period finished on 5 March, and that nothing now prevents him from making that order.
That is a slightly separate issue. My hon. Friend has long and tirelessly pressed Ministers on that matter. I am not certain about the condensate issue because I have been fully engaged in the disease control operation. I think that an order is due soon, but if my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall write to her setting out the position.
The Minister has described the problem of finding enough vets, and we appreciate the efforts that he is making, but earlier this afternoon the Prime Minister said that there was no shortage of slaughtermen.
That is a fair question; I intend to deal with it once I have finished with the points made by the Leader of the Opposition. This is at the heart of the debate: how can we provide a better service, get the affected animals killed quickly, proceed with the proactive culling of animals that are at risk, and remove the carcases expeditiously?
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the rendering plant at Halton means that transport travelling south to north and from north Wales comes close to my constituency. Is he satisfied that the vehicles used are sealed properly, or is another urban myth going around given the stories in the local press suggesting that animals legs are sticking out of the trucks?
If anyone sees an arrangement that he believes to be unauthorised or wrong, he should note it and note the licence plate of the vehicle involved. I promise that I will have the matter checked. The whole disease control situation is now awash with urban legends. I understand how they arise, but they do not help. I am satisfied that the transport protocols at sufficiently robust to keep the risk of spreading the disease to an absolute minimum.
The real risks of spreading the disease are the movements of people and vehicles from sites of infectivity and the unauthorised movement of animals. Even if people think that no risks are involved because the animals look healthy, they may not be. If they are incubating the virus, moving them will cause it to spread. I urge people not to do that.
Does the Minister accept that the facilities for rendering are quite inadequate? I know about the position in Worcestershire—the nearest rendering plant is in Exeter, which is three to four hours away. Two lorries are trying to deal with thousands of carcases, but it will take several weeks to clear the area. The Minister must give an absolute assurance that he will take a specific decision within 24 hours to deal with the problem by burial. Rendering is simply not sufficient to cope with the problems in Worcestershire.
I understand the hon Gentleman's point about disposal routes. A range of alternatives is available, and when burial can be used, it will he. However, I shall say a little more later in my speech about how we intend to manage the intensified outbreak in the area that the hon. Gentleman represents and the areas linked to it. I might have something new to say to him.
I wish to deal with the point that the Leader of the Opposition perfectly properly raised about bringing in soldiers to help with the slaughter of animals and the disposal of carcases. As of yesterday, Army logistic support teams have been deployed at MAFF's request in Cumbria and Devon. More than 70 members of the 1st Battalion, Prince of Wales Own Regiment have been deployed to Carlisle and up to 130 members of the Royal Military Police, contributing logistical expertise, will be available to deploy to Exeter. Their role is to enhance command and control and to provide supervision of the disposal process. They will get it better organised and that will free up veterinary time.
The soldiers will supplement MAFF's regional staff in the co-ordination of contractor teams already involved in disposing of carcases. That will speed up the disposal process and release vets to tackle the spread of the disease. We are keeping the position under review, and I must stress again that any Government resource that can help will be used.
I also wish to deal with the Leader of the Opposition's proposal for a business rate holiday for rural businesses. I am pleased, as I know that most Members are, that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was able to announce a preliminary package of measures—I stress that it is a preliminary package—to help affected rural businesses, including three months relief from business rates.
We are taking further action to speed up the Government's response to the disease. Incidentally, I take no personal affront at the hon. Member for South Suffolk chiding me on these matters. Yes, we need to do better, and that is what we are setting out to do. We are doing all that we can to free up vets so that they can concentrate solely on veterinary matters; we are looking to take on more veterinary surgeons as temporary veterinary inspectors; and revised remuneration arrangements have now been finalised and are being announced later today.
We have put in place two senior officials as directors of operations—one in Cumbria and the other in Devon—and they are able officials drawn from the heart of the Ministry. I can also tell the House that the permanent secretary agreed this morning to appoint a director of operations for the west of England. We are creating the post with immediate effect and it will be located at the Worcester office. The role will be exactly the same as that carried out in Cumbria and in Exeter, and it will be at grade 5 level. We will keep under review the need to reproduce that arrangement elsewhere.
To contain the problem in areas other than Devon and Cumbria, we are acting on a recommendation of the chief vet and negotiating with the Ministry of Defence to secure Army support in Gloucester, Worcester and Stafford. With our colleagues in the devolved authority, we are urgently considering the need to do that in Dumfries and Lanarkshire. Follow-up action is being taken with the Ministry of Defence. That is the latest position.
Some hon. Members will know that I was in the Agriculture Committee all morning, so I am not as fully briefed as usual. However, I knew that the House would want to know that the new logistical structures are being put in place where the permanent secretary believes that to be necessary. I wholeheartedly support what he is doing. The reason for the new arrangements is to ensure that the slaughtermen, of whom we believe we have enough, get to the task as soon as it is required to be carried out. The contractors can come in behind them and either remove the carcases or bury or burn them on site.
We have taken measures to ensure that the valuation of animals before they are slaughtered does not cause unnecessary delay. Again, later today I plan to introduce arrangements to make it possible for animals that are subject to compulsory slaughter to be valued according to a standard valuation tariff. As it is a generous tariff, people will be tempted to accept it rather than go to valuation and arbitration. That will speed up the system and, frankly, put more cash in hard-hit sheep farmers' pockets. That is my intention.
On burial, who decides where flocks will be disposed of? As I told the right hon. Gentleman in the Select Committee this morning, the Environment Agency says that burial is the least preferred option, which is in direct contravention of the recommendations of the 1969 report. Someone in the agency is making a decision on a constituency case of mine today. Will the Minister ensure that hon. Members are able to telephone a senior official of the agency to ensure that burial takes place, because that is the preferred option in my area?
Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis on the advice of local officials. Our officials make the decision and we consult the Environment Agency. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the anomaly. Of course burial is an attractive option for people who wish to dispose of carcases for disease control purposes. However, for those whose responsibility it is to protect the environment—including the water table—it is less attractive. We are looking at what can be done. Essentially, our approach is pragmatic, but we cannot poison the water table, and I am sure that no one is asking us to. The decision is made locally by the officials in charge. In the areas that are subject to the new control structures, that is by the appointed Ministry official. We consult the Environment Agency but, ultimately, it is for the Ministry to make the decision on a case-by-case basis.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being extremely generous.
Mr. Sean Jackman, a self-employed farming contractor in Winslow in my constituency, has not been able to work for three weeks. On the assumption—at which I am not cavilling—that the Government will continue to resist calls for compensation for lost earnings, and further to what the Prime Minister said at Question Time about building on the loan guarantee scheme, will the Minister explain the time scale for that extension?
I have been candid with the House and said that I cannot promise that we will consider all contingent losses. No Minister could. It is a difficult issue. If the hon. Gentleman compiles a list of the contingent losses that he thinks the Government could accept, he will face the same problem. I am not trying to make a party political point. The problem is intractable. I cannot make a statement today in response to the issue that he is pressing because it is not necessarily within my Ministry's gift. However, the Government are considering what more can be done and an announcement will be made shortly.
The right hon. Gentleman quickly covered areas such as mine that have no cases of foot and mouth. Will he consider sending out good information—perhaps in the form of advertising—to tell people where they can go in rural areas, such as the seaside? The Government have £30 million of television advertising booked for an election that I suspect the Prime Minister will want to delay. Perhaps those slots could be used for that information campaign.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who represents the Ministry on the taskforce, tells me that the matter is under examination, and we hope to be able to put something into the public domain shortly. As well as being authoritative, that information has to be crisp and accurate. That is being considered, and the work that the hon. Gentleman properly asks for is under way.
I turn now to the compensatory arrangements. Our overriding priority is to bear down on the disease and eliminate it as quickly as possible. That is not a matter that divides the House. We are also doing a lot to help farmers financially. We have agreed to pay £156 million in extra agrimonetary compensation. To the average beef farmer that is worth £450 on beef special premium and £650 on suckler cow premium. To the average dairy farmer it is worth £2,300 and to the average sheep farmer it is worth £650. We have made special arrangements to make the payments over March, April and May.
We are fully compensating for animals that have to be slaughtered because of infection or exposure to infection, and that includes the value of common agricultural policy subsidies that would have been claimed on the animal. So far, committed compensation for compulsory slaughter stands at £80 million, and it will rise further in the weeks ahead.
We have taken steps to safeguard subsidy payments to farmers whose claims might otherwise have been put at risk by animal movement restrictions. Assistance is being given to the Meat Hygiene Service so that abattoirs, including small ones, do not bear all the increased costs that arise from the exceptional measures being imposed at present. We are working to do more. I recognise, for instance, the concern of beef producers whose animals are subject to movement restrictions that push them over the 30-month age limit The Opposition have been pressing me on that point, and I am considering what I can do. As hon. Members would expect, I know the arguments in favour of pump-priming the pig industry development scheme levy, and I am considering whether that will be possible.
I also have to look to the longer term. I want to consider the effect on disease control of movement of sheep across large distances and through livestock markets. I want to examine the risks to animal health of illegal imports of meat products. I want to look at the role that swill feeding might have played in the disease outbreak. I want to look in particular at the sheep sector, as I explained briefly to the House earlier, and consider how the rebuilding of the flock should be handled. We are working on improving traceability in the sheep sector and at how to progress existing plans for scrapie eradication. I intend to pay special attention to how the various options under the rural development plan can be deployed to help.
Some of the problems of the livestock sector are deep seated. Many result from a long history of production-based subsidies under the common agricultural policy. We need to take the long view and work with industry to create a sustainable future for the livestock farmers in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. The more that we can do that in a bipartisan spirit, the better. There is not much disagreement between us about the need to reshape the common agricultural policy or to provide enduring, sustainable support measures for livestock farmers, so I hope that we can take a relatively politics-neutral approach to the matter.
The Minister mentioned the cause of the outbreak and he spoke earlier about urban myths. Is he aware of the rumour circulating in certain elements of the press that animal rights activists are claiming that they stole a phial of foot and mouth disease from a MAFF centre at Pirbright and that they were the initiators of the outbreak? Will he state, once and for all, that that is not the case, and put that myth to bed?
We should all take a deep breath. My strongest suspicion is that there will be a far more prosaic explanation. That does not mean that we should not concentrate on finding out why our country has had two viral disease outbreaks in animals in a short time. It is right to focus on what has made us more vulnerable. But I have to say that animal rights activists are at the far end of a scale of suspects. The Ministry are working on the matter, and I am afraid that I must tell the House that the outcome is likely to be far more prosaic. The remedy is likely to be pretty prosaic as well, which is something that we can discuss together. Again, I would wish to consult the House before putting any further measures in place. However, if further measures are required, they will be introduced.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been tremendously generous in doing so in this debate. Does he accept that an outbreak of foot and mouth is an extreme psychological blow to the farmer concerned? Compensation can never bring back the animals, but even if it is an amount on account, will the right hon. Gentleman personally ensure that it is paid as quickly as possible with minimum bureaucracy?
I hope to do better than that. I am looking at further support that can be provided immediately and at what can be done to provide a medium and long-term future for the livestock sector. In particular, I am looking at the relationship between measures necessary for recovery immediately after the disease and those which, for a range of reasons with which the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members are familiar, are necessary in the longer term. If we can pull all those strands together, perhaps some good may come out of a great evil. If that can be achieved, preferably with some consensus between us, it will be a good thing.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you be kind enough to tell the House whether this is a question and answer session or whether we are taking part in a debate in which Members of Parliament are being asked to speak only for 12 minutes? A number of people have attempted to get in two or three times.
May I tell the right hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced member of the House, that whether hon. Members seek to intervene on the Minister is entirely a matter for them? Whether the Minister gives way is entirely a matter for him.
I am trying to be courteous to the House. If I sense that the mood is that I should now make progress with my speech, no one would be happier than me, except possibly the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery).
I should like to deal with the question of vaccination of animals. I have arranged for a presentation for journalists who are covering the issue on 10 o'clock on Friday. Again, I extend an invitation to hon. Members to come to that presentation in my Ministry; they are all welcome. However, I will repeat the presentation and mount another on the epidemiology next week or later, depending on when the epidemiology is available for presentation. I believe that many hon. Members have an interest in that.
Of course vaccination remains an option, but the current veterinary advice to me is that that is not the way that we should proceed at the moment. I must not rule it out, but I do not intend to use it in the near future. My position has the full support of the Agriculture Council, to which I gave a report in Brussels on Monday. The other member states are in agreement with our disease control measures. Commissioner Byrne is planning to write to all European Union Agriculture Ministers, setting out the Commission's approach to vaccination. When I receive his letter, I shall put it in the Library so that all Members can see what the Commission is telling member states.
I have been keeping everyone informed, not just the Council of Ministers. In addition to my statements to the House and my appearance before the Select Committee on Agriculture this morning, all Members of Parliament have been written to with advice on relevant sources of information, including the helpline and website. A daily update on the disease situation is being placed in the Libraries of the House and a mechanism has been put in place to ensure that Members are informed directly as soon as a case is confirmed in their constituencies.
The disease is a tragedy for all those affected, whether directly or indirectly. I am enormously grateful for the work of the state veterinary service and local authorities, and for the support of the farming organisations, many other organisations and the general public. I appeal to everyone to continue to work together. I am grateful for the consensual bipartisan approach that the House has taken so far. Working together, we can succeed in bearing down on the disease, which should not divide us. In so doing, we can achieve the Government's objective of regaining our disease-free status and, once we have done so, keeping it.
I applaud the Minister of Agriculture for the rational way in which he has again addressed the House.
During the unfolding tragedy of foot and mouth disease, which has had incalculable effects on the agriculture industry and so many other rural businesses, we must bear in mind that dissention, whether it occurs on political grounds, within the farming industry or among those trying to deal with the outbreak, is the enemy of effective progress. We must not fall into that trap. Equally, however, it is right for all hon. Members to express our constituents' concerns. We often speak in the House about fear of crime being as bad as crime itself. In this instance, fear of the disease is almost as bad as the disease itself, because of its effects on members of the rural community. They feel that the sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads and are not sure whether, the next day or week, their business will be for ever ruined by the disease.
The Government should have four clear objectives in dealing with the crisis. First, the obvious primary objective is containment and eradication of the disease. I hope that nothing is done in any sphere of central or local government to jeopardise that objective. Secondly, we must deal with the welfare not only of livestock, but of people who are involved in rural industries, which is equally important and concerns all of us. Thirdly, we must in the short term establish the viability of as many businesses as possible, whether or not they are farm businesses. Effective short-term measures are needed to improve cash flow and to provide security. Finally, we must work on reconstruction, about which the Minister made some significant points. I do not believe that this is the right time to speak in detail about the reconstructive measures that are needed within the agriculture industry, but we must realise that that is our next port of call.
May I express yet again my support for some of the difficult decisions that the Minister has made during the past few weeks? I should like also to express gratitude and recognition—I hope that I do so on behalf of all hon. Members—in respect of the extraordinary efforts that are being made by so many MAFF officials and veterinary surgeons, as well as by people in the farming community and elsewhere who are trying to deal with the situation.
While the Minister of Agriculture is in the House, I should like to ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware of how marvellous a job is being done by MAFF's vets and other employees on the ground. I heard this morning from a constituent whose animals have been slaughtered and to whom the vet and MAFF officials were very helpful. The vet, a Mr. Bud Boyd, came from Texas. He was not only incredibly sympathetic, but was immensely supportive of the farming family, who were enormously grateful to him.
My hon. Friend represents one of the foci of infection and knows at first hand how difficult the matter is, so his testimony is valuable.
Having expressed our support for what local people and the ministerial team are doing, we must now turn to the deficiencies in the arrangements. Although we support the objectives and, to a large extent, the strategy, we are aware that there have been holes in the implementation. Indeed, the Minister was good enough to recognise the existence of such holes. It is right for us to try to address some of those problems so that they can be improved in the short term and to enable us to learn in the longer term.
First, let me deal with the disease itself. We have had some discussion about contingency planning and the possibility of local arrangements for annual contingency plans or exercises.
A substantial amount of evidence suggests that the contingency planning was not equal to the task. That is a criticism not of those who are trying to implement the plans, but of long-term emergency planning arrangements between MAFF, other Departments and non-governmental departments. Ample evidence shows that those arrangements were inadequate or not in place.
That is not unfair criticism. I had hoped to have new directors in place in Government regional offices to improve co-ordination between the Ministry and other departments in the regions. Without the outbreak of the disease, we could have moved seamlessly to establish the arrangements. We had recognised the problem. and we are acting to put it right.
I am grateful for that intervention, and for the Minister's recognition that my criticism was not unfair; I never make unfair criticisms. I am trying to make constructive criticisms to improve matters for the future.
Elements of the basic planning give slight cause for concern, for example, the difficulty of sourcing disinfectant in the first week of the outbreak, and the sudden realisation of the existence of a wider range of appropriate disinfectant products than the original list contained. The annual updating of contingency plans might have avoided the problem. There was a failure to use community Pharmacies as a potential source of disinfectant. Pharmacological authorities brought to the Government's attention the fact that, when the agricultural suppliers had run out of advice and materials, other sources existed in many rural areas.
Hauliers reported to me that, in the first week of the outbreak, they drove to and from the continent and there were no disinfectant wheel baths at Folkestone or Dover. We therefore had the potential to export the disease to continental Europe.
For a long time, local authorities were unclear about their powers to close rights of way, bridleways and open areas. There is a further anxiety, which I would put to the Minister for the Environment if he were present. During consideration of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, I tabled amendments that would have allowed closure to deal with zoonoses. The Government rejected them and substituted an amendment that covered only human health. I hope that the Minister will reconsider that provision before the next epidemic so that we do not suddenly find that we have no means of closing areas that are open under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
I make no apology for heaping praise on local government officers again. Trading standards officers as well as those in charge of rights of way have borne much of the pressure. If my county is typical, those officers have met almost daily to make decisions and to work with MAFF officials, vets, valuers and others in the private sector. That shows how emergency planning can work, despite some difficulties.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that he agrees that there are great differences between local authorities in the extent of emergency planning and the environmental health advice that they are offered. Relatively few county councils have a scientific department, which could provide the sort of advice that elected representatives need to deal with such a crisis.
We are trying to deal with a veterinary crisis without many of the Government vets who should be in place. That is a criticism not of the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister, but of decisions that were taken earlier to halve the number of vets in the Government service. That has greatly weakened our ability to respond to this crisis.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, at the beginning of this outbreak, we had half the vets that we had at the time of the 1967 outbreak? That reflects what has been happening to the Government's veterinary service. We need to consider that matter—after we have got rid of the disease, obviously—in terms of contingency planning for the future and of co-ordinating these issues at a European level. We now have partners in Europe that we did not have in 1967.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously right. That was the point that I was making We are less able to deal with a crisis of this kind because of some very foolish decisions that were taken some years ago to reduce our effective barriers to epidemic. That has been exacerbated by the closure of abattoirs, especially small abattoirs, and by the fact that we now move animals over much greater distances on a more regular basis.
On the action being taken, I suspect that the Minister's tactics for dealing with the epidemic are absolutely right. They certainly accord with the veterinary advice that he has received. I shall not enter into the discussion about inoculation as a means of fighting the disease, although I would be interested to know what contrary advice the Dutch Government received that brought them to a different decision. In my constituency, a gentleman is electioneering on the basis that he would introduce immediate inoculation and vaccination as a means of dealing with the problem. I think that he is entirely wrong-headed in that view and that, if he were to put it to farmers, they would show him the error of his ways.
We have already touched on the problem of the time lag between diagnosis and slaughter. The Minister said that he had been dealing with that. I can only say to him that it is not before time. That was a matter of great concern to many farmers who recognised that their flocks or herds were potentially diseased, but who had to wait for the diagnosis to be confirmed before anything could be done about it, knowing that all the time their animals were breathing out a plume of virus that could infect other animals on their farm or a neighbouring one.
Local management has been a major issue. I do not say that to criticise the regional veterinary officers. I am simply saying that they were overloaded with the logistical demands that were placed on them to deal with the veterinary side of their work and with everything else that they were being asked to do. It should have been obvious from the time when it became clear that we had two foci of infection—or three, if we include the Welsh borders, the Marches—that there needed to be a single person in charge. That is a matter of management, and a matter for the civil service, but I commend the decision that has now been made to put such a person in place. That is exactly the right decision.
On disposal, I believed from day one that burial was a better option, particularly for the relatively small number of carcases that we were dealing with in the early stage of the epidemic. I am disappointed that that option was rejected so early, that the Minister is still, apparently, fighting battles with other Departments about the ways of dealing with carcases, and that that method has not been made available.
On the use of the Army, I have received messages from, and had direct contact with, people involved with the Army who cannot understand why the relevant units are not being used. Let us remember that four Royal Engineers units and five Territorial Army regiments are stationed in the UK. They have 140 devices known as combat engineer tractors, which are not tractors at all, but are similar to the JCBs that one finds in civilian life, except that they have tracks on them. Those devices have not been brought into use, and neither has the Royal Logistic Corps. I find it difficult to understand why it is considered preferable for support to be provided by a few military policemen, however eminently qualified they may be, rather than by Royal Engineers with diggers, who could do the job.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The key point is that, in a crisis that is overwhelming rural areas to such an extent, every single part of Government should have been mobilised from day one. There is sufficient evidence that that was not the case and that MAFF tried to fight a lone battle without the support of other Departments. Indeed, some decisions seem inexplicable.
The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service was effectively laid off from day one because it could not go on to farms. An agriculture advisory service that cannot get on to farms is no good and it had to sit around at home, waiting. Although it was put at the Minister's disposal, no staff were deployed to assist the Ministry in dealing with the epidemic until two or three weeks later. That is a scandalous waste of a human resources.
Mr. Lembit Ãâpik:
Does my hon. Friend agree that a consequence of that waste is concern among the farming community that it has not heard enough about the rationale for the culls? Does he also agree that the Government could and should, as a matter of urgency and to ensure that the partnership between farmers and the Ministry continues, outline a clear justification for these dramatic measures? I am sure that they have to be taken, but their logic has not always been clear to people who have to suffer the consequences.
My hon. Friend is right. He is referring to the clarity of the information provided and I shall come to that.
On resources, clearly there have not been enough vets in the field. Part of the problem has been the rate of pay, which the Minister has increased from £160 to £250. That is welcome, and I hope that the increase goes some way to meeting needs, but it has been reported to me that valuers are being paid £500 a day plus commission. Perhaps he can confirm that. Our sense of priorities seems topsy-turvy: we pay vets less than half what we pay valuers to value carcases after diagnosis. That is nonsensical and I hope that the Minister will consider it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way a second time.
I have talked to valuers and we must be fair to them. They make two points: first, they need to value when the animal is alive, so they need to be on the scene quickly. Secondly, they face the same problems as vets in being unable to go on to farms. It is important to understand that there is a difference between clean and dirty vets, and valuers, and how that delays the process.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I am not convinced that valuers have to value while the animal is alive. If the Ministry changed its specifications, they would not have to do so. I suggest in the gentlest way possible that vets also have to examine animals while they are alive and they have the same restrictions placed on them. Perhaps there is an equivalence that he is not addressing.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Minister's offer to give Members of Parliament information on the epidemiology and other matters through a presentation. That is extremely helpful. However, on the provision of information to farmers and concerned people, I have serious worries about the extent of readiness. There is huge reliance on the internet, but it is a foreign country to an awful lot of farmers and they simply are not using it to get advice. They simply do not know what is put on the internet for their benefit and the amount of information sent to them on paper is nugatory. In fact, they have received practically none, which does not help them to deal effectively with the disease.
Information will not have been received by many people who keep animals on smallholdings. A few years ago, I would have counted myself as one, as I bred Tamworth pigs and kept a few breeding sows. As I had only a small herd, I would not have been on any list of farmers and it would have been difficult to find out what to do and what precautions to take. Those who think that that is not important should remember that the closure of Exmoor resulted from an outbreak in a flock of eight sheep. A small amount of infectivity in a tiny herd can cause a real problem.
More information should be made available and the Ministry could valuably have used intermediaries. That takes us back to the point about the use of ADAS officials, because there is also a case for using farmers themselves as intermediaries. They have offered their services as liaison officers and they could talk to their colleagues. Surely we should take them up on that offer and use them effectively.
The clarity of the information provided leaves much to be desired. Partly because of the structure of government, there have been apparent mismatches between information and a hice from MAFF and from other Departments. That does not always happen in the devolved Administrations, however, and the guidance from the National Assembly for Wales, whose Minister for Rural Affairs is overseeing those matters, is immeasurably better than any so far produced in England, and I commend it to the House. It shows the advantages of genuinely joined-up government.
Welfare disposal schemes have been discussed and it is a great shame that the pig scheme at least is not yet in place. I understand the difficulties with sheep, but there is a real problem with pigs because weaners cannot be moved on for finishing and the older pigs are still hanging around. The welfare problem needs to be dealt with and we need clarity as to the welfare disposal schemes. We also need the potential for on-farm slaughter to assist the process.
On ewes, I have a story to tell from Mr. Guy Thomas-Everard, who farms in west Somerset. He has ewes in lamb that he wants to move to lambing sheds just across the A396. However, he needs a movement order and he got in touch with the Ministry two or three days ago to request one. He rang me this morning to say that he had been told that there was a licence sitting on a desk at the MAFF regional office in Bristol, but it could not be issued because there was no executive officer there to sign it. That is not satisfactory, as bureaucracy is overriding common sense. The matter needs to be considered.
Maureen Prince, who I believe lives in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the Conservative party, and her colleagues arranged to produce a disposal mechanism by cremating carcases on their property to stop piles of animals building up. The vets agreed, but the Ministry said no. Officials do not have to say yes or no on every single case; we should use common sense to fight the disease.
On welfare of people, I commend the Farm Crisis Network, which has been doing a marvellous job. Farmers are concerned about whether they can pay their taxes; they are worried about Lady day; they are worried about their rent; they are worried about how to make ends meet. That is the main problem, and the point has been repeatedly made that it goes well beyond farming.
Shopkeepers in my constituency in towns well away from farming and tourist areas all say that their businesses are being decimated, mainly because a lot of them depend on people visiting out of season, perhaps at this time of year. Such people are generally fairly well off. They read The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph, which tell them that they must not go to country areas. Being socially aware and responsible, they do not—and do not spend their money. As a result, the newsagent, the butcher and the food shop, for instance, experience cash flow problems.
Although I welcomed the announcement made by the Minister for the Environment, serious questions remain to be asked. Many measures are still being considered, rather than being introduced. Moreover, it appears from what we heard from the Prime Minister today, that the relief is going only to communities identified as being rural—communities of fewer than 3,000. Many of the problems exist in market towns with populations of more than 3,000, and if they are left out the help will not reach those whom it needs to reach. We need much more clarity about the arrangements relating to value-added and other tax.
Mr. Guy Thomas-Everard, to whom I am indebted for his contribution, says that he was in touch with the Taunton Inland Revenue office today. After a delay, he was told to ring a special helpline number. When he did so, he was told to ring the Taunton tax office, which then said that it had no information above the Government's plans and could not help. We can do without lack of co-ordination of that kind.
Let me say something about the financial position of farmers specifically. It would help us enormously to know what is to be done about cattle aged over 30 months, and cattle going through the over-30-months barrier, while they are in a restricted area. It would also help us enormously to know what will happen to lambs that would normally be taken to market but which, by the time the restrictions end, will unfortunately be mutton.
Is it not extraordinary that people with lambs that are ready for marketing and—in my constituency, certainly—are within 10 miles of a slaughterhouse cannot market them, because they are in a restricted area? This morning the Minister told the Select Committee that sending animals directly to the slaughterhouse was the option carrying the least risk. Would it not improve farmers' cashflow and get the meat to the supermarkets?
That is self-evident, and I hope that the Minister will consider it.
I understand that there has been an almost automatic derogation to allow grazing of agri-environmental scheme land under the current emergency. That is very welcome, but will the Minister also consider delaying the 31 May deadline for new applications for the countryside stewardship scheme? At present, no application can properly be made because no one can go on to the land—and once the deadline has been missed, a whole year will pass before assistance is received.
Let me ask a more fundamental question. Will the Minister look at commodity prices? We hoped that the dairy industry had finally secured an uplift in milk prices over the past month or so, but that now seems a forlorn hope. We also hoped that there might be an improvement in meat prices, but there is now a very variable situation throughout the country, and the lack of an effective market—because of the lack of literal markets—means that prices are depressed, especially in certain sectors. Will the Minister consider the National Beef Association's proposals for a price-fixing mechanism as a temporary measure? That would restore at least some common sense while no genuine market exists.
As a great many Members wish to speak, I shall draw my remarks to a close. I hope that the Minister has not ruled out the possibility of a degree of consequential-loss compensation, for which we have argued from day one. I am thinking particularly of those who are directly affected by Government decisions over which they have no control: they cannot make alternative arrangements, and meanwhile they are experiencing substantial losses.
Will the Minister ensure that the strongest possible case is put to the Government for proper use of contingency funds? If this is not a crisis of the kind for which such funds are intended, I do not know what is. The Ministry should ensure that other Departments are mobilised as well, because we are fighting a war against this disease, and if we are to continue to do so we must ensure that all available resources are deployed effectively. I am afraid that many people in rural areas, while applauding some of the Minister's actions, say that not enough has been done so far.
There is a lot of anguish in my constituency today. That was demonstrated this morning, when a number of my constituents from the inner Lakeland area, in particular, the town of Keswick—under the flag of the Cumbria crisis alliance, which was set up recently—spoke of their concern. I have also had meetings with representatives of the tourism industry over the last couple of weeks, most recently at my home last weekend. A number of people attended, including representatives of all the tradesmen in my constituency and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
There are problems, and there is a feeling that many of them are not being addressed. It is not just a question of a Government response. So far, 193 businesses have told the Cumbria tourist board that they are in trouble. For example, 17 of Cumbria's 24 youth hostels have closed. In fact, however, the Lake district is effectively still open, because many of our towns and villages are still providing the facilities that they have historically provided. The problem exists on the fells and at the access points. They are closed, but there are still many parts of Cumbria that warrant visits by tourists. Keswick is still open; our attractions are still open.
Before reaching the centrepiece of my speech, I want to say something about the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment yesterday. They are welcome as a first stage, but it is important to keep a close eye on developments over the coming weeks. There will be further problems despite the introduction of those measures, and dramatic action may be needed to resolve them.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) advocated a subsidy for hoteliers and other operators in the Lake district national park to help them with their advertising bills, so that they can decide where to advertise in the national media. I support that idea, and also ask my hon. Friends to keep in mind the suggestion that I made yesterday—that attractions in the county should be subsidised. Honeypot attractions may well be the best way of bringing people back. The county contains more than 100 such attractions, many of which are still open. There are lake cruises, sports centres and environmental attractions, all of which could well be supported with taxpayers' money.
I think that the county's car parks should be free. I also think that, as the crisis develops, we should seriously consider introducing a system of free public transport, enabling people to travel throughout the Lake district easily and without expense.
I turn to what I believe to be an important issue. There are problems within MAFF in Cumbria. I believe that they will be addressed, but I think that my constituents and certainly the farmers are entitled to know that we know what they are.
The work that the vets have been doing is wonderful; they are much appreciated by the farmers. In my office, we have had repeated calls from farmers saying how pleased they are with the service that is being provided. However, the problem in the county is in MAFF's management structure. Indeed, the director—the local officer responsible for operations—has not proved competent in dealing with the crisis. The machine has been desperately slow. There has been a lack of lateral thinking. That local officer has not got things in Cumbria under control, despite the information that he has been giving Ministers and the private office to the effect that things are under control: they are not.
There has been too much sticking to protocol. As far as I can see, there has been a complete breakdown in communication between Cumbria and MAFF officers in London. Information has not been getting through on the failure of resources to deal with the escalating crisis, but I am assured by Ministers that the financial resources are there. That is not the problem; it is a logistical problem. Indeed, I welcome the most recent initiatives that have been taken by the Government in that area.
One very informed person told me that the management insisted on every box being ticked. That perhaps indicates the nature of the problem. Others have said that the local machine has been an old dinosaur at work, and that decisions were taking too long.
More control is needed at local vet level so that fast action can be taken and all the necessary arrangements introduced. The six-day delay from notification to disposal has been unacceptable. That has been exploited by the media in the county, reasonably, in my view, because it is a matter of legitimate concern. To this day, I cannot understand why the MAFF representative in Cumbria was not relaying to the Department his particular concerns in that area. I do not think that, in 22 years, I have ever criticised a civil servant from the Floor of the House of Commons, but the way the situation has been managed by senior management has been such a disaster that I have to say it; this is the forum in which to say it.
Another constituent said that we were not getting on top of the problem. We are still dealing only with reported cases, not with potentially traceable cases. I understand that the water board and a number of contractors have offered heavy equipment. I am told that they have been turned down. Where are the Royal Engineers? Why was there a shortage early on of slaughterers? Why was the centre told that everything was in order when there was a shortage of slaughterers? Why were we not told nationally that there was a shortage of vets? Every hon. Member in the county was picking that up, but the last people to admit it were those in the Department itself.
The other day, when a MAFF official was being interviewed on camera by Border Television, I had to intervene to protest at the way in which the questions were being answered. Even as late as our meeting in Kendal last Thursday, officials were not prepared to spell out what the deficiencies were in the county. It was only after I had intervened that I noticed a change in the approach of that interviewee. I am told that there is no shortage of money; I am satisfied that it is simply a matter of organisation.
May I say how much I welcome the appointment of the new controller of operations, Mrs. Jane Brown, a grade five civil servant who in the past day has gone up from London? Let her be fully aware of the fact that I will unreservedly support her, as I hope other hon. Members will, in some of the difficult decisions that she will have to take. If we are going to wipe the problem out, we must adopt a fresh, almost ruthless approach. We cannot afford the delays that have characterised the approach up to now; delays have certainly characterised the approach in Cumbria.
I congratulate Ben Gill on the courageous way in which he has led the NFU during this difficult period. He has had to stand up to complaints in Cumbria from local NFU representatives, who are under pressure from local communities. He has stood by a principle that he believes in—the idea that real action was necessary.
I refer to the future. My view is that the way the disease has been managed in Cumbria has been so unsatisfactory—I have mentioned a civil servant who has been responsible for the programme—that the National Audit Office will inevitably have to hold an inquiry. It will be as a result of that inquiry that the truth will unfold.
What worries me—I will be frank—is that the Government will be blamed for deficiencies at local level that were not fully revealed to Government. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. Ministers are certainly responsible for what has happened. I understand that, but I am worried about the fact that a lot of the information was not getting through to them. We expect our civil servants to reveal to Ministers in times of crisis precisely what is happening on the ground. In this case, it did not happen.
In the 18 years I have been privileged to be a Member of Parliament representing a wonderful part of Cumbria, we have faced various threats: the possibility of Sellafield closing or losing jobs, of the north-west railway line going into decline and not being repaired, and of Carlisle not getting a new hospital. All have been major issues, but I have never before seen or faced the complete meltdown of our county. The danger we face in Cumbria is that we will suffer such losses in the rural sector, in tourism and in other industries that it will take us years and years to recover.
I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who have two or three cases of foot and mouth in their constituencies, to those who have 48 or 45 cases in their constituencies—they can appreciate the extent of the damage—or to those who have 12 or 15 cases: I pray to God that they do not get 130 cases in their constituency. I pray to God that it does not get into their cattle herds and cut a swathe through their area, as it is doing through my constituency tonight.
Foot and mouth is now hitting farms in my constituency at the rate of more than 1 an hour: there have been 29 cases in the past 24 hours. I cannot count the number of sheep that have been slaughtered: it must be between 5,000 and 10,000. I give the numbers of cattle that have been slaughtered on individual farms: 152, 100, 184, 225, 320, 154, 150, 160, 157, 467, 425, 400, 205 and 870. Can colleagues imagine the cremation pyre for 870 prime cattle? What is happening in that part of north Cumbria tonight is almost unimaginable.
There will have to be a mega-inquiry after this. Today is not the day for recriminations. I could fill volumes with the stories that I have heard in the past few weeks on how the problem has been handled, but I wish to flag up a few issues. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours) has been right to say that the whole issue has been a shambles at times, but he should not put the blame solely on one official in Cumbria. It was on 5 March that I called for the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps to be called in to help. The help arrived only this week, 15 days later. On 8 March, I called for more resources and said that the situation was out of control in Cumbria. Two days later, the Minister said that everything was under control.
On 10 March, I called for more vets from around the world to be called in. I know the MAFF contingency plan—call up Commonwealth vets and some others through the vets network—but I thought that we needed more. On 11 March, I called for vetelinary students to be mobilised and vets to be permitted to authorise killing without waiting for lab results. We are still sending 10 per cent. of tests for results. That is not necessary.
One Labour Member said that the vets had to make only one phone call, but one phone call to whom? Should they phone someone in Carlisle, or someone in London—someone who is not looking at the cattle and the sheep with the blisters? Why should a qualified vet have to phone anyone to say, "I have found cattle with blisters; it is foot and mouth," and then seek permission to authorise killing? It may only involve a matter of minutes for the vet to pick up the phone, but I suggest that the decision may take slightly longer.
On 13 March, I sent the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a ten-point plan. I say to the hon. Member for Workington that I sent it not to Carlisle, but directly to the Minister's office. In point 1, I said:
We are desperately short of vets, particularly in Cumbria.
I urged the Minister to call the colleges as they, the universities and the schools would be going on holiday soon. Hundreds of student vets would be available, and we should get them in now.
I asked for the five-day quarantine; ban on vets to be lifted; I referred to that as recycling dirty vets more quickly. I also said:
When the new 'suspect' farm is contiguous to or near a confirmed farm then the 5 day ban is now totally unnecessary. Of course contaminated vets should not go near a likely clean farm of a suspect miles away.
I understand that that is now under consideration, but I called for it on 13 March.
In point 2, I said that vets must be
given the authority to order a kill as soon as they see Foot and Mouth on a farm.
I asked the Minister to let Ministry vets
slaughter herds if they honestly believe, from the clinical signs, that it is foot and mouth.
In point 3, I said:
Valuation and slaughter teams must go in immediately after a vet confirms Foot and Mouth.
There are plenty of valuers around … We have cases in Cumbria of animals waiting up to 10 days to be slaughtered after a farmer and a vet suspect Foot and Mouth disease.
That was a week ago and the length of time has come down considerably. It is now down to two or three days, but that is still far too long.
In point 4, I said:
Burial must now be included as an option.
Please intervene with the Environment Agency and insist that burial can be a safe option especially for sheep. You do not need to bury everything and with vast quantities of lime it is a safe option when the water table is low.
I asked the Minister to give himself
three options—burning, rendering and burial, and that would give MAFF a chance to get ahead of the game.
In point 5, I called for the power to seal off minor roads; in point 6, I called for disinfectant zones to be created on major roads. In point 8, I said that all unnecessary activity in the heavily infected areas of the country should be stopped. In point 9, I called for the setting up of
a national MAFF advisory telephone bank with lots of staff to tell farmers what to do about Form D restrictions.
I have lots of evidence of farmers being given a Form D and no-one then contacts them again. I am told that one farmer, in Cumbria, in ignorance, has moved silage from one farm to the other and spread Foot and Mouth disease.
Finally, I said that massive television and radio advertising should be used to warn and advise the public. Apparently, that will now happen, but I called for it on 13 March. On 14 March, I wrote to the Minister to beg him to grant Cumbria county council the power to close minor roads.
On 15 March—the famous Ides of March—Nye had the mistake of the Minister, when he included cattle. It is trendy these days for people to sue because of stress experienced for minor things. Last Thursday night in Cumbria, I could have found 10,000 farmers who would have sued for millions because of the stress that they suffered before the Minister had the decency, correctly, to go back on television and apologise for the mistake that had been made.
On 17 March, in desperation, I wrote to the Minister again. I said that there were now two things to do. The first was to appoint a supremo to take command in Cumbria. A team of experts should be sent there and control should be devolved. I believe that Jane Brown has arrived there today. I am grateful to the Government for listening to my suggestion.
I also called for the Army, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Logistic Corps to organise things. I said that there were plenty of civil contractors and that we did not need troops digging trenches; civil engineers could do that. In Cumbria, there are dozens of firms that are not allowed on to farms; agricultural drainage engineers and contractors cannot go near farms. Their plant is sitting idle and they desperately want to help. I concluded by saying that the appalling delay in Cumbria had been caused by a failure of the whole logistical back-up system to kill and to dispose of animals quickly enough.
What we do not have in Cumbria—despite the Prime Minister's words today, I suspect that we will not have it by the end of the week—is the situation that I called for in my letter to the Minister. I said:
You must get to the situation that when a farmer calls with a suspect case, a MAFF vet can be there within two hours at most. If he or she, from a clinical examination, believes there is foot and mouth then that vet must have the authority to authorise the slaughter and make one telephone call to the Emergency Command Centre who will then dispatch completely self contained teams to deal with it. That team would have an auctioneer to do the valuation, a slaughter group to conduct humane slaughter with proper captive bolt pistols and they would be followed on to the site immediately by a big team of private contractors and/or aided by Army Engineers to dig the holes necessary, build the pyres and get the carcases onto them. That team should not come off the farm until the fires are out and a decontamination unit has decontaminated the farm along with all the vehicles, personnel and equipment of those who carried out the burn or burial.
Is that wrong? Have I got that plan wrong? From my experience as a MAFF Minister; from my lay experience as an appointee, by this Government, to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; and from my knowledge as a junior officer in the Territorial Army, I know that there is a simple logistical task for the military to do. That task, understandably, was not for MAFF's qualified vets, who have their own speciality: diagnosing the disease and calling in the others.
Tonight, I am not confident, but we are slightly further down the road. So much time has been wasted, however. The disease has now reached epidemic proportions and a firestorm is sweeping through north Cumbria tonight. For the sake of our whole country, I say to those colleagues with one or two cases—or with 45, as the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) has in his area—and to others with ten or a dozen cases: I hope that we in Cumbria have a unique epidemic and that that hotspot will remain unique to us. I would not wish this on the rest of the country for a king's ransom.
We must have on-farm burials in Cumbria. I will not bore the House by reading out the letter that I sent the Minister for the Environment on Sunday, urging him to overrule his own Environment Agency and to permit on-farm burials. I also wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, urging him to overrule the Environment Agency. From all sides we have had demands to let burials on farms proceed. I know that that is MAFF policy; it has always been MAFF policy and it is the safest policy.
My criticism of the Government and of MAFF Ministers is that they should have had the courage to say that we faced a crisis of epidemic proportions and that, in most cases, there would be on-farm burial, except in a few cases where it was unsafe to do so. Cremation would then take over.
I beg the Minister not to use two council refuse tips in Cumbria—the waste tips at Hespin wood and Flusco quarry. Flusco quarry was going to be closed by the Environment Agency three years ago because it is a limestone quarry and even domestic garbage was leaking out. Now it has been lined with plastic and is to be sealed. A methane gas pipe is to be put in; if 6,000 sheep are put in it, it had better be a big pipe.
We have 100 years of experience of what happens to animals when they rot in the ground. We have no experience of what happens when they are in a sealed—
I do not intend to speak for too long this evening. I share the anguish of other Members and the worries of all those who are so desperately affected in the 29 areas of the country that have been touched by this outbreak of foot and mouth.
I appreciate that agriculture is an issue devolved to the Scottish Parliament; none the less, I would hope that Members in this House will appreciate that devolution can be swept to one side. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said that there were 45 cases in my area; the latest figures I have show that that is rapidly increasing towards 60.
We must share the difficulties that face those affected. Some people, until four or five weeks ago, would have looked at agriculture and said, frankly, that it had nothing to do with them. Only now are they beginning to see that what is happening is seriously impacting on their lives and livelihoods.
Many animals in Dumfries and Galloway are still waiting to be slaughtered. The numbers involved are astonishing, especially given how many animals have been slaughtered already. I got a real glimpse of what was happening when I visited the community in Langholm in the east of my constituency a week last Friday. I was due to meet local people to discuss the impact that the outbreak was having on them, and what the future held. It was evening, and as I crossed the bridge into the town the fields to my left were on fire. That was the first time that I had ever witnessed the sight: television footage or newspaper photographs do not give a real impression of what it is like.
I hope that hon. Members attending the debate, and those who have not been able to do so, will read what has been said today, and consider the extent to which the disease is affecting people. For example, schoolchildren cannot begin to understand what is going wrong in their communities. They have been moved back and forth every day for perhaps a week or 10 days. There is smoke in the atmosphere, and the fields seem to be on fire after dark. That is not a healthy environment—not because of the smoke, but because of what people are seeing every day.
On the evening about which I am talking, I met the local community initiative group. We talked about concerns involving tourism and small rural shops. Rural areas do not have strong and vibrant economies, so everything is based on small and medium-sized enterprises. A lot of help will be needed in the future.
I have spoken in some detail with the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border several times over the past couple of weeks, and he has told me that his perception is that the authorities in Dumfries and Galloway are coping much better than their counterparts in Cumbria. The House has heard this evening, from the right hon. Gentleman and from my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours), how desperate the situation in Cumbria has been.
The Dumfries and Galloway local authority has co-ordinated the work in my area, and it has done an excellent job, controlling operations from a bunker at the council headquarters. People working there have been through some pretty desperate days, and I think back to the Lockerbie air disaster in 1988. My predecessor in the constituency was constantly in touch with the command centre at that time, when it was also having to deal with an extremely difficult situation. I do not want to draw comparisons between then and now but this foot and mouth outbreak has been my worst nightmare. I only wish that I could wake up and find that it had never happened.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been criticised for saying that the outbreak was under control. I want to examine what controlling the disease has meant to those working at the sharp end in my area. They have tried to keep this terrible disease within the confines of the local authority boundary, and to ensure that it does not spill over. Clearly, the disease may have spilled over from Cumbria into my area, and vice versa, but we are trying desperately to ensure that it does not go further afield and reach Ayrshire and the Scottish borders.
A lot of help will be needed, and Ross Finnie, the Rural Affairs Minister of the Scottish Executive, will be making announcements in the coming days about what help will be made available. For my part, I have spoken to the banks to encourage them to help people affected by the outbreak. Only one of the three main banks in Scotland has responded to my appeal, and I am bitterly disappointed that they are not responding quickly enough to people's needs.
My constituency has five large estates, and many tenant farmers. I am not about to say that different treatment should be given to different people, but we must look closely at what is being done. Tenant farmers watching all that they own being wiped out must wonder how they will survive. If they want to stay in the business, they will have to hang on to the end of the year, when they can buy stock. However, the price of that stock will be much greater than it is at present. Breeding will take place next season, so businesses will only start to reap any benefits 18 months from now.
People cannot survive on fresh air, so support must be made available. Especially careful thought must be given to the problem of what we must do for some tenant farmers.
There are some excellent pedigree animals in my area. People are desperately worried about the Cheviot flocks grazing on hills in the east of my constituency, and about what can be done to protect them. There are also excellent flocks of Suffolks and Texels, and we must do our utmost to protect them, as their strong bloodlines extend over generations.
I have also been contacted by families with pet sheep and lambs. One's heart has to go out to them too; they need as much support as possible.
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border will be sick of hearing me say what I have said so often over the past couple of weeks, which is that I have almost ceased operating as a politician. I am more of a social worker, talking to people on the telephone for 30 and 40 minutes at a time, rather than the usual five minutes. In the current situation, all hon. Members must undertake such long conversations with people, simply as a matter of decency. I am delighted to have been able to put social workers at Dumfries and Galloway council in touch with people whom I consider to be at risk. They are happy to step in and ensure that people are getting the support that they need.
At the end of the day, questions will be asked about the cause of the outbreak, and who is to blame. We will have to get back to the fundamentals: if there has been something wrong in the conduct of someone's business which has caused this tragedy, we will have to deal with that. I would go as far as to say that, if necessary, the matter should be dealt with through the court system.
The shape of our countryside will be different in the future. There is always a glimmer of hope when a tragedy such as this comes along. We will have to look closely at agriculture, and all the other elements that feed into it. I hope that we will be able to do so sooner rather than later.