Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:25 pm on 21st March 2001.

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Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls Conservative, Teignbridge 9:25 pm, 21st March 2001

I commend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for the way in which he opened the debate. He was correct to say that this is not a party political matter, and he handled it as such. Indeed, how could it be a party political matter? We all agree on the problem, which is foot and mouth, and we all agree on the solution, which is eradication.

The right hon. Gentleman's remarks were in contrast to those made by the Leader of the House yesterday, perhaps by way of a slip, when she said that animals were in quarantine, not people. Two farmers who telephoned me today after hearing that were extremely frightened by the implications, but that is not the tone in which the Minister conducted the debate and I am grateful to him for it.

It is essential that country people have confidence in the way in which the system is operating. The Minister may find it unpleasant to know this, but he must understand that there is a lack of confidence in the far south-west about some aspects of the situation. Time does not allow me to quote correspondence in great detail, but one farmer who wrote to me, Roderick Young, said that the tenants of a particular farm have been subjected to living in quarantine surrounded by their stinking dead animals for the last six to seven days. He concluded: It is quite obvious to those on the ground. surrounded by the stinking, rotting carcasses of their animals that something is not quite right. He makes a good point.

If we have 108,000 animals waiting to be slaughtered and 80,000 waiting to be disposed of, we are not there yet. That is why I wish that the Minister had been able to consider using the Army in a different way. Nobody suggests that the Army should go boar hunting in Essex, but it does have expertise, through the engineers, in performing tasks such as burial, and it would be well capable of doing that. I shall not ask the Minister to assent to my next comment because I do not think that he will like what follows. I suspect that he might have some sympathy with what I am saying, but the Army is not being used in that way because the Prime Minister knows that if it were, the cat would be right out of the bag and people would realise that this is a national crisis that goes far beyond the regions that are affected.

As this is a national crisis, we have gone far beyond mere talk of compensation. We must realise that we are talking not about compensating individuals, but about the need for massive infrastructural input to ensure that whole regions do not simply crash out of economic prosperity altogether.

In the hope that many of the hon. Members who have been here for some time will be able to contribute to the debate, I shall make my final point. We must look at control. The Agriculture Minister will remember an exchange with me on 1 February. when I put it to him that when there is good, solid evidence abroad about unsafe meat coming into this country, it is not a sufficient response to say that to act in those circumstances might be considered anti-European. The one point that is common ground between us—the Minister has always had the courage and grace to admit it—is that this condition came from overseas, and whatever other conclusions we come to, we need to look at our importation controls.