– in the House of Commons at 12:14 pm on 21st June 2001.
With permission, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak. I want to take this, the earliest possible opportunity, to update the House on developments since my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his statement on
As of midday today, there had been a total of 1,771 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, including four in Northern Ireland. Yesterday there was only one case. Since my right hon. Friend addressed the House some seven weeks ago, there have been an average of between four and five cases a day. That should be compared with the highest level of more than 40 cases a day at the end of March.
The number of animals slaughtered for disease control purposes has now reached 3.4 million, an increase of 1 million since
Let me put that figure in context. Although by anyone's standards a massive number of animals have had to be slaughtered, it is a substantially smaller number than the number that we slaughter for consumption in an average week--some half a million cattle, sheep and pigs.
My right hon. Friend warned the House on
The objective also remains to eradicate the disease as quickly as we can. Let me make it perfectly clear that although we cannot put a definitive time scale on the achievement of that goal, no one is suggesting that it will be in the next few days or weeks. It is therefore hugely important that no one relaxes their guard. Certainly all the resources, both civil and military, that we as a Government need to bear down on the disease will be deployed where they are needed for as long as they are needed.
More than 900 vets are still actively working on the outbreak, including about 80 from abroad. As the number of daily cases has declined, it has been possible to reduce the number of military personnel now working on the ground to about 250, mainly in the north of England. That reduction can, of course, be speedily reversed if the need should arise. Indeed, our immediate response to the outbreak in the Settle area of north Yorkshire showed that we can react rapidly when the situation requires it. And, of course, hundreds of administrative staff remain in place in control centres throughout the country.
My right hon. Friend was able to say on
Of course, it is much easier to achieve rapid turnaround when there are just four or five cases per day than when there are 30 or 40. Nevertheless, the task of ensuring that many thousands of carcases are collected and disposed of each day is itself a major logistical exercise. Seven or eight cases can involve 30 or 40 farms, including the contiguous premises, and therefore up to 20,000 carcases.
Protection of the environment and human health are our priority for all disposal options. Rendering is the best way of disposing of carcases, and will always be our first choice, but rendering capacity is finite and can quickly become overstretched, at least in the short term, if on any given day the number of cases rises. The Department of Health has advised that the greatest public health hazard would be leaving carcases out in the open, especially in warm weather, so other means of disposal may still need to be called upon from time to time.
If other options are exhausted, we shall on occasion still have to turn to licensed landfills and mass burial sites. I understand the strength of local feelings about burial sites, and I assure the House that a decision to use such a site, even for just one day or for a few lorryloads, is not taken lightly. However, as has been said many times, there are no easy options for disposal, and if the circumstances arise we must be prepared to utilise all the national assets that we have, including burial sites.
Those are the steps taken to deal effectively with the outbreak of the disease. Even more important, however, is preventing further spread of the disease. I cannot emphasise too strongly the continuing importance of high standards of biosecurity--practical precautionary measures to prevent further spread of the disease--on and around farms. We are taking every opportunity to drive home that message, using interviews in the national and local media and advertisements in the local and the farming press.
We have also produced a video demonstrating a practical approach to biosecurity. That will shortly be made available to all livestock farmers and others in the industry, accompanied by a leaflet and letter from Jim Scudamore, the chief veterinary officer. It is essential to drive the message home. I appeal to all right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed continued concern and interest in the concerns of their constituents to play their part in conveying that message to those constituents.
As the House is aware, the outbreak continues in a number of areas of the country, but fortunately other regions have had no cases at all, or have had no further cases for a long time and are looking forward to a return to normality. We are doing everything we can to facilitate that, subject, naturally, to the overriding priority not to put the eradication of the disease at risk.
Thirty-seven infected areas have now had that designation lifted. Those are areas where not only have there been no new cases for more than 30 days, but thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. Some 43,000 farms have benefited from the lifting of restrictions; that is about a third of the farms that have ever been restricted.
As I have said, wherever there is a remaining disease problem, we will put all our efforts into eradicating it. At the same time, I am conscious of the call from the farming industry and the wider rural community for some of the tighter movement restrictions to be relaxed. As ever, there is a balance to be achieved between continuing to bear down on the disease--movement restrictions are an essential part of our armoury for control--and allowing reasonably normal business to take place where the risk of spreading the disease is very low. The restrictions applied must be kept proportionate to the risk.
Therefore, I can announce two significant changes to the rules on the movement of livestock. The industry has been pressing for some time for a relaxation of the licence restrictions to enable more normal trade to take place. Clearly, our first priority is to ensure that nothing is done that puts the eradication of the disease at risk, but the veterinary advice is that certain changes can be made, provided that strict criteria are applied and the animals are otherwise eligible to be moved under existing foot and mouth disease rules.
First, as from tomorrow,
Relaxation of movement restrictions where reasonable is important for our farming industry, but foot and mouth disease has had a devastating impact on the wider rural economy. As part of our strategy for wider rural recovery, we want footpaths and other rights of way to be reopened wherever that is safe. Considerable progress has been made in recent weeks, with more than half of all paths now open. That reflects real effort and good will on the part of many local authorities, farmers and walkers. However, some local authorities have kept paths shut when it is quite difficult to see that that is justified; the risks have been assessed as very slight. What is also unhelpful is that, even where most paths are open, people are often still confused about which paths are open and which are shut.
I have asked my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to examine as a matter of urgency whether we can revoke the remaining blanket closures of paths in the near future. We would keep in place local authority powers to close paths selectively where necessary--mainly within 3 km of infected premises--and we will listen to representations from local authorities and others who may wish to retain blanket closures in particular areas affected by disease. We recognise that that may be the right response in areas where there is or has been a high concentration of disease, and implementing path-by-path closures would be difficult.
Revoking remaining blanket closures will both increase the number of paths open and, as is equally important, make much clearer which paths are open and which are closed. It will mean that by the summer holidays most of the countryside will be well and truly open, and seen to be open, for visitors and for business.
We are also continuing to take action to help rural businesses, particularly in the worst affected areas, to cope with the impact of foot and mouth. In the past three months, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise have deferred £71 million of tax without interest charges for severely affected businesses. Local authorities have granted or are considering 3,500 applications for hardship rate relief, in addition to deferment of rates bills and applications for revaluation related to foot and mouth impacts.
Furthermore, we have provided additional funding of £39 million for the business recovery fund run by the regional development agencies to add to the resources that they had already been allocated and have themselves reprioritised for such use. In addition to business support, and funding for local and regional promotion, more than 200 businesses have had offers of grant from the fund, and we expect all RDAs to have the fund fully operational with their business links partners by the end of this month.
The disease has been a terrible blow to farmers and to the wider rural community, and for some, recovery will still seem a distant dream. Nevertheless, work to help farmers emerge from the crisis has begun, and it is of course linked to the Government's aims to create sustainable and diverse farming and food industries and to promote thriving rural economies and communities.
In the short term, we have already paid out about £790 million in compensation for slaughtered animals in addition to the £156 million announced for agrimonetary compensation and an estimated total of £230 million under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. Looking to the longer term, members of the rural task force and other stakeholders are already engaged in discussions with my Department and my ministerial colleagues on how best to deliver a sustainable and thriving countryside.
It is clear that we must learn the lessons from the outbreak. Although everyone was trying to do his or her best, it is in the nature of things that some errors are likely to have been made. What is important is not only to identify what we could and should do better next time, but to highlight the many things that went well, and that we should do again if the same or a similar situation should arise.
We also need to examine issues such as the possible future shape of the disease control regime and the changes that might be necessary at EU as well as at national level. Again, a review is planned for the autumn, and we are keen to play an active part in that. I discussed all those points with EU colleagues at this week's Agriculture Council, where other member states continued to be not only appreciative of our efforts but--as my right hon. Friend the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reported to the House--very supportive and helpful to our country and our Government in dealing with the outbreak.
My Department and I are determined to bring the outbreak to an end. I have been tremendously impressed by the commitment of all those working on foot and mouth whom I have met in my short time in office, including veterinarians, soldiers and administrative and technical staff, who in many parts of the country are still working very long hours, seven days a week. I am most grateful to those who have contributed to the team effort, not least to our own former ministerial team, and I pay tribute to them all. I myself hope to visit one of the worst affected areas in the north of England soon.
In closing, I ask for us all, on both sides of the House, to continue to work together as we move nearer to our ultimate goal of the complete eradication of the disease from the United Kingdom and a return to normality in farming and rural communities.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment. I know that she brings to the job wide experience of Government, and also knowledge of the countryside, both at home and abroad, acquired partly at least from her caravanning holidays. I look forward to debating with her the whole range of the responsibilities of her enlarged Department in the coming weeks, starting on Tuesday next. I hope that she appreciates the depth and urgency of the crisis in our countryside. Whatever the merits or otherwise of restructuring in Whitehall, what the countryside, farming, tourism and the whole rural economy need is not a new Department but a new Government policy.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has taken this first available opportunity to make a statement on the foot and mouth epidemic, although I have to say in passing that a copy of her statement reached me only five minutes before she started speaking. I also warmly welcome the progress that she has announced on relaxing the restrictions on livestock movements from infected areas. Again, I offer the Opposition's full support for those and any further measures that are needed both to eradicate the disease and to help the industries that have been damaged.
I hope that the Secretary of State will not fall into her predecessor's habit of claiming regularly that the epidemic is under control when plainly it is not, or make claims like those made by the Prime Minister just before the general election, when he said that the Government were on the home straight in dealing with the disease, when plainly they were not.
I hope that the Secretary of State will visit not only one but many of the worst affected areas--in the Yorkshire dales, Lancashire, Cumbria, Devon and Somerset--where she will find that farmers paint a very different picture from that which has regularly been painted by Ministers. For example, in Yorkshire, after the Prime Minister's claim at the beginning of May, the disease spread into previously uninfected areas at an alarming rate. Does the right hon. Lady realise that the damage caused by the disease is not confined to the countryside? For example, in April, the number of visitors to Britain, including those intending to come to urban areas, was down by a quarter.
I am surprised, and very disappointed, that the Secretary of State did not refer to the public inquiry that is clearly needed. The scale of the epidemic makes it essential that a full public inquiry be held to establish how the disease reached Britain and why the Government reacted so slowly--and often incompetently--in those crucial early weeks, and to advise on an effective prevention strategy to minimise the risk of another similar national disaster.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that only a full public inquiry will be acceptable, that former Ministers responsible for handling the epidemic--all of whom seem to have been conveniently shuffled away or retired--must answer in public for their actions, and that the Prime Minister, who said at the end of March that he was taking personal charge of the crisis, must also give evidence? Is the Prime Minister still in personal charge of the crisis? The Leader of the House refused to answer that question earlier.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a full public inquiry need not take anything like as long or cost as much as, for example, the BSE inquiry, because the science of foot and mouth is already better understood and the period of events to be investigated is very much shorter?
Has there been any change in the basis on which the figures for foot and mouth cases are calculated? In advance of a public inquiry, will the Secretary of State arrange for a qualified statistician to undertake an independent audit of the figures produced by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food throughout the period of the epidemic?
I note the Secretary of State's comments on relaxing some of the footpath restrictions. Does she accept that footpaths in or near infected areas should be opened only after a proper and rigorous local assessment of the risks, in consultation with all the interested parties?
Does the right hon. Lady accept that the proposal for a 20-day ban on the movement of livestock, announced as one of her predecessor's knee-jerk responses in April, is unworkable in practice and should be withdrawn and completely rethought?
The Secretary of State did not refer specifically to vaccination. Will she start talks with other European Union member states on whether the EU-wide policy should now be fundamentally reviewed? Do the Government plan to carry out serological testing, and if so, will the results be published, and what will be done with the animals that test positive? Does she recognise that compensation is needed not only for farmers whose animals have been slaughtered but for many others who have suffered unrecoverable losses as a direct result of the epidemic?
When will the Government introduce a full recovery plan for the livestock industry, the rest of the rural economy, tourism and other countryside businesses, including the equestrian sector? How many businesses have benefited so far from the measures announced by the rural task force and, in the absence of the Minister for the Environment this morning, will the Secretary of State tell us who is now chairing the rural task force?
Do the Government accept that the epidemic should never have reached its present scale, and that if prompt effective action had been taken at the outset, as I suggested in the House and as inquiries into the previous outbreak made clear, far fewer animals would have died, far fewer family businesses would have been destroyed, far less damage to farming and the rural economy would have occurred, and hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money would have been saved? The crisis has inflicted hideous suffering and damage on human beings, animals, the countryside and the economy. It has not been handled well and has still not been resolved; it needs the Government's most urgent and continuing attention.
I do not know whether it is gratifying that the hon. Gentleman has emerged from the rigours of the election campaign with his attitudes and his amour propre undamaged by contact with reality. He asked a string of questions and made a string of comments; I shall endeavour to respond to most of his questions.
The hon. Gentleman asked if there had been any change to the basis on which figures are calculated; the answer is no. He asked whether paths would be reopened only after local consultation. I shall come back to that issue in a second. I apologise for the fact that he received a copy of the statement late; he will not receive a statement so late again, but he will appreciate that on a day when there are no ordinary parliamentary questions, there is less time than usual to clarify things and get a copy to him. In view of what he said about accurate statistics, I am sure that he also appreciates that we wanted to make the latest possible figures available to the House.
As I said, the hon. Gentleman asked about reopening footpaths. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will announce today the date on which we propose that the blanket closures should be lifted. In the interim, as I made plain in the statement, it will be possible for local authorities to make representations if, for some reason, they feel that blanket closure is necessary in their areas. Of course, it will also be possible for local authorities to continue to exercise the range of powers that they previously enjoyed. I expect that decisions will be taken with due sensitivity to local situations.
The hon. Gentleman asked about instigating talks with the European Union on vaccination policy. Of course, that remains under consideration, and I have little doubt that in the aftermath of the outbreak, there is bound to be further discussion of all those issues. He asked whether we planned to carry out serological testing. I was not quite sure what point he was making, as the Government are already carrying out extensive serological testing. I cannot recall offhand whether the House has previously been made aware of the fact that when the outbreak began, we inherited a capacity to test some 400 serological samples. I have rather lost track of the latest figures, as they are rising rapidly, but we now have the capacity to test between 60,000 and 70,000 samples. We are continuing to increase that capacity because we perceive the need to carry out thorough and extensive testing.
The hon. Gentleman again asked for compensation for, as far as I could make out, any unrecovered losses by anybody in any circumstances. He will know that, sadly, no Government have felt able to make such a commitment--and this one is no exception. We shall certainly introduce a recovery plan, but I cannot give a date for that at present. I cannot add to what I said in the statement about the number of businesses that are benefiting from the resources that have been made available because, obviously, that is being handled by regional development agencies. The rural task force is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs, which is why he is here now.
I think that I have now covered most of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked. However, he also made a number of observations. He said that the depth and urgency of the crisis was evident; I do not dissent from that at all. He said that reshuffles in Whitehall were irrelevant; of course, the changes that have been and continue to be made have not disrupted the handling of the outbreak, which is still a very high priority indeed for my Department.
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman accused my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown, who is now the Minister for Work, of making certain statements--but he will find that those statements were not wholly accurately reported. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the need for a new policy, criticised the Government for saying that we were on the home straight, and made his usual call for a full public inquiry. There is no point in his continuing to pretend that the Government are not committed to having an inquiry when the outbreak is over. We have repeatedly made it plain that we have every intention of having an inquiry--[Hon. Members: "When?"] When the outbreak is over. If hon. Members listen to the "Today" programme, as I am sure they do assiduously, they will have heard the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons giving the interviewer what were, for the hon. Gentleman, all the wrong answers, by saying that the Government were not handling the issue badly and that we should not have the inquiry until the outbreak is over. That remains the Government's view.
There will be an inquiry, but the farming industry and rural communities most want to see an inquiry that is carried out fully and effectively, and uncovers the answers as expeditiously as possible and at as low a cost as possible. It is hard to listen to Opposition Members go on about how disgusting it is that the Government are not pledged to hold a full public inquiry when the Conservatives resisted right to the end of their term in office an inquiry into the BSE outbreak.
The hon. Gentleman said that an inquiry need not take long or cost much, but he continued this morning his practice--which I also observed from my former position on the Front Bench--throughout the outbreak. He and his colleagues spend all their time trying to think of something they can ask the Government to do that they will refuse to do. If he spent more of his time assisting the Government in getting across the messages about what matters in the countryside--to continue to bear down on the disease and to take the precautions that will reduce its spread--he would gain more respect, in the House and outside.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. As a former Minister, I strongly support the creation of her Department and the fact that she will examine the revival of the rural economy as a whole, and the important role that agriculture will play in that. I also welcome the fact that there will be an inquiry and I look forward to defending many aspects of the Government's record in handling the outbreak.
Once again, the Conservative spokesman seems to be unwilling to be distracted by mere facts. Instead of being in advance of the Government, he was very much behind us in several of the measures that we took. Comparisons are often made with 1967, but it is the huge differences that strike me. In particular, the farmer at the source of the outbreak in 1967 reported the disease within two days, but in this case it was not reported at all.
I hope that the maximum amount of information will be available to farmers engaged in restocking, and that the Department will pull out all the stops to work with the agricultural sector to provide for its long-term future.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her comments, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to her for the tremendous amount of work that she did in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I regret that she has chosen to devote more of her time to the interests of her constituents, and not to play a part in the Department in the future. I also acknowledge the real justice of many of her strictures about Mr. Yeo. I also agree with my right hon. Friend that the differences between now and the 1967 outbreak are stark, and that the delay in reporting is the most significant difference--as she rightly identified. I have been very impressed with the mechanisms that I have found in the Department for consultation with the wider farming and rural community. We will continue to use those mechanisms, not least when discussing matters such as restocking and how to spread information about it. Again, I am grateful to her for her remarks in that respect.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new post, and thank her for her statement. However, will she clarify the nature of the public inquiry that she announced? Will it be as full, comprehensive and independent as the BSE inquiry under Lord Phillips, or will it be delayed, incomplete and shoved under the carpet? We need a report that shows precisely how the Government handled the foot and mouth crisis.
The crisis has cost about £1 billion, so is it not clear that there needs to be more investment in the veterinary service, as it is vets who will advise the Government? Also, should not more advice be sought from independent scientific sources, so that the real nature of animal diseases can be identified more clearly? That would help us to cope better with any future outbreak.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the new Department should do more than merely respond to the rural task force? It should develop strategies and policies that can be debated early in this Parliament, thus ensuring that the Department gets on top of the integration of rural policy and the policies of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In that way, it would be evident that a new direction and culture had been adopted.
Finally, will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no delay in opening up Dartmoor? That is very important, given the start of the summer tourist season. We have heard that Dartmoor may not be fully reopened. I hope that that is not correct, but I should be grateful if she could investigate the matter urgently. As she will be aware, in the far south-west the summer season and the opening up of Dartmoor are extremely important.
First, I cannot add anything to what has been said from this Dispatch Box many times already about the inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no intention of not having an inquiry. We shall require the inquiry to be complete, not least because it will nail comprehensively much of the nonsense and many of the myths that have been spread, both in the House and outside.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for further investment to strengthen the veterinary service, and we shall, of course, consider such matters in the future. Speaking from memory, I think that about 10 times as many vets have been working on the outbreak than are normally available full time. That provision is temporary, and it is to be hoped that so many vets will not be needed in the ordinary course of events. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should strengthen access to scientific advice, but I do not link that requirement to our knowledge of the disease. In many ways, we know a great deal about the disease; the question is how we handle outbreaks such as we have experienced. I certainly share his wish for a new direction and culture when it comes to discussing the rural community's concerns and affairs more widely and in the context of sustainable development.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Dartmoor. As I said in my statement, we shall want as much ground as possible to be opened up, subject to the balance of proper control of the disease. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will make some inquiries about the position in Dartmoor, and will make contact with the hon. Gentleman if he has something useful to convey.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that many small farmers who have lost herds are in very real financial difficulty. Will she give urgent consideration to the payment of compensation, to ensure that people do not wait an unnecessarily long time? Will she also look at the subject of artificial insemination, which is causing considerable difficulty for firms in my constituency? They have been directly affected, but feel that the veterinary decision that has been taken has not been followed up by a clear policy statement from the Department. Will she look at those matters very urgently?
I certainly undertake to do so. Again, I will contact my hon. Friend if I have something to report.
The Secretary of State will understand the sense of embattlement, claustrophobia, foreboding, fear and anger in my constituency and in neighbouring constituencies in Lancashire, where there have been 80 cases of foot and mouth disease since the general election was announced. In addition, 326 farms have been culled out, and nearly 250,000 animals slaughtered. Will she recognise that the first service that she can do is to acknowledge how serious the crisis is locally? However the figures look nationally, to people on the ground the crisis remains urgent, terrible and present. Will she further realise that, although most people think that the cull has been handled sensitively and efficiently, there is a terrible problem with the cleaning-up operation because of the enormous bottlenecks, and that attention needs to be focused on cleaning, cleansing and disinfecting and on ultimately getting people back into business and addressing the delays?
The Secretary of State will also recognise that business in my constituency, which has been effectively closed down since the very first outbreaks in Hawes and Lancashire--the present crisis has only multiplied the difficulties--is now in serious difficulty, faces a summer of loss and a potential winter of bankruptcy. Will she therefore announce that the rate relief scheme, which is due to finish at the end of the month, will be renewed; and that Government aid, which for Yorkshire and Humberside is only £2.5 million and was announced before my constituency had any cases, will be renewed and adjusted in proportion to an outbreak that in Craven at least is beginning to look as if it will be of Cumbrian proportions? Does she realise that Government funding via the Countryside Agency to match voluntary contributions finishes at the end of the month, before we shall have a chance to benefit?
Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of attracting more tourists to the area, bearing it in mind that 90 per cent. of the tourists to the Yorkshire Dales are national not international, and that of those, 80 per cent. are regional? Rather than attract Americans back, if we could get tourists back from Bradford, Leeds and Manchester, it would do us a service. Will she deal with those matters and recognise how sensitive and raw-edged people's feelings are?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the sensitive way in which he has recognised and spoken of the range of issues. Of course I recognise how badly his constituents feel. Although I do not represent a farming constituency, when I lived in Lincolnshire some 10 years after the previous outbreak I was well aware of the remaining grief and deep feelings of mourning of those who experienced the 1967 outbreak. I am under no illusions at all about how deep the grief will have gone within his community and the many others that have been affected. I do indeed recognise those concerns.
I recognise the validity of the right hon. Gentleman's other points about the potential for bottlenecks in the cleaning-up process, the range of businesses affected and the fact that it was some time ago that the dates for the support schemes were first set. The Government will have to consider all those issues. I cannot give him any information today, but I undertake consider the points that he raised, not least his final, extremely pertinent point about domestic tourism. He will appreciate that that is part of the reason for the thrust of the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will make later today. We are seeking to get the message across. I have heard some anecdotal evidence of how, in various areas as restrictions have been lifted, the recovery of tourism and other businesses has been speedier than people had feared and that people have begun to recover losses more speedily than had been feared. It is essential that we do everything that we can to minimise that damage and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall do so.
My constituency is next door to Skipton and Ripon, and is now gripped by the foot and mouth outbreak. Mr. Curry talked about the culling being handled sensitively. Many of my constituents have contacted me about the brutal way in which animals have been culled, mentioning in particular the so-called Liverpool team. I invite the Secretary of State to comment on why, four months into the crisis, we still read horror stories about killings that have gone wrong.
There is one other practical point. Four and a half months into the crisis, why cannot we have proper disinfectant baths on our country roads? So many people say to me, "How in God's name is it possible for foot and mouth to spread like wildfire, when everyone has been told of the importance of biosecurity measures?" My right hon. Friend mentioned those in her statement.
Finally, my right hon. Friend said that she would be visiting the worst affected areas in northern England. I take it that she will visit the Ribble Valley, Skipton and Ripon, and my constituency.
May I say to my hon. Friend, with proper respect, that I hope that this does not become a competition to be the worst affected area as a means of ensuring that Ministers visit a particular part of the country? I understand the concerns that have been expressed. I have not heard all the anecdotal evidence to which he refers, but of course I am aware that there have been occasions when distress has been caused as a result of the culling operation.
With regard to my hon. Friend's query about disinfectant baths, I hope that the House is aware that the key means by which the disease is spread is the movement of vehicles and of people, and in particular, close contact with animals. He is right that everyone should be mindful of that and of the precautions that need to be taken. I suggest that we all, as politicians, continue to urge those precautions on our constituents to bring about a continued diminution in the already substantially reduced number of affected areas.
The impact of foot and mouth on the Ribble Valley has been enormous. The Minister has spoken of the national impact, but in the villages that have been directly affected, such as West Bradford, Gisburn, Paythorne, Sawley, Rimington, Downham and other areas near Clitheroe, the impact has been devastating and total. Farmers still speak about the 1967 outbreak and remember it as though it occurred yesterday.
The present outbreak has affected not just those directly involved in farming, but the wider community. There is a sense of grieving for the communities throughout my area and, I am sure, in neighbouring areas. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the culling operation is carried out as humanely as possible? Stories have been spread about the inhumane culling of animals. We heard about that before and thought that it had been corrected. It must not be allowed to continue.
With regard to the welfare package and the compensation that has been made available to farmers whether or not they have been directly affected by foot and mouth, will the Secretary of State ensure that it gets through as quickly as possible? I understand that some farmers have been waiting 10 to 12 weeks for money, which cannot be allowed.
We have heard stories that the vehicles used to transport carcases are not properly disinfected, and that stops are made for tea and coffee on the way to the areas where the carcases are to be laid. That must not be allowed. Transportation must be direct from the farms to the pits. The Secretary of State said that she would visit the north of England. As she knows, in Gisburn I have the Army operations depot, and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has a base there. Will she come and see the operation first-hand, speak with those who are directly affected by the outbreak and listen to the ideas and practical suggestions of farmers and those in associated industries to ameliorate the position in the short term? Will she then produce practical suggestions for the long-term recovery of farming in our area?
Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, I must appeal for short questions. I want to call as many hon. Members as possible, and I cannot do so under these circumstances.
I shall respond briefly. I understand the comments of Mr. Evans about the feelings and concerns of his constituents. He made a number of observations about people waiting for compensation, and suggestions for dealing with problems in the handling of transport. It would be very helpful to my Department if people who have detailed evidence, whether of delays in payment or, indeed, of incidents of the kind to which he referred, made it available. He will know that one such anecdote repeated 10 times gives the impression of 10 such events. We shall of course look at any concerns that are expressed, but evidence would help.
When the Government announced their enhanced support for the business rate relief scheme for some councils, Stafford borough was not one of them. Given my right hon. Friend's responsibility for all rural businesses, will she take an early opportunity to consider representations received not just from Stafford but from several other councils about why they believe that businesses affected in their areas deserve that enhanced Government support?
I undertake to my hon. Friend that we shall look again at that case. He will know that those issues have been raised. We shall of course keep them under consideration.
What steps have the Government taken to strengthen the inspection at ports of entry into this country of meat that has been subject in the past only to random checking? What steps have they taken to review the labelling of imported meat products that are subsequently sold to consumers in this country?
Steps have certainly been taken. I do not have the details about my person, but I know that more advice has been given to the inspectorates at the ports that there should be more stringent enforcement and that, again, the issues are kept continually under review. The hon. Gentleman will know that we continue to consider issues such as labelling to see what can be done to ensure that people are given accurate information. As I say, I do not have the detailed information with me, but if there is anything further that I can add, I shall certainly write to him.
Many carcases were disposed of at the Erin Void landfill site in my constituency. When the manager of the site first went there, he said that he was astonished at how close the communities of Duckmanton and Poolsbrook were to it. Will that be taken into account if future use of such areas is considered? Perhaps those communities have had enough. Could communities that have suffered receive some compensation by, for example, extending landfill tax from 20 to 100 per cent?
Obviously, the Government will have to look over time at issues such as the aftermath and the handling of matters such as landfill tax. I know that the Minister for Rural Affairs, who chairs the rural task force, has taken on board my hon. Friend's remarks.
With regard to the handling of cases on the particular landfill site to which my hon. Friend referred, I am sure that he will know that no such use is made of sites without the most thorough consideration of both environmental and health aspects. I know that he will have taken on board my remarks at the outset that we will not use such sites unless we absolutely have to.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and wish her well in making the new Department work effectively. Will she join me in congratulating the very large number of walkers who have behaved extremely responsibly throughout the crisis and shown great restraint? Will she assure them that she is putting pressure on local authorities that have kept footpaths closed long after it was necessary to do so to ensure that all footpaths that can be opened are open for the school holidays?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He is right that the walkers of this country have shown the proper respect and concern for the overall welfare of the countryside that we would expect of them. That has been most noticeable. I am sure that he will have noted the burden of my observations about path closure. He is right that in some areas it has been difficult to see how continued closure has been justified. However, where there are genuine local concerns, local authorities will remain able to make that case known and to have it heeded. Obviously, safe handling is essential, although, as he rightly says, it is also essential that we make our countryside available to those who wish to walk in it where it is safe to do so.
In wishing the right hon. Lady well in her very important task, may I ask her two questions? First, will she please have an early discussion with all hon. Members whose constituencies have been affected by this dreadful disease? I have in mind a proper forum that she would attend and where she would have proper discussion. There is a widespread feeling that the epidemic has been badly handled in many respects, and we could doubtless advise her in that regard. Secondly, will she bear it in mind that there will be no final satisfaction unless a proper, independent public inquiry is conducted at the right time?
Of course, I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman's observations. He will appreciate that there are always enormous pressures on the time of Ministers when a new Department is set up. I know that he and the whole House will want Ministers to give top priority to dealing with the practical day-to-day issues, which may help us in bringing the epidemic to an end. I regret that he should repeat what has occasionally been heard from Opposition Members about the bad handling of the outbreak. I remind them that--[Interruption.] It is in the nature of things that no one is infallible, except possibly the Pope when he is speaking ex cathedra, but not even he is infallible all the time. [Interruption.] The matter is one of definition. Of course, I fully expect that everybody will have made mistakes. Indeed, it may even be that Opposition Members, including Front Benchers, have occasionally been wrong.
I welcome the right hon. Lady's full and detailed statement and also the fact that she has made it very soon in the new Parliament. Will she respond to the question asked by my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry and tell us whether she will extend the business rate relief scheme beyond the period for which it is scheduled to run? Will she also give me an answer on why the borough of Macclesfield, which I have the honour of representing in this House, is not included in the scheme, even though 90 per cent. of its geographical area is rural and agricultural? Furthermore, will she confirm that it would be irresponsible and wrong to open at this time footpaths that run through livestock farms? Will she also ensure that milk collectors properly disinfect their vehicles on each and every occasion they visit a livestock farm to collect milk?
On the first issue, I cannot add to what I told Mr. Curry. We are conscious of the point that he made about the rate relief scheme and, as with other issues, we are taking it under active consideration. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a more helpful reply about the position of Macclesfield borough council than my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work gave when he made his last statement as Minister of Agriculture. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will continue to press his case, as he always does so effectively.
I wholeheartedly endorse the rest of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, in which he put his finger on a number of key issues. It is important for all those who travel in the countryside to observe the correct precautions. Obviously, we are all conscious of what is needed to keep the disease at bay and, it is to be hoped, to bring the outbreak to an end. That is the consideration that local authorities and others have in mind with regard to footpaths. There should be no question of dispute about a footpath in an area where infection still exists. The key is to keep people and infection away from livestock, and I assure him that that point will be under consideration, but I am sure that he would be the last person to suggest that continued blanket closure, potentially throughout the country, is required.
May I offer my warmest congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new appointment? I am sure that she will do a fine job.
My right hon. Friend will know that the spread of foot and mouth in 1967 was much slower and narrower than on this occasion. As has been pointed out, that is due not only to the notification time on first discovery, but to the trading patterns of the industry and the availability of abattoirs. Will she engage with the industry, or is she already engaged with it, to consider ways of reducing the average mobility of livestock, so that the extent and speed of spread of any future outbreak can be limited? Will she weigh the cost of such changes against the massive cost of an outbreak not only to agriculture, but to the tourism industry?
I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations. His last point is correct; from the beginning, the Government have been mindful of the impact on the whole economy, not only on rural areas and agriculture. He is also correct about the differences, which my right hon. Friend Mr. Brown highlighted, between the 1967 outbreak and the current one. The delay in notification and different trading patterns in agriculture are crucial.
I am not sure whether the argument about abattoirs is as strong. There were many more abattoirs in 1967, but that did not prevent the number of cases from being substantially greater, even though notification occurred much earlier and the disease was much easier to detect. The significance of the number of abattoirs is therefore in dispute. However, whatever discussions and inquiry follow the outbreak, animal movement will form a key part of the consideration.
The anxieties and severe problems that Mr. Curry identified are not local, but relevant to all affected areas, including the south-west, where they are reflected in my constituency and adjoining constituencies.
When the Secretary of State reads Hansard tomorrow, she will regret the complacency on which some of her answers verge. The Government must accept that their handling of the matter has been confusing and complex. The crisis has been difficult to tackle, but I hope that she agrees that it is vital to improve the clarity and certainty with which the Government deal with the problem.
We all accept and welcome the relaxation of movement restrictions. However, does the Secretary of State accept that the biggest problem that confronts those who are indirectly affected in agriculture or related industries is lack of clarity about their cash flow, and uncertainty about compensation and their future? Those are urgent matters. If she continues to give an impression of complacency, the Government will be held to account.
Of course I accept that there is always a greater need for clarity and certainty, not least in making information available to those who need Government support or seek compensation. However, I wholly reject any charge of complacency. I do not feel the slightest sense of complacency about the handling of the outbreak, and I share the anxiety that has been expressed by hon. Members. Nevertheless, I am not prepared to accept unjustified criticism of the Government without responding to it.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job. I was delighted by the establishment of the Department, which is the way forward for the rural parts of my constituency.
My right hon. Friend knows that there was a recent outbreak of the disease in Westerdale in the North York moors national park and that the rural economy, especially tourism, in Castleton and Danby has been devastated over many months. I wholeheartedly support the remarks of Mr. Curry.
When the regional development agency and others put together the recovery plan, especially for Yorkshire, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the national parks are included in its construction? Will she also make sure that small rural business, such as those in Castleton and Danby, are not forgotten? Sometimes their remoteness makes them believe that they are out of touch with developments. It is essential that they are not excluded and forgotten.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course we shall take account of the problems that arise in the national parks, and involve them. I do not believe that any hon. Member is under an illusion about the difficulties that small, rural businesses have experienced. Although some of the communities to which he referred are small, they are often well known and popular with a much wider group in the community. I therefore assure him and his constituents that there is no question of overlooking their anxieties, fears and problems. The Government will endeavour to tackle them as fully as possible. I know that he shares the view, which the Government have repeatedly expressed, that we can get on with the task better when we bring the outbreak of the disease to an end.
I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to relax the movement restrictions on livestock for slaughter. However, I want to highlight another problem that is looming in the upland areas of northern England, including my constituency, as we approach the annual sheep sales. Unless movement restrictions are lifted, the sellers of breeding ewe lambs will not be able to sell to their normal traditional markets in non-infected areas in the south of England. The lambs would then end up being fattened for slaughter, and going into an already over-subscribed market. Will she consider relaxing the restrictions on movement of breeding ewes under careful controls to prevent a considerable welfare problem?
Will the Secretary of State clarify who will be the next de facto Minister of Agriculture? Will it be the Minister for Rural Affairs, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or Lord Whitty? We would like to know.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the change in movement restrictions. I assure him that, although it has not featured particularly in today's statement for obvious reasons--I have been seeking to give the House the opportunity to consider what has been happening in the interim period--we are all mindful of the further developments that will naturally be taking place in agriculture, and of the impact that they will have on the market. I cannot give him an announcement today, but I can certainly tell him that the Government are mindful of the seriousness of the issues that he raises, and that we are keeping them under active consideration.
On who is the de facto Minister of Agriculture, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the strength of my excellent ministerial team. He is right in detecting that my noble Friend Lord Whitty will be dealing day to day with many of the issues, but we are conscious as a ministerial team that there is much overlap and we intend to work closely together to keep a close grip on the issues. With regard to who speaks in this House, it will primarily and usually be me.
Some time ago, when the Secretary of State was making her statement, she said that she was hoping for a return to normality in the farming industry. May I point out to her that if there is a long-term 20-day restriction on movement of livestock, there will be no return of the livestock industry at all in many areas? The Government may learn many lessons from foot and mouth disease, but such a long-term 20-day restriction will make livestock farming in upland Scotland, Wales and many areas of upland England non-viable. Would not it be an irony if a farming business were to survive the ravages of mad cow disease and foot and mouth, only to find an administrative regime making its livestock business non-viable? Do not do it.
It is hard to find any phrase to describe the end of the outbreak. On this occasion, we used the phrase "return to normality", which is not subject to challenge or query. Of course, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We have been consulting on some of the proposals on restrictions on movement and we are aware that there would not be a return to precisely the circumstances that obtained before the outbreak of the disease. There has been consultation, and Ministers are considering the outcome and the responses to it. I am conscious that the proposals are not at all popular with many people, clearly including some who have spoken to the hon. Gentleman. I am also aware of people's anxiety about the impact of the proposals on the future of livestock farming. However, the House would genuinely consider the Government to be in dereliction of our duty if we did not consider whether changes needed to be made in the light of what we have all learned about the potential impact of the disease in the circumstances of today's agriculture.
I am aware of the reports, which have appeared before. I am also aware that that is only one of a number of miracle techniques that, if only the Government had used them, would have prevented the outbreak, probably from starting and certainly from spreading. I do not recall the precise detail of that to which the hon. Gentleman referred, although I am aware that similar claims have been made, for example, of a software programme originating in New Zealand, which has been used to some degree, but which is not wholly applicable here.
We must all bear it in mind that there are all sorts of ideas, offers and proposals that can be made and that might assist in dealing with some of those matters, but, as far as I have been able to judge, no one has been able to show that there is some miracle technique that the Government could have used that would have prevented the development and progress of the disease.
The Secretary of State may be aware that one of the major mass burial sites lies in my constituency at Throckmorton, but is she aware of how serious the continuing impact of that site is on those who live in the immediate vicinity, despite it not being used for a considerable period? The odour from the rotting carcases is a great deal more serious than was expected and those living in the immediate vicinity find that they cannot sell their houses, which has serious consequences for their personal lives. Will she or the appropriate member of her ministerial team agree to meet me and a small group from the Throckmorton airfield site to discuss its implications for their private lives?
I can certainly undertake to consider the hon. Gentleman's request and of course I take the point about the impact that he describes. Equally, I am sure that he takes the point that, sadly, there is no way to deal with a disease of such gravity and scale that does not involve unpleasant impact for all concerned. That is one of many reasons why the Government's key priority has to be to bring it to an end as speedily as possible.
In Somerset, we thought that we had escaped the worst ravages of the disease, only to find our area reinfected when the spotlight of media and politics was elsewhere. Does the right hon. Lady understand how many businesses in Somerset and across the west country face desperate circumstances? Some are in difficulty as a direct result of disease precautions and some have nothing to do with agriculture or tourism. Certainly, few are directly connected with the shibboleth of footpath closure.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that the one thing that those businesses want at this stage is, to put it crudely, cash? They want cash beyond the scope of rates relief to enable them to survive until the end of the year. Does she further understand that, for many of my constituents, the task force seems to have no concept of either the urgency or the scale of the problem in the rural economy?
Of course I accept that those who are affected in any way, shape or form hope that the Government can find some means to assist them. Sadly, such compensation or support, if it is not direct compensation, cannot always be made available. One of the first steps that I took in the Department was to ask questions and to push for speedier handling of cases in which people have grounds or opportunities to claim under schemes that have been made available. We shall continue to keep up that pressure, but I can only say to the hon. Gentleman, without in any way disputing the seriousness of the position that he described and the concerns of his constituents, that I fear that it may not always be possible to assist everyone in the way that they would hope.
I was surprised to be approached yesterday by a farming constituent whose livestock were slaughtered at Easter who has yet to receive any compensation whatever. Will the Secretary of State undertake that, if we give her private office chapter and verse on such cases, they will be investigated as a matter of priority?
We have reinstated the Members' hotline, and the point of that is to ensure that cases can be considered speedily if they come to Members' attention. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am a little surprised to hear of such an outcome, but I undertake that, if he provides us with details, we shall endeavour to ensure that it is properly investigated
I congratulate the right hon. Lady and the Minister on their recent appointments.
I endorse the call for the right hon. Lady not to introduce the 20-day standstill rule, which would simply compound the utter ruin that many farmers face, particularly in North Yorkshire. Incredibly, the Vale of York has not yet had one case of direct infection. Will she today express her regret that the rural task force may have brought unnecessary force to bear on North Yorkshire county council, making the council reach a decision--during the general election and while county councillors were being re-elected--to reopen many footpaths, which will result in contact between livestock and human beings? One particular footpath at Tockwith is causing concern because it is less than two miles from an infected area. Surely such footpaths should not be reopened at this time.
I have taken on board the comment of the hon. Lady and others, and I suspect that more people will express their anxiety about the 20-day movement proposal. I am not aware of the issue that she raises about specific footpaths. She will recall that I said in my statement that we are mindful of getting the balance right between risk of infection and freedom of movement. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will look into the issue that she raises, and the more detail that she can give us, the more helpful it will be.
First, will the Secretary of State agree to meet her opposite numbers in the Welsh Assembly to find out where the delays in payments to businesses and farmers in Wales are originating? Secondly, will she commit to responding personally to me if I contact her in writing about some form D notices that were imposed in my constituency on the basis of erroneous judgments about the presence of the infection?
It has always been my practice in successive Departments to attempt to reply to hon. Members as speedily as practicable. I was not aware of the potential delays to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall draw the matter to the attention of relevant colleagues.
Livestock farmers in England who apply to the right hon. Lady's Department for grants to convert to organic production, as many are doing in the aftermath of foot and mouth disease, are being told that unlike the position in Wales, where inspectors are still visiting farms, inspectors may not visit farms in England until after an outbreak is over. Will the right hon. Lady explain why there should be that difference between Wales and England? Perhaps she will consider allowing inspectors to visit farms in England.
While organic conversion grants are still being paid to arable farmers in England, is there a risk that the sums available from the Treasury for the purpose of organic conversion will be used up purely on arable farms, making it harder for livestock farmers to get organic conversion grants later?
The hon. Gentleman's final point is valid and we shall certainly bear it in mind. I am not aware of the specific distinctions that he makes in respect of patterns in Wales. The nature of his concern was not wholly clear to me--[Interruption.] I understood his point about inspections, but it was not wholly clear to me why the differences that he identified are arising, or in what circumstances. It may simply be that the people who would have been available are tied up with other matters. I shall certainly make inquiries into that.
On the hon. Gentleman's general point about the future of the farming industry, of course the Government have that under consideration. It is very much part of the discussions that are taking place about the farm recovery plan and the wider discussions that need to be had about the overall and long-term future of sustainable agriculture and of the rural and farming communities.