Foot and Mouth (Cumbria)

– in the House of Commons at 9:44 pm on 21 March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Touhig.]

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle 10:17, 21 March 2001

I apologise to the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for keeping her on the Front Bench. She has been here for most of the day and I am sorry that she will have to be here for a while yet.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to my constituency on Sunday at very short notice to talk to the National Farmers Union and the farmers regarding the very serious problems that Cumbria has with foot and mouth? There are more cases of foot and mouth in Cumbria than in any other county in the United Kingdom. In my constituency, which does not have a very big rural area, two more cases were identified today. The problems are increasing.

There will obviously be an inquiry into the outbreak. It may be through the Select Committee system or there may be a public inquiry. When that inquiry is held, it will look into the reasons for the outbreak, what went wrong, what went right and how we will deal with the situation next time. It will come back to the fact that what really started the problem was the two or three-week delay in the notification of the disease at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. Unfortunately, that delay allowed the disease to spread throughout the country, specifically within Cumbria. That has led to the problems that we see today.

Much concern has been expressed today about the farmers and their families. I reiterate that; there is no doubt that they are devastated and, in many cases, are in despair. I have talked to farmers in my constituency and throughout Cumbria and there is a sense of desperation.

My constituency is mainly urban—90 per cent. of the population is urban—but there is no division between the two communities. There is great support among those who live in the city centre for help for those on the farms and in the rural community. Carlisle city council intends to allocate £250,000 tomorrow for aid for those who are suffering, and I applaud that. There is no division between the communities, and no one should try to create one. There has been too much talk in this House over the years of town and country: this crisis has brought us together, and it should keep us together.

Concern has been expressed about how the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has dealt with the situation. Some farmers' grievances are justified, even if others arise from anger that something has gone wrong and a need to blame someone for it. Certainly, no blame can be laid against the staff who have worked in my constituency. The vets and slaughtermen, those who have gone out to farms and those who work at Rosehill, Edenbridge house and the new crisis centre that has been set up at the civic centre have worked tremendously hard. Unfortunately, we must ask them to work that hard for a lot longer since there is no sign of abatement. I pay tribute to them.

The Government made the right decision in deciding that the regional headquarters in my constituency should expand. It was under threat, but if we had closed it, Cumbria would have more serious problems now. The decision to expand it depended greatly on the calibre of the staff, and they have shown that calibre recently.

There has been criticism about communication problems. Whether the true extent of the problems did not go down the line from Carlisle to Whitehall, or whether Whitehall was not listening, I do tot know. I have, however, been deeply concerned about those problems, and have brought them to the Minister's attention. Over the weekend, too, I made several telephone calls to Downing street. I am glad that a senior civil servant, Jane Brown, has been sent to Cumbria, and I hope that the Minister will tell us more about her brief. I hope that she will have powers to take the immediate decisions needed if we are to get on top of the crisis.

Last Thursday's announcement on a cull within 3 km of an affected farm was greeted with anger and dismay by some farmers in my constituency That anger abated somewhat when we clarified the position with regard to cattle, and there has been further change since then because my right hon. Friend the Minister of State met National Farmers Union representatives in Carlisle on Sunday and went on television later to explain the policy to people beyond that group. In addition, the chief vet, Jim Scudamore, came on Monday to talk to vets and farmers.

Time has also changed matters since last Thursday. Almost a week later, it has become apparent that the Government's policy announcement was correct. The increase in cases has proved the Government right, though I must enter the caveat that we have to listen to local opinion, especially among vets. Where a farmer has good reason to protect his stock, that farmer should have a right to appeal.

I have already thanked my right hon. Friend for coming to Cumbria on Sunday. The NFU in Carlisle much appreciated her visit, and she learned as much as they did from it. She was told one or two things about which she had not been aware, particularly about delays. I also pay tribute to the NFU in Cumbria with whom my relationship has not always been of the best, but we have worked well together during this crisis. I pay tribute to Nick Utting, the local NFU secretary. We have done a lot, but much remains to be done.

Will my right hon. Friend the Minister of State give me some information on targets? There is still concern about delays, although I accept that the situation is improving. I hope that as soon as an outbreak is confirmed—or perhaps as soon as it is suspected—the target should be that action is taken: the diseased animals should be destroyed within 24 hours and within a further 24 hours they should be buried or removed from the site—sent to the rendering plant or whatever. That is important. We cannot say that the outbreak is under control until we can act within such time limits. Hopefully, the number of cases will start to decline in the not too distant future, but the problem will continue for a while.

I wholly support the involvement of the Army; that is obviously a help and we shall see the benefits. However, I am not sure whether we need to bring up hundreds of soldiers with heavy-lifting equipment—probably from the south of England—to carry out burial and disposal. Good civil engineers and building contractors in Cumbria have the expertise to carry out such work, with the advantage that they are there already—we do hot have to wait for them to arrive from Salisbury plain or wherever. I hope that my right hon. Friend will carefully consider the involvement of more local contractors to help with disposals.

Compensation for slaughtered animals is being paid quickly—that point came out at our meeting with the NFU. There is no problem with that; the animals are valued and slaughtered and the cheques are being sent out. There was no complaint about that, which is good. However, the agriculture sector will need a great deal of support over the next three to six months—perhaps for a year or more. The Government must find ways of providing that support.

We need to examine the structure of the agricultural industry. We should consider what we really need in Cumbria—what we want farms to do—and make the necessary adjustments in the sector.

I welcome the support announced by the Government yesterday for the wider rural economy. However, we need to look further into the matter, so it was especially pleasing to hear that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment had agreed to meet a delegation from Cumbria to discuss what is needed to help the whole county. I hope that meeting will take place towards the end of next week, because immediate action is needed.

Agriculture is not the only problem—tourism faces great problems. The affected areas of Cumbria stretch from Silloth on the Solway plain to my constituency and up to the Scottish border and south of Penrith—probably a quarter of the county. Fortunately, the rest of the county does not seem to be affected yet—touch wood. However, there are effects on the whole of Cumbria because of television programmes and pictures in the newspapers that suggest that the entire county is affected. That is not the truth. Areas such as Barrow, Whitehaven, Kendal and Workington do not have a problem. People can visit those places and enjoy their holidays. We must get that message across.

It is not helpful when the Leader of the Opposition says that the Cumbria tourist board is in favour of cancelling the elections. I have checked that point. The tourist board did not say that; it is the personal view of the chief executive. Obviously, I understand that the Leader of the Opposition misquotes people; he misquoted me today. I still have not found out where he got the quote relating to my criticism of the Government.

It would be wrong to cancel the local elections in Cumbria, especially if we are singled out along with Devon. What does that say to people who are thinking of coming to stay? It suggests that there is something seriously wrong in Cumbria, and people will not go there. Let us consider the impact that that is having on the Cumbrian economy. Agriculture is losing £5 million a week and the tourist trade is losing up to £10 million every week—a £15 million loss in a county with a population of less than 500,000. That is a major hit, and it would be bad enough, but we know that it will get worse unless we can get the tourists back. It has been calculated that we will lose £70 million if things have not improved by Easter. As the holiday season begins, the losses will amount to £20 million or £30 million a week. We must do something drastic about that.

I want to make two points before I conclude my comments. Cumbrian Members of Parliament are here now. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) is sitting on the Front Bench and my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours) is sitting behind me. We must accept that the economy of Cumbria will go into recession this year. We cannot disguise the fact that people will lose their jobs and businesses will close. Some people have said that Cumbria is in meltdown, but that is not true and it does not help.

The Cumbrian economy will bounce back. How soon it bounces back and how high it bounces will depend, first, on those of us who live in the county. We must decide how we shall get out of the situation. It is no good holding up our hands, saying, "Help us." We must take action. Although the Cumbrian taskforce is very useful, Cumbria county council must be the lead organisation.

Secondly, we need assistance from the Government. Agriculture needs Government assistance, as does the whole county, but it does not just need money. However, it will need quite a lot of money, and I hope that the assistance will be generous. We must remember that public money is involved; we cannot throw it away. The Cumbrian taskforce should be given some money so that it has the option of picking out the priorities, and I hope that that will be discussed during the delegation's visit next week.

Finally, the economy will not improve greatly unless we eradicate foot and mouth disease throughout the county. We can do the other things that I have mentioned, but the main priority must be to get on top of this terrible disease and wipe it out in Cumbria as quickly as possible.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 10:33, 21 March 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on initiating this debate, and I fully understand and appreciate the reasons that have prompted him to do so. I very much welcome his presence here tonight, as well as that of other Members with a deep interest in the issue, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours) and the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). They represent different parts of Cumbria, but they are all deeply concerned about the consequences of foot and mouth disease not only for the farming community, but for the wider economy of Cumbria.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is also here. That is particularly appropriate given his work on the rural taskforce that will be responsible for dealing with many of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle has raised.

I thank my hon. Friend for his work in facilitating my visit to Cumbria last weekend. That was very much appreciated. The meeting that he organised with farmers' representatives was particularly valuable in providing me with many telling examples of some of the problems that have been experienced in the area.

I was amused—and sorry—that one media report of my visit alleged that I had met everyone but farmers. That is simply not true. I do not know whether the reporter concerned does not understand that National Farmers Union officials are also farmers or simply overlooked the fact that, later in the day in Keswick, I met different types of farmers, including different types of livestock farmers. However, the visit was informative for what the farmers told me.

I am glad that the visit was followed by the visit of the chief veterinary officer, Jim Scudamore, who met several farming representatives and took a great personal interest in some of the veterinary and management issues that were raised with him and that had been raised with me the day before.

There is no doubt that Cumbria is, by a long way, the area most affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) is present, and it is true that a wider area in the south of Scotland, including Dumfries and Galloway, has also been badly affected. We Know how some cases of the disease were transmitted and affected Cumbria particularly severely. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle referred to the original outbreak at Heddon-on-the-Wall—it still seems to be the original outbreak—and it is alarming that the lesions on the animals there suggested that the disease had been around for some time. Given the fact that it had been transmitted to the neighbouring sheep population and given the movement of sheep around the country, the extent of the problem became clear after a few days.

The trade at livestock markets—in particular, that at Longtown—enabled the disease to be carried around the country. Although it was carried around the country, most of the sheep that wont through Longtown market stayed in the Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway area. That is clear from the number of outbreaks that have occurred there. We must consider a whole range of issues—including those relating to the movement of animals and how the disease is transmitted—to learn the lessons properly.

It is particularly tragic that the disease has become so embedded in the sheep population. Cumbria contains many sheep, but the way in which sheep are affected makes it difficult scmetimes to recognise that they have the disease. They may carry the disease and infect other livestock, particularly cattle, and that adds to the huge problems that are now being experienced.

My hon. Friend referred to the measures that are being introduced in Cumbria to tackle the disease. I appreciate his comments about the proposals for the wider cull. I understand the distress in Cumbria. My right hon. Friend the Minister apologised fully for the initial misunderstanding at out the scope of the extended cull. Given the tremendous problems in tackling clear examples of disease, the talk of an extended cull alarmed Cumbrian farmers. None the less, I agree with my hon. Friend that there seems to be greater understanding on both sides of the border of the veterinary reasons why the chief vet recommended the wider cull.

Although the animals are often referred to as healthy, "apparently healthy" would be a better description. They are dangerous contacts and may well incubate and carry foot and mouth. We are keen to avoid thinking that we have got on top of the disease only for it suddenly to break out again mote virulently and over a much wider area because of the movement of infected sheep. Farmers increasingly recognise the need to avoid that. Such an outbreak would be appalling news for Cumbria and bad news for our livestock industry. On the advice of the chief vet, we believe that the measures are necessary.

The number of animals for which slaughter has been authorised in Cumbria is about 165,000. The number that has been confirmed slaughtered is 118,000. Some 46,000 are awaiting slaughter and 26,000 are awaiting destruction. I was concerned about the delays that were cited to me. Some of the changes reflect our determination to ensure that the targets for dealing with cases from confirmation to slaughter and from slaughter to disposal are fully complied with. The vital target is to ensure that the time between confirmation of the disease and slaughter is as short as possible. We must act on that most speedily. Obviously, the time from slaughter to disposal should also be as short as possible, but in disease-risk terms, it is less important than the first target.

There are different forms of disposal of animals, including burial. My right hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties in Cumbria because of the shallow soil and complications with the water table. None the less, we are not against burial if it can be safely carried out in accordance with good environmental standards. There is also the landfill option. My hon. Friend did not mention that, but he knows that we are pursuing it. However, I noted the concerns about one of the sites that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) in the earlier debate. Again, everyone has to be content that the landfill site is appropriate and does not present risks. Rendering and incineration are other forms of disposal.

During the longer debate that preceded this one, hon. Members asked about slaughtering on suspicion. That happens in the vast majority of cases. They asked also why a qualified vet should have to telephone head office before slaughter is ordered. Concerns were expressed, not by my hon. Friend but by others, that that could slow down the procedure, but it speeds it up by triggering the next stages of valuation and disposal. Often, it is extremely useful for the vet at head office to discuss with the vet in the field the details of the case, its likely connection to others and so on. That is an important link in the chain.

The use of the Army in Cumbria has been addressed. There is a command-and-control centre in Carlisle, as there is in Exeter. We are considering further support with the Ministry of Defence. The comments of my hon. Friend and the farmers in Cumbria whom I met showed a clear understanding of what the Army could and could not do, unlike comments that have been made about the use of the Army more generally.

The management changes that we are introducing in Cumbria will be important. The arrival of Jane Brown as director of operations is a helpful development. She is a very senior MAFF official, and she will co-ordinate the Army logistics and the disposal mechanisms, and work with existing staff and new staff who are being brought in. It is also important to highlight the work of Richard Drummond, the assistant chief veterinary officer, who will be responsible for veterinary operations in Cumbria and the north-east. I have known him since the beginning of the outbreak, when he was advising me on an earlier visit that I made to the Heddon-on-the-Wall area, and I know that his role will be useful.

My hon. Friend mentioned the wider issues. Jane Brown will participate in the Cumbria taskforce because we believe that the Ministry has a role in its work. When I was in Cumbria at the weekend, I was interested to hear about the setting up of the taskforce, and I endorse my hon. Friend's comments about Cumbria county council's role in the process—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.