Foot and Mouth Disease

– in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 13th March 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 4:06 pm, 13th March 2001

rose to move, That this House takes note of the current situation in the countryside, in particular in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, in introducing a debate on a Motion which could cover an enormously wide range of issues, I hope that the House will understand if I confine my opening remarks to the specific details relating to the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country and try to pick up wider points raised on countryside issues when closing the debate in a few hours' time. The effects of primarily an animal disease are wide ranging and have impacts far beyond farming and its ancillary activities.

It feels a great deal longer than three weeks since the first case of foot and mouth disease in this country since 1981 was confirmed. It was in your Lordships' House on 21st February that the Government first reported the outbreak to Parliament. As the House is aware, in response to Questions, I have had the opportunity to update the House since then. But it may be helpful to have a stock take now.

The presence of the disease was first confirmed in pigs at an abattoir in Essex and subsequently traced back to a pig unit at Heddon-on-the-Wall, Northumberland. This is still the earliest known case in the present outbreak. It is now clear that the disease, prior to its discovery in Essex, had been distributed around the country by movements of animals, particularly sheep, through markets in northern England to holdings in many parts of the United Kingdom.

As at 2.15 today there were 199 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom with 143 farms still under investigation. Over 178,000 animals have been condemned to slaughter of which 131,000 have already been killed. This is a measure of the virulence of the disease and the magnitude of the problem with which we are faced. In addition, the French Ministry of Agriculture has today announced a confirmed case in a herd of cattle in north-west France.

The Government responded quickly and firmly to tackle this devastating outbreak. Our primary objective throughout has been first to contain and then to eradicate the disease. To that end, movement restrictions are put in place on individual farms and surrounding areas as soon as foot and mouth disease is suspected and removed only if we are sure that it is not present. All infected animals and dangerous contacts are slaughtered.

On the day that the first case was discovered we took action to protect other countries. On 21st February we put a stop to UK exports of animals and products, in conjunction with the European Commission, to ensure that we did not export the disease. On 23rd February, when it became clear that we had cases in Northumberland as well as Essex, the Government banned all movements of livestock throughout Great Britain so that the State Veterinary Service could trace all potentially suspect movements, particularly of sheep from markets in the north of England. That ban remains in force, with some minor modifications that I shall mention later.

On 27th February the Government empowered local authorities across Great Britain to restrict public access to farmland and to rights of way in order to help prevent the spread of the disease by people or vehicles. Those powers were further clarified on 2nd March and are still in force.

As to resources, the number of vets working for the State Veterinary Service has effectively been doubled, drawing in members of the profession in private practice in this country as well as official veterinarians from overseas. We are drawing on some assistance from the limited number of Army vets and are making contingency plans to call on additional logistical support if it is necessary for tasks such as killing farm animals and disposing of carcasses.

Our priority is to kill infected animals--most urgently pigs, because of the amount of virus that they exhale and their potential for disease spread, but also sheep and cattle--and dangerous contacts as soon as possible. Of course, we are equally anxious to dispose of carcasses as soon as we can. I understand the enormous distress that is caused to people who see their herds or flocks awaiting disposal on the farm after having been slaughtered--animals that they have spent a lifetime, or often generations, nurturing and bringing together. That is a devastating experience. However, we have to devote resources to the most urgent issues and the veterinary advice is that killing animals quickly is the most important thing to do. Once they are dead, the risk of spreading the virus is diminished to almost zero. We understand the problem and we are doing all we can to speed up the disposal of carcasses. But it is an enormous task. We are dealing with very large numbers of animals and the priority has to be the containment of disease.

The Government recognise that the necessarily tough and decisive action that we have taken against the disease has had an impact not only on the farming industry and ancillary industries in the food chain, but also in the wider countryside. Where we can safely do so without risk of spreading disease, we have introduced measures to alleviate some of the practical difficulties posed by the ban on animal movements. On 2nd March we introduced limited licensed movements of animals direct from farm to slaughter under strict conditions. In the main, those arrangements have worked well, so that supplies of British pork are now at 75 per cent of their normal level, with beef at 60 per cent and lamb at 35 per cent.

On 9th March we announced arrangements to enable limited local movements of livestock over short distances between parcels of land in the same occupation in order to help to alleviate animal welfare problems. Help has been given in some of the most urgent cases, such as when people have had difficulties in getting cattle from one side of a small country lane to another when they needed to be milked, or when sheep, pigs or cattle have needed to give birth. However, those are limited circumstances involving short distance movements.

On CAP schemes, the Government sought and obtained the European Commission's agreement that the outbreak could be treated as a force majeure event--in other words, confirming that our farmers would not be penalised if livestock numbers declared for subsidy were affected. In addition, we now have the Commission's agreement that livestock can graze set-aside land if controls make that necessary. I hope that that will be of limited assistance in particular cases.

The Government recognise the financial hardship that the present controls none the less bring. For those farmers whose animals have to be slaughtered, compensation at 100 per cent of market value is paid. In addition, my right honourable friend the Minister announced on 6th March that the Government would be drawing down £156 million in agrimonetary compensation for the beef, sheep and dairy sectors. We now have the agreement of the Commission to pay that money in March and April--some months earlier than it would otherwise be paid. For pig farmers, who do not have the advantage of being in a heavy regime, we have reopened the outgoers element of the pig industry restructuring scheme for six weeks.

There have been many calls for compensation to go further and wider to other affected industries. As I have said in the House before, no previous government have compensated for the so-called "consequential losses" caused by animal disease outbreaks. That would be a very significant step, and could involve the taxpayer in an almost unquantifiable commitment, both now and in any future outbreak. However, we are listening carefully to arguments about the implications of the disease and the restrictions and about the effects that are being felt.

The Prime Minister is fully seized of the gravity of the situation. This morning he chaired meetings with farmers' leaders, Ministers from the key departments and a number of organisations representing rural interests to listen to their concerns. All those present agreed that the Government's strategy for containing and eradicating the disease was the right one and supported it, even though it was proving painful for everyone in the countryside and would inevitably take time to succeed.

The Prime Minister has asked the Minister for the Environment urgently to assemble a task force to look at the impact of foot and mouth on the wider rural economy and countryside, and how that impact might be alleviated. The task force will look at whether tighter guidance can be produced to ensure that rural businesses such hotels, pubs and historic houses could reopen properly in areas where the risk posed by the movements of people rather than of susceptible animals was minimal. It will also consider whether the implementation of any rural initiatives, such as those from the rural White Paper, can be accelerated and will examine ideas for kick-starting the rural economy, particularly by encouraging tourism once foot and mouth disease has been eradicated.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease has taken hold quickly and has caused incalculable distress to families. I am only too aware of the anxiety and isolation of those waiting and worrying or facing the consequences of a diagnosis of the disease.

We have worked very hard to communicate clearly and promptly as the outbreak has developed. The Ministry's website devoted to foot and mouth disease is updated daily, and often several times a day. It contains a wide range of information. However, we recognise that not everyone affected can access the MAFF website. Therefore, we have attempted to communicate in other ways.

A telephone helpline was established early during the outbreak and is available from eight o'clock in the morning until eleven o'clock at night seven days a week. The telephone number has been widely disseminated. Farmers can contact their local animal health offices for more detailed information regarding the situation in their own localities. My right honourable friend the Minister wrote to every farmer in the country, enclosing information about the disease and setting out what can be done to protect farms from it. If necessary, of course, we shall write again to every farmer with an update on the situation. The Chief Veterinary Officer has written similarly to all private veterinary practices.

We have held weekly or biweekly meetings with representatives of the main farming, veterinary, processing, distributing and retail organisations. I and the Chief Veterinary Officer have listened to the points put to us. We value enormously the work that the organisations represented at those regular meetings do in communicating with their members. In addition, information is provided via Ceefax, Teletext and NFU regional offices. Daily reports are provided to Members of Parliament and placed in the Libraries.

Our policy is to be as open as possible in describing the situation and in communicating what we are doing in response to it. However, sometimes exposing contingency plans at early stages to a wide audience means that one spends a great deal of time chasing several hares that are set running but those plans may never come to fruition. I believe that one of the main lessons to have been learned from the Phillips report is that we must constantly assess and reassess policy as the disease develops and test it against the realities of the situation at the time. I do not consider that that is a matter for criticism.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Can she tell us what are the current arrangements for moving pregnant ewes that are likely to lamb in a few weeks' time in non-infected areas? This morning, one of our local sheep farmers told me that he did not know. He said that changes were taking place so fast that it was hard to keep up to date. I promised to try to obtain elucidation for him as to the distance that ewes which are about to lamb can be moved in non-infected areas.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the issues relating to pregnant ewes are most serious. At present, in the region of half-a-million animals are away from their home farms. I believe that a variety of measures must be made available to people in those circumstances. If the holdings are very local--that is, within a distance of five kilometres--they can access the licensing arrangements for short movements in non-infected areas. I believe that many of the applications made over the weekend--this scheme was put in place only at the weekend--will relate to those cases.

Advice has been circulated by the farming organisations, ourselves and the RSPCA about how people can deal with lambing in non-ideal circumstances when movement is not possible and where, for example, no lambing sheds and no personnel are available. Advice is given as to how those services can be brought to the animals. We are considering a further distance movement scheme. However, under that scheme the undoubted welfare benefits to animals of being taken home to lamb must be weighed against the potential disease risks of mixing live animals during movement. The assessment of those risks is a veterinary one.

There is a also a risk management issue. As soon as many long-distance movements of live animals are licensed, the potential exists for other movements to take place. Although certain schemes would not cover people travelling from infected to clean areas--for obvious reasons, there would still be a residual problem--we are working out a scheme that could help in some of those circumstances. However, in the introduction of such a scheme a balance must be maintained between the risk of disease spread and the need to alleviate welfare considerations compounded by the difficulty of transporting ewes very late in pregnancy. That is itself a welfare issue.

The noble Lord rightly interrupted me when I was talking about communications. It is not easy to communicate some of the details relating to this problem to everyone who is potentially affected. However, we believe that good communications are vital in gaining the support of farmers and the public in tackling the outbreak. It is clear that the disease has already had a devastating impact and that there is some way to go before we can say safely that it is on course for eradication.

We must keep our disease control policy under constant review, taking account of the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer as the situation develops. I should warn the House that every day the CVO is asked for a prediction about the number of cases and when that number will peak. Each day at the press conference he refuses to give a prediction, and I shall not second-guess him at the Dispatch Box today.

However, I can assure the House that the Government will remain flexible in their response and will not hesitate to take whatever further measures may be needed. The range of potential options would include slaughtering more animals in particular areas if that would speed up eradication of the disease. Those options are being considered carefully. They will be assessed and introduced if we believe that it is necessary to do so.

Finally, the Government have made clear that they intend to carry out a thorough review of the measures in place in order to reduce future disease risk once this outbreak has been dealt with. In particular, we shall need to consider how the current outbreak began and what can be learned from it; the current enforcement and control measures in place; and the implications for disease control of increased world travel and globalisation of trade.

My right honourable friend the Minister has promised that those reviews will be thorough and that they will be published. I am sure that the House will agree that we must all do everything we can to minimise the risk of a recurrence of this or any other exotic disease so that we can benefit farming in particular and the wider countryside in general.

I believe that it would be most helpful if I were now to stop talking and allow the many Members of the House who, I know, have long memories going back to 1967--some, sadly, also have experience of the current outbreak--to contribute to the debate and to raise the issues that they wish to put forward. I shall try to deal with them when I reply to the debate this evening.

As I said, I am only too aware that other parts of the rural economy, such as the haulage industry, the abattoir industry and tourism, are deeply affected, as are many farmers who have diversified into areas such as equestrian activities, bed and breakfast, farm shops or whatever.

Earlier this year, we set out in a White Paper a broad range of commitments and initiatives in relation to rural areas. Those included health and social services, access to education, rural crime, social exclusion and affordable housing, protecting landscapes and biodiversity, public transport, and rural policy-making at national and local level. We said in that document and I repeat today that the landscape that we all love and the countryside that we value is largely the product of centuries of farming. We need to do everything we can to ensure that once the crisis is over we shall again be able to enjoy the countryside. We must ensure that it will again be able to live and thrive and be a place of hope, not of despair. For the moment, the best way in which to do that is to continue to take the most effective steps we can to eradicate the current outbreak of the disease.

Photo of Lord Renton Lord Renton Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Baroness concludes, may I make an apology to her? In yesterday's debate on hunting I suggested that a Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be on the Government Front Bench. I should have realised that she would have been very busy preparing for today's debate.

Moved, That this House takes note of the current situation in the countryside, in particular in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.--(Baroness Hayman.)

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 4:31 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing us up to date on the dire situation of foot and mouth disease. She rightly discussed the distress, isolation and anxiety felt by many farmers all over the country. Some of them found it difficult in the early days to get the right information to help them to take the right decisions at the right time. The ministry has made great efforts. I thank the Minister for bringing us up to date--199 cases is a terrible number.

I want to pick up on various items raised by the Minister before turning to my prepared speech in which I shall deal with the situation in the countryside and end up discussing foot and mouth disease. If my approach seems to be back to front, I hope that the Minister will bear with me.

Last Thursday, when I raised the Private Notice Question in the House, I asked whether the Government were satisfied that they had enough support, especially with regard to vets and the Army. The numbers then were different: 104 compared with 199 today. I am extremely glad to hear that the Government are calling in some extra resources. There is a need for speed when coping with the logistics of the outbreak.

Secondly, we are obviously grateful for the agrimoney that has been "pulled down"; there is an attempt to try to pull it down early so that some farmers will get it early. I should add that that money was due to farmers. Even in this dire situation, we should point out that farmers should have had that money in view of the lower rate of the euro against the pound. Even so, we are grateful.

Thirdly, we totally agree with the Government that we must contain and eradicate the disease; that is our number one aim.

Fourthly, I am very glad to hear about the establishment of the rural task force. I shall discuss that later. It will examine the wider application and interests of the rural countryside and the possibility of giving help to hotels and pubs. It may also open up certain areas of the countryside that are not affected.

I am also grateful that the Government will assess and continue to assess the situation on a daily basis. I am sure that all noble Lords follow the information that is available on an hourly basis--it is obviously very close to our hearts. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for raising the question of in-lamb ewes, which we raised last week. A dreadful decision may be taken--some of them may be destroyed on site because it may be considered safer to do that than to bring them back to lamb. Those are hard decisions to take and we acknowledge the Government's difficulty.

I want to move on to my main speech, in which, as I said, I shall deal with the wider countryside before returning to the crucial issue of foot and mouth disease. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for approaching the matter in reverse. When my noble friend winds up, his approach will, in the first instance, be that adopted by the Minister.

During the past two-and-a-half years, apart from the work establishing the Food Standards Agency and the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, we have had frequent debates and questions on agriculture, horticulture, rural affairs and the environment. It is some two years since the Prime Minister said that there was no crisis in the countryside. Your Lordships know better. We have emphasised the fundamental problems involving employment, costs, the provision of rural services and the inequalities of global competition.

Warnings about the consequences of the downward pressure on farm incomes, the continuing closures of small and medium-sized abattoirs, the gold-plating of EU directives and the costs of regulation have come home to roost. Today, since the Prime Minister denied the problems, more than 42,000 people--I stress that number--have left the industry, 614 sub-post offices have closed and rural charities are inundated with calls for help. Moreover, the delayed rural White Paper made only token reference to agriculture.

The swine fever outbreak last year was a blow to our pig farmers. At the start of my speech I should have declared an interest--we have a family farm. I apologise for not doing so earlier. Many pig farmers are already struggling to compete against cheaper foreign imports. Then, on top of everything else, came the devastating blow of foot and mouth disease. The source of the swine fever infection has not been established and it is too early to identify the cause of the foot and mouth outbreak. However, in both cases the source must be found. I hope the Minister will ensure that the inquiry that she mentioned will have that as its number one aim. In addition to the internal review to which she referred, I hope that those matters will also be examined by a totally independent body.

The FSA under the Department of Health has the job of protecting our food supply. Equally, the European agency and the Commission should be policing our food production to ensure that regulations are adhered to. Two German abattoirs have had their export licences revoked but suspicion is rife about the inspection regimes in other countries. We must not accept lower standards in our imported foods and we should instigate more routine and regular checks on all food that comes into this country, including personal food imported by the travelling public. Existing regulations must be enforced.

The picture in rural areas is that agriculture, which at prevailing prices accounts for a mere 2 per cent of GDP, is responsible for the upkeep of 80 per cent of our non-built landscape. It suffered the loss of 20,000 full-time jobs in 1999 and more than 22,000 last year.

In 2001, the fall in numbers is likely to be even higher. The swine fever outbreak, government measures to slim down the pig industry and the foot and mouth outbreak combine to bankrupt many farmers or to persuade them to retire and their children to look elsewhere for work.

Prices are falling and more people are leaving the industry than are joining it. These are worrying times. The steady drop in total earnings from agriculture affects all rural areas. As the average disposable income of those who live and work out of town falls, pubs, village shops and sub-post offices close and the provision of policing, medical and social services becomes more centred in our towns and cities.

The effect on the landscape is mainly confined to the increasingly unkempt woodlands and coppices. However, the next batch of EU regulations and interference is almost with us. Among the proposals on the table is one to restrict tractor drivers to sitting on tractors or combine harvesters for as little as two hours a day. It is to be known as the physical agents directive and relates to the health risk of the whole body vibration. It really is a nightmare. It will affect farmers, foresters, hedgers, agricultural contractors, local council workmen, highway authorities, building and construction workers and quarrymen. It will have an impact on our towns and cities, but by far the greatest damage will be done in our countryside.

Our rural industries are also threatened from within. The Government have delayed the introduction of a pesticide tax but have not yet abandoned the idea. The climate change levy, the IPPC charges and the water-compensating benefits will affect all those who have to suffer them. They are all additional costs.

To make matters worse, many of our charities that exist to protect the environment face the challenge of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The provisions of that Act are being interpreted to mean that donor companies will have to obtain shareholder approval for all donations of over £5,000 to any charity that carries on activities which could possibly be regarded as intended to influence voters. I suspect that that could affect the RSPB, the National Wildfowl Trust, the Game Conservancy Trust, the National Trust, and many other organisations that also have a political campaigning side.

Rural communities are also likely to suffer from the ending of the landfill tax credit scheme which since 1996 has enabled the spending of a total of £356 million on repairing church roofs and village halls, buying wildlife sites and establishing or restoring parks. The most recent Budget Statement signals its cessation.

The British landscape owes much of its charm to constant grazing by cattle and sheep. However, it is also home to pigs, poultry, horses and a wide variety of wildlife. Animal welfare is an important issue. Unfortunately, it is a much disputed issue. The UK Government want to introduce measures such as battery cage regulation amendments in advance of the European deadline. Some European countries have indicated that they will not meet that deadline and will therefore gain a competitive advantage.

The UK farmer wants his animals to be well fed, healthy and content. However, if his holding is small, or if he is a tenant, his earnings will be insufficient to pay for major improvements. There is enormous pressure on those people. Average farm incomes have fallen by 75 per cent to just over £4,500 per annum.

The Rural Stress Network, which was founded in 1996 and now supports more than 30 regional and local initiatives, works closely with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the farm crisis network and the Samaritans. It administers the rural stress action plan, which is funded and chaired by MAFF and has a grant of £500,000. It has recently reported a dramatic increase in the number of calls from distressed people. The RABI wrote to me about the matter. I quote from its response, particularly with regard to the foot and mouth outbreak:

"Since the end of February, RABI has received a tenfold increase in calls to its helpline as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. A second telephone line for the helpline has had to be put in, and urgent calls are now being taken outside office hours, in the evenings and at weekends.

The main problem facing many livestock farmers is the restriction on movement and sale of livestock."

The Minister has referred to that point.

"This has delayed planned income for farmers who were already hard-pressed financially following three bad years. They are having difficulty meeting household expenses, as well as other unexpected costs such as feed bills for animals that they cannot take to market.

Normally, RABI only assists with household expenditure but, in these exceptional circumstances, the Trustees have extended RABI's financial support to cover other essential expenditure incurred as a result of the outbreak".

Perhaps I may quote some figures to illustrate the extent to which a call has been made on its money. In 1996 it paid out £5,000; in 1997, £7,000; in 1998, £118,000; in 1999, £190,000; in 2000, £207,000; and in the first two months of this year it has already made grants amounting to £57,000. I should stress that those payments were made not to retired farming families, in line with previous practice, but to working families.

As the Minister will be aware, farmers' costs are also rising. Fertiliser costs have risen by 50 per cent; the cost of animal medicines has risen by more than the rate of inflation; charges associated with BSE controls are still rising; and farmers have to face higher transport costs to market or abattoir as their numbers fall. In my opinion, government policy is to blame for many of those rising costs. In that regard, we are grateful that our debate the other night with regard to Meat Hygiene Service charges may have been taken on board.

Some abattoirs have survived and are now dealing with special permissions relative to foot and mouth disease restrictions. However, I have to tell the Minister that I am aware of several that are accepting animals for slaughter but quoting ridiculous prices on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I am sure that the Minister has probably received similar representations. Perhaps the Minister will inform us what steps are being taken to prevent profiteering by some perhaps less scrupulous operators. That said, I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government will consider absorbing the extra inspection charges necessitated by this abnormal working pattern at this particular time.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, perhaps I can assist the noble Baroness. We undertake to take on board the additional costs associated with the extra veterinary supervision necessary for abattoirs involved in the licence to slaughter scheme. I should not deceive anyone into thinking that that will mean that abattoirs will function at normal speed because there are additional difficulties. But the additional veterinary costs incurred as a result of the greater involvement of the Meat Hygiene Service will be met by the Government.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for her intervention. It will help at a time when many abattoirs will have to work slower than they normally would and additional charges kick into force.

Government policy has also left some of our farmers largely unprotected from the market place. They broke up the milk marque and presided over a fall of one third of the prices paid to farmers for liquid milk. They agreed the milk quotas at the last CAP reform, which took place last year, that have given Ireland a surplus to sell to us while our farmers have rights to supply only 85 per cent of our market. They have refused to ensure that labelling restricts the "British" marking to fresh and processed food grown and packed in this country.

We have supported government policy on the foot and mouth outbreak. We agree that the virus must be eliminated. We agree that the only way to achieve that is to slaughter and then burn or render all affected herds or flocks. However, we do not agree with the ever growing delays in the disposal of carcasses. In that respect, I am grateful to the Minister for her indication that extra resources are being requested to help with the problem. Those involved, particularly vets and other MAFF staff, are clearly working their socks off. However, we feel that they should be getting more help and support, and we are glad to hear that it is forthcoming. Help is needed to prevent a build up of carcasses being fed upon by flocks of birds, as some are, perhaps resulting in further spread of the virus. It is also needed to prevent local wildlife--foxes, rabbits and rats--spreading the disease to neighbouring farms. I noted the Minister's comment that there is a much lesser risk of that happening once the animal is dead. However, I think the present advice is that the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I can interrupt my noble friend. As the 1967 outbreak came in on Argentinean boned meat, and it is thought that this outbreak arose from a sandwich or something in swill, how is the risk less in dead cattle? I ask that purely in a spirit of true inquiry; I am not trying to catch anybody out. If the risk is so much reduced, as the Minister says, how did it arrive in the bone of an Argentine leg of lamb in 1967 and, as we believe, in swill in this case?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the answer to the noble Earl is the difference between "low" risk and "no" risk. I caution him about talking about ham sandwiches. There was a great deal of talk about ham sandwiches in relation to the outbreak of classical swine fever.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said we must get to the bottom of this. I have to tell her that I cannot guarantee that we will. Noble Lords who have experience in veterinary and medical matters will know that sometimes the source cannot be isolated, particularly if it has been eaten and the animal that ate it has been disposed of.

We are talking of comparative risk. Live animals exhale the virus. Once they are dead, they no longer breathe out the virus. In addition, the pH levels change during decomposition, and during decomposition therefore the risk of disease is limited and reduces very quickly. The dead animals will not go into the food chain; they should not go into the animal food chain legally anyway. To spread the disease an infected dose has to be ingested and those animals will not be going into the food chain. I have learnt a lot about this matter in the past few days though my explanation may not be that which the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, would make. But all that comes together to mean that, unpleasant though corpses of animals may be--these are not necessarily animals with disease; they are dangerous contacts--the risk of the disease spreading thereby is minimal compared with that present with live animals.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that point.

I shall move on to two further points I particularly wish to raise. I should like to reflect on the need for the general public to be vigilant about where they walk. Notices have been erected pointing out where footpaths and common land are closed. But I have been told of several cases in Norfolk and Leicestershire where people still walk their dogs. I hope that the message will go out from this debate today that that is something they really should not be doing.

Not only do we need to enforce the regulations as quickly as possible, but we also need to demonstrate to our farmers nation-wide that we are doing so. They and their families are retreating into isolation, threatened by a vision--for some, sadly a reality--of silent fields with nothing in them except grass growing with nothing to graze on it.

Since last Thursday when I raised the PNQ, the number of outbreaks has sadly risen to 199. That inevitably means a vast increase in the number of beasts which will be killed and therefore need to be disposed of. At this time farmers are having to make workers redundant. Will the Government consider meeting some of the costs of paying the redundancy charges made necessary by the slaughter policy? It would only be a short-term intervention.

Also, will the Government guarantee to consider the effect of consequential loss--a point on which the Minister touched earlier--particularly to those whose animals have had to be kept past their prime value date? Eventually, when those animals go to market, they will be worth less than they would have been worth had they been marketed at the correct time. Will the Government consider what can be done in relation to the extra costs involved in providing that extra feed?

Finally, will the Government consider introducing a scheme for the longer term when this outbreak is over? When farmers restock, which cannot be for six months after the disease has been totally cleared, the new stock will be all of one age. Normally on a farm, stock is coming through at different stages. For many farmers, the restocking may mean that they will receive no income for up to a year. Have the Government considered that?

Last Sunday church bells throughout England tolled at midday for five minutes, their peals bearing a message of solidarity and comfort to many who are struggling at this time. Also, were it not for the foot and mouth problems, I--and I suspect many other noble Lords--would have been participating in the countryside march this coming Sunday. The fact that it has been postponed does not mean that it is not relevant or necessary. I can only hope that your Lordships' contributions today will persuade the Government that the current situation in the countryside, even without this dreadful disease, is dire.

I hope that our discussions today will reflect on both. The Government are dealing well with the outbreak and they have our support. But action must be taken. Legislation already passed is weakening our structure. Legislation and directives to come from Europe will only add to the burdens. The facts are there to be examined. The statistics are available for all to see. The situation the farming community and the countryside have been experiencing over the past two to three years cannot continue; it is dire.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 4:57 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I am grateful to the Government for granting this debate in response to the Motion tabled last week by the Liberal Democrat Benches. I am glad that the Government have given the Minister time to update your Lordships' House on the progress that has been made so far.

I agree that in the short term this is a countryside issue. But medium and long term it should be thought of as a national issue. Now, with the sad news today that there is an outbreak in France, it has become an international issue.

No one who compares the maps of the 1967 outbreak with the maps of the present one can fail to be struck by how then one area was affected and now it is dozens of areas, connected by a web of animal transportation. Farmers have to make money where they can in an unforgiving system that has as much to do with shipping animals around as it does with raising them. The system is about subsidies and chasing a pound of profit here and there at the cost of animal welfare and animal health.

Over the years we have strongly argued that successive governments need to address the infrastructure that supports livestock production, small abattoirs and retail marketing structures. I refer noble Lords to the publication of my honourable friend, Colin Breed, called Checking out the Supermarkets. It contained a number of points which I am sure will be repeated today.

This devastating blow follows BSE, the drop in world food prices and the effect of currency fluctuations on an industry that has no slack to bear them. The Government of course must deal with this crisis, but they need to take a longer view. It is always difficult at a time of crisis to do that, but it is essential if we are not to lurch from one rural crisis to another. I shall start first with the long view and then come back to the immediate action.

A fundamental difficulty is that neither the current international trade rules nor the CAP reflect the close relationship between agriculture and the environment, and the social context of the countries in which that agriculture operates. That negative effect is magnified in smaller countries like ours, where agriculture does not just have an effect on landscape, biodiversity and social structure; it is the very landscape and a major part of the social structure.

In today's increasingly mobile population, the farming families give rural areas their continuity. Sometimes people criticise the fact that parish councils in rural areas are dominated by farmers but without farming's contribution to those councils they would struggle to exist at all. Farmers provide the stability.

Unlike the Conservative Front Bench, I do not believe that blaming the EU is the solution to many of the problems. Globalisation is here to stay and the Conservatives made little or no effort to reform EU rules and the CAP. World Trade Organisation rules recognise nothing beyond the market price of a commodity. Those rules were written for the prairies of the United States. I wonder whether the Prime Minister, when he met the new President, George "Dubya" Bush, explained to him why and how the US stance on the World Trade Organisation and the Codex Alimentaris, a body which specialises in the food area of world trade, damages our country.

Furthermore, I wonder whether he explained that the body which sets global food standards should take a view of world well-being and set its standards in accordance. For as long as it sets its standards to benefit corporate interests representing their own products, it will never address the real issues which beset us, our farmers, our European neighbours' farmers and, crucially, those of the developing world.

Would it alter the world's economy if small-scale farmers were encouraged and if rural economies which depend on those small farmers were strengthened? The World Bank spends millions of dollars coping with the poverty of shanty-town life caused by mass migration from rural areas to cities in the developing world. Millions of small farmers go out of business and millions of dollars of profits go to the world's biggest commodity dealers.

I shall return to Britain. Unless the Government take a firm and decisive lead in developing a long-term strategy to cope with foot and mouth disease, the crisis could lead to a mass migration, too. But I believe that in the case of Britain it will be from the cities to the countryside. As rural areas cease to use land for food production--and no one could blame farmers for getting out now and no one should expect the younger generation to see farming as a bright future--so landscapes risk becoming undermanaged scrub. And then the house-building lobby really will have a field day. Those in rural areas will be desperate for cash and they will begin to agree to the kind of massive greenfield development dear to the hearts of those in the construction industry. The regeneration of cities, on which, like us, this Government lay much store, will become an impossibility as private property money migrates wholesale to the shires.

I believe that in the short-term the Government are committed to saving what there is, but I want to offer a different view on how to go about it. Some regions of England and Wales are much more badly affected by the crisis than others--notably the western half of the country, with the exception of Northumberland. Those areas depend on a combination of livestock farming and tourism and are clearly much worse off than arable areas or areas where farming forms a much smaller part of the regional economy.

The Government should take a region-by-region approach. In regions where foot and mouth is a devastating crisis, they should treat it accordingly. There is actually a state of emergency in my area. However, there is little debate around whether the situation is an emergency. The fact is that in some regions it is, but in regions such as the south east it is not. Some of the discrepancies in the media about whether there is a crisis reflects that division. The Government need to recognise that and to begin a dialogue with the rural development agencies and Government Offices about how to deal with the situation.

We were pleased when the Government recently regionalised MAFF by appointing directors in the regional government offices. That could be a good foundation for urgently revising, in the light of the crisis, the way in which MAFF, Government Offices and the RDA put together a crisis containment plan and then a crisis recovery plan. It is likely that that will involve the Government in using contingency money. However, where rural businesses such as tourism are supporting an industry of £16 billion a year nationally, should not the £3.8 billion contingency fund be spent on markets, specialist food producers and all the dependent organisations referred to by the Minister? Is that not a reasonable use of such a fund and is that not what it is for?

On 1st March, the Countryside Agency estimated a £2 billion loss to the rural economy. Will the Minister say what the Government's present estimate is? Perhaps that is not a fair question to ask at this time, but this is the kind of event which should make a government consider using a contingency fund.

The issue of consequential payment is most important. If we are to be left with a livestock farming industry on which we can build, farmers must know the basis on which they can make decisions after the crisis is over. Farmers are facing vastly increased costs of feed and they are facing lambing losses already. They are also facing extra costs due to the logistical problems referred to by the Conservative Front Bench. Even those who receive compensation for slaughtered animals face the question of whether they can survive the next few months. Those who followed advice and diversified, borrowing money to convert their premises to provide bed and breakfast accommodation and farm attractions, are now doubly hit by increased borrowings and no visitors. Regionally, local authorities want to act, too. Could they be empowered to look at business rate relief for a start?

Today nationally, too, there are questions which need urgent answers. Other noble Lords addressed the issue of dead animals left in piles and the related health risks, so I shall not deal with that. Advice from the Farm Business Advisory Service is also likely to be crucial. But MAFF's policy of first-come-first-served even before the crisis was not best serving those farmers who were most struggling. The experience in my region shows that often the farmers most in need of advice were not seeking it while the larger farmers with more time to spare and experience of obtaining additional grants were often at the front of the queue. Will the Minister consider revising that first-come-first-served policy?

Having allowed for regional differences and allowed the regions to get on with their recovery plans, the Government need greatly to accelerate the ideas in the Rural White Paper implementation plan. Under further reform of the CAP, the lead is to be taken by MAFF, but I believe that it should be taken by the Prime Minister. The debate is now about far more than farming. Strengthening farmers' co-operatives and their buying and selling power is equally crucial. It would give them the ability to wield a decent amount of strength in the marketplace.

The end of this month saw the target in the implementation plan for the Government to set up an industry/government task force to investigate inputs in farming and efficiencies in sectors of the food chain, starting with the milk and dairy sector. Is that likely to be delayed as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic? Is it still on target? If not, what is the revised target? Crucially, will the Minister introduce a code of practice to put relations between supermarkets and suppliers on a clearer basis? That was to be established by 31st March.

The Minister might agree with me that the equation between cheap food and the foot and mouth epidemic has been greatly over-simplified. The fact is that prices for meat and dairy products were held down and the nation saved money. Consumers saved money--they even bought less lamb and fewer fresh vegetables--but it was at the expense of our farmers. And how did consumers spend their savings? We spent much more on soft drinks, alcohol and confectionery--a real growth area in consumption according to the National Food Survey of 5th March this year. It showed alcohol enjoying a growth of 13 per cent, soft drinks a growth of 12 per cent and confectionery a growth of 20 per cent.

This crisis is about consumers wanting cheap food, but ignoring the cost of that cheapness. I refer to the environmental costs of transporting apples from the other side of the world while our own growers go out of business, or shipping in fertiliser, applying it heavily and then finding that the damage it does to our fresh water eco-system must be paid for. For years governments have ignored the other invisible costs which have been encouraged by supermarket price wars.

Even now, I believe that there is a mistaken impression that the choice is either cheap, low grade food or expensive produce. It ignores the players in the food chain that make food unreasonably expensive: the storage and distribution network, packaging companies and so on. I believe that the medium-term message for the Government is to ensure that our agricultural industry has access to the kind of processing which enables it to have a more direct input into the marketing of its own fresh produce.

The landscape to which the Minister referred is precious, and it created the rich biodiversity which was so diminished as small farmers and extensive farming methods were sacrificed, first with mass production in the 1950s and 1960s and then by the CAP. We have debated this issue a number of times, and I shall not rehearse the arguments. The maze of grants that a farmer must negotiate to protect the landscape is now extreme. I believe that the time has come to simplify this so that we have a unified system of the kind that our colleagues in Wales now enjoy.

I believe that in the long term we must put quality and healthy food at the heart of our community planning and regeneration. Thousands of children start the day with a fizzy drink and chocolate bar and learn less well. Teenagers have a diet of lager and McDonalds, and the office worker grabs a bowl of chips at lunch time, a couple of beers after work and a frozen microwave pasta meal at night. They are likely to become an NHS expense in a matter of years. Unless we value our food we will not care how it is produced. The promotion of British produce and a quality diet is the job of government. It can be done within an EU framework, and other EU countries are ahead of us in this regard. It is done by culture and example--by the Prime Minister celebrating top food producers, chefs and farmers, in the same way as he celebrates pop stars and footballers.

This debate is really about the state of Britain and its real attitude to sustainability, and it is a debate about the fabric of the nation. Of course, this is a matter of great concern to MAFF and to farmers, but the debate is about whether the use of some of the best growing conditions in the world is important, whether a country like the UK with wonderful natural resources should use them to produce for its own needs food, timber and energy crops, or whether it is content to be a nation of global parasites that squanders its resources while talking about sustainability.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench 5:13 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for sparing the time to come and tell us so fully what is happening at the moment. I know that other noble Lords will deal with the wider aspects of the topic which is the subject of this Motion. I shall confine myself to the foot and mouth disease and what I believe to be the important aspects at the moment.

I declare an interest, in that my husband and I farm sheep, goats and cattle in Worcestershire. We are currently in an infected area. As a result, our goats cheese-making business is at a standstill. All the farmers' markets upon which we depend are closed.

Hundreds of questions require answers. The Minister will be relieved to hear that I believe that most of them can wait until the reviews are conducted, as they must be. Now is not the time to demand bans on certain practices or to ask for more legislation, unless of course the current situation will be improved by them. Now we must be constructive if we are to prevent the further spread of foot and mouth disease.

For laws to work the reasons for enacting them must be well understood by those who are their main targets as well as by the general population. Certain newspapers--the Guardian, Observer and Independent come immediately to mind--seem to trivialise the awful effects of foot and mouth disease upon the animals and heap scorn upon all farmers, regardless of their stockmanship. They are not helping those who so far may not be directly affected to recognise the reasons for the movement restrictions, animal and human.

During the worst of the BSE epidemic the public was bombarded with pictures of Daisy the cow staggering about in a farmyard. I know that television crews would not be allowed anywhere near a farm where there was an outbreak of foot and mouth, but I ask the noble Baroness whether it is possible for a MAFF vet to film some of the sick animals, particularly cattle, which appear to suffer most. The other day I heard of one vet who opened the mouth of a beast and its tongue fell out. The film could then be released to the media for publication.

Humans understand the pain inflicted by a tiny mouth ulcer. Would they not understand the suffering endured by a steer with a mouth full of sloughing lesions? Humans understand the pain inflicted by a blister on the foot. Equally, would they not understand the pain endured by a cow, sheep or pig with blisters all over its feet? It will not be until the public realise just how dreadfully this disease affects our farm animals that they will obey the law. It will also encourage people who know of unscrupulous individuals who flout the law to report miscreants to the authorities.

Misinformation does not rest solely at the door of some parts of the media. A vet with a small practice in the heart of an infected area in Devon telephoned me last night. She shared my rage at the statement made by the noble Baroness's right honourable friend the Minister on Sunday when he was questioned about the delays in removing slaughtered animals to the rendering plant and the methods used for the removal. If the vet and I understood it correctly--the noble Baroness has tried to explain it but I remain unclear--he said that the virus ceased to be infectious once an animal had died because the acidity associated with decay in the meat would kill it. If that is the case, how did the original infection of the pigs occur? What about birds feeding on the dead animals that have been lying in fields for several days and passing the virus on to other farms? Why are we being asked to drive vehicles through disinfectant and told that we must change our clothes and wash ourselves before handling our stock if the virus is not infectious?

Richard Haddock has also spoken to me. He farms in the South West and represents many farmers in the region. He has told me exactly what has been happening on some farms in Devon. Despite the assurances given by the Minister tonight, what is happening on the farms is not consistent with those assurances.

I have enormous sympathy for the Minister and all the staff who have been working on this awful task. We know that the State Veterinary Service is overstretched, even with the assistance of overseas vets who have volunteered their services. I recognise that many of them must be tired of being told that the delays involved in slaughtering the animals infected and the removal of the carcasses are unacceptable. I have had described to me the suffering of infected cattle and am left in no doubt that all animals found with lesions should be dispatched immediately to relieve them of their suffering. There are plenty of slaughtermen who are unable to work at present. Could they not be contracted to relieve the present teams? I understand that one team in Devon was dispatched to slaughter pigs with captive bolts. Slaughtermen would know at once that these are not suitable for pigs.

Last week in this House we heard requests for military assistance. I was pleased to hear on the news this morning that the Ministry of Defence has been asked to provide marksmen and sharpshooters to dispatch animals in difficult terrain. As the noble Baroness is aware, I have frequently asked that military sharpshooters be used humanely to destroy feral sheep that become a reservoir for sheep scab. Hitherto that has always been refused, but this situation is different. Military assistance is urgently required now. What progress is being made on that matter?

After an extremely wet winter the ground upon which the carcasses are lying will not bear the weight of heavy vehicles. Lorries become stuck, plough up fields and are unable to get out with the carcasses once they are loaded. This is an appalling situation for the people who have to suffer it. The Army has metal rolling roads for use in just these conditions. It seems that we can send our troops to the four corners of the world but cannot use them at home. What is the problem? Why were they not called out to help at a much earlier stage?

I understand that the Prosper de Mulder Group has a rendering plant in Exeter and that it has vehicles and lifting tackle designed specifically to deal with animal carcasses that may be infected. Why cannot this plant be pressed into service? It would mean that carcasses no longer have to be carried from the South West to Widnes and would allay the fears of the farmers in areas as yet unaffected.

It has been pointed out to me that the result of the difference between the circumstances experienced by affected farmers and the spin put out by MAFF has been the farming community's loss of confidence in officials and Ministers, particularly in the South West. I have been asked whether someone who has the respect and trust of the farming community--I am pleased to see that the noble Lord is back in his place--such as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, could be appointed to talk with the farmers and tell them the truth about the position. Perhaps the Minister will consider that request?

Last Thursday, I asked the Minister about the position regarding cheese-makers. The position is still far from clear. LACOTS advised environmental health officers that no cheese made from unpasteurised milk can be sold from an infected area, despite the reassurance given by the Minister. If the Dairy Products Hygiene Regulations 1995 were fully implemented, my local environmental health officer believes that he would have the power to prevent shopkeepers in infected areas selling cheese made from unpasteurised milk if they cut up the cheese on their premises.

I am puzzled. If the acidity that builds up in the rotting flesh of a dead animal is enough to kill the virus, why does the acidity built up by the normal process of cheese-making fail to kill the virus? If the high acid levels achieved in the process of making fresh cheeses, or the length of time that the virus might be exposed to an acid environment during the maturing period of at least 60 days, kills the virus and the concern is about post-manufacture contamination, why do not the rules apply equally to cheeses made from pasteurised milk? As this is a question of protecting animal rather than human health, and it is apparent that the regulations do not appear to have caught up with the science, perhaps I may ask the Minister exactly what is the current position.

I am grateful to the Minister for the message from her office to the effect that MAFF vets will be contacting Dr Fred Brown today. He is a brilliant Lancashireman who has spent a lifetime studying foot and mouth disease. He was in the UK during the 1967 and 1981 outbreaks. In fact, he predicted that one day foot and mouth disease would arrive on the Isle of Wight from a factory that was making vaccine in France. That is exactly what happened. I am sure that he will be able to assist.

I am realistic. I accept that the animals that I have reared and which have served me well may have to die. I find it very hard to accept that the man who is at the bottom of all the outbreaks in our area--a dealer who owns land in a large number of different locations, and who cares little for the long-term health and viability of the animals he buys and sells--is reported to be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of the compensation he will receive. No amount of money would ever compensate my husband and me, or the many good stockmen and women, for the loss of the animals in which we have invested our lives.

My husband and I do other things. We shall survive. My concern is for those for whom farming has been their only means of earning a living. Unlike many of those affected by the 1967 outbreak, these people no longer have a nice bank balance to cushion them for the six months or so before they are allowed to restock. I ask the Minister whether they will be expected to support their families from the compensation for their slaughtered stock, or, if they need to claim social security benefits, that capital sum will be disregarded for benefits purposes so that they can start again at the appropriate time. Tourism is not the answer; these people have to have stock on their farms.

These are very anxious times, particularly for the stock farming community. We could do without the cryptic comments of ignorant journalists from the Observer, the Guardian and the Independent. While there are, and always have been, some individuals who ruthlessly exploit and neglect their animals, most stockmen and women are being torn apart by the disaster, whether or not they have actually had to deal with an outbreak.

This is a virulent and horrible disease. I know from personal experience just how troubling it is to be constantly wondering whether the animals--the breeding of which one has put so much of one's life into and which are a major part of one's daily routine--will have to die an unpleasant and undignified death. The farming community desperately needs it to be understood that, if it takes heaven and earth to move, despatch and destroy the sick and suffering animals and their contacts, then heaven and earth must be moved. It is not acceptable that those who have cared all their lives for cows, sheep, pigs or goats that have had to be slaughtered must endure the sight of those animals' bodies abandoned, sometimes for several days, in the fields that they used to graze. There is a limit to what the human soul can bear.

Photo of The Bishop of Hereford The Bishop of Hereford Bishop 5:25 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, perhaps I may also say how grateful we are for the debate. I pay tribute to the Minister for the tone and content of her opening speech. Noble Lords will be very grateful for the sensitive way in which our debate was opened today. This will be a refrain echoed by practically every speaker in the debate, but, from these Benches, we want to express our very deep sympathy with all those who are caught up in this dreadful outbreak of foot and mouth disease--the vast numbers of people, not simply farmers and their families, but all those in associated industries and activities and those who are suffering because of the closure of the countryside.

We particularly think of those whose animals have been destroyed; who have had to watch that happening; and who now have to live with silent empty farmyards and the prospect of many months before they can begin to rebuild their lives, if they ever can. Those who wait and wonder in isolation, uncertainty and fear are experiencing levels of anxiety and despair which it is hard to imagine for anyone not caught up in it.

Noble Lords have already spoken about the half a million pregnant ewes and the desperate problems of their lambing, many in places far from where they should be. I understand that the Government have recognised that problem and, as far as is possible, the movement restrictions will be relaxed.

I want to say a little about the churches' response to this dreadful crisis. I shall then ask one or two questions. Perhaps I may read your Lordships a letter which appeared last week in the Church Times. It said:

"'Just wanted you to know that we are thinking of you. Love and prayers from ...' Those wonderful words have poured into our farmhouse by e-mail, post and phone in these awful days while we try to cope with the foot-and-mouth crisis. They have been an amazing source of comfort and strength.

As I write, our own cows and calves are safe and well, but we are also tired and frightened ... We are immensely grateful to our friends, to the Arthur Rank Centre, the agricultural chaplains, and the churches throughout the land who are holding us up in their prayers. They show us that we are still loved".

That was a letter from a dairy farmer in Somerset who is vice-chair of the Rural Affairs Committee of the Church of England. That letter reflects a grateful response from one farmer to the network of prayer and support which has been set up. It is, and has to be, much of the time a telephone ministry. That sounds desperately inadequate, but, as people must not go to farms in sensitive areas, that is the best we can do. It is greatly appreciated and very important.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a call to prayer. That is being answered in all our churches. One or two people have said that there should be a national day of prayer. If, during the debate, any noble Lords want to echo that request, I shall of course pass it on to the most reverend Primate.

Many churches are issuing documents or suggestions. I have in my hand a pamphlet prepared by one of our rural clergy. It simply says:

"'What can I do to help during the Foot and Mouth Crisis?' In response to this I have collected the prayers, which I hope you will find useful...I suggest that everyone says these prayers at 12.00 noon and 6 p.m. each day. The church bells will be pealed at 12.00 noon on Sunday as a sign of mutual care and support".

That was from a relatively small parish. Within a matter of days, 1,500 of those leaflets were gratefully taken and distributed by the postmen who could get nearest to the farms in the parishes. That is one initiative. I am sure that it has been replicated in many places in the country.

We are extremely grateful to the Rural Stress Network. By a strange coincidence I was present at the launch in Herefordshire of that network two days after the first foot and mouth case was discovered. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of people asking for help. Its help is much valued and appreciated.

There is a fund which has been set up by the churches called the Addington ARC Fund. ARC stands for the Arthur Rank Centre, the churches' ecumenical centre at Stoneleigh Park, the home of the Royal Show. That fund is intended to help families in distress, more widely even than the relaxed rules of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution. The RABI is mainly for household expenses for farmers, but its rules have been relaxed to pay for certain other farm expenses. However, the ARC Fund can be used to help those in desperate straits who are not, strictly speaking, farmers; and there are many of them. I commend that fund. I want the House to know that it exists and that money is pouring into it.

I welcome in principle the way in which the Government have responded to the crisis. Their initial quick and decisive response was widely welcomed. But I fear that there has been less satisfaction and support latterly. There have been many horror stories of serious delays in the identification, slaughter and disposal of infected animals. I echo the plea that has been made for the quick dispatch of animals on the authority of experienced vets by appropriately qualified slaughtermen. I do not see why that cannot happen much more quickly than is the case at the moment.

There are stories about unsafe lorries--unsealed or inadequately sealed lorries--taking animals very long distances to the rendering plant at Widnes; and there were delays in bringing that plant on stream. Other incineration facilities are not being used. I urge the Government to be much more flexible in the way in which they dispose of dead animals. I am quite sure that slaughter is the right policy. Some people have argued that we should go to vaccination. I am absolutely certain that that is not a viable course of action at the moment, although there are reports in the press today that research in America may make it in due course a possibility.

I want to touch for a moment on what has been said in some of the newspapers--I echo what has been said about the unhelpful attitude of some of the newspapers--about the present policy being driven by economic considerations. Quite clearly, the word "economic" in this context has a pejorative connotation. In other words, because we are doing it for economic reasons, that must be wrong and must be part of the great farm network of greed, as some people would like to postulate.

What do people think farming is for? Do they think that it is an animal welfare activity carried out by dewy-eyed sentimentalists? Most farmers care very much about animal welfare and are very good at delivering it. But farming is a business and its economic health is essential for its survival. The export of the products of our livestock industry has been and will remain vital to the flourishing of farming, especially in the hills, in the North and in the West. To say that this policy is driven by economic considerations is simply to say that this is a wise and necessary policy.

There have been accusations of profiteering. Some noble Lords may have seen the leading article last week in the Farmers Weekly, which latched on to the fact that farmers are being charged unreasonable prices for slaughtering where they are able to move their animals and that the prices being offered for the meat are very low whereas the prices in retail outlets are very high. The article asks whether there are not unscrupulous individuals in the abattoir and retailing trades. It continues:

"How else are we to explain the fall in prime beef deadweight prices from 175p/kg before the crisis to 160p/kg this week? How else should we interpret reports of increases in the supermarket price of red meat, much of it imported? ... Prime Minister Tony Blair got it half right when he talked of supermarkets restraining farmers in an armlock. But he forgot to mention the half-nelson hold some abattoirs and buyers currently have over farmers lucky enough to be able to send their stock for processing. Meanwhile, these same abattoirs and supermarkets seem content to scour the dustbins of the world for meat of dubious quality that can be palmed off on the public, to take a healthy profit for themselves. For proof look no further than the German abattoirs which repeatedly export beef, contaminated with specific BSE risk material. Illegal exports which are punished with no more than a nasty letter from some Brussels' bureaucrat. How that gets up the nose of every British farmer".

How indeed, my Lords? I hope that the Government will look into these allegations of profiteering.

Much has already been said in the debate about compensation. I should like to echo that. Even if farmers whose animals are destroyed receive 100 per cent, what do they live on before they can spend that money to begin to restock? What about those people who have no compensation at all, whose cash-flow has dried up after three or four terrible years? The figures given by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the payments out of the RABI fund show how they leapt in 1998 and have continued to increase ever since then.

I have been told by local farmers that they are having considerable difficulties in getting the information they need. We come back to the question of communication. They say that the website is not updated often enough and that it is not carrying the local information that they need. They are finding it difficult to know where to turn for licences to move stock over short distances. That may or may not be the case, but the feeling and experience is that this is not being well handled at the moment. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

In what new directions do we want to see farming going? I echo much of what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. Last night, there was a presentation in the Jubilee Room by the LEAF organisation--Linking Environment And Farming. The presentation extolled the virtues of integrated farm management. The Minister in the other place, Mr Elliot Morley, was present. He said that MAFF fully supported the initiative. It seems to be something which needs the strong support and encouragement of the Government--more profitable, more environmentally sensitive, but not necessarily organic farming, that delivers a better product with greater skill, greater discrimination and greater intelligence on the part of the farmers.

There are still many young people who would like to go into farming if only they could. They are the people with the discrimination and the intelligence. They are the people who understand the environment and the market. Many of their elders do not. Those are the people we want to see coming into farming. The Government should do all they possibly can to encourage them and change their policy of not offering any grants to young people coming into farming.

I turn to local abattoirs. Someone in the diocese told me the other day that I had acquired the status of the patron saint of small abattoirs. I can assure your Lordships that that is a degree of sanctity to which I do not begin to aspire. But I nevertheless plead the cause of small abattoirs and perhaps of the re-opening of those which closed when they could not sustain the Meat Hygiene Service charges which were in force but could perhaps if those charges were properly reduced. Many farmers are amazed about what is going on in livestock trading. They say, "We had no idea. Thousands of animals were travelling hundreds of miles backwards and forwards across the country. What is this about?" People who have lived all their lives in farming simply did not know that it was happening.

How can we restrain this ludicrous trade? How can we create sustainable local farming networks? How can we do more to make sure that we reduce food miles and educate people to buy the food which is produced on their doorstep? I hope and pray that we can do more in that direction. Are these livestock networks necessary? I think not. Quite clearly, it is not possible to say that intensive farming and the closure of abattoirs are responsible for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, but those are both aspects of farming that we need to resist and reverse. Above all, our thoughts and prayers are with those who are suffering at this time.

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour 5:37 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, as always, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who is in some respects a neighbour of mine. I now declare my interest. I have a home in Radnorshire, which is an infected area; I own 33 acres of upland grassland, which I let out to a neighbouring farmer; I am a vice-president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales; and I am president of the Radnor branch of CPRW. I am glad to follow the right reverend Prelate as he is the president of the CPRE in Herefordshire.

There are two different agendas to this debate. The first is the general one about the countryside. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was very eloquent when, as she said, she moved on to her speech about the countryside. That is also true of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. There is another much more pressing agenda, which was dealt with in most moving terms by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. It is the present problem of foot and mouth disease. I propose to concentrate on that.

Radnor is a small county in mid-Wales. It is part of the enlarged county of Powys. It consists for the most part of upland grassland. It is sheep farming and walking country and thrives on a successful farming industry and successful tourism. Perhaps I may describe to noble Lords what is happening at the moment, because it is dire.

The current situation is as follows. Farmers are confined to their own premises. The postman does not come into the farm. He must stop at the hay or straw piled on the path and he cannot get through. Rubbish is not collected because it needs to be set out close to a main road. The towns of Llandrindod Wells, Builth Wells and Prestatyn are almost dead. Once-a-week shopping takes place in the local supermarkets. The small shops on Middleton Street in Llandrindod Wells and on High Street in Builth Wells have no clientele. The newsagents, small butchers and so forth are all suffering. Tourism has fallen to zero. Mid-Wales is a great centre for tourism, in particular around Easter. However, now people are having to close down bed-and-breakfast houses and lay off staff working in hotels. Restaurants--those that we have--and pubs are starting to feel the effects of this crisis.

The local communities are being extremely co-operative, apart from one or two people who walk their dogs. They are told by the farmers to get off the land. That is quite right and, on the whole, things are working well. However, what does not work well is, first, the information--here I echo the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford--coming through to farmers about the current conditions. Most people in mid-Wales do not own computers; small farmers do not have access to the MAFF website. I have such access, but to be honest, I do not find it satisfactory.

I spoke to my neighbour this morning. She told me that, since the beginning of this crisis, she--the wife of a farmer--had not received one communication from MAFF. That is my first complaint, if I may so put it to my noble friend. That strikes me as being extremely odd. Some kind of network should be put in place to offer a reasonable degree of information to those who are in dire distress.

The second problem is the banks. Everyone knows that if you are holding stock which you cannot sell, which must be fed because it is still too cold for the grass to grow in Radnor, then your cashflow will be seriously unbalanced. On the whole, the banks are being supportive, but my latest information is that Barclays Bank in Builth Wells has said to my neighbours and to others: "We shall give you a three-month moratorium on interest or repayments on overdrafts". I do not need to tell noble Lords that a period of three months is absolutely nothing when compared with the increase in debt that farmers will incur through higher feeding costs. They need to feed their sheep and they cannot sell them. Furthermore, that does not take into account the six months' period after a farm has been declared clear of disease. The banks have a responsibility, to which I shall return later in my remarks.

I shall now turn to tourism. The concern is not only that staff in hotels are being laid off and that the pubs are empty, but rather that the whole infrastructure of the rural economy is being damaged. Garages, newsagents and small shops are all suffering. The roads are empty. That problem has to be reversed and, again, the banks have a role to play here.

Although I have thought about this problem, I do not know how compensation can be paid for loss of income which is not immediately related to the loss of stock. When she comes to wind up the debate, I shall be grateful if my noble friend could offer some help on this matter. Although one can say that a person may have lost income because his hotel was not fully occupied, can the same be said of a newsagent which has gone out of business because the visitors who were supposed to be in the hotel would have bought their newspapers at that newsagent? I do not know how these matters will be calculated, but I hope that my noble friend will be able to indicate the Government thinking.

Long-term problems will have to be faced. If small shops go bankrupt in the streets of the three towns that I have mentioned--Llandrindod Wells, Builth Wells and Prestatyn--they will never come back. The supermarkets have a grip on food supplies in those three towns. We run the risk that the high street atmosphere of these small mid-Wales towns will be lost. Even though we may sort out the immediate problem, that kind of problem will also have to be addressed.

As I have said, I have three matters which I hope that my noble friend will be able to address. The first is the question of information. I believe that the MAFF website could be much better. My neighbours in Radnor should be properly informed about the incidents taking place in their local area, without having to watch the news on the BBC. They risk hearing reports along the lines of, "Oh dear, we have an outbreak in Painscastle which will come to us". They need to know the truth of the matter.

Secondly, I should like to ask about the role of the banks. This matter will be tremendously important in Radnor. Perhaps the area will serve as a paradigm for the rest of the country, but I cannot talk about the rest of the country. It will be essential for local banks to be supportive of farmers and the small industries and services related to farming which depend on the facilities provided by their local banks. After all, the banks are making enormous profits. I hope very much that the Government will bring pressure to bear on the banks to ensure that they are supportive.

My third point partly concerns information, but primarily it concerns wind. When I consulted the MAFF website the day before yesterday, an item appeared which declared that an outbreak in the Isle of Wight in 1981 was probably due to wind carrying the virus from Brittany to the Isle of Wight. As soon as an item of that kind is put onto the website and the information gets around a local farming community, people will worry that the wind can carry the virus from anywhere to anywhere. Until we are given a clear statement by the Chief Veterinary Officer about what the wind can do and how it can carry the virus, I do not believe that the Government can declare that the virus is under control.

"The wind bloweth where it listeth".

We need to be told where, how and under what meteorological and topographical circumstances that will work.

I shall return to the example of Radnor. People living there are terrified that an outbreak in Caernarfon, which was mooted today, or an outbreak in Devon may be carried on the wind and brought to their farms.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, perhaps the most effective way for my noble friend to get that information to his friends in Radnor would be for me to tell him now. So far as concerns wind-spread, it is correct that it is believed that the cause of the outbreak on the Isle of Wight was a plume of virus which came over from France. It is also believed that that plume dropped on Jersey on the way and caused the outbreak on Jersey.

I can reassure my noble friend that there is a complicated computer programme which maps out the plume that is likely to be infective and the days on which it has been infective. It is not easy to give a simple answer. It depends on climate, on moisture content, on weather conditions, on prevailing winds, and on the topography of an area, whether it is in a valley or not.

I can reassure my noble friend that there have been very few wind-borne cases in this outbreak. The reason for that is that for anything other than distances normally under 0.7 of a kilometre, wind-borne spread is only an issue when pigs are involved. In this outbreak we have not had, thank goodness, large numbers of pig herds involved. That has been a saving grace in terms of wind-borne disease, which was the main factor in the spread of the disease in 1967.

On the downside, we have had a great deal of disease in sheep. It is a less virulent disease and not wind-borne in the same way, but it is subject to the enormous movements that other noble Lords have spoken of today.

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I hope that she realises that she has put that firmly on the record. I have promised my neighbours in Radnor that I would produce from this House today a firm statement on what the effect of wind was or might be. If, as my noble friend said, it is this, that and the other, I shall simply say, "Well, that is the way it goes". But, if my noble friend would be kind enough, I should like her in her reply to put something a bit firmer on the record so that I can--

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I do not want to deceive my noble friend. I cannot tell him that it will be 10 kilometres within Radnorshire tomorrow. I do not know what the weather will be like; I do not know whether pigs will be infected; I do not know the topography. I can tell my noble friend that there is a great deal of academic research into this; that the chief vet is on top of that academic research; that we have two epidemiologists from New Zealand who have worked out programmes on this and are working out the plumes in every infected area; and that the veterinary authorities, in identifying dangerous contacts surrounding any outbreak, take into account that work. But I cannot give my noble friend a figure for individual outbreaks. I believe that other noble Lords appreciate that.

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour

My Lords, I fully understand that. As my noble friend goes on, she is giving me more comfort that I can explain to people.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, may be giving the noble Lord more and more comfort as she goes on, but this is a take-note debate and not a Committee stage.

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour

My Lords, I am not sure what is the noble Earl's point. I was making a speech and my noble friend intervened in order to reply. What is the problem?

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

My Lords, I quite agree; the noble Baroness did intervene to reply. But then the noble Lord made a bit more of a speech and invited her to reply again. So, in the end, the poor noble Baroness will have to rise two or three times. I am suggesting that that is more akin to a Committee stage than to a take-note debate.

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour

On the contrary, my Lords. The noble Earl did not hear me. I asked whether my noble friend could firm up her intervention when she responds to the debate. We are getting into ridiculous arguments at this point.

I am grateful to my noble friend. We are now firmer on the wind problem. I shall pass this on to those whom I know in Radnor. Like the right reverend Prelate, I support the Government basically in the policy they are pursuing. However, I believe that there are still problems with lambing, ewes, culling and so on. No doubt my noble friend will respond to those issues when she comes to reply to the debate.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 5:55 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, the House should be grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue today. The livestock industry in this country will also be grateful to hear some of its concerns and fears expressed and dealt with.

The United Kingdom periodically is visited by devastating animal plagues such as the one that is upon us at this time; that is, foot and mouth disease. In the 19th century, this country was subject to another awful disease known as cattle-plague or rinderpest, when thousands of small dairies in London and elsewhere were affected over a long period of time. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford may wish to note that it was so serious that the then Archbishop of Canterbury offered a national prayer to,

"save the country from this awful pestilence".

The right reverend Prelate's offer to contact the present Archbishop of Canterbury for a national prayer may, if I may say so, be very appropriate.

The outbreak in the mid-19th century was controlled by a slaughter policy, which took a number of months, even years, to complete. More recently, in 1967, we had foot and mouth disease in sheep carcasses from Argentina. Now, some 30 years later, we start off in Northumbria with foot and mouth disease at a swill-feeding farm. The origin of the virus in that initial farm is not known, although the type of virus is known and has been typed as type O of the pan-Asian strain. It has been associated with recent outbreaks in Japan, Korea, Russia and Mongolia.

The foot and mouth virus is one of the smallest that we know of. It is highly infectious and readily spread by contact, by contamination, by wind-borne spread, which has just been discussed, and by droplet infections. Although infected animals usually recover from foot and mouth disease, the disease is far from trivial. It has severe effects on productivity--especially on milk production, which is severely depressed throughout subsequent lactations. Meat-producing animals lose flesh rapidly and only come back to full productivity many weeks, if not months, later. Abortion of pregnant animals is quite common. Very young animals may die from the infection. With highly virulent forms of the virus, mortality may be high. In 1997, an outbreak in Taiwan, which was due to this strain of the virus, produced very high mortality in piglets. Breeding programmes are disrupted. Animals which recover are carriers of the virus and shed the virus for infection of other animals.

In addition to causing economic loss--some people have said that this is an economic disease and that we need not worry about it, but that is not so--it is also a welfare disease. Animals with blisters on their tongues, their mouths and their feet suffer seriously. That is why they are lame and why they cannot eat the normal food; and that is why they salivate extensively, which is one of the cardinal signs of foot and mouth disease.

The slaughter policy that we adopt in this country has been questioned by many, including the newspapers--especially when it is on an appalling scale and we see tens of thousands of animals slaughtered to control the disease. Many people rightly ask: is this the only policy we have? The sight of piles of dead animals awaiting incineration merely emphasises the queries that they have.

But as crude and as apparently outmoded as this method of control is, it is the most appropriate way to deal with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. Western Europe has been free of the disease for many years. That freedom was achieved by following the British example of eradicating foot and mouth disease by means of the slaughter policy. Prior to that, western European controlled the disease by means of vaccination.

One of the problems with vaccinations is that they provide only short-term cover of six to eight months. Vaccinations protect from the clinical disease, but vaccinated animals may also be shedders of the virus for other animals. Further, there are many strains of the virus: there are seven major strains but several sub-strains. Each one must be protected against by means of a specific vaccine. So, not only should we need to vaccinate against the present type O pan-Asian strain; we should need to have in reserve a large number of other vaccines in order to cover against any other virus that entered the country.

Were we to vaccinate, we should be unable to export our livestock, meat or meat products until the last case of vaccination had "died off" before we could renew our export trade. Indeed, the cost of a vaccine, the cost of administering it and the loss of trade greatly outweigh our slaughter policy. No country that is free of foot and mouth disease would even contemplate vaccination at this time. All countries that are free of the disease have adopted the slaughter policy.

The right reverend Prelate mentioned work that is going on in the laboratory at Plum Island in the United States, which is similar to our virus research laboratory at Pirbright. Scientists there are working on a generic vaccine. The research might provide a more effective vaccine. But in the meantime, we have to rely on the slaughter policy.

The public are concerned. We have all been talking to farmers up and down the country about the piles of carcasses awaiting incineration. Questions have been raised in this debate about their safety as regards the possible transmission of infection. I give the Minister full marks for her explanation as to why the piles of carcasses do not present as great a risk as do the living animals, which are the real source of concern. The answer to such worries and conundrums is that the virus lurks in the bone marrow. That is where it is often found in an imported carcass. Indeed, in times gone by, the existence of the virus in bone marrow in beef and mutton from Argentina led to the transmission of infection.

A further point has been raised in regard to the slaughter policy; namely, if the virus gets into rare breeds of animals, slaughter may result in the disappearance of those breeds. I ask the Minister whether her department has thought about what might be done to safeguard rare breeds. Techniques such as the freezing of embryos and spermatozoa and embryo transfer could be useful in that regard.

Support for our programme of slaughter for the control of foot and mouth disease has come from many countries around the world. They have commented on and praised the rapidity with which we have attended to this major problem. Particular praise has come from Dr Yves Cheneau, chief of the animal health service, and Dr Yves Leforban, secretary of the European Commission for the Control of Foot-and-Mouth Disease of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. In a letter to the Veterinary Record last week, they praised the British stand and the action that we have taken.

Another aspect to the outbreak, which has spread so far, is the question of the feeding of swill to pig herds. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, referred to the brief outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the 1990s in the Isle of Wight. In that outbreak the virus was indeed wind-borne; but as the Minister said, special conditions are applicable to the transport of the virus in droplet form by wind. Indeed, the Isle of Wight outbreak was projected to happen. Workers at Pirbright projected some time beforehand that it would come from the vaccine plant in Brittany, as indeed it did. But the situation is not simple. Many factors are involved. Other than that outbreak, all our recent outbreaks of the disease--and probably of swine fever--have been due to the feeding of swill. There is now a question as to whether swill feeding should be allowed to carry on in this country because of the dangers that it poses.

The 1980 European Community directive contributes to the issue somewhat. The directive related to the control of swine fever but is applicable to the control of foot and mouth disease. Under the directive, all swill at international airports must be destroyed. It is not allowed to be used for animal feed. It must be collected and destroyed under official supervision. Swill for the feeding of pigs must be heat-treated and then the pigs must go directly to slaughter and must be transported in leak-proof vehicles. Only Sweden has an outright ban on swill feeding.

Swill feeding has declined considerably over the past 30 years. In 1967 several thousand pig herds were fed pig swill. But now the number is down to approximately 100. The practice is clearly on its way out. It should be remembered that it is one of the more profitable sides of pig farming because the swill is free; in fact, pig farmers are often paid to take it away.

I have been able to assess the situation in the United States, where people are very concerned about the importation of foot and mouth disease. I have just received information from the USDA. There, the feeding of swill is allowed, but it must be thoroughly boiled at a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Centigrade for at least 30 minutes under supervision. I am afraid that our regulations do not carry such specific directions. Our animal by-products order of 1999 does not specify time and temperature; it merely says that an appropriate treatment should be adopted. That is one area where I believe that the regulations must be tightened up.

I turn briefly to the role of the farming economy, which I believe is associated with our present problems. As my noble friend Lady Byford pointed out, it is universally accepted that farming is in an economic crisis. So it is. This means that farmers cut back on many of the essential parts of their farming enterprise, including that of visits by their veterinary surgeon. A survey carried out by the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons indicates that the number of visits has gone down by at least a third, if not more. Therefore, the diseases that are common in pigs--and for that matter in sheep--are not seen on a regular basis, or the ill-health is not examined on a regular basis. Farmers tend to reduce the number of visits to fit in with the quality assessment schemes that must be undertaken to satisfy the supermarkets.

Therefore, along with fewer visits and the marked contraction of the Veterinary Investigation Service, or the Veterinary Laboratory Agency, it is possible that these diseases have been missed. Indeed, that could well be an explanation for the particular case in Northumbria. This is a compromise of disease surveillance. On a previous occasion in this House, I mentioned the importance of surveillance and the need to be vigilant. We should be very proud of our veterinary services in this country. They have responded to the present crisis in a magnificent way--from the Chief Veterinary Officer, James Scudamore, down to the general practitioners who have given up their time to help with the outbreak.

The outbreak raises many questions. I am pleased that the Minister has said that a full inquiry will follow when the disease is eradicated from the United Kingdom. I shall conclude by saying that the price of freedom from disease in this country is eternal vigilance. We must ensure that we maintain that vigilance to retain our freedom from such plagues as we have at present.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos Government Whip

My Lords, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the Companion to the Standing Orders suggests that speeches should be kept within 15 minutes' duration.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Conservative 6:13 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, it is customary to declare one's interests at the start of any speech. However, I have so many interests, and am wearing so many hats in this debate, that I shall merely say that I speak as a Cumbrian, a Member of the European Parliament for the north-west of England, and a one-time Member of the European Parliament for Cumbria and Lancashire North, as a farmer, a landowner with some let farms--one of which was confirmed as having foot and mouth as I drafted this speech--and as someone with interests in the tourist industry in that region.

Some of what I shall say will be personal, but, while it may be my voice, I am not trying to speak for myself as an individual: I speak for others who cannot speak in your Lordships' House. I seek no special sympathy for myself. I am fortunate. Many others who are affected are much less so. All of us experience misfortunes in life. What one has to do is pick oneself up from the floor when things go wrong. If I sound upset, it is because I am upset. I do not apologise for that; but perhaps noble Lords will please forgive me.

Foot and mouth, as the statistics have shown, has taken a very strong grip on north-east Cumbria where I live, and also in adjoining south-west Scotland. This is not the only area where it is strongly established--indeed, Devon springs to mind--but it is the area that I know best, and so it is the one that I can speak about. The farming community has retreated into itself behind walls of disinfected straw. Rumours abound, and gossip has it that most livestock between Penrith and Langholm might be wiped out. It is not a question of if one gets the disease; it is a matter of when.

It exploded in my dairy herd on Sunday morning. This was hardly a surprise as it was all around us. We could not get a ministry vet until yesterday, Monday, and that was a bit of a struggle. The outbreak was confirmed in the middle of the day. The valuers have been in prior to slaughter and 200-plus pedigree dairy cows will be destroyed and buried in quick lime on the farm. We may have been lucky as our young stock and sheep are separately housed and are kept on separate holdings, so we are temporarily reprieved. But, in reality, I confidently expect that they will end up with the disease and follow the fate of the dairy cows. It is one of the worst episodes of my life, but how much more so for my staff, my manager and, indeed, for my head cowman who has milked these cows most days for more than 12 years.

I was talking last night on the telephone to a member of the family who farms near Longtown, quite close to the notorious mart where it all began. His animals are being destroyed today. As I spoke, he said that if he looked out of the north-facing window he could see four pyres burning, and that if he looked out the east window he could see five. There is an extraordinary kind of medieval savagery about this plague, but it must not be allowed to get in the way of rational debate about what is happening.

It seems to me that there are three aspects that need to be discussed. First, how did the outbreak occur, and where did it come from? Secondly, what is being done now, and what happens in the immediate future? Thirdly, we need to consider what this may or may not mean for CAP reform. In my view, the first and the last aspects are matters for another day. It is the second aspect that matters now. However, we need to be clear: this problem is not one that has anything per se to do with intensive farming.

What happened to my farm business, and is happening to that of many other people, is akin to a direct hit on the magazine of a battleship: it explodes instantly and disappears in seconds. The past two years have seen one of the worst agricultural recessions this century. The principal reason for that has been the Government's agri- monetary policy, which has meant that some sectors have only been able to provide a farmer with a standard of living less than that of the minimum wage. In Article 39 of the Treaty of Rome, the Community, and with it the member states, is committed to ensuring,

"a fair standard of living for the agricultural community".

I do not see how one can argue that that has happened, given some of the returns at the levels that I have just described. In short, as I said in public weeks before this crisis and, I believe, in your Lordships' House, the United Kingdom's agricultural policy, which is part of the CAP, is in breach of the Treaty of Rome.

Quite rightly, we in this country are very anxious that other member states should honour their treaty commitments and obligations. United Kingdom agriculture is equally entitled to be sure that its government are honouring their obligations under the treaty. Indeed, had they actually done so, UK agriculture would have been infinitely better placed to deal with the current crisis than is the case. I was certainly brought up to be always on my guard, as cheap is so often synonymous with shoddy.

Nevertheless, we, and all the other farmers who are affected, are like Talleyrand--we survived, just. For us, it was beginning to look a bit better until Sunday. The cows were milking well and the ewes were thriving. In Cumbria, those on the ground who are dealing with the crisis have worked like Trojans and no praise individually can be too high. Equally, in my view, the basic approach adopted by the Government must be right. That view was endorsed by Commissioner Byrne in the European Parliament in Brussels 10 days ago. What I believe has gone wrong is what lies between them.

As has already been mentioned, once animals show symptoms of the disease they are hugely infectious. Right from the start there has been delay in getting vets to certify the outbreaks and then more days' delay until animals are slaughtered, leaving infected animals to exhale the infection into the atmosphere hour after hour, indeed, day after day. As we have already heard, it is transmitted easily by wind and by birds. Dead carcasses, which are less infectious, have been left lying around for days and have been eaten by crows and vermin, even though I am absolutely sure that some of the more extravagant stories are exaggerated. Indeed, the vet's report on the outbreak in my herd suggests that one of those sources may be the cause of my herd's infection. There is, I believe, a real and direct relationship between a number of instances of foot and mouth and the failure by the Government as a whole to move with sufficient speed which all the evidence justifies and has shown to be essential.

Once my cows are infected they should be slaughtered as soon as possible. We did not need a vet to tell a skilled stockman the problem. First of all, I do not wish the disease on my neighbours. Secondly, contrary to some press reports, this is not a benign condition, as a number of speakers have already said. The poor animals should be swiftly killed in as dignified a way as possible, both for their own sake and for the sake of those who looked after and, in many cases, loved them.

The Government have created a bureaucratic machine to push the paper. Why do the beasts need to be individually examined and valued when alive? With the benefit of milk records and experience a decent valuer can do it. It is the classic case of the public purse knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Bureaucratic procedures precisely followed are costing animals' lives and families' livelihoods, and, what matters to "bean counters", the loss and expenditure of public money.

I was pleased to hear from the noble Baroness who has been so helpful throughout this crisis that more personnel have been drafted in. I join in the question posed by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, about the role of the Army. While that measure has certainly in my view been taken too late, I hope that it is not a case of too few personnel being involved. All strength and good fortune to them, but it is more important to move with speed than it is to avoid over-deploying people. It will also be cheaper in the long run.

The effect of an outbreak on a farm is twofold. First, as has already been explained, the Government provide compensation for the stock. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to confirm that there will be prompt payment, or at least some payment on account quite quickly. After all, just because one's income stops does not mean that the bills no longer come in. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who buys my milk, will not pay me anything if he does not get any.

I was also pleased to hear the noble Baroness's comments about premia which would be paid in respect of animals that had recently been, or were about to be, slaughtered. Quite apart from that--this has already been touched on by a number of speakers--rigid controls and restrictions are placed on the holding and its buildings which in certain circumstances amount to a de facto requisition of the assets for a time. I am sure that this may well be necessary in the public interest. But, for example, it means that a dairy farmer--this is quite apart from movement restrictions--cannot straight away acquire more cattle and start up again as, for example, a second-hand car dealer might do if his showroom was burned down.

I understand that no help is forthcoming under that heading because CAP rules do not allow it. However, quite apart from that, it is my view that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and possibly also certain clauses in the recently signed European Charter of Fundamental Rights and general EU jurisprudence may well be relevant to that aspect. At this point I merely ask the Minister to keep that in mind as, while I may be wrong, this does not look to me like a purely agricultural issue.

So far I have focused on farming, but in Cumbria the tourist industry is a much more extensive employer and contributes a larger part of the county's GDP. If you cannot go walking in the Lake District, for many people there is not all that much point in being there at all. Most of them have worked that out for themselves. But that was clearly foreseeable when the fells were closed. The tourist boards have in my view quite rightly drawn that point to the Government's attention and have asked, not unreasonably, for assistance to help their members deal with the inevitable and foreseeable consequence of the Government's decisions which have been taken in the wider public interest.

I wish to flag up another important point as regards tourism and agricultural interests. What are the implications for national parks if the disease spreads over the hefted flocks? That is already a concern in Dartmoor and it would be a problem of an entirely different order of magnitude in the Lake District. In short--this may seem a curious point--how would you keep grass down on the fells if there were no sheep to do it? Once a sheep has lost its heaf, it cannot be conjured back again out of thin air.

Let us be clear that what are not needed are more farm or rural diversification grants. Despite certain obvious problems, the structure of rural agriculture and tourism is not the real issue. The real problem is that of little or no cash flow and the destruction of trading assets. Last week, before my own troubles emerged, I raised the matter of the banks. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, made a significant point in that regard. Some banks are taking certain helpful steps in response to the crisis, and good for them. But I believe that what is needed is a means of preserving businesses which cannot trade profitably now but which have every expectation of being able to do so once conditions get back to normal. It is interesting to note that in its continental manifestation the CAP has a long tradition of subsidising credit. Perhaps that provides a useful opening.

In addition, as has already been mentioned, many small businesses will not be able to produce a cash income to pay the grocery bills. For immediate practical purposes they have ceased to exist, at least for the time being, but their proprietors are not out of work. It occurred to me that some provision might be included--as quickly as possible because speed is of the essence--in jobseeker's allowance to enable people affected by the crisis to draw some cash until they can get their old jobs back from their own businesses. My next point arises from my thoughts on my predicament. What about some kind of general capital gains tax rollover relief for affected businesses?

Many people in the countryside are going through hell. I have mentioned some of them but there is no need to enumerate them all. However, foot and mouth is here. The first, overriding priority must be to eradicate the pestilence as soon as possible. The next priority concerns the future, as it does for those threatened by changes at Vauxhall or at Corus where workers experience similar worries, although, mercifully, not the horror of the crisis that I am discussing. I hope that this Government, and their successor of whatever political persuasion, will pursue those two priorities without dogma, ideology or preconception and will focus on practical measures to help the countryside and to help real people, because that is what this crisis is all about.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat 6:28 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I express my sympathy for his loss. I appreciate the way in which he was able to speak of his problems in the context of his own area and in a European context. I also appreciate the helpful suggestions he made for the possible alleviation of the problems which face the country as a result of the epidemic.

I am sorry to say that a note has been passed to me since the commencement of the debate which states that on the six o'clock news it was announced that there are now 205 cases in the country. That figure is higher than the one the noble Baroness mentioned at the beginning of the debate.

I believe that towards the conclusion of her opening address the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, mentioned the task force that had been set up. I thought that she was rather coy about it, or perhaps my hearing was at fault. Is it intended that the task force will deal with the immediate problem or with the long-term problems of the countryside and country life? I was not clear about that.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I was not being coy. It was only set up this morning. I was there when the Prime Minister agreed with various interests that it would be an important and valuable asset. Its terms of reference are: to continue to monitor the wider difficulties posed by FMD for the rural economy as a whole--that goes wider than MAFF, which understands the agricultural implications; to look at the specifics of immediate advice which could be given, for example, on restarting tourism in ways which did not compromise disease; and to look at the longer term possibilities for kick-starting the rural economy at the end of the outbreak.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. I am always dubious about using military terms such as a task force which suggest immediate action with drastic steps being taken. One often suspects that the setting up of an organisation so entitled is a propaganda front which sounds fine but will have few co-ordination powers and will soon be forgotten. However, in setting it up, the Prime Minister seems, at last, to be aware of real rural problems. If it were an effective task force, it could be of great benefit to the country. It is high time such a task force was set up. My point relates to all political parties of whatever complexion. For many years it has been difficult for the rural community to have an adequate voice as regards the policies of this country. A task force which represents the true interests of the countryside will be welcome.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned some of the immediate problems affecting the rural community. I sometimes gain an impression of a lack of grass roots common sense when dealing with some of the problems faced by the rural community at present.

Perhaps I may refer to my experience when I was a Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire. Oswestry, the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, bordered on mine and was at the centre of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in 1967. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will follow. He was on the committee of inquiry into that outbreak. Being adjacent to the main centre of the outbreak, I knew a good deal about it. I had the impression then that people got down to the problem more effectively. For example, when animals had to be slaughtered on the farm, a JCB was brought in immediately; the animals were slaughtered, buried in a trench on the farm and quick lime to a depth of about a foot was placed on the carcasses. That occurred on many farms in Shropshire. No risk was taken. The carcasses were not delivered somewhere else.

I compare that situation with a story I heard this morning about the movement of carcasses from Anglesey to the Cheshire depot for rendering in so-called sealed lorries. The odd thing about the sealed lorries was that various limbs were protruding from them. Those bodies are being moved many miles from Anglesey to the rendering plant. Why were they not buried in Anglesey and quick lime put on them? I do not know whether the Minister knows the answer.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I apologise to the House because I am delaying matters. However, one has to answer some issues at once. Burial is an option but only when we do not cause more problems in environmental terms than we would solve by burial. Water tables are very high at present. Noble Lords will be well aware of that following flooding. We cannot go against the Environment Agency's advice about contaminating water courses through burial in circumstances where it is not satisfactory. It is an option; it is assessed as an option.

The other difference is that in the 1967 outbreak one was dealing with 20 or 30 animals on a farm. We are dealing now with very large numbers, of sheep in particular. That means that burial is logistically much more difficult.

As regards sealed lorries, if people have the numbers of lorries which have had limbs protruding I shall be happy to follow that up. We have to be careful about anecdote. Strong measures are taken to ensure that corpses are disinfected and the lorries sealed and tested to ensure that they do not leak at 30 degrees. If anything is going wrong with that, let us have the specifics rather than general anecdote.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I am very impressed by her knowledge. I accept the point about the high water table and understand that that can be an effective argument in certain areas. I still believe that burial is possible in some areas.

I heard on the telephone about an infected farm in Dumfries where cattle had been slaughtered at the weekend but the sheep were still about yesterday. The point has already been raised about the ineffective co-ordination in some areas. The noble Baroness cannot answer for particular failures in certain areas. But who is in charge of the different areas? Is an officer appointed in a specific area to be responsible for slaughter, co-ordination and so on?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, the divisional veterinary manager would be the responsible person in the animal health office which covered the infected premises.

I understand what the noble Lord says. However, the Chief Veterinary Officer has made clear his priorities in terms of slaughter. Pigs have to be slaughtered at once. We have worked through the night when we have had cases of pigs. The next priority is cattle. The next priority is sheep. That is related to infectivity. When one has a resource that is not infinite, one has to prioritise.

Photo of Lord Hooson Lord Hooson Liberal Democrat

My Lords, what is the logic of the projected slaughter of the unaffected pregnant ewes which have been away wintering? What is the justification for that? In her introductory remarks, the Minister said that if the sheep are within five kilometres of their home base it may be possible to return them to that land. Few ewes away wintering will be within five kilometres of their base. That scheme is a non-starter. It seems an enormous waste to get rid of pregnant ewes in this way if there were a possibility of arranging suitable transport between the wintering area and the home base--assuming that neither is an affected area. Surely it is possible to allow movements to their home base.

I turn to the economic, social and psychological effects of the outbreak. As many noble Lords know, I have lived in a farming community most of my life. I live in mid-Wales. One sees the effect on rural communities, described by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. It is almost as though the towns were in a state of siege. The high streets are empty, the shops are empty, the pubs are empty and the hotels are empty. The problem is very serious. Farmers are in despair. I noted this morning in The Times, I think, that in Devon, which has also been affected, the police were persuading farmers to give up their shotguns because they feared that they were becoming suicidal.

I understand how farmers in remote farms can get to that state of mind. The public do not fully appreciate the economic, social and psychological effects of the outbreak. The Minister of Agriculture has been effective in his presentations on television, talking about what the Government are doing, but they now need to take effective action. The have to do something that shows that they genuinely appreciate the effects on the rural community.

Questions have been asked as to whether it is possible to expedite the payment of sheep subsidy. Can we be assured that we have exhausted all the help that is available from Brussels, which has to be matched by funding from this country? If we have not, we should make sure that we have everything that is available. Are there any emergency funds available in Brussels other than the ones that have been mentioned?

We also have a Chancellor with a large surplus. It is said that Scrooge was a prudent man--good, sound and ethical up to a point. However, Scrooge went over the top, and the Chancellor is in danger of doing the same. He must appreciate that we have a national crisis that affects the whole of the rural community, which has not done very well under this Government so far. In the next week or so, I hope and trust that the Government will demonstrate by their actions that they are doing something about the rural community and the effects of the outbreak.

Lastly, I do not dispute for a moment that the Government are tackling the immediate problem in the right way. The priority is to get rid of the disease from this country. However, thereafter the Government must look at the problems of the rural community as a whole. I should be delighted to hear confirmation that the task force is intended to produce an effective long-term plan for the countryside. I missed that in the Minister's original announcement. Such a plan has been long overdue from this Government and their predecessors. The foot and mouth outbreak has highlighted the condition of the countryside to the rest of the country. I hope that something is now going to be done about it.

Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative 6:44 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness for updating us on a situation which has apparently got worse while we have been here talking. I join many others in thanking her for her co-operation during recent weeks. The situation has been tough for her and for all concerned with rural affairs, particularly the agricultural industry.

I ask the Minister to convey our thanks to Jim Scudamore for the tremendous job he is doing. His presentations have been very helpful. I also convey our thanks to all the veterinarians who are working in this tragic situation. At this moment, while we are here talking about the problems, they are working out in the fields and buildings.

In yesterday's debate on hunting, many people stressed the importance of animal welfare. That is a concern for all of us, as my noble friend Lord Byford said. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, also make a moving speech about that.

In today's debate on a national disaster and the state of agriculture as we see it now, we have to consider all aspects of welfare, not only of animals, but of the farming families who are suffering from the stressful business they are in. I could not help but wonder, when my noble friend Lord Inglewood was speaking, how many other noble Lords have been able to speak in debates on foot and mouth disease of their own experiences that day.

In times of adversity, people often get together. Perhaps at this moment the consumer begins to realise that food does not grow on supermarket shelves. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells made a noble speech yesterday, referring to the lack of understanding between rural and urban people. He gave a fine example of maintaining our national sport in the countryside without interference. As a farmer, I thank the right reverend Prelates for the tremendous support we always get from them on rural affairs. Today we heard from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. It is a comfort to know that their thoughts and prayers are with the farming community at this time. Through the Rank Centre and the Royal Showground at Stoneleigh, the Church is bringing together a number of associations concerned with stress and creating a fund to give modest help to those in need. I am president of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, a very fine body which has raised a further £120,000 during the past two weeks. However, its work is increasing and we are having great difficulty keeping up with the requests--they are not demands--from many farming families for essential expenditure such as groceries.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, I served on the 1967-69 foot and mouth inquiry. I am of an age when I can remember things from 35 years ago much more easily than things that happened last week. Today's disaster is like a holocaust for me. I was in among it on the previous outbreak. Having been a member of the committee of inquiry that reviewed the 1967-68 outbreak, I have more than a passing interest in what is happening today.

There are a few fundamental differences between the outbreak then and the one now. First, that outbreak was almost entirely confined to the dairy herds of Shropshire and the north Midlands. As my noble friend Lord Biffen will know from his own experience during that time, the outbreak in Oswestry started very near to where he lives.

On that occasion, the scale of the outbreak involved some 400,000 head of stock over a period of approximately eight months. It is significant that to date, in just over three weeks, already well in excess of 100,000 animals have been affected. As I said, in the previous outbreak the spread pattern, which was much tighter, was concentrated in the counties of Cheshire and Shropshire. The present outbreak has already penetrated most of the important livestock growing areas.

The speed of the spread of the current outbreak has been the subject of much speculation and conjecture. Although it has not as yet been totally established, I believe that it is likely to be proven that the root cause of the present problem started with a meat product imported into this country. We did not have the disease here and, therefore, it had to come into the country from somewhere, entering, first, I believe, into the pig herd as waste human food, used in the so-called "swill" feeding system. As we know, and as we have been reminded by the noble Baroness, once the disease is established in pigs, the excretion of the virus is approximately 50 times greater than it is in other species, with cattle the second and sheep the least infective.

In that context, therefore, I make a strong plea for two things. Perhaps I am a little more bold than my noble friend Lord Soulsby, who referred to this issue. First, I believe that there should be an immediate and permanent ban on all swill feeding. It accounts for only a tiny proportion of feed for pigs. Secondly, far greater effort should be made to police all meat and other food produce at the point of entry into this country, as in the case of the United States, Australia and various other countries with which we deal.

I should have been in Washington today. I did not go because of the importance of this debate. If I had gone to Washington and if I had been honest, as I would have been, I would have had to declare that I had been on a farm in the past 24 hours. They would have taken me apart. They would have taken away my shoes and steam-cleaned them, and they would have made sure that everything that I was carrying was checked and double-checked and that I was not carrying anything that might spread the disease.

Having started in pigs, the disease is believed to have been transmitted by air to a local beef and sheep farm and, from there, via an extremely modern lairage at Hexham to the now famous Longtown market and into the trading fraternity. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to that fact. He said that farmers expressed their surprise that animals are moved in that way through dealers and traders.

It may help to develop an understanding of the entire business if I provide some statistics. In 1967 there were some 400,000 livestock farms, some 500 auction markets and over 2,000 abattoirs. Meat was retailed through over 30,000 outlets. Today, less than half that number of farms have livestock, there are well under half the number of auction markets, the abattoir numbers have reduced to under 400--less than one-fifth of the previous number--while there are approximately 10,000 retail butchers. The supermarket involvement in retailing started in 1967, but it is worth identifying that in 1977 supermarkets accounted for 25 per cent of meat sales. Today, they account for 75 per cent of meat sales, with butchers selling only 13 per cent of the total. The other 11 per cent is sold through freezer outlets.

Therefore, a picture can be built up of a significant shift in the number of producers, with the greatest reduction occurring among pig producers, of whom there are fewer and fewer every day. There has been a drop in the number of abattoirs and a corresponding dominance by the multiple retail outlets. The supermarkets in particular have a significant trading hold over a few large abattoirs and wholesale meat companies.

Therefore, a picture emerges which demonstrates in clear terms the trading armlock in which the supermarkets hold the livestock farmer fraternity. It is, of course, the armlock which was referred to recently by our Prime Minister. I believe that we have ignored it for far too long and we are now beginning to reap its whirlwind. In a Question that he posed in this House only last week, the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, reminded us that the present price offered to farmers for their stock is 60 per cent less than it was before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, yet the consumer is paying 40 per cent more. Let us reflect on that for a moment and consider the situation in which we find ourselves.

Criticism has been levelled at the role of auction markets and livestock traders and the part that they have played in the spread of this outbreak. It is clear that it is the reduction in the number of abattoirs from over 2,000 to less than 400 which has contributed significantly to the need for animals to travel that much further. The same logic applies to the reduction in auction markets. So far as concerns sheep, the questions that we must address are: why is it done in that way and does it adversely affect the welfare of sheep?

I shall answer the second question first. All livestock in this country and, indeed, in the European Union is moved according to the legislation set out under a 1998 order concerning the welfare of animals in transit. That order not only specifies the type of vehicle, it also specifies the hours travelled by stock and by the driver. It is fair and reasonable to assume that such specifications are being adhered to.

It is worth acknowledging the vast change which has taken place in the entire motorway network since 1967. It permits rapid movement and allows stock to be taken from one part of the country to another. It is only in an emergency of the type that we are experiencing currently that it presents a problem. Therefore, it should not be seen as sinister except in so far as it is a direct consequence of the economic pressures which are at work.

Secondly, I turn to the workings of the trading fraternity. In order to understand them, we must remember what has happened with regard to the number of people who look after sheep. Not only has the number of sheep keepers reduced substantially but the vast majority has shed what was previously considered to be essential labour. By the year 2000, 75,000 producers were looking after some 40 million sheep, whereas in 1967, 120,000 with helpers were looking after less than 30 million sheep. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that, during a similar period, the number of workers, excluding the farmers themselves, reduced by approximately 75 per cent. As we know, some 40,000 farmers and farm workers left the land last year.

The result of those so-called "efficiency" changes is that the farmer is carrying out a great deal more of the work on a larger farm unit in order to receive less income. Therefore, in addition to the form-filling that he must do, the time that he has to market his stock is considerably less--hence the need for reliance on the trader. Perhaps we might reflect on the fact that on a typical Northumbrian stock farm of 380 acres, in 1976 it took 85 lambs to pay the rent. On the same farm in 1999 it took 323 lambs to pay the rent. In 1990 it took 0.6 lambs to buy a 100-litre tankful of road diesel but in 1999 it took 1.6 lambs to do so. In terms of machinery, it took 291 lambs to buy a medium-sized tractor in 1985 but in 1998 it took 700 lambs.

Noble Lords will know that this is lambing time. We have already discussed the difficulty of moving ewes. We also know that spring is a moveable feast. It starts in the south and moves north, often taking four or five months to get to the top of the country. What is not realised is that before lambing takes place the farmer collects up all the stock that has not been sold between the spring of the previous year and the present late winter and early spring and either sells it direct to the abattoir or takes it to the live market. That market is invaluable to the extensive livestock industry. It relies on the bids of the traders and many farmers dispose of varied lots of stock there. A trader who is knowledgeable can find outlets for the various classes of stock.

The sheep sector in particular is now the butt of much unfair criticism. It has been hammered by the consequences of BSE in cattle and by the associated trading hiatus. It is now being hammered as a consequence of maintaining the ridiculous practice of swill feeding of pigs and of our inability to repel imports of contaminated meat. Its own practices, which are based on practical necessity as a result of inexorable economic pressures, are under scrutiny but it is the reason for those economic pressures that perhaps has to be questioned.

We now have to establish how to rid ourselves of foot and mouth disease for all time. We need to set up systems to prevent its re-entry and, more than anything else, we need to have a proper and comprehensive debate and to redevelop agriculture in a way that is sustainable not only for people but also environmentally and ecologically. That approach needs to be sustainable in the medium and long-term. If we do not do so, we should court disaster of monumental proportions.

Photo of Lord Palmer Lord Palmer Crossbench 7:02 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I, too, welcome this debate, although I have to admit that the situation is becoming increasingly depressing. I pay enormous tribute to the Minister for working night and day to help to solve the current crisis facing British farmers.

The knock-on effects of foot and mouth disease are truly horrendous for all sections of society, especially for our rural society. There are already rumours of no shooting this coming winter. As one who is involved in tourism, I suspect that visitor numbers may fall dramatically, which would have horrific financial implications not only for us but for our staff and local businesses. That was eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, I was deeply shocked to read in the papers today that some police forces are removing shotguns from farmers for fear that the suicide rate is going to escalate. These really are tragic times.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned people walking their dogs in the country. I strongly echo her concerns. Only this morning, I was talking to a friend who lives in Oxfordshire. She drives daily down the M4 to exercise her dogs in Hyde Park.

I must declare an interest as someone who has been trying to farm for the past 22 years. When I started I had 17 men and farmed 1,200 acres. Today I have four men and I farm nearly 1,400 acres. That is a sad reflection on the way in which farming has changed during that short period.

Is the Minister confident that current stocks of disinfectant are sufficient? There are various rumours in the press that there may be a shortage.

I thought that, like the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, I should speak from a personal point of view. I have looked up one or two interesting facts and figures which I shall relay to noble Lords to show how serious is the problem that faces farmers today. Ten years ago, I was selling wheat for £112 but today I am lucky to get £60. Ten years ago, barley was £120 but today it is just £68. The price of a loaf of bread or a pint of lager has certainly not decreased; in some outlets, the price has more than doubled during the past 10 years.

On expenditure, in 1990 I spent £30,000 on chemicals but last year I spent £41,000 on the same amount of chemicals. Likewise, 10 years ago, I spent £13,000 on fuel but last year I spent £28,000. Ten years ago, a 100-horsepower tractor cost £16,000 but today it costs £28,000. Likewise, a 15-foot combine has doubled in price during the past 10 years.

I hope that those figures show how tremendous the pressure is on arable farmers. One must not forget the cruel timing of the weather, which can dramatically affect yields. Last week, when we should have been sowing our spring crops, we had--this is no exaggeration--nine-foot snowdrifts and no electricity for four days. While I do not blame the Government for that, it shows the extraordinary circumstances that face farmers through no fault of their own.

All noble Lords will know that last autumn was one of the wettest on record. As such, the area of winter-sown crops is dramatically down--in our case, it is down by about 65 per cent. I like to think that we try to farm in the most efficient way possible but last year we lost money, as we did the previous year. There is a limit to how much longer one can go on sustaining such losses. Not unnaturally, the banks are greatly concerned. It will be interesting to see whether we get a response to the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Inglewood and Lord Williams, on the role of the banks. If I find it difficult to farm, heaven only knows how smaller farmers on less good land are going to survive.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that once again I want to raise the question of biofuels--I gave her notice of that. In the Budget, the Chancellor directed further substantial sums of money at the gas industry to encourage it to produce cleaner road transport fuels--LPG and CNG. A duty rate of the order of 6p per litre is proposed. Why is a similar rate of duty not offered to the biofuels industry? Biodiesel and bioethanol are environmentally at least as good as gas. The indicated duty rate for biodiesel--25p per litre--is not a fair rate compared with that for gas and will not encourage the production of sufficient amounts of fuel to have an impact on air quality, to which the Government are rightly committed. That approach looks like blatant discrimination by the Treasury against the agricultural biofuels industry and favouritism of the gas industry.

Will the Minister confirm that MAFF fully supports a UK biodiesel industry that is based on a major increase in oilseed cropping, which will bring some much-needed prosperity to the countryside? Will she further confirm that she and her ministerial colleagues have done and will do all that they can to persuade the Treasury to treat the gas and agricultural industries equally in this regard by providing the same rate of duty for both fuels? I grow oilseed rape, which I export to Germany and Austria, where it is turned into biodiesel. Why do I have to export it? Can we not do the same in this country?

With agriculture on its knees, a real boost to biofuels would do much to meet the Government's environmental policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and it would give British agriculture a viable lifeline, which it desperately needs at this vital time.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 7:10 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I find this a very moving debate. It was impossible to listen to the speeches made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood without being struck very forcibly by the real disasters--easy words--that are happening in our countryside at present.

I am not a farmer. However, I live on the South Downs and the few fields that my wife and I own are let for grazing to the local Plumpton Agricultural College. Looking at the about-to-lamb ewes in a paddock adjacent to our house this morning, I wondered whether or not they would be alive when I return home at the end of the week. Sussex, thank God, is not yet an infected area; I hope that it never will be. Nevertheless, I asked the shepherd who looks after our sheep, and many more on the top of the South Downs, what was to happen to his pregnant ewes over the next few weeks. His answer--and I am very grateful to the Minister for her clarification of this point--was that, it being not yet an infected area, he thought the sheep would lamb in the fields, including ours.

I then asked him what he considered to be the difficulties of that. He put them in the following order of ascending importance: first, the weather; secondly, the fact that he was now the only shepherd in that area, with a lot of territory to cover; and, thirdly, and most importantly, the fox. We have many foxes in the big wood that lies two or three fields away from our property. We are very grateful that the Southdown and Eridge Hunt occasionally draws the wood, kills a fox or two and at least moves the others on. The sheep are mostly Texels, which are tough and big, and the shepherd's view was that they hoped to be able to save all their lambs from the fox, except the very weak ones.

Having looked at the sheep this morning, I received two pieces of mail through my letterbox. One was from the Countryside Agency. In pursuit of the Government's wish that the South Downs should become a national park, it has issued a very clear pamphlet entitled A national park authority: making it work for the South Downs. Perhaps I may read to your Lordships the short mission statement:

"A South Downs National Park Authority would work in partnership with local people to conserve, enhance and manage the beautiful countryside of the national park and protect its wildlife and cultural heritage. It would work in ways that safeguard the area's special qualities while offering opportunities for quiet enjoyment and understanding of the South Downs. It would also work in partnership to sustain a living, working rural area".

Those are very important words; all fine stuff. I have no objection to that mission statement. Indeed the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which I chair, played a part in the drafting of it.

I then looked at my copy of The Times, in which I read a very powerful article by Libby Purves, entitled "The first crocus of spring spells doom". It contained the following sentence:

"Barring a miraculous end to the epidemic ... and a wholesale reopening of the countryside, thousands of families will face a drop in income which finishes them".

That, of course, is a theme of which we have heard a great deal in the past two or three hours in this House.

Living in Sussex, how do I reconcile these two pieces of paper? The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, who I am delighted to see resuming his place, talked about Radnor. I would like to speak a little about the South Downs in this connection, on a somewhat long-term basis, as a possible national paradigm for seeking solutions. Others have spoken much more knowledgeably than I can about the immediate present dangers.

The area of the South Downs consists of working farms--not just beautiful peaks, dales and lakes. It is an area of about 600 square miles. Our statistics may not be entirely accurate, but we reckon that it contains 600 farms, producing approximately 50,000 lambs per year. It is natural country for sheep; they love the chalk grassland; they are our natural lawn mowers. Active farms are needed to provide a beautiful landscape that is worthy of conservation. If many of these farms, some of which are quite small, go bust, there will be fewer sheep, fewer cattle, more scrub, more thistles, more nettles. It will not be set-aside land. It will be unfarmed, totally unkempt land. In those circumstances, no one will want to make great use of the new access that they have just been granted.

Under the supervision of the board that I chair, we have 2,200 kilometres of rights of way. With the co-operation of our local county councils, we quite rightly closed them all 10 days ago. Who will want to use those rights of way if, walking along them, they see only derelict, empty land covered in weed?

But there is another side of the coin. It is estimated that in the South Downs we have 30 million visitors per year. We are very lucky to live in a prosperous part of the country. Many of those visitors come prepared to spend a few pounds--a pint of beer, local sausages, cheeses and cider--and take something home with them. That is a potentially huge market for the farmers and those who work on the Downs.

Our challenge will be to meld in the farmers with the future national park. If the ramblers, the tourists from abroad and from this country, the walkers, can then be encouraged to spend money on local produce and eat local food in a local pub, as well as spending money on bed and breakfast accommodation, that would be a solution acceptable to all of us. In that process, they would have the opportunity to discover unusual birds and rare wild flowers and to explore our cultural heritage in the form of many old, archaeological sites on the Downs, if that was what they wanted to do.

In very broad language, that is what we are trying to achieve. For the past year we have been working on a South Downs enhancement scheme, which is about two months from completion. All the local NGOs, the Countryside Agency, and I hope MAFF, will put their signature to it. I shall be delighted to send copies of it, when ready, to any noble Lord who is interested in it. We hope that it will meet the twin objectives of the vision of a national park, to which I earlier referred, in a very busy part of England, and retaining the involvement of the local farmer and helping his pocket.

Perhaps I may quote one or two examples of what we have in mind. One is that the environmentally sensitive agreements (ESAs) and the Countryside Stewardship schemes should be made permanent rather than lasting for five to 10 years. In that way, not only would the farmer have certain knowledge of his income from both or either of those schemes, which in our part of the world have been fairly successful, but it would also mean that the reversion from arable to grassland was a permanent feature; and, following on from that, to broaden the objectives of both the ESA and the countryside stewardship schemes to include a wider range of landscape restoration and enhancement objectives.

I hope immediately and practically to introduce a South Downs marketing scheme. "South Downs", after all, is a very good brand name. We would start with lamb, move on to beef, add charcoal, and later perhaps venison and game birds. In the course of that, we would give some empowerment--a dreadful word, but I cannot easily find another--to local farmers. The involvement of the local farmer in this scheme is essential. It is the Downs to dinner plate scenario. Of course, we shall have to build up our own reliable supply chain: the involvement of local primary producers, local abattoirs--the subject of a great deal of discussion--local wholesalers, retailers and restaurants. When recently in Normandy, I was struck by the fact that it was impossible to visit a restaurant there without seeing a sign on the window stating, in suitable French, "Normandy beef only". That is what we should replicate in our area of the South Downs with perhaps a much better return from the meat for the local farmer.

All of that must be set in the wider context of reform of the common agricultural policy. It is noticeable that the social effects of what the CAP achieves, particularly in terms of stimulating the rural economy, have proven to be the opposite of what the original EEC wanted; that is, fewer jobs, less local employment, larger farms, remote off-farm management and often corporately-owned businesses running farms. But if our farms are to survive in a globally competitive-free market, which is not going to change, we must think along new, more diverse lines. To achieve that, we need a national push in the right direction.

I was interested, as was the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said in relation to the DETR task force considering the wider rural economy. I should like to hear more about that. But there are two ministries on which I have my eye in this context. The first is the Treasury. Money is needed. For example, to quote one idea, why cannot there be tax incentives to create local marketing co-operatives, with a real incentive, through that tax help, for farmers to work together?

Secondly, we need MAFF to pay serious attention to constructive, forward thinking. During the debate on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill I asked the Minister several times to obtain a commitment from MAFF to reply to the management plans on which the national parks work so hard and which often receive no reply at all. I obtained no reassurance on that point. But it is exactly the sort of thing MAFF should be doing. I hope that, arising out of this disaster of foot and mouth disease, MAFF will move forward to look at a long-term strategy for our farming industry and at putting money into it.

I note that MAFF has a new policy and corporate strategy unit. I have great hopes for it and I hope it will not prove disappointing. If we are to build and restore our countryside and enhance it in the process in co-operation with local farmers, we will need some wholehearted support from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Photo of Lord Hoyle Lord Hoyle Labour 7:23 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, in rising I say to my noble friend that I hope she will take on board that the immediate actions taken in this crisis were firm but flexible. I should like to express my thanks to the Minister for Agriculture and also to my noble friend the Minister in this House, who, with her office, has always been available and willing so that we can obtain answers swiftly. I thank her for that.

In the report my noble friend gave us today in relation to the limited movement of animals to the abattoirs it is good to hear that pork has reached 75 per cent, beef 60 per cent and lamb 35 per cent. Those steps are putting British produce back into the market. But can my noble friend say, in relation to the now 205 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease, how many of the new cases result from movements that took place before we were aware of the disease? Are such cases still arising or are they completely new cases? I am sure my noble friend will reply when she responds to the debate.

Another point which alarmed me was the reports in the media this morning that pregnant ewes may be slaughtered. I am sure that that news alarmed many other Members of your Lordships' House. If those animals cannot be moved back to the farms, is it possible to revert to what used to happen; that is, that they lamb where they are and help is given in the form of temporary buildings? It would be a shocking state of affairs if uncontaminated flocks and uncontaminated pregnant ewes had to be slaughtered. I hope that my noble friend can respond to that. It would be a disaster for many farmers who are already reeling and mean the end of the road for many others.

I was pleased to hear, following the meeting of the Prime Minister this morning with members of the agricultural community and business interests, that a task force will be introduced which will be overseen by the Minister for the Environment. The tourist industry is a big industry. Of the £12 billion it earns, £9 billion results from day trips. But people will not visit areas such as Cumbria, as the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, said, because the reason for such visits is the chance to walk around freely and that cannot happen at present. Hoteliers and shops will suffer and the effects will be felt throughout the whole community. So help is needed in that area and it is good to know that the task force will be looking into that.

As we heard in response to questions from the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, we know now that the task force will not only look at the immediate future but will also look into the long term. The inquiry into foot and mouth disease--how and why it occurred and where it came from--is also welcome. But we need a longer and more intensive look at the whole future of the agriculture industry.

It has been said that the future is not about intensive farming. But that point should be thrown into the conundrum also, as should the role of the supermarkets and large abattoirs, some of which are actually owned by the supermarkets. All that needs to be considered.

What is the future for the agricultural industry? Can we give it a better and more permanent future? Time after time, because of the misfortunes that have occurred, we ask whether this or that can be done to keep the industry thriving. But all the hotels, shops and businesses which are connected with the rural industry and depend on people visiting those country areas are also suffering. It is therefore vital that we examine the agriculture industry and ask what is needed to make it thrive. Does it need a complete revision of the CAP? All those questions need to be answered. We should not inquire only into the spread of foot and mouth but also into the longer-term future of our agricultural industry, which is vital to all of us. It is not only those who live in the country who benefit; it is also the urban dwellers who come to enjoy it; it is the visitors from overseas who come to see the areas of great scenic beauty, some of which are second to none.

We must look at the underwriting to secure the long-term future as well as dealing with the short-term problems. I know that my noble friend will take that message back from this House, a message that many speakers will repeat in this debate tonight time after time.

Photo of Lord Biffen Lord Biffen Conservative 7:29 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned his interest in 30 acres of pasture land. I echo that. I too have 30 acres of Somerset pasture land. I believe that that makes me a people's landowner. But above all, although it is an interest, I can truthfully say that it is barely an influence on my opinions on the matters being discussed this evening.

What is an influence is the fact that I live in Llanyblodwel, in which parish originated the foot and mouth scourge of 1967. No one who lived in that community and through that period can remember other than the anguish and the sense of bewilderment and of loneliness which captured and held captive the rural community. Although much was done to repair the damage caused by that foot and mouth epidemic, no one can believe that the scars disappear that easily. The character of today's debate shows that your Lordships are conscious of that; hence the current anxiety about the progress of this epidemic.

The 1967 epidemic was terminated by a most thorough and highly constructive inquiry conducted by the Duke of Northumberland, on which my noble friend Lord Plumb served with such distinction. The inquiry had many advantages, one of them being that it dealt exhaustively with the footnotes of the problem rather than going for the headlines. The headlines are most attractive. Organic farming, intensive husbandry and the CAP are enticing concepts but are not susceptible of immediate and constructive action.

I want to deal with one aspect of the current foot and mouth epidemic and put it into context. A task force has been suggested. I hope that all the inquests will be delayed until the epidemic has concluded because the longer it proceeds the more lessons we shall learn. However, the lesson that is already evident was drawn to our attention by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. It is the speed with which the Ministry reacted. In today's circumstances, seeming individual delay causes frustrations and those have been represented here tonight. However, as regards the broad strategic management of the epidemic, the speed between discovering the virus and imposing the restrictions could hardly have been shortened.

Yet we know that in that blink of time the epidemic has spread nationwide. That is the horrifying aspect of the present situation and is in stark contrast with experience in Shropshire and the adjacent counties in 1967. I want to dwell upon that because the distinguishing feature of contemporary agriculture is to some extent size but above all transport and movement. I want to make five points about present British agriculture which makes Oswestry market in 1967 a very different place from Oswestry market today. I want to confine my comments to sheep, although with qualifications they could be applied to other aspects of husbandry.

First, in 1967 there was practically no export trade. Today, the sheep trade is heavily influenced, if not dominated, by a powerful export market, with all the movement that that implies. Secondly, there is a changing pattern in meat retailing, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Plumb. The rise of the supermarkets has concentrated meat distribution substantially and it would be a bold person who would assert that that has come to an end.

Not unconnected with that, but not dependent on it, is the substantial diminution in the number of abattoirs available for the processing of meat. I suspect that somewhere in between those factors--it is a subjective judgment, it is anecdotal and cannot be demonstrated--that the role of the dealers in the sheep trade is infinitely greater than it was when my father, as a tenant farmer, dealt in sheep and other agricultural produce.

It is almost as though today a great deal of livestock is treated as a commodity and not a matter of animal husbandry. That change has also had a powerful impact on movement. If one goes to Oswestry market today, looks at the wagons which convey the animals to and fro and remembers the corresponding wagons used in 1967, one begins to appreciate the enormous change that has overcome British agriculture, particularly as regards animal husbandry.

Given those circumstances, perhaps this was a scourge waiting to happen. I cannot assert that and I do not do so. However, even on the limited evidence that is available, this foot and mouth disease has spread with a rapidity which totally belies our previous experience and can be demonstrated as part of the modern process of agriculture; that is, to move more and more into a situation that is created and encouraged by the single market.

I shall not use this occasion to raise the foghorn of dissent about British relationships within the European Union. However, I say that when we proceed with policies that are designed to create the benefits which are presumed to derive from the free operation of the market and by the use of resources in that context, we must never overlook the other factors which must be balanced in that process.

The pursuit of the single market can be understood by our recent historical and political development but it is not a terminus; it is not an end in itself of our relations with Europe. It is a factor subject for constant consideration and adjustment. I believe that we are now seeing some of the implications of the size of the agriculture operations and the result that has on animal hygiene. That is at the core of the dilemma tonight.

However, we are learning that the epidemic, coming as it does at a certain point in the fortunes of the countryside, has a most horrendous implication. For that reason, I hope that when we come to the point of inquest--and may it come soon--we shall not be afraid to re-examine many of the political fashions which have held sway over recent years including what has been perhaps an insular approach to the problems of animal hygiene. We should be wise to state that no imports of animal products shall come from countries which have an endemic record of foot and mouth disease. We owe that as a minimum obligation to the farming community in this country.

There are lessons to be learnt from the highly contemporary character of this foot and mouth epidemic. Those in the countryside will look to Westminster for sympathy and understanding and a preparedness to stretch minds. I hope and believe that that process will start in this Chamber.

Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 7:38 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, once again, I am daunted by the expertise shown by Members on all sides of the House during the debate. I was interested in the most thoughtful words of my noble friend Lord Biffen and want to take up one point that he made. He said that sheep in particular were being treated by traders as a commodity. We have recently become only too well aware of that. If sheep are a commodity, why do they have to move around? I understand that these days the usual trade in commodities in done from one computer to another and the produce being traded is never moved. The problem we face here is that the produce is moved, and perhaps that is a matter which will arise after all this is over.

We are without doubt in the middle of a national crisis, and I believe that it is rapidly becoming a national emergency. I do not have very much optimism as a result of the fact that, when the weather is supposed to be much less favourable to the survival of the virus, the number of outbreaks appears to have increased almost day by day and is now double the figure last week. Everybody's priority is to eradicate the disease as quickly as possible. As has been said most clearly by my noble friend Lady Byford, we on these Benches support the Government's efforts to do all that they can, as I am sure they are, to achieve that. However, many questions arise from the outbreak which will need to be addressed at the proper time. Some of those questions may be relevant now.

Perhaps I may put a few questions to the noble Baroness, although I have not given her prior notice of them. The Minister said that no one had yet established the entry point of the virus into this country. Are there any indications that more than one entry point may be involved? That may or may not be significant.

Are the Government satisfied that the way that the campaign against the disease has been run places enough emphasis on keeping groups of outbreaks sufficiently isolated? I ask this because it appears that in the 1967 outbreak, to which my noble friend Lord Biffen referred, the one great success was to keep the outbreaks tightly grouped together in a small area of the country. The incidence of outbreaks in that area was much greater than in any of the groups of outbreaks that we are experiencing at the moment. Can anything be inferred from the present situation as to what may happen in the worst case scenario, which I dread?

The relaxation of the controls on movement in allowing carcasses to be taken to renderers in sealed wagons and cattle to be transported from safe farms to safe abattoirs sounds a trifle risky. I point out that just one human error in one consignment could lead to further disaster.

I understand that today there has been an outbreak in the Loire Valley in France. Are we doing anything about importing meat products from France as a result of that, or do we believe that it is a completely one-off outbreak?

One of the industries that is most affected by this epidemic has already been mentioned several times this evening: tourism. My noble friend Lord Inglewood and the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, mentioned it. Tourism businesses are losing many millions of pounds. Rural tourism maintains some 400,000 jobs. I understand that the tourism authorities have advised the Government that tourism business so far is running at some 75 per cent below normal for this time of year. Rural tourism should now be worth around £150 million a week. Cancellations have overwhelmed the industry, and thousands of potential visitors from overseas have cancelled, even those whose destinations were to have been Edinburgh, London and other cities.

We welcome the setting up of the task force to look at how to re-establish the tourism business in the countryside, among other things. It will, however, have a monumental task in this particular area. I agree with the Minister that, by and large, compensation must be limited to those who are directly affected by livestock losses, but is it not possible for compensation be paid to self-catering and guesthouse businesses on farms where foot and mouth has struck, because at the moment they are completely stuck?

The countryside is in a desperate plight for various reasons with which your Lordships are familiar. I am worried about signs of relaxation of certain controls. The use of the phrase "slight risk" worries me, because any risk is to be avoided if possible. I allude specifically to the different advice given by our Chief Veterinary Officer and his Irish counterpart in regard to racing in that country. Surely, they cannot both be right. Is the Army to be involved? There has been a good deal of talk about it. Surely, because speed is of the essence in dealing with outbreaks, soldiers would be extremely useful and fit, which is probably one of the important matters.

As my noble friend Lady Byford said, the situation is dire. I hope that the Government will not relax restrictions until it is quite clear that the disease is overwhelmed and finished.

Photo of Lord Monro of Langholm Lord Monro of Langholm Conservative 7:46 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I want to spend most of my few minutes on foot and mouth disease, but first I should like to thank the Minister for listening to the debate carefully and making so many helpful interventions. She must be undergoing great strain at the present time. I remember the 1952 Dumfries outbreak of foot and mouth which occurred soon after I started farming after the war. I have very great sympathy for my noble friend Lord Inglewood on whose farm foot and mouth has broken out this week. It is not all that far from my own farm, which fortunately is still free. I hardly dare answer the telephone in case it is bad news; and certainly I cannot bear to go home at the present time for safety reasons.

My noble friend Lord Inglewood, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, and others referred to the total sterilisation of country life at the present time. There are no meetings and social activities. Farmers and their wives who have foot and mouth disease on their farms are in a distraught and dreadful state. Children are unable to go to school. Every farm road end has a gate across it with disinfectant, straw and sawdust. Altogether, farming is going through an even worse time than two or three weeks ago.

In that context, many farmers ask how on earth one can contemplate holding a general election on 3rd May of this year. Democracy means close reaction between candidates and the people and meetings. We cannot do it all by post. I hope that the Prime Minister very carefully bears in mind that it will be a very odd election if it proceeds at the present time.

Before coming to the brief point that I want to make on foot and mouth, I should like to echo all that noble Lords and noble Baronesses have said today about the plight of farming. Farming really is in crisis. The CAP needs to be reformed, but my worry is that that will inevitably mean less money for agriculture. I could see it coming all along. We already see the change from headage to modulation in the less favoured areas. I know of no livestock farmer in Scotland who will receive more money under the new scheme of LFAs; nearly everyone will receive substantially less. They thank God that they will get 90 per cent this year, 50 per cent less next year and then they are on their own. It is a very grave worry. The Government's moves in reforming the CAP have brought very disappointing results.

I very warmly support what the noble Baroness has said about the slaughtering policy to deal with foot and mouth. I praise the Minister's staff and the vets who work their hearts out. I hope that the Minister will pass on these words to the Scottish Executive, because I speak as much for Scotland as for England. We praise the staff and the vets. We praise the president of the National Farmers' Union in Scotland, Jim Walker, and, in England, Ben Gill. They, together with local offices, are giving us a tremendous lead in very difficult times. I want to say "Well done" to the Dumfries and Galloway council. The convenor, Andrew Campbell, a distinguished farmer, has set up an operations room somewhat like the one that we had in the same area after the Lockerbie air disaster. It gives every possible assistance relative to foot and mouth and how best one should proceed.

I fear that the Minister's staff on both sides of the Border, in England and in Scotland, are overwhelmed and overworked. I do not know for how long they can keep up the pressure. They need extra physical support. I do not know where additional vets and other skilled operators will come from to help them stamp out the disease.

Are we taking too long to confirm outbreaks? A vet sends samples to the laboratory. They take a few days to come back. In previous outbreaks of foot and mouth if a vet came in and saw the disease the livestock were shot straightaway. There was no delay in getting scientific laboratory proof before action was taken. Those two or three days are fairly crucial. Also crucial is the time it takes to obtain a valuation, which has to be done on live beasts. In a crisis such as this, most farmers would accept the word of a good valuer if the beast had already been shot.

Can we really expect--noble Lords on all sides of the House have considered this matter--to get all the livestock that are likely to have to be slaughtered in the next week or two to the rendering plant at Widnes? It is hard enough to load 30 live bullocks into a truck, let alone getting in the same number of dead beasts that perhaps have been lying around for a few days. There is then the long transport to Cheshire from Scotland or from the south of England. The Government may have to think of an alternative or additional rendering plant if that is the way to go. In terms of concern in the countryside, there is an advantage in going to a rendering plant because the funeral pyres--I saw them burning when I was last in the north--are very distressing to those involved.

The Minister has given the best answer that she could in relation to ewes about to lamb. The noble Baroness could not have gone further than to say that with short distances, something should be fixed up if possible, but that, as a generalised state, will be difficult to organise. However, the thought of having to slaughter fit and well ewes just because they cannot be got to their home farms is most distressing.

The Minister was very helpful on the issue of the inquiry and the task force. We want a narrow and concise inquiry--the Phillips inquiry took far too long--on why the outbreak started. How did the infected meat get past the Meat Hygiene Service or other inspections? Last week I asked the Government a question. I was told that no meat was imported from countries where foot and mouth was endemic. I believe that it is endemic in South Africa and South America. Yet, we are still importing meat from those countries. We need to look at the matter very carefully indeed. Whatever the World Trade Organisation says, the health of our livestock is more important than bringing in tonnes of Argentine or South African beef.

The Minister was helpful about grants. I now know of the £160 million, but that is agrimony which we are owed. That is not new money. I know where to get the LFA money after 19th March and the beef special premium, the sheep annual premium, the suckler cow and the extensification early in April. But that is all money that we are due. However, it will be a helpful cashflow in these terrible times.

I hope that the Government will be as administratively flexible as they can in terms of the European Union-- the Minister used the right word--the force majeure. Technically animals that have been slaughtered are not on the farm for retention periods. That must be overcome by a simple administrative act, otherwise many farmers will be disqualified from gaining certain grants that are due in the spring.

I should like the Minister to clear up one matter. The newspapers are not very clear on the issue. Some have said that one can restock after 30 days. I cannot believe that anyone would contemplate that. I believe that it will be nearer six months before one could consider it safe to restock farms. That means six months with no income and one has to then use the whole of the capital resources from the valuation to purchase new stock. That is very worrying.

The next problem that has been put to me several times is the issue of grass parks. This is the month when grass parks are let. Farmers take two, three or four fields here and there. That is important relative to the IAACS forms which are due in in the middle of May. If one does not have one's grass parks it affects one's IAACS forms. Can there be some flexibility here? It is no use saying that one can go to an auction mart and let off the grass parks now because we cannot get together. Anyhow, who will rent a grass park if they do not know whether they will be able to use it in May, June or July? That is a very important part of the agricultural economy. We shall need greater flexibility, bearing in mind the intransigence that is so often taken up over IAACS forms.

My last point has been touched on by many noble Lords. It is the important issue of tourism. I cannot overestimate this matter. It was been brought home to me by the Dumfries and Galloway council and the convenor that tourism has dropped like a stone in Dumfries and Galloway. Millions of pounds a week have been lost in Scotland. Hotels have a 60 per cent drop in room-lettings; conferences have been cancelled; and bed and breakfast lettings for the poor hard-up farmers are non-existent. Tourism needs an injection of help now because this is the beginning of the tourism season, working up to Easter.

I hope that the Minister will think carefully about that matter relative to compensation. I know and appreciate that there are principles here and principles there, but every now and again a principle has to be breached when a crisis is more important.

I have made these points, which not only highlight the problems of farming before foot and mouth, but how they have got much worse under foot and mouth. I wish the Minister well in trying to contain the disease as quickly as possible and in getting us back to normal farming again.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 7:59 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this debate and the Liberal Democrats for having first put down the Motion. I must declare an interest as I own a flock of pedigree Texel sheep, a flock of Shetland sheep and a flock of Welsh Badger sheep, and I also live in the countryside.

I shall try in some small way to explain what a terrible feeling it is to be living with the threat of this virus and when it may strike and what the outcome has to be. One's heart goes out to those people who have already had their breeding flocks destroyed. The sadness that hangs over the areas which have been affected is difficult to explain, but it is a worrying time for everyone who lives in farming areas. They feel that they are sitting on a time bomb.

I have been listening whenever I can to the news and I get updates from the MAFF Internet site, but I was bemused when I saw and heard the Minister of Agriculture say on television on Sunday that the epidemic had been contained. On Sunday evening, the new number of farms affected by the outbreak was the highest so far--25 that day. How can the Government try to spin something so tragic and so important to so many people? They will lose faith and trust in the Government. But the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has tried today to give a more realistic summary of this awful situation. I thank her. The messages should be open, with no cover-up.

Both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Churches have been offering prayers for the farming communities. I expect that the Methodists have too. We are living with a plague which can strike at any time. Many farmers feel isolated and need support, but sometimes the messages coming from MAFF are confusing. I ask the Minister to try to do something about that. I telephoned MAFF on Saturday to find out about getting a licence to move some of my in-lamb ewes on the farm. I telephoned Northallerton, who told me to ring animal health in Leeds. Leeds told me to ring back to Northallerton. I asked whether I was in an infected area. Both Leeds and Northallerton said no, but the website said that I was. The website map conflicts with the information given. On Monday my secretary telephoned again and received the same answers. Will the Minister please ensure that the website information is correct and kept up to date and that the map is readable?

With all the modern forensic expertise, surely it is possible to find the source of this epidemic. Where did the virus come from before the sheep became infected on the Northumberland farm? If it was from the swill, it must be possible to track the source. It is vital that it is found; otherwise, another epidemic might develop in years to come. I hope that the Minister can give some assurance that no stone will be left unturned until we know the answers.

It is of concern to many people that sheep have been moving and crossing borders without notification. Will this outbreak make people more responsible, or will it continue to happen? I live on the edge of Wensleydale. A blanket of gloom settled over the dales when we heard of the first case in North Yorkshire at Raygill House Farm, between Bainbridge and Hawes. I send every sympathy to Mr and Mrs Lambert. How did that farm become infected? Was it from jackdaws or was it from a knacker who came to collect a cow that had died? They had a milking herd. They had not bought any stock from a market in recent times. Can the Minister tell your Lordships how that farm became infected? The Minister of Agriculture is so confident that the virus is "under control". But is it?

Last night I read in the Evening Standard that the Ministry of Agriculture is considering the slaughter of up to half a million pregnant ewes because they cannot be returned to their lambing quarters. With spring coming, why cannot they lamb where they are? It is possible to build shelters for the lambs out of bails of straw. It is horrible to think of healthy in-lamb ewes being slaughtered when they might never get the disease.

The headline of the Darlington and Stockton Times last Friday was:

"Business grinds to a halt in the hills".

An economic catastrophe is poised to strike the Yorkshire dales and moors as foot and mouth begins to rip the heart from rural businesses. Both in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake District, businesses are having to close down or come to a halt. Many farms have bed-and-breakfast to supplement their incomes. Outward bound activity centres, including some for disabled people, are hit. Businesses stare disaster in the face as fears grow that the Easter trade will be hit. I had hoped to open my trekking centre at Easter. People will no doubt take their holidays abroad, but they may be looked at with suspicion as being unclean.

We are facing a national disaster in more ways than one. The countryside is vulnerable and the people who live in it are even more vulnerable. I have to ask the Minister, who I know has worked, and is working, very hard, whether enough basic information is getting to the people. I am sure that sales of Jeyes fluid have gone sky high, but I am told that Jeyes fluid is not effective in killing the foot and mouth virus. Many people do not have a computer with a website. They cannot get the necessary information.

I asked the local district nurse what advice she and her colleagues had been given. They had not been given any advice about going onto farms. So she told me, "We ask the farmers if they want us". People are trying their best, but they are feeling in the dark at times.

It did not take long for the recommended disinfectant to run out in the North of England at the start of this plague, so increasing the stress. I had been recommended to use Virkon or Aladine. Both were unobtainable, but I now have some. Is enough disinfectant now available for everyone who needs it?

Farmers with livestock have had problems with people walking their dogs on farmland. I have spoken of this before in your Lordships' House, but I would ask the Minister whether she read in the press about the Yorkshire farmer who, anxious to protect his cattle from foot and mouth disease, was attacked after trying to prevent two men with unleashed dogs from walking across his land. The farmer was taken to hospital, having been beaten up. The men shouted that they did not care about foot and mouth disease. It has not helped having the right to roam legislation.

Challenging people who think they can go anywhere is not easy, as that farmer experienced. With village police having been taken away, there is little support for country people trying to protect their animals. I have had a wooden gate smashed which was chained. When I replaced it with a metal gate the chain and lock were cut and removed. This was not on a right of way. But those who did it were dog walkers.

Farmers at this time need consideration and correct information. Barriers are being put up. The countryside may take a long time to recover from this tragedy. It will need help so that everyone can enjoy and relax in what we should all want to protect.

We should not forget the deer in the parks and the zoo animals which are at risk. Elephants can contract foot and mouth, as can hedgehogs. It is an extraordinary virus.

I shall end on a sober note. Vets and farmers are high on the suicide list. I ask the Minister: at this present time, are counselling services being made available should they be needed?

Photo of The Bishop of Salisbury The Bishop of Salisbury Bishop 8:10 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I share the sense of powerlessness in the face of what is clearly a national disaster. As my brother Prelate said, farmers know that we have them very much in the prayers of the Church. Through our parish priests and members of our congregations, we are doing all we can to support farmers in the rural parts of England. I am glad of and reassured by the radical measures being taken to tackle and eradicate this disease. I am grateful, too, for the Minister's dedication and hard work in this cause. Through her, we should thank all those who work to support her.

What I am most concerned about is the people affected by this outbreak--their future as well as their present. That is because what I detect from those living in our largely rural diocese is that the most destructive aspect of this disaster is fear. Fear takes hold because we do not know what is going to happen and how many lives and livelihoods will be affected by it.

"I should not be afraid for any terror by night, nor for the sickness that destroyeth in the noonday", says the compline psalm recited by heart every night in the monastic community. Yet it is just the unpredictability, and not knowing where the disease is blowing or where it will crop up next, who might have carried it casually from one place to another, that so undermines anyone's sense of purpose and hope for the future.

There is a fear that this may bring about the end of farming as we know it. We have seen a series of crises, of which foot and mouth is only the most recent, which have underlined how enormously vulnerable is farming in this country. The food industry that plays in a global market and the principles of free trade--which are not at all the same as the principles of fair trade, on which we are focusing this fortnight--have led us, the consumers, to expect our food to be plentiful, available all the year round and to be the very cheapest, no matter the cost to quality, how it is produced and where it has come from. Faced with this, the farming industry that I see in Dorset and north Wiltshire contains many people who cannot see at all the way ahead for their industry.

Secondly, there is the fear of isolation, both personal and corporate. When they padlock your gates, having taken samples for testing in the laboratory, and then go away, you become a prisoner locked in your cell. You have to decide which members of your family should stay in or stay out. I know many farmers' wives who are caught in a conflict between their role as mothers and wives and their other, equally important role at present as breadwinners. When I visited a north Wiltshire primary school last week, all the children missing were from farming families. They must stay isolated until sentence is passed.

Here I join in the plea that the inspections are made and the animals executed as quickly as possible. While there are helplines and friends, and our parish clergy and rural chaplains speak on the phone, farmers, many of whom work very much on their own, are now also physically and emotionally on their own. It is very dangerous for the health of any community to find a group within it who feel themselves to be so enormously isolated.

Thirdly, there is the fear that the farming community, and all that they are losing, may be doing so because in some sense they have brought it on themselves. First there is a prudential question: have we forced farmers to farm wisely or only for the short term? I think of the closure of a number of abattoirs, forced to do so by the enormous costs in the wake of the BSE scare and crisis. Yet that must be one of the contributory factors to the extraordinary notion that animals are being driven all over the country to be killed for food.

Then there is a theological question: have we worked with the grain of creation as good stewards of the earth's natural resources? Many fear that we have not done so and that we have been colluding with something essentially immoral in the way we have gone about resourcing and stewarding our farming industry.

Lastly, there is the human question, which is this: can we continue to treat farming as an industry any longer? Can we go on applying the rules of market economy and product, along with marketing in targeted ways, in an area of our national life which cannot quickly adapt, and yet manages a hugely significant part of our whole landscape? In our built heritage we maintain a series of partnerships with the National Trust and English Heritage because we realise that the built heritage cannot survive in a free market economy. No longer do we allow people to pull down their stately homes because they cannot afford to keep the roof on. Instead, we support them in caring for the buildings.

Farmers cannot diversify quickly and, in the light of our current experience, the Government's White Paper on the countryside seems to have ignored a major area which needs scrutiny, consultation and some agreed solutions. We cannot leave all these problems to drift around among the forces of chance and economics. In that connection, I should like to echo the series of inter-related questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, in her speech earlier this afternoon.

There is a huge problem of great seriousness which must be addressed now, but there is also a major long-term concern for the future of farming in the life of the nation. Farming and life in the countryside is not an industry that we can detach from how we live. If we are serious about remaining a whole nation where we value each other's contributions and bear each other's burdens, we need to consider a far more serious and integrated policy for the future of farming than that indicated in the White Paper.

It looks like we are going to need a new White Paper altogether. I say that because if the Government were to give a signal that the White Paper will no longer do as a blueprint for the future for the whole of the countryside in the face of this crisis, then I believe that a huge surge of confidence, a confidence that is not there at the moment, would sweep through the rural communities. They would feel that, at last, they were being heard. I think that it is extremely important that we do this. People living in the countryside do not believe--however unjustified this may be--that an essentially urban government hear them or are even able to hear them. A signal from the Government, indicating not only how to tackle the immediate crisis--I say again that I am grateful for all that is being done--but also a signal that we need to look again at the way in which farming is related to the management of the countryside, with all the economic problems that that will raise, would be enormously welcome and would raise confidence. People's lives are at risk because they are being undermined by fear almost more than by anything else. That is because they feel the fear of the unknown. I hope that the Government, with due consideration--I do not expect the Minister to make any immediate decisions this evening--will be able to give an assurance that there will be a future for the rural communities that will be a partnership, and that it will be a future that will give people hope when, at the moment, all they can see is blackness.

Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour 8:20 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I declare interests as president of the Countryside Alliance and as a small-scale sheep farmer with poll Dorsets. I am not so far, fortunately, in an infected area.

We all know that the crisis in the countryside did not begin in February of this year. Indeed, well before the last election in May 1997 there was a crisis rapidly developing, the origins of which lie in the long-term neglect of the rural infrastructure by successive governments and in the agricultural policy which has locked us into volume production and forced farming and increasingly towards intensification and industrialisation without tackling the social and environmental consequences.

After the last election, the present Government in many areas--to use a phrase that they used--"hit the ground running". However, in relation to the countryside, many of us felt that they hit the ground, stuck their heads in the sand and refused to listen to voices which were telling them how badly things were going wrong.

In February of this year came foot and mouth disease. The country was already in serious trouble. There can be no doubt at all that anyone listening either to this debate or any news bulletin will know that our countryside is now in free-fall.

I am coming to what I think are relatively minor criticisms in the context of all that is going on, but may I first pay tribute to the Minister in the House. As others have said, she has taken time to answer personal and what must at times have seemed very petty questions and queries from anyone who approached her. Her competence in handling this crisis can be in no doubt to anyone.

Perhaps I may also, as others have done, pass on through the Minister the tributes that I have heard from people who are directly involved with the MAFF staff on the ground. The only problem is that they are plainly--hopelessly, in some areas--overstretched.

May I also ask the Minister to pass on to her department comments I have heard, some of which have been echoed in the House, not least most recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham? What we want from the Minister's department is the truth. We want to be told straight. When we hear the Minister say that the epidemic is under control but then see the news bulletins and read the figures, we cannot marry the two. We do not want to be reassured or to be told what it is thought we would like to hear unless it is accurate. We would rather have the reality.

Secondly, we would like to see--it may be in place but the message is not coming across--not that the Ministry is responding to the outbreaks as they happen but that it is ahead of them and has in place proper contingency plans should things, heaven forefend, get even worse than they are now.

A number of noble Lords have asked whether we are getting enough information. There are certainly enough places to seek information, but if you want to know whether a rumour--and rumours abound at times like this--about a suspected outbreak in your area is or is not true, it is very difficult to go through every website, to go through the BBC and to ring round to establish the truth. We need to be able to find out quickly from an accurate map where are the suspected outbreaks and where are the confirmed outbreaks in order that we may make our own arrangements and take steps to avoid travelling anywhere near those areas. It may be that that is being done, but it is a criticism that I am hearing.

Perhaps I may mention a matter which has been raised already by the noble Lord, Lord Luke; that is, the question of racing. There are many, many farmers who are very concerned that racing is still continuing here. We understand that the assessment is that racing in a limited way presents no risk. Farmers are even more concerned to learn that, first, Ireland takes a different view, and, secondly, that France--having confirmed its outbreak at 11.30 this morning--with immediate effect suspended all racing and other gatherings of animals in the two departments concerned. I understand that the movement of all livestock, including horses, throughout France is allowed only with a special permit and disinfecting.

It may be that we are right and they are wrong, but can we have some reassurance and clear guidance? I say this particularly to the noble Baroness because she is, of course, the Minister for the horse. There are quite a number of small horse shows continuing to take place, some of them without clear guidance as to what may or may not be done and as to whether proper precautions are being taken. Can the Minister reassure us that proper guidance is being given to organisers of events of that kind and that proper procedures are in place to ensure that no undue risk is taken?

Other noble Lords have spoken of concerns. which I am also hearing, about the time that it is taking to both confirm outbreaks and to slaughter animals. We very much hope that it is not simply a question of having standby "sharp shots", if I can call them that--people from the Army--in readiness but that adequate numbers of competent slaughtermen will be found to deal with the outbreak. Ideally, valuation should take place after slaughter rather than having animals waiting around for that reason.

Perhaps I may also, through the Minister, pay tribute to the people who are doing that work, which must be beastly, particularly when it involves, as it very often does, very, very distressed farmers. I have what I hope will not be regarded as an inappropriate criticism. Among those carrying out this job are people such as--I name only three of them because they are all over the country--David Jones of the David Davis Foxhounds; Roy Savage from the Teme Valley Foxhounds; and David Morgan from the Radnor and West Hereford. Those people are going to their neighbours and killing their livestock--and at night they have been watching on television Ministers from the noble Baroness's department voting to put them out of home and job. Will the Minister pass that back?

Perhaps I may also ask the Minister how many of the sealed trucks which we have heard will be transporting carcasses for some considerable distances on our roads are available. There is concern that if sealed trucks are not available, risks may be taken. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to reassure us about that.

Among the criticisms I have made, perhaps I may add some praise. I am grateful that in the face of criticism--in particular from Ireland--the noble Baroness's department has allowed some movements under special licences for welfare reasons. Farmers are under the most enormous mental strain. To put a man or woman in the position of seeing his or her livestock suffer or of taking a risk and breaking the law to get them back or to deal with them is an impossible one. I am grateful that the present concessions have been made. I would ask the Minister--particularly in regard to animals which are about to calve or lamb in places where they cannot remain--to give great thought to allowing particularly carefully-supervised movements in such cases. The burden and the risk of people breaking the rules--I suspect many of us know people who have done so--is too great.

There was a question raised about disinfectant. I look forward to the answer because when I put my name down for any of the approved kinds of disinfectant two weeks ago, I was told that I was number 300 on the waiting list of my local agriculture supplier. I have yet to receive a call telling me that the stocks are in. In the meantime, we are doing our best.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness's department for allowing the market to start again and for allowing people to send their animals to slaughter. However, I am getting call after call from people who are horrified at the sums they are being offered in a situation where they have absolutely no choice but to accept. Let me echo what was said by a noble Lord who spoke earlier: will the Ministry look carefully to see whether there is an element of profiteering in what is going on?

As other noble Lords have said, it is not only the agricultural part of the economy which is in free-fall--I use that phrase again. Others have spoken about their particular parts of the world; perhaps I may speak about my village in Somerset, Exford. It has a population of 400 people, virtually all of whom work in or near the village. It has three shops, two hotels, a petrol station, a hunt kennels, which is the largest employer in the village, a farrier and a repair workshop.

The village relies entirely on farming and tourism. During the winter months, from October through to April, it is country sports tourism--people who come for the shooting or for the hunting. At this time of the year, when hunting stops elsewhere, farmers in particular from all over England go there to stay when they finish their lambing and their calving to follow the hunt, which goes on until the end of April.

I have received information from a local group which formed two years ago when people could see the crisis coming. The group called itself "Endangered Exmoor". People could scarcely have known then what they would be facing two years on. The post office is down 50 per cent on its business. The White Horse Hotel is empty; there have been 40 cancellations and staff are to be laid off. On the day after hunting was suspended--the hunting organisations did so voluntarily across the whole country well before the animal movements restriction was in place--the garage began to see a huge drop in the number of people wanting petrol and diesel. I stress that large numbers of people follow the hunt in cars. One of the local hotels relies on five tourist coaches calling in every week for teas and coffees. All the visits have been cancelled. The local livery yard is having to reduce its rates and lay off staff. One of the other guest houses is struggling on the verge of bankruptcy. The farrier's business has dropped dramatically; so has business at the local stores and at the newsagent's, and all the pubs in the area are very quiet. One of the local businesses hires out horses. Its turnover--spring is its harvest time--is £40,000 a year. Last week it took cancellations from 20 Americans who had been coming for two weeks and would have hired horses almost every day. That business will have no income whatever and it has 20 horses to feed. Those are just some examples.

There is great gloom, and I readily understand the noble Baroness's department. It is not possible to extend compensation into all the areas where people are losing money. However, among all the headings of gloom there are rays of what seem to me to be real hope. One example is that Tindle Newspapers, the publishers of the local paper, the West Somerset Free Press, announced this week that it had established a hardship fund of a quarter of a million pounds for small businesses like its own--for people who either need immediate hand-outs to keep going or interest-free loans where the bank would not help. I imagine that there will be other people like that throughout the country; however, I should like to see the Government taking a lead in getting that kind of support up and running, and we have yet to see that happening. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, about the Government talking to the banks. I very much welcome the task force that has been set up under the Minister for the Environment. These are the kinds of areas that I hope he will look at immediately. They are crucial.

In time, foot and mouth will be overcome. But the majority of us are fearful about how much or how little will be left of our countryside afterwards. Businesses will close; properties and homes will be sold; local families with local connections, with small businesses and small farms, will have to leave those communities. A vital link will have snapped. If we really value our countryside, we should be valuing those people too, especially, as the Minister acknowledged in her opening remarks, because they are the people who have shaped the countryside and we must look after them.

Finally, perhaps I may take up the points made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. What we look for now is not only competent action to deal with this crisis; we look to the Government for a lead. What we need is a department of rural affairs--not merely a task force--which will set about the job that desperately needs to be done; namely, to draw up a radical plan for a new rural infrastructure. What we need is investment in small and medium-scale producers and new enterprises, possibly through or with the assistance of the regional development agencies, involving many of the kinds of ideas mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer.

There is presently a vacuum in the countryside. We look to the Government to put an end to the divisions that have marked the past four years and to take us forward, so that we have a countryside which is not dependent on subsidies or hand-outs, but which is dependent on enterprise and can regenerate itself and produce once again a living and working countryside. If we can do that, if we can have that leadership, then perhaps after all some good will come out of this bad business. As someone once sang, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone". We do not have our countryside at the moment; and how we miss it. Perhaps we shall try to take better care of it and its people after these events.

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 8:36 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, it is always a privilege to follow the noble Baroness--a privilege that I have enjoyed a number of times in the past few days--because she is so knowledgeable about the countryside and is so articulate in expressing her views.

I should declare an interest in so far as I have been engaged with agriculture all of my life and still am. I have cattle, and fortunately for the moment they do not have foot and mouth disease. Like so many other speakers, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on her excellent, knowledgeable and diligent introduction to the debate. The work that she has done in the Ministry of Agriculture and her knowledge of what goes on is remarkable.

It is right to say that farming and the countryside are going through the deepest crisis that they have been through for years--my noble friend Lord Inglewood said "for a century", and I think he is right. Over the past four years we have seen the price of wheat drop from £130 a tonne to £60 a tonne; we have seen the price of milk drop from 26 pence a litre to 13 pence a litre. Admittedly, things are now getting better. Those were the terrible economic afflictions of the countryside. That in itself was enough. But to that was added the BSE crisis and the slaughter of the animals that took place; then there was swine fever and the slaughter of animals; now there is foot and mouth disease. It really is a wonder that there are any animals left in the countryside at all. I agree with the remark of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that it is difficult to see how this disease can be described as being under control. I do not know how one controls a disease which is of its own volition free to move around from place to place.

For agriculture, there has been one series of blows after another. It is not surprising that farmers are in deep despair. Many are going bankrupt and many are giving up. It is right that the Government should tackle the foot and mouth problem quickly and seriously. It is right to have a slaughter and compensation policy. But I was glad that my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior explained in such detail why that was necessary. To many people it seems a curiosity--but it is right.

All this goes much deeper than finance and compensation. A farmer or his family may have built up a herd for 40 years and possibly longer, and to see the animals destroyed, each of which may have a name and each of which may be a personal friend of the farmer, is heart-breaking and morale-breaking stuff. All of a sudden, there is total silence on the farm. A farm once alive with noise is now cacooned in an eerie silence, with dead animals. That has an effect on the farmers, on the locality and on the countryside--an affect that goes far wider and far deeper than being just one of the hazards of an industry, or one of the hazards of a particular way of life. It delves down into the emotional, psychological and even spiritual core of people. It is no wonder that a Member of Parliament told me the other day that one of his constituents had said that she had removed her husband's guns just in case. Indeed, it is no wonder that a newspaper article today reported that the police have done the same thing.

There is an attitude of despair, not just among farmers but also in the countryside as a whole. Who will be the next victim? When will this wretched disease attack? As is so often forgotten, agriculture does not just provide food; it affects, for better or for worse, the entire landscape of the countryside. The environment is deeply tied up and affected by agriculture. Tourism is a vital ingredient to the countryside. As my noble friend Lord Inglewood asked earlier, who will go to the Lake District if you cannot walk when you are there?

So what happens to the bed-and-breakfast people? They lose out: they lose people and they lose money. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, told us a short while ago how in her part of Somerset 40 guests cancelled their bookings with a hotel in Exmoor. People had to be laid off. This crisis goes far wider than just a farmer with a few cows. It is the effect on the countryside as a whole. We are talking about a successful countryside, which means all those who are involved within the countryside; for example, in businesses, shops, transport, holidays, recreation, the environment and of course the wildlife. All the latter depend on a successful agriculture.

It is not the fault of the Government that we have foot and mouth disease. That is one of the hazards of life. I pay tribute to the way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, its officials and the Ministers have reacted to it. I have in mind, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. She has been so sensitive and so knowledgeable about the situation.

The present despair in the countryside is the accumulation of disasters of which foot and mouth disease is the latest torpedo. There was to have been a huge march this Sunday because--I hate to say this to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, because she is a sensitive and caring person--the Government of which she is a distinguished and prestigious member are perceived by the countryside and those who live there as not understanding their problems, and not caring. That was underlined even further during a debate in another place some two weeks ago to discuss the parlous state of agriculture in the countryside. When the opening speakers for the Government and the Opposition spoke, there were only 14 Labour Members present in the Chamber. More were gathered in by the Whips as this was pointed out to them. But it is not surprising that people feel that the Government party does not know or care about the countryside, and that the countryside feels distanced from the thoughts and the understanding of Members of Parliament--

Photo of Lord Williams of Elvel Lord Williams of Elvel Labour

My Lords, can the noble Earl define what he means by "the countryside"?

Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative

No, my Lords. I shall not be quite as stupid as that. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, must know what the countryside is; he must know the difference between the countryside and the town. I shall not waste your Lordships' time on the question of a definition.

When agriculture is going through such a depression, it is surprising that the only contribution that the Government can make is to introduce a Bill to ban fox hunting, and thereby add yet more to the unemployment and the misery in the countryside. I shall say no more about that because we discussed such matters yesterday, and earlier today.

Foot and mouth disease will go, and things will get better. Normality in the countryside will return. There is a future in agriculture, although it may be difficult to see it now and it may not come as soon as we would wish. But when the population of the world is due to multiply fourfold in the lifetime of some of those who are alive today from 3,000 million in 1960 to 12,000 million in 2025, food will be required and agriculture and the countryside--they are bound up together--will prosper.

What can the Government do in the short and medium term? On the foot and mouth front, I hope that we can avoid shooting animals in front of other animals. I know that it is difficult to achieve that, but it is pretty fundamental in terms of animal welfare. I hope that we can dispose of carcasses quickly. There are those in Derbyshire who say that the smell of burning animals pollutes the air. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who questioned the wisdom of carrying carcasses across the country, even though they are in so-called "sealed containers". If the disease is so virulent as to close markets, why risk its spread by moving known, diseased animals even in supposedly air-tight containers? I was interested to hear the answer given by the noble Baroness in response. However, for all that, the old method of digging holes, placing quick lime in them and then burying the animals was fairly effective and very swift.

I hope that the Government will try to explain the following to farmers--indeed, perhaps the Minister will explain the situation to the House. When vast quantities of animals are slaughtered, this inevitably causes a shortage of meat for human consumption. Can the Minister explain why the price of meat in the retail shops increases by 40 per cent, while the price to the farmers decreases by 60 per cent?

The Government claim to be drawing down £150 million from the European Union. As my noble friend Lady Byford pointed out, that is money provided by the EU, not for foot and mouth disease but for currency fluctuations to which the Government are automatically entitled because of the strong pound. Indeed, they are entitled to much more. I believe that they are entitled to some £500 million. There was even a time a few years ago when they were entitled to £2,000 million, but they never took it. If the economy is doing as well as the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us, why do not the Government draw their full allocation and so relieve the difficulties being experienced by the industry? Over the past four years we have failed to draw that which was due to the United Kingdom; that is, not that which we might draw if we wished to do so, but that which was due to us because our currency stood high. As a result, our farmers suffer.

On other fronts, we ought to try to aim for "a level playing field"--an awful expression--for the United Kingdom. When milk was 16 pence a litre in this country, it was 24 pence a litre in Holland and 25 pence a litre in Ireland. There is no equality there. Imported food should be produced under the same animal welfare conditions as those that are imposed on British farmers. Thai chicken, Polish pork and Danish bacon all undercut the British product. Why? It is because our producers are obliged to incur higher costs over animal welfare than those of our competitors. The anomaly should be removed whereby imported food can be cut, processed, or even just packed in the UK, and thereafter labelled "British food", which it manifestly is not. This is wholly deceiving for housewives.

The Government should investigate the relationship between the price that is paid to the producer and the price that is paid by the consumer. Potatoes may be sold by the farmer for £150 a tonne, but potato crisps sell for £8,500 a tonne. Wheat may be sold by the farmer for £60 a tonne, yet the wheat content of a 50 pence loaf is about 3 pence. Of course, agriculture must compete in a competitive world, as do the supermarkets, but it must be a fair one. The idea that it is in the consumers' interests for supermarkets to buy the basic product as cheaply as possible is obviously nonsense. If agriculture were to go into permanent decline--there are those who say that we can buy our milk, beef and pork on the world market--what would be left here at home--a miserable, derelict, run-down countryside? Of course, there would be plenty of wildlife but of a different variety--bats, stoats and weasels. Gone would be the robin, the thrush and the songbirds. The dawn chorus would be a thing of the past.

A healthy countryside depends on a healthy agriculture. However, all is not doom and gloom for the future, though for the present it may seem like it. We shall get over this disease, but there are major issues which must be addressed and it is vital that the Government should address them.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 8:51 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I declare my interest not as a farmer but as a trustee of a property with a pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus and a pedigree flock of north country Cheviots.

I start by taking a brief look back at the countryside before this terrible disease was imported and at what I might have said then in a debate on the countryside. As the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said yesterday and today, I should have said that it was a place of total disenchantment. Probably over half a million people would have marched through London this weekend in the biggest civil rights demonstration this country has seen. In real terms incomes from farming are probably at their lowest level since the Second World War. In a large section of the industry people are not earning a living unless finance and mortgage charges are minimal, and yet the screw is tightening.

In addition to the figures relating to recent years mentioned by my noble friend Lady Byford, the number of those leaving farming between mid-2000 and 2005 has been revised upwards from a third to more like a half. At a recent high-level conference it was estimated that by 2005 only 25 per cent of those farming now would have a future. On the back of that the whole infrastructure supporting the countryside is crumbling. We have a Government who do not understand the countryside or the problems farmers face and will not claim the full agrimonetary funds to which they are entitled.

The rural White Paper was a short-term piece of window dressing that neither looked at the main issues nor their consequences. We are saddled with an unhelpful and difficult to reform CAP. The Dutch and Germans illegally export to us specified risk material and the French illegally ban the import of clean, certified British beef. Now we have foot and mouth which, far from being just a farmer's nightmare, is a disaster and a national countryside emergency. Not a single aspect of the countryside is unaffected. I refer to riding establishments, vermin control, fishing, tourism, farm workshops, stock shows--you name it, everything and everyone is suffering detrimentally. Most people, particularly the "townies", are just not aware how everyday life is being changed, nor of the utter despair and isolation--the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned that--which are prevalent in many parts of the country.

I congratulate the Government on adopting the right policy of trying to stamp out the disease by killing and burning affected animals. I do not believe that vaccination is the answer for this country. However, the implementation of their policy has not been to a standard that one would have hoped. Stock are not being killed for days after notification. If France can get that bit right, so should we. Neither is dead stock being disposed of quickly enough. Can noble Lords imagine not just the pain of seeing one's breeding stock slaughtered but the indignity of having to look at the dead and putrefying carcasses for days until they are burned and buried? That is cruelty to humans and an ignominious end to many years of hard work. The extra resources mentioned by the Minister are welcome but they are just a catch-up policy.

Let us look at the animal welfare problems. The disease has been spread much wider and more quickly because of the regulations on the transportation of livestock. These, and those that forced the closure of local abattoirs, combined with the pressure of the supermarkets to determine where stock can be slaughtered, have exacerbated our problems. Hundreds of thousands of sheep are in the wrong place for lambing and are suffering greatly. Although very limited livestock movement is now permitted, as predicted that has become a bureaucratic nightmare. Farmers are now being told that they will have to wait for days before their application forms can even be looked at when the stock, for their own sake, need to be moved now, today, and not at the end of the week.

Can the Minister tell me whether it is true that officials responsible for this matter are not working through the night to clear the backlog? Farmers work through every night at lambing time and businesses do so when that is necessary, so why cannot officials?

The licensing of stock going to abattoirs is also a mess and is unco-ordinated. Stock are taken there only to be turned away. The present system is similar to selling 300 tickets for an aeroplane that has only 250 seats. Surely there ought to be a more logical and ordered system with specific collection points so that controls can be implemented more efficiently and more effectively.

Despite the lead given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for which I admire her as she has done an excellent job, and the hard work of the veterinary profession and others, it is not surprising that the Government are being caught out by this tragedy. For them to say that they have the situation under control when they obviously do not just adds insult to injury.

There are further steps that the Government could, and should, take immediately. Will the Minister confirm that she will arrange for all farmers due to receive funds in the next few months for such items as ewe premium and HCAs to be sent the money immediately? They are all suffering a cash flow crisis. If they were to receive that money sooner rather than later it would help their cash flow problems. Will the Minister also agree to extend the closing date for Countryside Stewardship schemes beyond 31st May as at present FWAG and others cannot get to farms to assess claims?

I expect that many people do not understand the implications of having one's stock destroyed, so I hope that I may spell it out. It is not like a factory which can stop making widgets one day and quickly swap to another product the next. My noble friend Lady Byford said that a sheep farmer may take a year to return to production. I take the example of a beef farmer. If his stock are slaughtered today, he will get compensation for their value. It will be at least six months--that is the minimum period--before he is allowed to restock. Then he will have to buy new breeding stock but that will be a problem. First, the stock will have to be suitable for his area; if not, they might die of some other disease such as red water. The stock will undoubtedly cost more than the money he receives in compensation due to the shortage of stock which will arise after the outbreak.

Let us assume that the farmer buys young stock that require six months to reach maturity. Then there are the nine months of pregnancy, followed by up to 30 months before the next generation is sold. That farmer will be without a cash flow for over four years. It should not be forgotten that the adjacent farmer, who is not directly affected, will inevitably suffer a huge cash flow loss this year, as will everyone else working in the countryside. I refer to those who own holiday cottages, B&Bs, pubs and local village shops. Many of those will not be around next year.

It is perhaps a little unfair to debate the future when the countryside is in the middle of a crisis, but it has to be faced. Let us hope that the Prime Minister, who has now, rather belatedly, woken up to some of the problems and held a meeting with representatives today, does not lose interest in the subject when all this quietens down.

The task force mentioned by the Minister is not enough to tackle the future. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle: it does not have the necessary gravitas and will not have the right direction. I suggest that a Royal Commission with a strict timescale be appointed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury mentioned some of the issues that such a Royal Commission could consider. I add a few more to his list. In a sophisticated economy with high costs, should we try to produce food at world prices instead of high quality, high price food? Do we want farmers to be farmers; or do we want them to be park keepers? They cannot be both at the same time. What scale of unit and what kind of infrastructure do we want them to have?

The restructuring of farms is now in sharp focus. That issue cannot be fudged. Should some of those affected by the foot and mouth disease be encouraged to go back into an industry which would probably squeeze them out in a few years' time? Is that not a waste of money and a hurtful and deceitful thing to do to people? Should our system of stock farming change to prevent the trading of animals in the way that has currently developed which has helped to spread this foot and mouth disease outbreak?

Is our intensive agriculture right? Are we manipulating nature too much, making matters more difficult for ourselves and making ourselves more prone to disease? As long as we import food from overseas, we shall get disease. The current strain of foot and mouth disease started in India in the 1990s and rapidly spread East and West; and there will be new strains to come. Swine fever is caused by a carelessly thrown away sandwich containing imported ham; and again there will be more to come.

Although I am not a farmer my heart bleeds for them and those in the countryside who are at the receiving end of this disaster. Now is the time for the Government to show strong leadership and responsibility. That, sadly, has been lacking to date.

Photo of Lord Clement-Jones Lord Clement-Jones Liberal Democrat 9:02 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, this is designed to be a brief intervention on an issue which has both short and long-term significance and will inject, I am afraid, a further sombre note into today's debate.

I am not a countryman by background but I have a strong concern for the health of those who work in rural areas. The key issue of mental stress suffered by farmers, farm workers and their families is of major importance, and never more so than now. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, referred graphically to this earlier in the debate. Research in the 1990s found that over 500 farmers in England and Wales killed themselves between 1979 and 1990. The research found that 70 per cent of working farmers had experienced mental health problems.

A survey last year of British tenant farmers by the National Farmers Union suggested that one in 10 is being prescribed anti-depressants. Seventy per cent of those farmers said that their business concerns keep them awake at night. More than 70 farmers and farm workers in England and Wales committed suicide in 1998. That rose to 77 in 1999. Farmers are now twice as likely to commit suicide as an ordinary member of the public. This issue was rightly raised recently by Prince Charles, with his great concern for rural life. Only today The Times--my noble friend Lord Hooson and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to the article--described how Devon police are taking away the shot guns of those they believe to be at risk.

Stress induced suicide is clearly a growing problem in rural areas. It is now the second most common form of death among farmers aged between 16 and 45 years. This is hardly surprising. As many noble Lords have pointed out, farm incomes have dropped by two thirds in the past few years. Indeed, it is clear that there is a strong link between the social disadvantage of low incomes and mental health problems. This is compounded by rural isolation, described so graphically by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. This problem may well spread further afield, beyond the farming community, as local businesses, our tourist industry and hauliers are hit by the foot and mouth disease epidemic, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Women married to farmers have a suicide rate more than 20 per cent higher than average. But rural suicides are, throughout the age range, predominantly male.

Suicide among young men recently has been the subject of investigation by the Men's Health Forum. It found that few health authorities have developed and implemented effective suicide strategies. Yet reducing the number of suicides is one of the key targets in the Government's Health White Paper and the National Plan. It is outlined in the National Service Framework for Mental Health. Health improvement plans were found by the Men's Health Forum to be somewhat formulaic on the subject, concentrating only on mental health services. That is clearly insufficient to tackle the issue. Much of what is said applies to all men, not just young men. There is a reluctance to use primary healthcare and obtain counselling. Greater risks are taken by men with their mental and physical health. Men have a greater inability to show vulnerability and ask for help.

With the current epidemic of foot and mouth disease, not to mention some of the earlier tribulations, many farmers are seeing their life's work being destroyed. The problem of suicide in the countryside will, I fear, become worse. As it is, the Rural Stress Information Network, referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, has reported a 400 per cent increase in distress calls since the first outbreak in February.

The various avenues open to preventing suicide in rural areas were well documented in a research publication, Suicide and Stress in Farmers, funded by the Department of Health and published in 1998. The steps suggested in that report included improving the knowledge and attitudes of farming communities to mental disorder; ensuring that GPs and others are aware of the way mental problems present themselves; provision of out of area practitioner services for farmers who do not wish to seek help locally; regular health checks; vigorous treatment of depression; follow up of farmers with mental problems at home; support of farmers with financial difficulties; co-ordination of rural stress initiatives; and removal of firearms from those suffering from depression.

Few health action zones cover rural areas. Therefore that instrument for implementing those proposals is not generally available. As a county, Dorset provides an excellent example of developing an effective suicide prevention strategy. The relevant agencies have been pulled together and a strategy has been developed. I welcome the setting up of the Rural Mental Health Services Group last October dedicated to tackling these issues; and in particular the personal involvement of Professor Louis Appleby, the National Director for Mental Health. I also welcome the development of one-stop primary care centres in rural areas. Rural health services are often very limited, with small cottage hospitals closed or closing and fewer local GP practices as GPs consolidate into larger practices.

A great deal is being done by professional and voluntary groupings, especially through organisations such as the Rural Stress Information Network, the Royal College of General Practitioners rural practices group, the Rural Health Institute, the Farmers Crisis Network and the Samaritans. The Government have not been inactive. They have taken some valuable steps, outlined in the rural White Paper, particularly in conjunction with Mind on the RuralMinds project, designed to provide training and education for those providing support in rural areas. They have also given a large grant to the Rural Stress Information Network and others as part of the rural stress action plan announced last October.

We need to ensure that all those measures are effective. The problems that I have outlined will only get worse as a result of the current crisis. I urge the Government to think and plan ahead and to redouble their efforts. Otherwise, there will be further avoidable tragedy in the countryside.

Photo of Lord Walpole Lord Walpole Crossbench 9:09 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for initiating the debate. I declare my interest as a landowner and retired farmer. I farmed for 35 years. As well as being an arable farmer, as one would expect in Norfolk, I also had cattle and sheep.

I remember the last two foot and mouth outbreaks, restrictions due to fowl pest and, unfortunately, recent restrictions in our county due to swine fever. However, I do not remember 1745, when, on 11th March, the London Gazette published the following Order in Council. I am trying to find your Lordships something else to listen to, so I shall quote it. It said:

"Whereas a Contagious Distemper now rages in several Parts of this Kingdom amongst Oxen, Bulls, Cows, Calves, Steers and Heifers, which if not timely prevented, may end in the entire Destruction of such Cattle".

It went on to list what to do:

"First, That all Cowkeepers, Farmers and Owners of any of the said several Sorts of Cattle, in any Place where the said Distemper has appeared, or shall hereafter appear, do, as soon as any of the said Cattle shall appear to have Signs or Marks of the said Distemper, immediately remove such Cattle to some place distant from the rest, and cause the same to be shot dead, or otherwise killed, with as little Effusion of Blood as may be, and the Bodies to be immediately buried with the Skin and Horns on, at least Four Feet in Depth above the Body and the Beast so buried, having first cut and slashed the hides ... so as to render the same of no use".

Thirdly, among other things, it suggests:

"That they do cause the Houses or Buildings where any such infected Cattle shall have stood, to be cleaned from all Dung and Filth, and wet Gunpowder, Pitch, Tar or Brimstone to be fired or burnt in several Parts of such Buildings, at the same Time keeping in the Smoke as much as possible; and that the same be afterwards frequently washed with Vinegar and warm Water; and that no sound Cattle be put therein for Two Months at least".

I suggest that wet gunpowder might be an alternative to some form of disinfectant and I am sure that the brimstone was equally useful. I am positive that foot and mouth could not survive such treatment.

There are also letters from a tenant, Mr Bell, to my ancestor Horatio Walpole, who at that time was MP for Norwich. His comments ring true today as well:

"The observations which naturally occur to my mind on the above restrictions are as follows:

The farmers in Norfolk as to the above affair are to be divided into two sorts (viz) they that buy and they that sell turnips. They who have bought can't perform their contract neither can those Beasts which are half as near fatted be kept up but must shrink and dwindle to lean stock to the great detriment of the Owner. Which will make beef scarce and expensive dear.

The farmer who has sold his turnips not having stock of his own must throw away his turnips and greatly endamage his next year's crop of corn. The buyer by this Order being prevented feeding them.

Besides on the coming of this order many a Grasder has his stock at four or five miles distance the feed done or near done and can't remove them home where he has plenty but must keep them where they are in starving condition and perhaps lose his own turnips to the great prejudice of his following crop".

It strikes me that not a lot has altered.

I quote those examples to show that the problem is not new. Indeed, to bring noble Lords more up to date, I expressed my concern some eight years ago in your Lordships' House to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who is not here, about the unnecessary transport of sheep over long distances. I suggested that the transport of carcasses would be much more humane than the transport of live animals. Later, I questioned the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--I see that she is not in her seat; she was a moment ago--about keeping abattoirs local.

Norfolk is one of the few counties without confirmed cases in this outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I understand, and I hope that the Minister will not disillusion me, that only one farm is still undergoing tests. I believe that their result should be known soon. Also, sad to say, the lorry which was involved in taking pigs from Heddon to Cheals Foods was based in Norfolk.

For 20 years we have been involved in farm diversification. With the help of the Manpower Services Commission and with direct support from the local Ramblers' Association, we opened up 25 miles of footpaths. Some were on existing footpaths, some were new footpaths and some were discretionary. They link into the Norfolk Long-Distance Footpath system. We have a car park, toilets and so on, for which there is a small charge. We have a Caravan Club certified site, holiday cottages and children's nature activities. In other words, I believe that we did what the Ministry of Agriculture had been telling us to do for years in the way of diversifying. In 1989 we opened the park at Wolterton, where there had been virtually no public access. Many events take place at both venues, which are one-and-a-half miles apart.

On the Saturday after the first case of foot and mouth had been confirmed, we closed the park at Wolterton and the car park at Mannington and waited to see what others in Norfolk did. We were particularly worried about the grazing at Mannington, where we had many sheep belonging to a neighbour, and at Wolterton, where over 100 beef cows and their followers and organic sheep belonging to a tenant had been placed. In addition, over the past 20 years, the number of wild deer--red, roe and muntjac--in our area has increased significantly.

I am pleased to say that others seemed to follow us. The National Trust closed everything in East Anglia, including its holiday cottages. It is not allowing anyone on to any of its properties. The Forestry Commission closed Thetford Forest for the first time since it was planted over 80 years ago. I imagine that, again, that was done because of the considerable increase in the number of deer in that area.

I now want to tell the House what the county council has done. I do not believe that anyone has yet mentioned that county councils have played an absolutely pivotal role in this matter. When the first case of foot and mouth disease was announced, Norfolk County Council immediately activated its emergency planning procedures. Of course, it was used to doing that because it had just done so following an outbreak of swine fever. Therefore, it was perhaps a little more clued up than were some counties.

Strong political leadership, combined with a unified approach and good corporate partnership, was the key. Within six hours of the Foot and Mouth Disease (Amendment) (England) Order being made on 27th February, Norfolk County Council closed off all paths adjacent to D notice farms in the county. Within 24 hours, the council used the order to make a declaration of prohibited areas everywhere. In other words, no member of the public could enter any agricultural or forestry land in the county of Norfolk except on a public highway. That included the use of footpaths and bridleways. Therefore, they shut everything.

Closure signs, which carried the county council's logo and contact number, were available to farmers and landowners all over the county immediately. They were distributed electronically via the NFU and made available on the county council's website. They were e-mailed so as to reduce the need for extra journeys. All routine visits to farm and rural properties by council officers were stopped on 28th February. All council-owned countryside facilities, such as nature reserves and picnic areas, were closed on the same day.

Education, mobile library and social services provided by the council took all the action needed to respond to the situation. They issued guidance to everyone, including schools, parents, bus operators, county highway services and all other service contractors. The county also acted promptly on allegations of illegal movement of animals and, by 1st March, was investigating three incidents. Members of the public were encouraged to be vigilant with regard to animal movement.

I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, may be interested to know that the county has already issued 360 licences for the authorised movement of some 29,000 animals by 29th March. Extra resources have been put in place to speed up the issuing of those licences. Applicants get a special licence pack, information and reminders of the strict disinfecting procedures that must be followed.

The council has also been working on a day-to-day basis with a wide range of partners, including the NFU, MAFF and many others. On 2nd March, the council hosted a constructive meeting with the NFU, the CLA and the Ramblers' Association, at which there was agreement about the need for the council's actions and support for the council in taking them. There is a good information exchange network between the council and partner organisations which operates on a daily basis.

On public information, the council set up a public seven-days-a-week helpline to answer any questions about foot and mouth or to refer people to other agencies that might help. By 9th March, the helpline had taken more than 800 calls and a separate licensing helpline was set up on 5th March. The council had put out 17 news releases by 9th March covering all aspects of the situation and publicising the answers to the most frequently asked questions from the helpline. It has also issued specific advice for dog walkers and condemnation of instances in which closure notices had been torn down.

The council's website has a special link to foot and mouth, which is updated daily. The most frequently asked questions are amended and extended as necessary. I used that service this evening before speaking to find out what the situation is, but it still does not know about the last farm.

I am sure that all counties have done roughly the same but, frankly, I am proud of the efficiency of my old council and the speed with which it acted. I shall give just one example of local misery. My grazing tenant at Mannington has a problem with half of his sheep because they are on a neighbouring holding on sugar beet tops. At least, they were on sugar beet tops; they have eaten them. So far, he has not got permission to cross the road to our side of the road, where the sheep are going to lamb. It is perhaps ironic that an RSPCA officer came to look at the sheep because they had been reported as being on land where there was no food. That happened despite the fact that large quantities of straw and fodder-beet had been carted to them. The RSPCA officer was impressed by the effort that my tenant was making to keep his sheep under very difficult circumstances. That tenant has obtained from the website the necessary licence forms--all seven pages of them--to move his sheep. I hope that he got the forms in the post this evening and that he will be able to move the sheep.

Finally, what are we to learn? "Compensation to businesses other than farmers for consequential loss will no doubt be commented on by the Minister". That is what I wrote when I prepared my speech. Of course, she has answered most of the questions already.

The tourism industry, which is the most common form of diversification, will have serious problems. For example, the main north Norfolk tourism workshop, which was to have taken place on 30th March at Hockham, has been cancelled. Mind you, I think that that is the sensible thing to do. Also, we appear to have forgotten--no noble Lord has mentioned this so far--the fact that many charities and voluntary organisations are having great difficulty in operating, doing their jobs and raising money.

Secondly, we must look again at local production, at local slaughter and marketing of meat produce and at local distribution of, for example, organic food-in-box schemes. In other words, as the right reverend Prelate said, we must reduce food miles.

Finally, research must be stepped up so that this terrible situation, which affects everyone in this country, does not occur again with such disastrous consequences.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 9:24 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, although I welcome the opportunity to have this debate I need hardly say that, like other noble Lords, I regret very deeply indeed the tragic circumstances in which it is taking place.

I declare an interest as a landowner in north Yorkshire, where I have a number of tenant farmers who are sitting on the edge of their chairs waiting and praying that they will not be affected by this dreadful outbreak of foot and mouth disease. All I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with other noble Lords that we can only feel genuine despair for those individual farmers and their families who are undergoing such a debilitating and sole-destroying calamity. Surely, even those who hold the most jaundiced views about farmers and farming must now realise that we are witnessing an industry in total crisis, not to mention the associated human suffering.

In addition to those problems, the relentless demands on farmers continue--demands for cheaper food, higher animal welfare standards, a pristine environment, free and unrestricted access, and the continual whinging about the feather-bedding of farmers through subsidy. I am the first to say that, in my view, much of that subsidy is badly directed. However, I say to those who complain about support for farmers: what state would the farming industry and the countryside now be in, if it was not for support? We have a real crisis, but I can tell your Lordships that it would be much worse but for the support systems that are in place.

I should like to raise a further point, to which I may later return, concerning the question of red tape. It abounds all over every farmyard. Forms have become longer and deeper. The constant dialogue with which the farmers have to contend from the plethora of agencies now running the countryside is, quite frankly, driving them bonkers. Yet, despite that red tape, there remains a wonderful, stoical determination to carry on against all the odds, which I find extraordinary. Anyone who heard Clare Lambert being interviewed on the farming programme about her family's recent foot and mouth disaster in Wensleydale, which is very close to where I live, could not help but be moved--not just by the tragedy itself but by, as much as anything, her quiet determination to see the crisis through and to bravely battle on into what can only be described as a very uncertain future.

As other noble Lords have said, it is not only the farming industry that is suffering. The tourist industry, crucial to many rural areas, is on its knees. I quote from last Friday's edition of my local newspaper, the Darlington and Stockton Times:

"An economic catastrophe is poised to strike the Yorkshire Dales and Moors as foot and mouth begins to rip the heart out of local businesses".

That is no exaggeration. The stark fact is that we could be about to witness one of the greatest economic and human tragedies ever to face rural Britain, and I do not believe that that is an exaggeration.

I feel a genuine sorrow for the Minister and for everyone in her department. This is an awful crisis, which she and her colleagues have to face. She will have to make some very difficult decisions in relation to where the balance of need lies. I do not think that anybody should underestimate that. I think the general view is that, by and large, the Government are doing what they can.

However, I was interested to hear on the recent farming programme the very severe criticisms made by the Irish Minister of Agriculture. Although I am not suggesting for one moment that he was right in what he said--and I do understand his considerable interest--I should be very interested to hear whether the Minister feels that any of his criticisms can in any way be substantiated. He clearly put forward some very strong suggestions, and I should be very interested to hear whether or not the Minister feels that they are helpful.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, perhaps I can intervene to say that it was not Joe Walsh, the Agriculture Minister; it was another ministerial colleague who made those comments.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, I apologise if I referred to the wrong Minister; but my question stands.

Many noble Lords mentioned the crucial question of compensation, which is a hugely difficult area. But I say to the Minister that, whereas compensation is clearly being paid to farmers who have contaminated stock, there are others in restricted zones who cannot get their stock to the abattoirs under the scheme presently in place, many of whom have associated businesses. I sincerely hope that the Government will look favourably on them because they are a special case.

My noble friend Lord Caithness mentioned a number of issues to which I wanted to refer. He was right in his references to the countryside stewardship scheme and the bringing forward of some of the payments due over the next six months. That would certainly help the cash flow problems of those farmers in greatest need.

Another highly crucial point was mentioned; that is, the question of imports. As I understand it, we rely largely on a certification scheme conducted by the importing countries. Clearly that has failed and I join with other noble Lords in asking the Minister what the Government will be doing in the future to ensure that we do not encounter these problems again.

A point made by my noble friend Lord Ferrers was the possibility of raiding the agri-monetary and agri-environment pots. But those sums of money have been allocated for other purposes. There may be a short-term advantage in using them, but we must not draw down on those sums which have been specifically dedicated for other rural and agricultural purposes.

I regret that we have not had the opportunity of debating the rural White Paper. It is a great shame. I and many other noble Lords put pressure on the Chief Whip, but he decided, in his wisdom, not to give us time to debate it. Unfortunately, with the present crisis, it is difficult to debate it this evening. But I should quickly like to make one or two points in that regard.

Looking beyond the ghastly tragedy that we face at the moment, we must ask where farming is going. Global trading is something with which we shall have to live. But as we have seen, it brings its problems. Retailers and consumers must now make every effort to support our home markets. Producers must be given every encouragement to exploit local demand through good marketing and assessment of consumer need. We have not done that enough in this country; we must develop it and develop it fast.

That leads me on to the question of local abattoirs, to which the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred, on this and many other occasions, as have other noble Lords. I realise that the Government have finally woken up--they have been woefully slow to accept the problems--to the fact that there is a need to reduce the bureaucratic costs of local abattoirs. However, it was brought to my attention the other day that the Food Standards Agency is now imposing additional restrictions on the abattoirs which may well negate any advantages to be found in the Government's new initiative. A letter was written to the Minister the other day from a number of sympathetic parties, which said,

"Rather than reducing the burden of charges borne by small and medium sized abattoirs, the proposals may give licence for inspectors' charges to be increased".

This is a serious situation and I hope that the Minister is able to respond to that.

I referred earlier to red tape and I hope that the Government will continue to look at ways of reducing it. In 1997, the Better Regulation Task Force, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, looked at that very problem and put forward 21 recommendations. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those have been implemented and how many are likely to be implemented?

The recent White Paper was helpful. It was pragmatic and put forward some useful ideas. However, I thought it was a little short on agriculture and a little long on bureaucracy. I welcome the switch to environmental payments. Unusually, I take issue with my noble friend Lord Caithness. He said that farmers cannot be farmers and park keepers, but I believe that they must be. The farmers manage the country and they must take responsibility for the land which they manage. However, they cannot do so if they do not have the proper support.

Some of the environmental payments are welcome and I welcome the change to agri-environment schemes. However, they must be targeted more effectively, they must be more regional and farmers must be paid for the true cost of managing the countryside. Paying them under a system of profits foregone, which is the case in some of the ESA areas, is a nonsense. If paid under a system of profits foregone, in this day and age they would be picking up a minus figure!

Clearly, farmers are taking every advantage to diversify. However, it is essential people realise that diversification is only helpful; it is not the panacea for the countryside. If we do not have a healthy, profitable agriculture to maintain the whole rural infrastructure, all the problems that we are witnessing today will compound. Any support mechanism must recognise that simple fact. As the CAP develops and changes, I hope that the Government will always have that fact at the back of their mind. If we do not have such fundamental support, we shall see a total collapse in the whole rural infrastructure.

I feel that I have said enough, other than again to commiserate with those who are suffering. I hope and pray that the Government, with all the help that they have, can bring this dreadful crisis to an end as quickly as possible.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative 9:38 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the crisis in the countryside today. I must declare an interest as a farmer and a landowner. I am a farmer with a small "f" because I have only a small Charollais pedigree sheep flock. But that flock means an awful lot to me. I have been building it up for many years from scratch and it is just beginning to achieve some success.

I live in a local exclusion area, the local outbreak being five kilometres from my farm. Since that initial outbreak in Staffordshire, some eight more have been confirmed within 10 miles. The funeral pyres are burning and the countryside is rank with the evil smell of smoke.

I was fascinated to listen with great interest to my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, who explained in great detail how the disease spreads. I noted today on the wire the following reply from a government spokesman. When asked whether the disease was under control, the spokesman replied,

"I don't think anybody really knows that answer. After all, it's airborne".

Your Lordships will doubtless want to know who that spokesman was. It was none other than the Deputy Prime Minister.

I well remember the outbreak of 1967. Some 460,000 animals were slaughtered and the countryside was closed down--quite rightly. It all happened in the area in which I live. That outbreak began at Oswestry and was confined to the surrounding counties. In those days animals were not generally hauled long distances to slaughterhouses; there were very many more abattoirs. But today the requirements of the consumer have changed. Supermarkets are the main sellers of a vast range of quality meat and meat products. But they must be cost-conscious in the sourcing of fresh meat supplies. Such cost awareness often involves the use of large and conveniently placed abattoirs at strategic sites.

Today, far too many of the small slaughterhouses have gone. Animals are bought by dealers at, say, Carlisle market to fill an order from a supermarket chain. The collection operation is launched by the buyer or his agent or dealer: say, 20 beasts at Carlisle, a further 10 at Northampton, six at Uttoxeter and so on. Just one dealer will complete an order for an abattoir based possibly at Taunton for the supply of local supermarkets.

The most local and first case in Staffordshire arose on a farm owned and run by such a dealer. He had 460 cattle on his holding and had bought a small bunch of cattle at Northampton market. One of those beasts developed foot and mouth. Large mileages are covered and holding farms may be used to rest the animals overnight while they are collected and assembled. The potential for the spread of disease, especially one as highly contagious as foot and mouth, is easy to see. I have never been in favour of the movement of live animals for export--my farming friends will pillory me for saying that--because I believe that for welfare reasons an animal is best slaughtered close to home with minimum stress, which provides better quality meat. Carcasses can be transported in refrigerated trucks anywhere these days.

Another matter which must be looked at very carefully is the practice of feeding swill to pigs. If swill is obtained from reputable and clean sources and is cooked to the right temperature for the correct time it is perfectly all right, but some farmers cut corners. The Waugh brothers' swill unit at Heddon-on-the-Wall was the source of the original outbreak. To all intents and purposes, it was not a well-run establishment and had been visited by MAFF officials on 22nd December last. I quote from an article in Farmers Weekly on 8th March:

"Allegations of uncleanliness in a yard strewn with uncooked food, dogs and foxes living off raw swill and overflowing slurry pits surrounded the Waugh brothers' pig unit at Heddon-on-the-Wall.

But despite being reported to MAFF, and the inspection by Ministry vets and local authority trading standards officers that followed on December 22, no action on account of alleged uncleanliness was taken against the Waugh brothers".

Why on earth not? Such action might have prevented this foot and mouth epidemic. The article went on to quote a lady who rents land adjoining the pig unit. She is reported as saying:

"Everyone wants to know why the authorities did not close them down. The entire area was filthy.

"Flocks of birds would feed freely and the place provided a constant source of food for a family of foxes that had built a huge earth close nearby. Why was this food allowed to be left all over the yard even after the inspection in December?"

That unit is typical of a small number of such farms which exist in the United Kingdom. They should not be in business. In Staffordshire, less than a mile from my farm, is a farmer who feeds swill to his pigs. The smell of cooking is appalling; it makes people physically sick. The farmer has recently been convicted on two counts of failing to comply with environmental orders to limit or curtail the stink of the cooking. That case has taken a very long while to come to court. The person in question was fined a minimal amount. I believe that he was fined £300 on each count with £200 costs. The day after the court case he was at it again. Last Thursday he was served an abatement order by environmental health officers for setting light to materials, including rubber tyres, the smoke from which fire was thick, jet black and acrid. Meanwhile, the nuisance caused by his activities, which are obnoxious, has devalued local properties and, in some cases, made them unsaleable. He is, in short, a rogue farmer who takes absolutely no notice of the law. Such people should not be allowed to continue in business and give farmers a bad name.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister--I have given the noble Baroness notice of the question--how many farmers have contravened the movement restrictions since they came into force some two weeks ago. How many cases, or impending cases, are there in the Midlands, especially as in Staffordshire we now have three or more confirmed outbreaks and a large restriction area? What action is being taken to prosecute such infringements; and what are the fines? What cases so far have been to court; and what was the result?

I understand that the Waugh brothers' operation at Heddon-on-the-Wall used swill produced from waste food collected from airports. Is there any truth in that rumour?

As a keen racing man, with few winners under my belt, I find it reprehensible that the racing authorities have not banned racing in the UK for the duration of the present crisis. We are talking about a potential national catastrophe in terms of food supply, tourism and agriculture. To my recollection, all racing was halted during the epidemic in 1967. The MAFF website--it is an excellent source of information, especially at present, and I commend MAFF on it--states that hunting, shooting, fishing and point-to-point races are stopped. Why therefore has not racing? I am sure that it could not be that point-to-pointing is associated closely with hunting, but that horseracing has a much wider following. Even the former champion jockey, Willy Carson, does not support the continuance of racing while this epidemic is still with us. I know that racing people's livelihoods are at risk here, but the risk to the agricultural community, and everything connected with it, from the spread of the disease is potentially catastrophic. Racing is a pastime; farming is a business.

I firmly believe that following this epidemic and the previous difficulties of swine fever, BSE and more, it is vital that a wide-ranging inquiry and review into agricultural practices be instigated. I believe that the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister has already mentioned that matter. It is absolutely vital that British beef, lamb and pork regain their envied position of top quality produce, and the consumer must be confident that these products and the methods by which they are produced are safe and to the highest standards of welfare. The consumer will have to pay a fair price for such excellent products.

First, a possible solution might be that all farmers should be members of an organisation such as Farm Assured British Beef and Lamb--FABBL. Such an organisation would be empowered to carry out spot checks on farms, with statutory powers to inspect records, medicines, welfare practices and animal accommodation, among a number of issues. If a farmer infringed the standards he should run the risk of losing his licence to farm. Good farmers will have absolutely no problem in complying with that.

Secondly, I believe that finished stock should be slaughtered at abattoirs no further than a certain distance from their farm of abode, minimising stress and improving the quality of the meat. If supermarkets do not like such an arrangement, that is tough luck on them. They have profited well out of the farming industry for many years. It is time that they gave something back. The vast numbers of miles covered by dealer's cattle while being assembled must cease.

Thirdly, the feeding of swill is an outdated and potentially risky practice. Noble Lords much more knowledgeable than I have already said that for reasons of public health it should be banned and banned now.

Fourthly, the movement of animals between farms and markets should be rigorously monitored and checked. I understand that electronically implanted tags are becoming available for farm animals. Can the Minister provide the House with any information on that matter? We need to have full traceability of all farming livestock. Farming practices in this country must become the very best in the world.

Finally, this epidemic is a disaster for the agricultural community, encompassing farmers, vets, feed suppliers, tourism and everyone connected with agriculture and the countryside. I applaud the Government in their firm attitude, even though they could be doing slightly better--every government can. I pay tribute to those who are working very long hours to try to eradicate the problem. Theirs is the most difficult and harrowing of tasks. Their workload is enormous.

I feel so terribly sad for those farmers whose lifetime's labours have gone up in smoke from the funeral pyre. The economic damage to those tottering on the brink may well push them over the edge. I urge the Minister to consider the allocation of financial support. I cannot help but note that this is a tragically sad event, and that it would appear to take a disaster of this magnitude to force the Government to turn their attention to the well-being of the countryside community and the food producers. Action must be taken to ensure that never again can such a disaster be allowed to happen. I sincerely wish the Minister well in her very difficult task.

Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour 9:49 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, as so many noble Lords have said today, this is a sombre time for our countryside and for our nation. The countryside is not separate from our nation. The Government stated in their White Paper last autumn:

"Farming is important. It supplies most of our food. It directly employs around 600,000 people ... It contributes £7bn each year to the UK economy. It is and will continue to be the bedrock of a UK food chain worth £57bn each year and 3.3 million jobs. Farming has defined most of the landscape and shaped its diversity".

With those facts in mind, no one can dispute that the countryside is a vital part of our nation.

After BSE, swine fever and the impact of very low competitive prices internationally, it is really a crisis--I use the word carefully--when we now have this foot and mouth outbreak. It is a situation in which two objectives should apply. First, those who do not live in the country should recognise, as I am sure all do, the social and economic suffering that is presently being undergone by those who live in the country. Secondly, and very importantly socially and politically, there should be solidarity between those in cities and those in the country. Such objectives of recognising the problem and illustrating the solidarity that is required are best achieved through action by government?

I have no commercial or technical farming experience, but I do have a home in the country. I have spent a considerable amount of time lately talking to my friends about the grave problems that they and their society, in which I play a small part, are presently facing. They identify three issues, which I commend to the House for attention. The first is the scope and treatment of the foot and mouth outbreak; the second is dealing with the social and economic aftermath of it; and the third is the need for a coherent food policy for this country for the future. I shall take them in turn.

First, as your Lordships in different speeches have illustrated, but it can be said pungently in one sentence, the foot and mouth outbreak has resulted in complete disruption of rural society in this country. One cannot overstate it. It is that bad. Secondly, such a crisis demands effective government action. There have been many questions to my noble friend the Minister about details of the programme to counteract the outbreak, but the prevailing sentiment that I have observed is that the Government's present actions are effective. One must remember that, geographically, numerically and logistically, this is an entirely different problem from that of 1967. It is major. It requires innovative solutions. There is no perfect remedy day-by-day. The Government are doing the best that reasonably can be done.

Thirdly, most important is the need for the Government to show sensitivity to the needs of the countryside and its community at this particular stage. I do not mean that sensitivity should be demonstrated in some palliative sense, but rather in a practical manner. It is appropriate that the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture and my noble friend the Minister should speak to the farming and countryside community. It is very important indeed that representatives from the Treasury, civil servants and Ministers alike, should do the same. That would demonstrate not only sensitivity, but a preparedness for dealing with the problem when the solutions to it in the aftermath are required.

Fourthly, I turn to candour. That word is rarely used in politics. When used in a legal context, it is designed to indicate that people will say what they think, why they think it and what one should know about it. I cannot imagine that any rational observer of the Government's actions over the past few weeks could not but agree that they have shown candour. That does not require a daily baring of the chest on every single aspect of government policy, but it does mean telling the truth. That, I believe, they have done.

Lastly, in this first sector of my remarks, I turn to action to address the scope and treatment of the problem. I listened carefully to the erudite analysis put forward by my noble friend Lord Soulsby. I did not find it satisfactory. It was illuminating, but not productive of future action. I cannot believe that there is not open to scientific investigation a system of vaccination that would solve this problem. Heads are shaken, but why is that? Only 10 years ago, vaccination was stopped. That was done for market reasons. The result has been that vaccination without insurance--here I refer to partial vaccination rather than a total system--is completely ineffective. Insurers will not insure unless vaccination has taken place, but people will not vaccinate unless there is insurance. Many with more experience than I shake their heads in dismay. However, there may be a different solution and it is certainly worth inquiring into that. Are we to contemplate--century after century, as it turns out--this kind of mass slaughter as the only remedy against a prevailing disease? We would not accept it in human beings. Why should we do so in animals? To those who shake their heads, I say that this is certainly worthy of inquiry. I therefore commend the Government's task force which will look at the effects of this outbreak on the wider rural economy.

I turn now to the second sector of my remarks; namely, how to deal with the aftermath. I listened attentively to the helpful intervention of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. He wanted to see a new beginning. I do not agree that that is what we should embark upon. We should not seek a total new beginning. The right reverend Prelate set his remarks in the context of a Government White Paper that he said was not enough. I disagree with him. The White Paper was a serious attempt--the third in 12 months, following A New Direction for Agriculture and the Action Plan for Farming, introduced by the Prime Minister--to improve rural England. It is not a new beginning that is required, but rather building upon this White Paper. I invite the Government to note the following suggestion. They talk about rural regeneration and a seven-year plan of £1.6 billion. That was written four months ago. What we need now is a greater sum of money over a shorter period of years effectively to regenerate our rural communities after this crisis.

In addition, the White Paper said a great deal about supporting small rural business; the Phoenix plan. How inapt it now appears after this disaster, the Phoenix plan. But it involves £100 million; it is a start and it should be developed upon. I invite the Ministry which deals with this matter to put to their Treasury colleagues the following suggestion: that that £1.6 billion, that £100 million and all the other amounts that figure in the White Paper, which are payable over years, pall into insignificance at the losses currently being incurred week by week. I assume, being a relative political novice in the House, that there exist in government contingency funds for real national crises. This is one. The funds should be used for it and used to develop the sensible suggestions which figured in the Government's White Paper.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, I am extremely interested in what the noble Lord is saying. I have no doubt at all that the opportunities to generate new businesses in the country are absolutely essential for rural survival. But does the noble Lord agree that, rather than spending money on new businesses, at this moment in time it is absolutely essential to keep in business those that are there at the moment? I suggest that perhaps that money could best be used--or, indeed, other money--to ensure that we do not lose the farmers of this country, who are the backbone of rural Britain.

Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour

My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention, with which I entirely agree. I did not have the time properly to develop the point. I was suggesting that the part of the Government White Paper directed at new business should be partly adapted to meet the present needs of farming. That programme exists. It was presumably approved by the Treasury; it can be adapted to the exigencies of the present situation. It does not require yet another beginning.

Finally, I turn to the question of a food policy for the future. Two elements predominate in society's view of food. The first element is food safety. The Government's introduction of the Food Standards Agency is to be welcomed, but food safety depends on the second element; that is, food security. Where does it come from? Who produces it? How reliable is it?

I respectfully suggest that it is wasteful of the House's time continually to criticise the common agricultural policy and to worry about subsidies in other countries. It should be borne in mind--but it should be borne in mind because we apply subsidies as well. The OECD has identified the fact that, in the OECD group of countries, every day of each year there is spent by the governments involved 1 billion US dollars in subsidies. With the common agricultural policy and its a system of complex subsidies, the idea that we could safely look to a free market in food is, frankly, absurd. It may be a long-term objective worthy of pursuit, but it will not happen in the near future.

That therefore requires us to look to our country as the primary source of our food. In the long-term development of a policy that meets the required standards of food safety and food security, it is our countryside, our farming, that will best secure those twin national interests.

I fully appreciate that a long-term policy of this kind is not at the forefront of our considerations today. But it soon will be. People will find it all the more difficult to accept if, after a crisis like this, we cannot devise a longer-term policy that protects the countryside and the consumer, and therefore benefits the nation.

We have not, as some speakers have indicated, reached a state of Armageddon. We have a crisis, and it requires a solution. It is unfortunate that the crisis and any potential solution should be characterised as "the countryside versus the cities", or "the farmers and the indifference of government". We are talking about our national interest. Farming may not have been the Government's top priority in the past three or four years; there were other demanding priorities of greater importance to the population. This crisis has brought the countryside to the forefront, and rightly so. I hope that in months to come the Government will rely not only on this House but on the citizens of our country to support a policy that meets three objectives: solve this problem; deal with its aftermath; and secure a safe food policy for the future. I understand those to be the Government's intentions and I commend that approach.

Photo of The Duke of Montrose The Duke of Montrose Conservative 10:07 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, it is a daunting task to speak when we are in the midst of such a crisis and after so many of your Lordships have given the House a vivid picture of what is going on in the countryside and all the problems that we face. I declare my interest as a personal recipient of a great many of the forms of agricultural assistance that the Government provide. As a hill farmer, one qualifies for quite a number of them.

I echo the wish, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, for a scientific answer to foot and mouth. But so far as I understand this disease, the virus mutates at such a rate that normal vaccination programmes do not touch the issue--and that is only one aspect.

Over the years, we have seen crises develop in farming. We have had crises ensuring that the population has enough food. We have had crises ensuring that the population has healthy food. We now have a crisis that centres around having food produced under the controls and conditions that the Government have laid down and of which we approve.

If I am not mistaken, the Government started off in their term of office saying that every family was paying so many pounds a week extra in order to support the CAP, when food could be bought more cheaply on the world market. To some extent, I echo some of the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan. But the world market is now being shown up not merely as cheap but as unaccountable. We saw a certain amount of what could be determined as unaccountable in our efforts to impose controls on the outbreak of BSE. We saw unaccountability on the content of animal foods; improper separation of food batches; problems tracing the parentage of affected stock; and the separation of specified risk materials. The list goes on and on. There are many aspects. The farming industry has doubled and redoubled its efforts to accommodate every new regulation that has been introduced to overcome these problems. Then we get foot and mouth.

The pound is strong against the euro, the meat wholesalers' and supermarkets' cold stores have rapidly filled up with cheap carcasses from Europe, and what do we find? In Dundee, spinal cord was found in a lorry load of carcasses from Germany, and the same was found in an abattoir in England in a load of carcasses from Spain. What do we know about the sort of traceability regarding the animal production systems through which these carcasses have been processed, let alone about the as yet unidentified source of the foot and mouth outbreak?

During the course of this evening, and over the years, we have had a litany of the problems that affect farming and the countryside. The details are certainly very painful to hear. The falling incomes of farmers were referred to by my noble friend Lady Byford. From the MAFF figures that I saw on the website, it appears that total income from farming is now 40 per cent below what is was four years ago. It is now at the level at which it stood in 1980, which is very nearly a generation ago.

Forestry and coniferous timber prices are now 62 per cent lower than they were in 1995. I believe that there has been a slight increase this year. Perhaps in the course of the subject that we are debating tonight, I might wonder and speculate whether the Government cannot provide a small, local hike in coniferous timber prices by using trees now that they seem to be running out of railway sleepers for the burning of animal carcasses.

Even the other great rural diversification of tourism, which has been mentioned by most noble Lords who have spoken this evening, has not been having such a good time, even during the past year. In Scotland last year official returns showed a 10 per cent drop. Factors to which that was attributed are: fuel prices; the autumn petrol crisis; and the strong pound. All of this now appears to be insignificant when one considers the horrendous drop that the industry is experiencing at present.

I hope that it will not appear cruel of me to ask whether this is a moment when one might remind those businesses of what having a reasonable access to the countryside means to them. When it is suggested that there might be a levy per bed night or a similar contribution to help maintain footpaths or look after the countryside in popular mountain areas, like those where I live, there are always great cries of what an imposition that would be. However, we are now seeing how much this very vital industry depends on having a reasonably open and picturesque countryside.

I return to the current crisis. The newspaper headlines are rightly full of the welfare problems of lambing ewes and calving cows, which are now at some distance from their main steading. However, farmers are not just sitting idly by in the hope that something will turn up. Those who have stock are trying to think how to cope with the regulations and the situation in which they now find themselves.

My noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm mentioned sheep in Scotland. We are only a few weeks from 1st April. This is the date in Scotland when somewhere in the region of 750,000 hoggets, or young sheep, from the less favoured areas are due to be returned to their own holding from the low-ground farms. But this will not be possible under the present regulations. It will thus aggravate the problems of the low-ground farmers, who are required under at least one current EU support scheme to keep their stocking density figures below 1.6 livestock units per hectare in order to qualify for a maximum payment; or otherwise below 2 livestock units. A farmer's own stock having to be held on the unit when they pass either the six-month or 12-month threshold, without being able to follow their normal pattern of sales and management, will aggravate this, as the rate at which each of the animals is assessed will increase substantially at each stage.

It is very reassuring to learn that a derogation was given at last week's Management Committee in Brussels to allow the use of set-aside land to provide extra grazing. Following on the restrictions that had to be imposed on some units because of the recent occurrence of TB, it is also perhaps fortunate that at times of disease farms are allowed to exceed these thresholds by a factor of 20 per cent. However, can the Minister say whether the Government are satisfied that this will really be enough in the circumstances that are now occurring?

A different avenue that might be helpful to explore comes under one of the agri-environmental schemes. I know that I have a management agreement that has been entered into under the environmentally sensitive areas scheme, where certain fields have to be closed off from grazing during the prime grazing season. That is fairly common under that type of scheme. If it was found to be advantageous because of stocking density problems, at what level of the administration would permission have to be obtained for those restrictions to be lifted?

I come back to one question which I hope will not require an immediate answer but there is no doubt that it will be looked into. We would all like to be reassured that the fact that the controls had to be administered through the mechanism of the devolved regions did not cause any delay in the introduction of the movement restrictions.

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative 10:15 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I declare an interest. I am a small landowner with some Hebridean sheep. I farm grain in partnership. I have eight grey-faced Dartmoors. I hope that they will increase in number as they are very woolly and have woolly legs and are a rare breed.

I am also a member of the committee of the British Horse Driving Trials Association which holds approximately 10 events a year. It is not a large sport; in fact, it is probably the smallest sport in the United Kingdom. However, we take ourselves quite seriously. Of those 10 or 11 events, three have already had to be cancelled. They did not have to be cancelled but they were cancelled because the people concerned felt that it was thoroughly irresponsible to go ahead while the catastrophe in the countryside loomed.

That shows that this particular crisis has gone to the core of what I believe to be essential for the future of the countryside; that is, a multi-use countryside. In an extraordinarily moving speech the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, spoke of huntsmen helping the Government to destroy cattle while at the same time some government supporters were trying to put those same huntsmen out of a job.

The countryside can only survive on the basis of a prosperous agriculture--that has been mentioned frequently--and a multi-use agriculture. It is worth doing some calculations. Before the war, the agricultural wage was 27 shillings and sixpence a week and a tonne of wheat sold for approximately £10. In effect a tonne of wheat took seven man weeks to produce. The most recent price for a tonne of wheat was approximately £70 and a top quality combine harvester/tractor driver/skilled agricultural labourer now probably earns £20,000 a year or £400 a week gross. A tonne of wheat now takes about eight hours' work to produce, as opposed to seven weeks' work before the war. That shows the enormous increase in agricultural productivity that has occurred as a result of the boost given to it by the Boyd Orr report after the war, the threat of U-boats in the Channel and continental starvation.

Scientific and productivity advances have ensured that world famine is totally unnecessary. It is caused only by evil people with twin 500 machineguns shooting people from the back of Toyota pick-up trucks. Of course, one will have famine under those circumstances. The world has no difficulty now in producing food. The problem was well identified by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, when he mentioned the billion dollar day. I multiply the billion dollar day by 365 to get the figure of 365 billion dollars a year. If you have that level of subsidy in agriculture, you will get the most appalling distortion. I then parted company with the noble Lord because there is nothing we can do about our own agriculture without going to Brussels. Let us not kid ourselves; Brussels runs agriculture. We cannot step one iota out of line.

When I first came to your Lordships' House a very long time ago, I voted enthusiastically for the accession treaties to the European Community. I remember people saying, "Ah, when the Brits are in they can change the CAP". What did I hear the Prime Minister say the other day? "With our influence in Europe we will change the CAP". I am afraid that the system is irrevocably broken; it is irrevocably harmful; and we must have control of our own agriculture. That is not a xenophobic remark. I am a xenophiliac; I love abroad. I love foreigners. I just do not like the way that they are running the European agricultural policy.

I give another little vignette. When my grandfather retreated from Mons in 1914, there were behind him fields full of oxen and people hand-hoeing the root crops. Now if one drives from Calais to Troyes one sees nothing but a prairie desert. The French countryside is deserted. There are deserted villages in the Massif Central and some in Burgundy are full of people only in the summer. The common agricultural policy has failed everyone. With the combination of an over-bureaucratised, uncontrollable CAP with world subsidies at the level to which the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, referred, we shall get into serious trouble.

I must be brief. I think that everyone has spoken at slightly too great length so I shall try to set an example for the remaining speakers. We cannot blame the store trade; it has been going for ever. In 1693 we passed an Act of Parliament banning the Irish store cattle trade. The Yorkshire farmers did not like the competition. In the 1950s, my noble friend Lord Jopling used to buy cattle in the Dublin market which would be put on boat and train and offloaded at his local station the next morning. The cattle would walk up the A1 to his farm. There is nothing new about the store trade. Last year I bought some sheep from, I think, Carlisle market. Luckily this year I did not do so; otherwise there would probably be foot and mouth disease in Surrey.

An appalling crisis has occurred. But I ask the Minister this question of which I have given her notice. I considered recently the countryside stewardship scheme. I rang the individual concerned who said, "I'm terribly sorry. I cannot come to your farm". If I want to go ahead, I have to get an application in by May. If I cannot get advice, I cannot put in an application. What will happen?

In the 1967 outbreak there was greater use of liming than now. Lime is not used because of various local authority waste disposal regulations. Can a knife be taken to those? I suggest that to bury and lime is better than burning. Furthermore, it appears that beasts are being valued individually which holds up the slaughter process. That cannot be right.

I stand to be corrected, but I believe that if a vet says that an animal has foot and mouth disease, he is not allowed to shoot it immediately. He has to take a swab, and it has to be confirmed. The Minister shakes her head. I shall go no further on that point.

There is a tiny sliver of a silver lining in this crisis. I believe that this crisis will have brought the countryside more to the attention of, and the grown up sympathy of, the rest of the town population. That may be a silver lining.

My final plea is this. This crisis will eventually be over. I think that criticisms of the Government have been mainly through ignorance. With foot and mouth disease, out comes a "blue book" plan from the Ministry of Agriculture. It is not like BSE, when nobody had a clue what was happening and they floundered their way through it. At least we know what to do. After the crisis is over, please may we have another equivalent of the Northumberland committee? I have not mentioned this to him, but I can think of nobody better to chair it than my noble friend Lord Inglewood.

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench 10:25 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I am grateful to those who have made possible this debate, which is very necessary at this difficult time for farmers and all those affected by the foot and mouth outbreak. Also, the recent dissatisfaction in the countryside deserves our attention and a search for a better way ahead.

This has been a sombre debate, but one of high quality. I thank the Minister for the way in which she introduced it, although it is a chilling fact that the number of confirmed outbreaks has apparently risen by six since she gave us the details earlier. We have not been debating all that long. I also support the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about farm incomes--or more accurately the absence of them. I shall come back to that point, which is critical to debates about the countryside.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, put forward some good ideas that should be considered, particularly the proposal for dialogue with the regional development agencies. There are regional differences and there will probably be even more by the time the outbreak finally ends.

I begin with the foot and mouth outbreak, which must be foremost in our minds at the moment. The sympathy of all in the House goes to the farmers. Our thanks go to all those who are fighting the outbreak, particularly the veterinary officers, public services and local authorities that have been referred to. The speed at which they are able to act may not be entirely satisfactory in some cases, but overall the response has been very good. The reaction was very quick at the beginning and they have done an excellent job.

We have embarked on a policy of slaughter to protect ourselves against the disease. I am sure that we can contain it and stamp it out, despite the present horrific scenario. We must keep our nerve.

It is disheartening that the cases are so widely dispersed, but it seems that all the cases can be accounted for by the trade in animals or by contacts in markets, notably from Longton in Cumbria, or the abattoir. However, it is disappointing that in certain cases, particularly in my county of Somerset, the virus seems more likely to have been spread by the wind or in some other way.

It is important not to confuse, as some have done, the real issue of how best to protect ourselves against foot and mouth disease in the future by attributing the problem simply to industrial agriculture or intensive farming. That argument has been exaggerated. We have had 20 years free from foot and mouth disease and it is 33 years since the last major outbreak. Of course, there have been huge changes in farming practice in that period. Most of the changes in the meat production sector have been led by the food chain and the development of supermarkets and strong catering companies.

The general global pattern is that foot and mouth is absent where the most modern farming practices are used, such as in western Europe and North America, but it continues to be present elsewhere, such as in southern Asia and parts of southern Africa. United Kingdom sheep and lamb production, which is the most affected so far by the current imported outbreak of foot and mouth disease, is an excellent example of extensive agriculture, which has traditionally involved some movement of sheep between the hills and the lowlands. Our cattle are, for the most part, grass-fed and our pig production is probably less intensive than that in many other countries.

I recall visiting a beef lot in the United States, in Greeley County, which had 10,000 cattle on one holding. We do not have that type of operation here. Basically, we practise an extensive agriculture. I also believe that there are two abattoirs within 10 miles of the farm at Heddon in Northumberland, where the first cases of the present outbreak took place.

I was in the Ministry of Agriculture at the time of the last great foot and mouth crisis when Fred Peart was the Minister. For some months, my life was wholly taken up with foot and mouth disease. I did not want to see it again and I do not want to see it again in the future.

Of course, it is far too soon to draw direct lessons for the future from the present outbreak. But one thing is certain: this is an imported disaster. We have not had foot and mouth disease in western Europe for years, and the present virus is a type which is found today in southern Asia and other distant countries. If we wish to maintain our slaughter and disease-free policies, rather than switch to a vaccination policy if that were possible, we must ensure that our defence against import of the virus is as secure as possible. I am sure that those of us who have been to Australia will remember being sprayed in the aeroplane. Those of us who went to America and admitted that we had been on a farm had our shoes taken off.

The defences in other countries are extremely severe, and it is important that that should be so. I assume that we should implement a strict enforcement of rules against personal imports of potentially risky material and exotic species and a tight control of waste products--in particular, from aircraft and ships. I also want us to consider the economic and health cases for the continuation, or not, of the feeding of swill--

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly interrupt the noble Lord. I completely agree with what he has just said. But how can we do it and not make a big hole in the CAP?

Photo of Lord Williamson of Horton Lord Williamson of Horton Crossbench

My Lords, I believe that it is perfectly reasonable for a country which operates a slaughter and disease-free policy to ensure that it has effective protection at the frontier. I am not sure that that is wholly the case at the moment. The present outbreak which we are suffering suggests that we have imported the virus. Therefore, I do not believe that it is unreasonable to consider the issue.

I believe that the feeding of swill to pigs is a matter that certainly needs to be examined. I support the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, that we must decide now whether or not to continue with that practice. He believes that we should not, and perhaps there are good reasons for taking that stance. In any event, we need to ensure that the regulations are respected. It is highly probable that they were not respected in this case.

When the Minister replies, I expect that she will say something about compensation. Obviously the direct losses to farmers when animals are slaughtered will be compensated. However, regrettably the many other indirect losses, not only to farmers but to the transport industry, traders, the tourist industry and many others, cannot be compensated by the Government. People in the West Country are particularly conscious of that because of the cancellation of two great events--the Cheltenham National Hunt festival and the Badminton horse trials.

However, if this outbreak continues at its present rate, I believe that it would be wise for the Government to consider the possibility of forming a genuine disaster fund. The governments of many countries which are, for example, hit by hurricanes immediately create disaster funds. When we have a contingency fund in the Budget, there is no reason why we should not consider that. I am not saying that we should do so today, but I believe that we need to exercise a little forward-thinking about what we shall do if the outbreak continues as it is at present.

Foot and mouth disease is the nation's immediate concern. However, I want to say a few words about the problems of the countryside which are rather wider and which have disturbed public opinion. Of course, the countryside is much wider than farming itself. A huge range of resources come into the countryside from outside farming. The proposals that have been put forward for improving the rural environment or the maintenance of local post offices, pubs and local medical services--not necessarily in that order--are, of course, all highly necessary.

However, the first and strong point that I want to make--I am concentrating on one point--is that a thriving agriculture is an essential condition for a thriving countryside. If farm incomes fall to rock bottom, the countervailing effect of other measures for the countryside is unlikely to be sufficient to retrieve the situation. Other noble Lords have made that point, about which I am utterly convinced. It is important not to restrict ourselves as we so often do in the United Kingdom to general expressions of dissatisfaction with the CAP. We should examine what has happened to UK agriculture during the past few years. Like so much of British industry, there has been a continuous fall in the labour force--it goes down all the time--productivity growth has been strong, the size of enterprises has increased and diversification into off-farm activities has been marked. That has been facilitated by the stability of prices and the acceptable level of farm incomes, despite variations from year to year, which the CAP provided until about 1996.

Let us look at the facts. A large fall in farming income began in 1996. Between 1996 and 1997--in just one year--total income from farming fell by 35 per cent. That was due to a significant change not in inputs but almost entirely to the output effect. On output, the fall in prices was 10 times as important as the change in volume. Why did we have that catastrophic event? In that year, slightly less than half of the fall was due to lower prices for products and slightly more than half was due to the rise in sterling. By the end of the 1990s, net farm income was less than £10,000 and the average concealed even lower prices for cattle and sheep farms, for example.

There are moments when I wonder whether we have understood the consequences for UK farmers of our own actions. As prices under the reformed agricultural policy have been progressively pushed down--further cuts are in prospect--the market intervention arrangements have progressively weakened, with some compensation for farmers through direct payments. I welcome some of those changes for other reasons; namely, because they are good for international trade. The fact is that we have done well for consumers by cutting prices--by £65 a year for a family of four, according to the Government's statement on the full results of the last changes in the CAP--but we have also been cutting farm incomes. That is what is happening and repercussing in the countryside.

I do not want to stop the world and get off but it is essential, when we are cutting prices and support and making other changes, to cushion farmers better against a catastrophic fall in income. In particular, that means making the maximum use of the various permissible grants, including those related to the adverse effect of the rate of sterling, which we have not always done in a timely manner. Apparently, £156 million is now coming forward for March and April, which I am glad to hear. However, we have not always drawn or used such money. I believe that we have been rather frightened of the fact that we think that the cost of agriculture is so high that it would be terrible if we put any more money into farming. That is a silly argument because, as we know, support for agriculture currently represents 1 per cent--I emphasise that figure--of total public expenditure in the European Union. That may be too high but it is not astronomical.

We need to take the maximum advantage and to give the maximum attention to farm incomes. If we do not do so, whatever else happens, we shall not have a thriving agricultural industry when we finally defeat foot and mouth disease.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative 10:39 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the opportunity for this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness the Minister for her erudite and clear opening speech, to which we listened with great interest.

I have to declare an interest as a farmer--I farm in Essex. I was brought up with cattle but I count myself extremely fortunate today because I am not directly involved with them any more. However, my brother runs an exceptional dairy herd and is a past president of what noble Lords probably still know as the Holstein/Friesian Society, although it now boasts the name, Holstein UK and Ireland. It is worth noting that he gave evidence to the inquiry into the 1967 foot and mouth outbreak on behalf of the British cattle breeders, in which my noble friend Lord Plumb was directly involved.

At this hour of the night I do not intend to deal with the wider ramifications of the problems faced by the agriculture industry. For the sake of brevity, I intend to fairly narrowly focus on the origins on this particular outbreak of the disease.

One of the joys of serving in local government is the great diversity of matters for which local government has responsibility. One of the more esoteric matters with which I had to deal was the implementation of emergency plans for industrial complexes under the then Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards (CIMAH) Regulations, which have now evolved into the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations. The purpose of those regulations is to ensure that the emergency services always have in place plans to deal with any major industrial accident from the scale of Chernobyl downwards. Those plans are the responsibility of the major local authorities. They are constantly updated, checked and tested for effectiveness, and, if required, revised. From time to time they are even rehearsed.

Speaking now with all the benefit of that very cheap commodity, hindsight, it seems to me remarkable that such a plan does not appear to have been available to come into operation immediately a case of foot and mouth disease was identified. Although human life is not involved, the need for such a plan is clearly immediately parallel to that for industrial accidents. I hope I am wrong. I shall be very pleased to hear that such a plan did exist. If it did, it seems a pity--and again I speak with the benefit of hindsight--that it did not involve an immediate ban on the holding of markets and the movement of cattle from the first identification of the disease. It is always possible and easy to relax controls. It is much more difficult to do so if you do not have an automatic procedure for starting.

I have reviewed the report of the inquiry into the 1967-68 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I did so because if we want to look forward, we also need to look back to some degree. That report is very instructive. I shall not bore the House with too much of it. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the report into the outbreak of this disease, and the reasons for it, has already been written. It can be read in three volumes in the Library. In a book entitled Reports, Commissioners 7, volume XXX 1968-69, we find under "Recommendations" on page 960:

"a/. The ban on imports of mutton, lamb and pig meat from countries (or areas of countries) where Foot & Mouth disease is endemic should continue. Imports of offal should be limited to that treated in such a manner as to destroy the Foot & Mouth virus. b/. Because there is a high risk of introducing Foot & Mouth into Great Britain by importing carcase beef and beef offal from countries where Foot & Mouth is endemic, on animal health grounds there should be a complete ban on all such imports".

In part 2 of the same report, which appears in a separate volume, Report, Accounts, Papers, 1969-70, volume V, we find on page 247, under "Swill"--and I paraphrase only slightly--

"Swill boiling plants should be licensed for periods of one year. Renewal should be subject to the inspection of the plant with revocation of the licence for contravention of the regulations. Licensing and inspection are the responsibility of the local authority. Ministry vets should continue to assist with inspections".

In another volume from that time, this one entitled Accounts and Papers, Book 6, we find the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer on the origins of the 1967-68 foot and mouth disease epidemic. His conclusion is:

"I have been unable to discover any possible source of the infection other than Argentine lamb".

So he is certain. But the evidence is not conclusive. In her introduction the Minister said that she doubted that the precise cause of this disease would ever be proved. The report of the earlier outbreak also could not prove it, although it could be certain about what had happened. Those recommendations formed the basis of a plan to deal with a future outbreak when it happened. If that was appropriate 30 years ago, what has happened since that time?

I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on a number of points. I recognise that governments from both main political persuasions have been in power since that time. But was action taken along the lines of those recommendations to restrict imports of meat and offal? I understand that the report was generally accepted but confess that I have not yet had time to trace and check the detailed regulations and restrictions that would and should have been put in place in the light of those orders.

Having said that, have the recommended restrictions on meat and offal imports been rigorously maintained over the intervening 30 years? That is all the more important the way foot and mouth disease has developed throughout the world over the past 10 years. Finally, is the Minister satisfied that the control and licensing of swill processing has been properly undertaken along the lines proposed? What we have heard tonight suggests that that cannot be the case. I am bound to say therefore that I agree with my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior that swill should no longer be used.

In the light of all that I have said in relation to emergency planning, can the Minister say whether there was a genuine plan in place to deal with a possible future outbreak? If so, was it tested regularly and updated as the agricultural industry evolved? That is what will have to happen in the future if we are not to face a similar problem 20 or 30 years down the line, when many of us will not be around to deal with the consequences.

Of course I accept that a foot and mouth outbreak is very different from the possible industrial hazards that can arise. But the need for proper planning for this sort of situation is well known. Given what we know from the previous outbreak, and the conclusion that the earlier inquiry recommendations have almost certainly not been rigorously applied over the intervening years and amended to take account of the evolving pattern of the spread of foot and mouth disease, the agricultural industry will have some justification for feeling that it has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap food. As the impact of the restriction on movement and other activities spreads, we are beginning to observe the negative effects of the disease across a much wider community. The cost to the country will be far greater than the cost of having in place proper planning and regulation.

I want to raise one other point which is now relevant. During the past 30 years the population of wild deer--in particular, roe deer, fallow deer and muntjac--across England has vastly increased. What steps are being taken to investigate whether those wild populations are infected with the disease? Those wild deer move freely across the country and I doubt whether there is an area which does not carry a surprising stock of them.

I want to pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, about vaccination. I am sorry that he is not in his seat. One of the purposes of the 1967-68 inquiry was to investigate the possibility of vaccination. Those countries where vaccination is regularly used are those countries in which foot and mouth disease is endemic. The two go together. Those countries which are free from foot and mouth disease have a slaughter policy.

It would be ironical if now, when Europe is at last taking up the slaughter policy, this country were to appear to be going the other way. That is not to say that there might not be a scientific development in future, but at present we should be clear--and I am pleased that the Government have made it clear--that the slaughter policy is the only tenable policy. We must live with that, uncomfortable though it is at the present time.

Photo of Lord Cavendish of Furness Lord Cavendish of Furness Conservative 10:52 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, no one listening to the debate could fail to be struck by the sense of genuine sadness which has pervaded the proceedings. In taking part, I must declare an interest as chairman of a number of family companies concerned with land ownership, forestry, farming, construction, mineral extraction, tourism and national hunt racing. I have a personal stake in these companies whose assets for the most part are in Cumbria.

In the interests of brevity and avoiding repetition, I shall take the advice of my noble friend Lord Onslow and excise much of what I had intended to say. However, some things do bear repetition and one is to congratulate the Government on their handling of the crisis in the main. I extend my congratulations to the noble Baroness the Minister. Her sympathetic handling in these difficult times has won her respect both in your Lordships' House and in the wider community.

In terms of human suffering, it is beyond my imagination what farmers and their families are enduring. And at one removed, there are countless others affected by the outbreak. That came forcefully home earlier today in a moving and compelling speech by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. He is my near neighbour and my heart goes out to him. I can only guess at the feelings of rage, sorrow and despair experienced by country people overtaken by such disaster.

Earlier today, I spoke to the director of Farming Online, to which I subscribe. His feedback from the website confirmed what has been repeated so often today; that the agony of farmers is much compounded by the delay between slaughter and disposal. The Minister has already assured us that everything is being done to speed up that process and as in everything else I believe her. However, I stress the importance of this point to the debate.

I want to pick up two other aspects of today's debate. My noble friend Lord Vinson, who cannot take part today, mentioned to me a practical idea which was touched on by my noble friend Lady Byford. It concerns the relief of those who have paid or who are expecting to pay redundancy. A small farmer with perhaps two labourers will anticipate that he needs to pay redundancy just at the moment when his cash flow is weakest. In circumstances that I cannot quite remember, there was a scheme under which the Government offered to pay the first two redundancies of any business. In the case of a small farmer that was highly significant because it relieved him of a great deal of anxiety, whereas for a large industrial concern it would be neither here nor there. I am sad to say that I believe it was a Conservative government which withdrew the scheme. Will the Minister consider reinstating that simple measure which could have a big impact?

With a very heavy heart, I endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury about racing. I realise the huge investment that rides on racing, but, living on the edge of the Lake District, I am also conscious that in the main there is a huge amount of understanding on the part of people, not all of whom are country dwellers, who are asked not to walk all over the countryside. My message to racing would be: stop. In this moment of crisis it is hard for people to understand that some individuals are allowed to roam at will while others are not.

I turn to local authority matters on which I do not believe the debate has touched very much. The sheer scale of the task faced by local government in this crisis is not widely appreciated. The impact on locally managed services alone is enormous: the curtailment of all mobile services--libraries, meals-on-wheels and the like--and the education service and social service provision. The public services in Cumbria employ 17,000 staff and the movement of all of them requires additional management in these difficult times. In addition, there is the hugely complex management of rights of way.

Today I spoke to the chief executive of an authority who reminded me of its duty, through the trading standards department, to license the movement of animals. I had no idea that that was a county council function. That strikes me as an awesome task. As always, it is carried out against the background of tight financial restraints. Cumbria County Council must also consider the closure of minor roads as another weapon against the spread of this infection, but as of this morning it was unclear as to its legal position or the extent of its powers.

Therefore, I should like to put some questions to the noble Baroness, and I am sorry that I have been unable to provide her with notice. Does the Minister acknowledge the hugely increased burden of work that is borne by local authorities? Does she appreciate that large numbers of local authority officers work round the clock in these difficult times to contain and manage the disease and its consequences? Can the Minister tell the House what support, financial or otherwise, local authorities receive from the Government towards the issuing of licences for the movement of animals? Finally, will the noble Baroness clarify the powers of local authorities in respect of their ability to close minor roads where necessary? If it is found that local authorities lack the necessary powers, can we have an assurance that the Minister will ensure that they get them?

I am perhaps prejudiced in favour of local government, having served as a Cumbria county councillor. I have always opposed the weakening of local government and the war of attrition that it has had to endure under successive administrations. I was therefore very gratified to learn from the chief executive of Cumbria that even in these bleak times the authority looked to a time when the cost had been counted and the rebuilding would begin.

In Cumbria, as elsewhere, not only farmers suffer; many others will feel the effect. As has been said a great number of times, in particular by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, the tourism industry is already weakened by, among other things, fuel duties and a very strong pound. My noble friend Lord Biffen is right when he says that the scars of this disaster are likely to endure. However, I welcome the announcement that the Government are also looking to the future. A task force is to be set up. I slightly share the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, as to who will be on it and whether it will really be the kind of vehicle that makes sense. We sometimes have the impression that the Prime Minister is selective as to whom he listens.

One should take account of another sad trend; namely, the leaching of wisdom from Parliament. There are fewer and fewer Members of another place who have ever had any experience of what one might call "productive work". That is not made up for by the 70 odd special advisers with an average age of 30 something who also have done nothing. So a little humility on the part of Government, and the need to connect with people who really do understand the issues is extremely important.

What is the starting point? The right starting point is to put this question: what is the strategic purpose of farming in the context of food production? My noble friend Lord Renton, much of whose speech I missed, touched on that matter. It would perhaps be impossible to draw meaningful comparisons between now and when Britain last needed home-grown food in order to survive; but that does not entirely invalidate the question.

It is difficult, but not impossible, to visualise a Britain blockaded through, say, terrorism, quarantine or even through trade tension. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what, in her department's view, should be the role of British agriculture? Is there a strategic view? Is there a concept of self-sufficiency in times of emergency? Would a strategic view take account of other areas of vulnerability--for example, that of energy? There could well come a time in the next generation where the suppliers of energy are in the hands of hitherto unexplored capricious regimes.

If there is a coherent strategy, it has passed me by. It is certainly not understood by those who derive their livelihood from the countryside. As has been pointed out, the Government's Rural White Paper remains--I think disgracefully--undebated.

The present agony and heartbreak will give way to enduring bitterness unless the language and the actions of the Minister's colleagues are changed, and changed radically. Labour's attitude to the countryside has been one of unambiguous hostility; some of it malevolent; and some of it through failure to understand. It is hostility that, in a strange way of spreading like an infection, has gone to other institutions. I would single out the BBC. It has not been at all helpful so far as concerns country issues.

In the interests of farming, the countryside and the British people, the Minister must persuade her colleagues to draw a line under that interlude of hostility. So fragile will be the fabric of agricultural and rural life that she must cause a new era of understanding to be opened. When she does she will have done the nation a great service and earned its gratitude.

Photo of The Earl of Arran The Earl of Arran Conservative 11:03 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, on two issues in particular, namely those of rural services and rural crime and policing, there exists some most alarming statistics. First, in 1997 the Rural Development Commission's survey found the following: 42 per cent of parishes had no permanent shop; 43 per cent had no post office; 49 per cent had no school; 75 per cent had no daily bus service; 29 per cent had no pub; 83 per cent had no GP; and 92 per cent had no police station.

Secondly, an autumn 1999 survey for the television programme "Countryfile" found that 55 per cent of farms had been burgled; 45 per cent had suffered vandalism; 20 per cent had suffered arson; and 10 per cent of farmers had suffered physical abuse.

These two profoundly worrying sets of statistics are against a background of income that, as your Lordships have so frequently mentioned, has plunged from £6 billion in 1985 to £1.8 billion in 2000; 51,000 farmers and farm workers have left the industry in the past two years. We have the average net farm annual income down to £5,200 per farm. We are in the fifth year running in which farm incomes have fallen. There are many more sets of equally depressing statistics which I shall not give your Lordships this evening, but I could, such as rural housing and rural education, not to mention BSE and the appalling weather conditions. And all this hardship and all this suffering against the prospect of a ban on one of their most favourite of pastimes, hunting. As if all that were not enough, we now have this terrifying pestilence of foot and mouth rampaging across the land, spreading, out of control, like wildfire across the countryside. It is as if our green and pleasant land were at war with an unseen enemy who can spring up anywhere and everywhere to wreak his evil deeds; the Saddam Hussein of the British countryside.

I can assure the House that I know of the fear and terror that exist on farms at the moment, for I live in Devon, where we have three herds of dairy cows, 10 tenant farmers with mixed herds and where my wife is the farmer. All day we are glued to the media for the news on the latest outbreak, for we are only a few miles away from Hatherleigh; and it is gradually closing in on us. The tension is truly awful. We wait and we fear the worst. It is almost unbearable. As Noel Edmunds, who lives next door to Hatherleigh, said on "Countryfile" last Sunday,

"it is very, very frightening, it is like a medieval plague".

With great respect, it is very difficult for those of your Lordships who do not live in the country fully to appreciate the real severity of the crisis. I also want to say that I am sad and disappointed that there are not more noble Lords in the Chamber to discuss such an impending disaster. Yesterday, as we all know, we had a significant attendance for the debate on hunting. Of course, we cannot resume hunting until this terrible disease is wiped out.

I can tell your Lordships that, from the West Country's point of view, the only person who appears to have been surprised by the speed and scale of the disease is the chief vet himself, for there was little reason why the spread of this disease should have been otherwise. Meantime, I do wish that the Minister of Agriculture would not persist in saying that the disease is under control, a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I dread to think what he might have said when the "Titanic" was going down, for the tentacles of the disease are already beginning to work their way into the very fabric of our society.

Under these worsening conditions, and now on the verge of a state of emergency, I ask the Minister to tell your Lordships if and at what point the Government intend to bring in the Army or the TA to assist. The transport of these slaughtered animals needs an efficient and highly co-ordinated operation to take them to their specialist rendering plants. Certainly, both the Army and the TA have the experience and ability to bring this about--much more so, I believe, than the ministry, which seems to be finding it impossible to cope. Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister why it is taking so long to slaughter condemned animals and how many days are elapsing between condemnation and slaughter. For undoubtedly such delays can only be adding to the spread of the disease.

In spite of the Minister's reassurances earlier today, I hope very much that she has taken on board many of your Lordships' misgivings about what the ministry says is happening in the country and what many of your Lordships know is happening in the country. I regret to say that there is considerable criticism in the country, particularly in Devon from where I come, that too little is happening too slowly. The ministry must speed up its operations. I suggest that the Minister of Agriculture would be well advised to consider taking along with him a senior military figure to advise on the logistics of rapid and efficient co-ordination in a fast-developing national crisis.

Against an estimated potential loss of £2 billion to the rural economy, the Government must acknowledge the severity and scale of this crisis, along with the number of people and livelihoods involved. These are people who may not see recovery lying in any possible direction. Furthermore, without compensation for their indirect costs, which they are encountering through the export ban and the difficulties surrounding the movement of livestock, it is beyond doubt that they will be driven out of business. The burden of their lives is fast becoming intolerable.

All the ministry seems able to say is that the situation is "under review". I can certainly tell the Government that what is also under constant review is the way in which the Government handle this situation on a daily basis. Speaking on 26th February, the Prime Minister said that the Government will look at all the consequential losses. We call on the Government to do very much more than simply to look at this. Instead, they should bring to bear a sense of urgency and statesmanship to one of the worst rural crises since the Second World War.

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 11:11 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, like so many other speakers, I shall start by declaring an interest as a farmer. Furthermore, like the brother of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, I am a past president of the Holstein Friesian Society, although I am not as distinguished a breeder as my noble friend's brother. I should also declare that I am a director of a clearing bank. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood both pointed out that the banks can make a significant contribution at this time of crisis. I accept that entirely and I shall certainly report to my colleagues the tenor of the remarks that have been made. Indeed, I believe that the banks do recognise their responsibilities and I am sure that they understand the part they have to play over the coming months, however terrible those times may be.

I fear that this crisis has drawn, predictably and totally unjustifiably, criticism of British agriculture from some sections of the media. British agriculture is not universally popular. It attracts a large amount of criticism--quite unfairly, in my opinion. One often reads accounts couched in pejorative terms such as "intensive" or "drenched in chemicals" and the like. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, cited three papers which, she felt, added insult to injury at this time by being less than fair. There has been criticism of the slaughter policy, saying that it is justified only for economic reasons. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford pointed out, why else would one farm but for ultimately economic reasons. There is a lack of logic to those criticisms.

Criticism has also been levelled at production systems, which appear to be accident prone. As regards the term, "intensive agriculture", the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, pointed out that, even if that form of agriculture was somehow undesirable, we do not by any means farm intensively in comparison with other production units. However, over recent months, intensive agriculture seems to have been blamed for flooding, food scares, animal welfare problems and food quality. I believe that intensive agriculture could be viewed in rather different terms; one could say that intensive farming represents efficiency, conserving of resources and the reduction of waste.

If noble Lords think that I am being slightly paranoid about this, I remind them of the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. He graciously acknowledged that intensive agriculture had absolutely nothing to do with the foot and mouth outbreak; he wished nevertheless to ensure that the government task force looked at it. If ever blame was being laid before a subject has been examined dispassionately and carefully, this is it.

Of course, intensive agriculture or, for that matter, extensive agriculture must be reviewed by the task force. We shall welcome the opportunity to review carefully what has gone right and what has gone wrong in British agriculture. However, we should move away from the mindset that assumes that those people who are trying to meet the challenge, however unsuccessfully, of competing against a harsh and cruel economic climate by achieving economies of scale, are somehow in the wrong. Even small farmers attempt to achieve economies of scale through intensive practices; they need to do so. Why should it be assumed that there is something repugnant and antisocial about their activities?

The questions we have to ask are these. Which agricultural system causes the most problems in terms of pollution? Which agricultural system causes leakages to soil, air and water? Which agricultural system is more likely to enhance habitats and deliver access and other benefits to the community? It may be intensive agriculture; it may be extensive agriculture. I believe that we will find it to be a mix of both. So, please, let us now start again and get away from these mind-sets which are based on a thorough misunderstanding of the contribution that agriculture has made to the economy over the past 40 years.

Any other sector of industry which had produced such great improvements in productivity and delivered so much--including such high quality food--would be greatly welcomed by the community. I find it quite bewildering that there are sections of the media--I admit it is not universal in the media--which, even in this time of crisis, remain hostile to British agriculture.

If noble Lords are in any doubt as to whether the intensiveness or extensiveness of agriculture has anything whatever to do with the foot and mouth crisis, they should think about what we have heard today, in this illuminating debate, about how swill may well have been the cause of it. That is clearly not part of an intensive agricultural system. I agree with my noble friend Lord Plumb and others that it should be abolished. I am sure of it--although here I am guilty, clearly, of jumping to my own conclusions before the evidence has been properly presented.

As to dealing in sheep and moving sheep around from market to market and amassing enough quantity so that the large multiple buyers ultimately have the group of sheep that they require to handle at one time, again, if anything, that seems a problem caused by production systems which do not match the buyer's requirement.

I hope that we can start afresh by looking at the contributions that British agriculture and, indeed--looking a little wider--world agriculture have made towards solving the world's problems over the past 40 years. During that time, the population of the world has increased by 90 per cent and food per capita around the world has grown by 25 per cent. This is because of the implementation of modern science and technology, breeding systems and so on. In the same time, food prices have fallen by 40 per cent.

However, there are still 1 billion people around the world who are undernourished or malnourished. So let us not be complacent having recognised the contribution that agriculture has made, particularly in the developed world, particularly in countries such as ours where we have an unrivalled choice of high-quality food.

Furthermore, if we look only at the United Kingdom, let us recognise also that we have introduced, and should be proud of it--I am certainly proud of it--higher animal welfare standards than other EU member states and other countries around the world. This may have put us at a slight economic disadvantage but I am not sure that it has. I think that we can and should--although it has not happened yet--be able to persuade the consumer that if we have these higher standards, our food is worth buying.

That of course brings me back to a point made by other noble Lords. Again, it may be some crumb of comfort from this desperate crisis. If we can, through a review such as is suggested with the task force, we should persuade people to recognise the strength and independence that we get from secure, high-quality food from British agriculture when compared to the food that we get from some sources around the world. We appear at the moment to be running great risks by importing such food.

We can go further than that and develop a sense of regional pride. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, suggested that he was going to brand food from the South Downs as something from his national park. I began almost to welcome the idea that I was going to be thrust into his national park, thinking that I would perhaps get a premium for my apples at last. Nevertheless, if we can develop a sense of pride in our food--which we deserve--we would be selling more of our food. I recognise that we, as farmers, are probably more culpable than anyone else in this regard.

A cheap food policy is a part of the World Trade Organisation's commitment, and our commitment, to freer trade around the world--which is a much wider subject than the one we are discussing tonight--but we can and should be prepared to pay more for produce from our own country if we think that it delivers something that food from other countries cannot. British agriculture can deliver much more than our consumers realise.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 11:20 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the Minister for the courtesy that she has shown to the House by attending virtually the whole of this debate and for deploying so much authoritative knowledge of her subject, thereby vastly increasing the burdens that she will have to carry tomorrow in terms of all the work that has accumulated during today. We are in her debt.

I do not know what any of your Lordships' incomes were five years ago, but I wonder how you would feel if, this year, your income was 69 per cent less than it is now. That is what had happened to farmers before the outbreak of foot and mouth. I wonder how your Lordships would feel if you were working in a family business and the return, having fallen for five years in succession, was now £5,200 per family. That had happened to agriculture before foot and mouth struck. Or how about being in an industry that lost 1,000 jobs every month for the past 18 months? That is what had happened to pig farmers before foot and mouth struck. I wonder how your Lordships would feel if, like them, you were working in an industry that was losing £4 million a week. That had happened to agriculture before foot and mouth struck. I wonder how you would feel if you were working in an industry in which the production costs were 2p per unit more than you were receiving. That is what had happened to the milk industry before foot and mouth struck. There is a background to this debate of anger which may have been obscured by the curtain of fear and grief that has been brought down by the outbreak of foot and mouth.

My noble friend Lord Arran mentioned certain figures in relation to parochial affairs. Perhaps I may add to those. Many noble Lords will not be aware of a figure that was brought to my notice by the Countryside Alliance. According to the rural group of Labour MPs, inner London authorities spend £1,326 per head of population, compared to the £787 per head that is spent in shire counties. All that adds up to a burden of resentment which we should have been able to judge next Sunday had not the curtain of foot and mouth fallen over the country.

I have no land now. The only interest I have to declare is my past. For eight years I was a shepherd of my own sheep, a flock of about 112 Border-Leicester ewes on which I put Suffolk tups. Being rather an indifferent shepherd, I quickly found that I should change to Clun ewes, which have a lower lambing average but are better mothers, and the result was slightly better.

I lived in a small rural community of the size of that described by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, a community of 400 souls. We were not graced with foxhounds or stables, but we had two pubs, a post office, a school and a bus service. The debate related to whether the street should be lit, and whether we could not manage to have old people's homes in our village rather than shipping them out to Rugby, where they could be visited only once a week.

That is my background. Therefore I have a deep sympathy with people in the country in relation to what is going on now. Perhaps I may draw to the Minister's attention a case that was brought to my notice recently. I understand that in the area around Hungerford there is one owner of sheep who has eight holdings on separate sites. On at least two of them the sheep that he grazes were diagnosed last Wednesday as having foot and mouth disease. They were not shot until this morning. I had this news from a Mr Alan Holland, a neighbour of two of those parcels of land inhabited by infected sheep: on one he has his herd of dairy followers and on the other his herd of breeding sows. The sows were tested on Saturday morning and declared clear. They were seen again this morning and were, I understand, again declared clear. However, I was happily at my desk 20 minutes ago when the telephone rang. Mr Holland told me that an hour-and-a-half ago his son had taken a call from the ministry through which he was told that 7,500 pigs will be slaughtered, starting at 9.30 tomorrow morning, as a precautionary measure.

The words "precautionary measure" lead me to ask the Minister to satisfy herself that I have the story right, and that that is what will happen. This will be devastation for that man. As the noble Countess demonstrated earlier, stockmen, herd and flock owners actually have an affinity with their animals. It is not like growing potatoes. It is not like running a machine. You have a relationship with them. It is devastation when you lose them. You are bereaved. We are looking at not merely bankruptcy but also real grief, and people in real shock.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Plumb that we must have a cordon sanitaire around this country in future of the sort that exists in the United States. I also agree with my noble friend Lord Arran that it is high time that the resources of the military were brought in, so that the manpower and the machine power can be used. I believe that my noble friend Lord Caithness recommended that we should revert to burying in quicklime. Indeed, with a military bulldozer and a lorry load of quicklime you can dispose of carcasses very quickly.

It is possible that the danger of the spread of the disease from carcasses is less than it is from exhalation of viruses, but it has not been proved that it does not exist. The spectacle of carrion crows and rats feasting themselves on these mouldering heaps and then going abroad in the country is not one that will bring comfort to anyone. But, again, we have to remember that those rotting carcasses were, in a sense, the friends of the people who have now got to sit and look at them--sometimes for a week or so--before they are removed. That is cruelty of a very high order; and an end should be put to it.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and one other noble Lord, who pointed out that every government have a contingency fund that is used to ensure that the books balance, even if things go wrong. Well, things have gone wrong in a big way. That is why we have a contingency fund. Like my noble friend Lord Peel, I agree that it should be existing farmers who are helped to survive rather than introducing new people with new capital into the countryside. This needs thought. But, first, the Benefits Agency must surely be brought in to assist people who have lost their income for anything up to four years, as one of my noble friends pointed out earlier. We are talking about a major problem that must be addressed with compassion and with speed.

But what are we inviting these people to survive into? The debate is about the countryside; it is not only about foot and mouth. Not unnaturally, most noble Lords have spoken only about the horrors of the immediate crisis. But surely what we ask them to survive into is a landscape and a community that actually works economically. We have not, as yet, found out how to do that, as I hope the figures that I outlined at the beginning of my too-long speech brought home to your Lordships.

It seems to me that not enough is understood about the dynamics of the relationship between market towns and their hinterland of villages. But one thing is very clear: a market town will not survive as anything but a dormitory if it does not have its own industry within it. Here I have to ask the noble Baroness, who is in the regrettable position of being in this House and not another place and, therefore, will have to answer for the whole of the Government, not just her department, to turn her attention to PPG 3 (policy and planning guidance note No. 3), which deals with housing and the effects of housing policy on country towns. Although all the aspirations stated on the front of the policy assert that its aim should be to achieve a viable economic community, the rewards for releasing industrial land for housing are so much greater than selling it on to another industrial user that industrial land is diminishing in market towns and employment is therefore diminishing. The result of that is "dormification" of market towns. The policy has not been in place long but that pattern is beginning to emerge and needs to be urgently addressed.

Finally, I welcome the right reverend Prelate's undertaking to mention to the most reverend Primate the possibility of a national day of prayer. All the churches need to pray on this matter. I believe that most of them are doing so and I hope that that practice is spreading into the towns as the crisis emerges. In the past 24 hours I have been asked independently by two people not connected with each other to ask for that. I believe in the power of prayer and I hope that it will instil in us a sense of the reverence which is due to the country and the animals that we have in our trust and which, sadly, we seem at the moment to have betrayed.

Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop 11:31 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, like many others, I am grateful to the Minister for this welcome and timely debate. I speak as someone who was brought up in East Lothian and grew up with a farming community and as a boy spent every Saturday morning on the local farm. I am married to someone who was brought up in rural vicarages in the right reverend Prelate's diocese, although under one of his predecessors.

I want to make three points at this late stage of the debate. First, I refer to the atmosphere of fear that the outbreak of this disease has produced in the countryside. It is palpable to the point of being tragic. It affects the whole of the community in prospect just as much as in actuality. In the Portsmouth diocese we had two of the earliest scares, one on the Isle of Wight, with the memory of the previous outbreak there very much alive, and the other in the Meon valley on the mainland. Both cases were given the all clear, but none the less, as outbreaks are increasingly confirmed elsewhere, the fear that grips farmers, their families and their workers is on the verge of becoming overwhelming. In south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we watch all our borders, county, district and other, steadfastly. Most of us are near enough the sea to watch wind direction--that matter was discussed earlier--rightly or wrongly, with great zeal. We do both with something akin to terror, wondering whether the disease will affect our stock next.

Secondly, a number of people have asked me to raise the disputed question of vaccination. I do so in some trepidation after hearing the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, speak with his considerable academic experience. However, I was emboldened by what the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, said earlier. Much has been said in the debate about the rightness of the slaughter and destruction of so many animals in recent weeks. That was described movingly by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, as a funeral pyre. I concur with that. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a case for suggesting that much further work needs to be carried out to develop vaccine for this terrible disease. I know that opinions differ as to the viability of what we have at the moment, although I understand that there are developments in the USA in this area. I speak here very much as a layman but laymen ask questions of me and sometimes they change my mind. It is a disputed area that needs to be looked at. Noble Lords are hopeful that we can look with optimism to the future.

But assuming we respond effectively to the present outbreak we cannot be sure that another will not arise. Dare we look forward to the day when a cheap and easily available vaccine becomes part of farm life?

Thirdly, I speak of a strategic rather than a reactive future. Here I think of what the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said earlier. I am beginning to wonder how much more some of our farmers are prepared to take. To preach at a harvest festival in a small rural community where two farmers either face bankruptcy or are bankrupt is a chilling experience I shall never forget. It had something of the atmosphere of a funeral about it; and it comes back to my mind as I see the faces of farmers who have addressed us today.

The farming community is becoming increasingly gripped by an economic dread that its whole livelihood is on the verge of disaster. I believe that we begin to realise the extent to which our economic well-being is tied up with theirs only when we ourselves feel at risk. And the fragmented character of our society can lull those of us who are not farmers into a second best solution which is infinitely worse; namely to ignore what is on our doorstep, tacitly collude with those who might economically exploit recent events and hope that the problem will somehow go away.

In conclusion, I want to place on record--perhaps I may speak also for my colleagues on these Benches who have been present during the debate--how moving it has been for us to listen to the debate and for the searching honesty and reflectiveness of so much that has been said. I should also like to thank the Minister not only for initiating this debate but also for the compassion and effectiveness with which she has handled her part in this national emergency. I hope, too, that much of the information which has surfaced, and will surface in the concluding part of the debate, will become widely known in our local communities and beyond.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 11:36 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, as the last of a long line of speakers, I thank the Minister for what she is doing and for what she has said today. I commiserate with the noble Baroness: she has not had her noble colleagues behind her in the debate. I hope that those honourable exceptions who have remained will talk to their friends and encourage them back when we again have a debate on the countryside.

I believe that the Government would genuinely like to get out of their difficulty over the Hunting Bill and to embrace the countryside more wholeheartedly. It is now an election issue and, assuming that the election is not put off, I strongly urge the Minister to persuade her colleagues to drop the Hunting Bill and concentrate on the real problems facing farmers. It would in itself be an enormous relief for farmers and rural businesses to know that they were the genuine focus of attention in the coming election. It is a particular irony that both the hunts and the shoots, while of course affected by the foot and mouth disease, are involved in the current campaign to prevent it spreading as they are in every rural crisis.

I sense that the Government are well aware of that but they still have to explain it to their Back-Benchers. Agricultural Ministers are in a difficult position because they have been much closer to the problem than their colleagues, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, pointed out. For this they have won a lot of respect from the farming community which should at least offset the snide comments they sometimes receive from newspaper columns and cartoons.

There is already a sense of national emergency, with MAFF staff overworked and dependent on help from elsewhere and beginning to acknowledge their own limitations. We have to ensure that people generally recognise the extent of the crisis but we have also to be careful about exaggerating it. I have been reading reports of the recent emergency in Gujarat in which entire communities were swallowed up. Here we have a different emergency, a creeping emergency--the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, called it a free fall--in which those not immediately affected, especially in London and the South East, cannot appreciate its effects not only on farmers but also on the food chain, until it takes food on which they had come to depend out of their own mouths.

Perhaps I may talk for a moment about West Dorset where I live. There are fears about the future not only of farmers but of the entire local economy which is in limbo and has left people in a state of disbelief. The abattoir in Bridport has now reopened and farmers can obtain licences to move certain categories of livestock. That has brought temporary relief, but suspected cases of foot and mouth in neighbouring counties are only a few miles away. That risk demands the strictest precautions. Even our farmers are staying on the farm and keeping their children out of school.

In several debates in the past few years we have spoken about the need for farm diversification, particularly the need for small farmers to move into other activities. The Government could do more in that direction, but we can talk about that another day.

One possibility for diversification is tourism, which is one of the major employers in the South West. In a sense, all farmers contribute to tourism and the enjoyment of the countryside. According to West Dorset District Council--which, like all local councils, has been very active and helpful during the crisis--there are 5,000 jobs in tourism and related activities in West Dorset alone, representing a total spend of £120 million per annum, or one fifth of all employment. As the Minister well understands, all those jobs are in peril because of foot and mouth.

I declare an interest, because my wife and I have had to close our small tourist attraction until further notice. All those of us who depend partly on visitors are concerned about the approach of Easter and what it may bring. Those involved with smaller historic houses and attractions are particularly worried, because there is already a shortfall of income to cover routine maintenance. Some properties are literally wondering whether they can afford to repair the roof, let alone make improvements to attract tourists.

Tourists used to be regarded as unnecessary extras or travellers known only to glossy magazines, but not any more. The smaller, family-size businesses are suffering in our part of Dorset. Group tours booked into hotels, inns and small attractions months ahead are being cancelled and farmers who have holiday lets, caravans or farm shops are losing money.

Anyone who depends on or even lives close to farmland is directly affected. Hauliers whose lorries are specially equipped to transport animals are staying off the road or adapting vehicles to other products as far as they can. The situation has eased a little with the Government's latest announcement of a temporary licence for single or multiple movement on two sites in the same occupancy. That was especially welcomed by my neighbour, whom I spoke to this morning, who has cattle in calf on another farm two miles away. Such schemes apply only to safe areas and are limited to one short period, but they show that MAFF is being extremely helpful and flexible within the parameters of health and safety.

Many others are indirectly affected, especially the village shops, retailers, home-based caterers and stores that supply tourist attractions. As the Minister said, it would be almost impossible to measure the compensation that might be due. It is early days, but South West Tourism is talking about support for tourist promotion rather than compensation. We have heard the same from the North of England. The figure of £200,000 to cover the whole region, allocated through South West Tourism and the local authorities, seems too modest if it is regarded as compensation, but it would help to relaunch the tourist season once the peak of the crisis has passed. We must all pray that that will be soon.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will confirm that if farmers can prove that they have lost alternative income such as that from farm-based tourism, which the Government have encouraged them to earn, they will have a right to some compensation. The Minister knows better than any of us that average farm income is at its lowest for years, even though it seemed to be turning a corner. In fact, it is negative income, because small farmers who are close to retirement without any alternatives in sight are living off their hump, off their relations or off nothing at all.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 11:44 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I have no personal interest to declare in this debate. In fact, for most of my life I have lived in cities and towns. However, for some nine months now I have lived in Northumberland and have become very much closer to the realities of life, particularly at present. I believe that I understand only too well the fear that people are experiencing during this outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I also know of the disintegration and destruction that such an outbreak can wreak in an area.

As is so often the case, there is a wealth of knowledge and expertise in this House. It has been demonstrated once again in this debate. We on these Benches are very grateful to the Minister and join with others in praising the role that she has played, and, indeed, is playing, in the crisis which we are all facing in this foot and mouth epidemic. As others have done, I also praise her patience and sensitivity and the meticulousness with which she has answered the personal inquiries of many noble Lords or their inquiries on behalf of people whom they know personally.

There has been a consensus in relation to some issues. There has been approval, first, of the speed with which the Government took action, and, secondly, of the strategy that they have adopted in an attempt to eradicate foot and mouth disease. We have heard many moving, personal and illustrative experiences of what it is like to be caught up in the epidemic. Noble Lords have been able to highlight the very real day-to-day problems and to ask the Minister directly to respond.

Many noble Lords highlighted the importance of communication at such a time as this and drew attention to some of the problems which they see concerning the accuracy of the information that is available. I refer in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton.

The noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, and, more recently, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned the role of local councils. That is something of which I also have experience. County councils have been responsible for dealing with licences to move animals. I know full well that the situation in the part of the world in which I now live has been rather strange. On the Scottish side of the Border, people were able to obtain a fax to give them permission to move their animals but, to begin with, Northumberland County Council was not happy about that. I should be interested to know from the Minister whether instructions have been issued to county councils about how to deal with that matter.

My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer highlighted several issues, many of which other noble Lords agreed with and, indeed, expanded upon in the debate. I believe that one important matter to which she drew attention was that this is a national issue. It is not only a matter which relates to the countryside; it affects us all. She highlighted the fact--indeed, other noble Lords took up the issue, too--that we have developed a system of shipping animals around the country and chasing large subsidies in the process. We now have an infrastructure of abattoirs and a retail system which add to the need to move animals around. Many noble Lords raised the issue of movement of animals. The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Hereford and the Bishop of Salisbury in particular took up those themes, as did my noble friend Lord Hooson and the noble Lord, Lord Biffen. They emphasised the importance of stewardship and sustainability when dealing with the countryside.

Another area that we on these Benches care about in particular, and which my noble friend highlighted, was the importance of using the regions and regional development agencies to deal with some of the problems. Not only county councils and local councils but parish councils have an important role to play in these matters. My noble friend drew attention to the importance of recovery plans in considering how to deal with the crisis. She also raised an issue which I shall mention again--it was also referred to by other noble Lords--that is, whether the Government can use their contingency fund if we are dealing with a crisis.

The rural White Paper was discussed by many noble Lords this evening. I hope that the Minister will respond to the question of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer about whether the Government would accelerate some of the White Paper's ideas. That may be the role of the task force. Many noble Lords will be interested to hear her response.

We on these Benches are concerned about two other matters in this context; namely the environmental costs if we do not take care of our countryside and the need to consider farming in a way that involves taking care of the environment. In that regard I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, who is now a near neighbour of mine in Northumberland. Another of my great interests is energy efficiency. The noble Lord raised a good point when he asked about biodiesel and the help that could be given to farmers. He was absolutely right; people in Europe are further ahead in that regard. I hope that the Minister will respond to that. When we talk about the effects on the environment we are really talking about the sustainability of our planet. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, highlighted that in his speech.

It is very late, so I shall discuss only briefly two other matters that I wanted to raise. The first has been mentioned by many noble Lords; namely, poverty in rural areas. While I was getting a cup of coffee, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Elton, read out a couple of figures on rural poverty that I was going to give; I shall not repeat them. Weekly household incomes are significantly lower in rural England than in cities--there is a difference of about £40. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer discussed the fact that some parts of the country are particularly badly hit. The average weekly wage in Cornwall is £292, that in Northumberland is £309 and that in Shropshire it is £317; the average in towns is £405 and that in the rest of rural England is £365. If one adds to that the fact that incomes are falling, which many noble Lords have discussed tonight, and that costs are rising, which has also been mentioned this evening, one will appreciate that we had a problem with rural poverty before we got into this crisis.

Noble Lords made several suggestions about how we could help people with their finances. Several noble Lords mentioned banks, some of which are I know trying to be helpful. I hope that the Government will encourage them to be even more helpful. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, discussed entrepreneurs. I shall discuss tourism in a moment--many of those involved in that industry are entrepreneurs. The Government can help small businesses in particular in that context. In our alternative Budget, we Liberal Democrats have always been particularly aware of that and have wanted to give extra help.

Several noble Lords discussed benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who is currently not in his place, rather imaginatively suggested linking benefits with the jobseeker's allowance. Other noble Lords discussed the Chancellor's contingency fund. There is a feeling on all Benches that we should consider ways in which to supplement people's incomes. In many parts of England, people who lose their job would be eligible for some unemployment benefit. We need to be imaginative and not bound by what has happened previously.

Finally, I want to say a little about tourism. As I said, many of those involved in tourism are entrepreneurs. We should do all that we can to help them. As noble Lords have explained, when people do not visit an area it is not simply the hotels and pubs that suffer; it is also the shops and other services that are used by those living in the countryside. This evening we have heard graphic descriptions of empty shops in country towns. I know that tourism is growing in Northumberland. As someone who has lived in the South East all my life, I can say that it is very pleasant to go out without encountering a permanent traffic jam, which is the experience of most people who have lived in the southern and south-eastern corner of this country.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and others spoke about tourism in Cumbria. From an e-mail that I received from somebody living there, I am aware of the farm tourism initiative and an injection of direct funding for developing such tourism projects in the area, with the aid of local training and support and quite a lot of money from Europe. The organisers of that initiative have built up quite a fund of information and expertise. However, the fund will finish in June. Other noble Lords have spoken about asking the Government to be flexible when considering various funds and ways of claiming money to help. That is another example that I hope the Minister will consider.

This has been a long debate about very real problems experienced by individuals, many of whom feel isolated and desperate--some even suicidal. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones made a valuable contribution in some depth to the debate, and I hope that the Government will respond to his points.

I hope that the Government will be able to draw on today's debate to inform and guide their efforts to deal not only with the crisis of the foot and mouth outbreak but also with the longer term measures that we need to take if we are to have a sustainable countryside that is understood by everyone in Britain--not just by those who live in the country. I hope that the support the Minister has had from all sides of the House will enable her to take those measures forward in any future initiatives.

Photo of Lord Glentoran Lord Glentoran Conservative 11:57 pm, 13th March 2001

My Lords, this has been a very long and wide-ranging debate. Perhaps today the House has been close to its best. We have debated a crisis of some scale, showing great compassion to those who are suffering. Many noble Lords have paid tribute to all those who are working to gain control of the situation. I, too, would like to pay tribute to the Minister for all that she is doing, for all that she has done and for the way in which she has conducted this debate. I also pay tribute to Jim Scudamore and to the whole team for everything that they are currently doing to bring this crisis to a speedy end.

The countryside has been in crisis for some time. This outbreak of foot and mouth disease has seriously exacerbated the problems. My noble friend Lady Byford opened by giving examples of the financial status of the industry. Many noble Lords have, in my opinion quite rightly, criticised the Government for their failure to address countryside issues and for their lack of understanding and appreciation of the cash crisis and lack of reserves that are aggravating this particular disease crisis. Real farm income has fallen since 1967 by an average of 80 per cent. That seriously exacerbates the situation of many businesses. However, I do not intend to spend any more time discussing the Government's failings in the agriculture industry over the past few years.

Today's debate has centred much more on the present crisis, not only in relation to the disease of the animals but also in relation to the enormous human hardship and suffering, the extent of which has been brought home to me as a result of the debate. Some of the experiences of noble Lords about which we heard tonight really brought the problems home. I hope that those reading Hansard tomorrow learn something from the debate. Many small businesses linked to tourism, commerce and farming are not directly involved with livestock, but they too are suffering from the effects of this disease.

The purpose of today's debate, and what I hope the Government are attempting to do, is to repair the neglect of the past by positive action plans for the present and the future. We heard many useful contributions tonight, which, it is hoped, will be helpful. But I should like to raise again a few of the issues mentioned.

Perhaps the biggest human problem throughout the country is cash flow. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of how our farmers are to live month after month with no income. It has been said that those who lost the whole of their herds may not be in receipt of an income for perhaps four years.

We heard much tonight about communication, about which I have had personal experience. We refer not so much to communication on the national front, but to communication in the local areas so that people know what they are doing. There is no doubt that the Government have totally lost the confidence of the rural communities--as the march would have emphasised--and the agriculture and food industries. They must win that confidence back. They must get their communications right and come forward with positive ideas as to what their intentions are. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, spoke of "biofuels". There must be other imaginative ways of helping the farming industry.

Many noble Lords spoke of the problem of abattoirs--the reduction from 2,000 to 400, and from locally-produced, locally-slaughtered and locally-marketed food of first quality to a market where livestock is motored all over the country and can go to three or four abattoirs before finally being killed. That cannot be right.

Compensation was mentioned, and that links in with cash flow. I am sure that that is something on which the Minister and her colleagues will be working. It is vitally important that the Government come forward very quickly with what help will be forthcoming for those who are suffering, both in terms of immediate cash flow by bringing forward grants and also in the longer term. They must indicate what they intend to do in relation to compensation and how they will help farmers rebuild their stocks and their businesses.

Resources were mentioned. Many noble Lords spoke of involving the military. The Minister told us she was already using the vets and had other parts of the services standing by. That is to be welcomed. One of the criticisms that came across in the debate, and came across to me before coming into the debate, is that although the Government moved quickly once the outbreak became apparent, three or four days were lost through inactivity. However, the scale of the problem increased significantly. We heard about carcasses lying around for a long time and delays in slaughtering. The point was made several times that those matters must be speeded up; that bureaucracy must not be allowed to get in the way. If the Countryside Agency has to be involved, let us involve it. The Prime Minister spoke about a task force. Perhaps that is not the right body; I believe that we want considerably more. At least one noble Lord suggested a Royal Commission. Whatever the body, we need to speed things up. We need clear statements and understandings of where we are going.

My noble friend Lord Ferrers and others spoke of drawing down agrimoney. I understand that there is agrimoney to be drawn down and it would appear that it should be.

The noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Soulsby, made a strong point about swill. Noble Lords strongly believe that actions should be taken to prevent swill ever again being used as a feed. It is thought to have been a root cause of this and the 1967 epidemic.

Finally, the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Elton, and others discussed the contingency fund. I have no knowledge of it but I imagine that there is one. It is not the business of Members on this side of the House to decide where the money should come from. It is our business to press the Government to provide money for compensation in order to help cash flow and to maintain the industry.

Members on all sides of the House believe that it is in the interests of the nation to maintain its own food supply. The thought of losing our livestock industry and being dependent on imports--and other countries might suffer the same crisis--is awful. It does not bear thinking about. Anything that the noble Baroness and her Government want to do in order to ensure the continuance--or resurgence, if that is what it has to be--and health and welfare of our livestock industry will be welcomed from this side of the House.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 12:07 am, 13th March 2001

My Lords, I knew that this would be an impassioned debate; I knew that it would be a well-informed debate; and I knew that in a winding-up speech beginning after midnight it would be impossible to reply to everything raised without trespassing on the generosity that the House has already shown to me.

Given the levels of anxiety expressed about many specific issues relating to the current handling of the disease and its outbreak, the best thing I can do is to respond definitively to as many issues as possible. I shall undertake to take forward many of the constructive suggestions which have come from all sides of the House. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand that in so doing--and not responding in kind to some of the criticisms about the Government's policy on agriculture--the House should not take silence as assent to some of the analysis I have heard from the Benches opposite; or to the proposition that only after this crisis did the Government become interested in agricultural policy or devote any resources to it; or that we were starting from nowhere in terms of the reshaping of agricultural policy. The Strategy for Agriculture was launched in 1999. It was built on by the Action Plan for Farming. As my noble friend Lord Brennan reminded us, the Rural White Paper, far from negating the importance of farming, stated how central it was to the rural economy. Tonight we have heard many expositions of the effect on the much wider rural economy of this particular blow to farming.

I promise the House that we shall undertake those issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, referred, in terms of long-term inquiries into some of the fundamental issues relating to disease control. My right honourable friend has made it absolutely clear that in so doing we shall listen to dissenting voices. Perhaps that reassures the right reverend Prelate. While at the moment there is unanimity about the inappropriateness of vaccination policy, for example, one of the lessons from the Phillips report is that we must keep challenging conventional wisdom as things change, whether it is the structure of the industry or scientific advance. While the position is quite clear at the moment, that does not mean that one's mind should be closed for all time or one does not take account of developments. Therefore, there will be a long hard look at the lessons to be learnt from the outbreak.

I make clear to noble Lords that that is different from the task force which was announced today by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. That task force is very immediate. Its first meeting is tomorrow and will be chaired by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment. It will bring together Ministers from other departments, but also, I hope, some of the people who were at Downing Street today, to look very closely at the impact on the rural economy here and now, and, for example, whether, as the noble Baroness suggested, measures in the rural White Paper can be brought forward. It may also look at some of the issues of regionalisation to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred.

Today, a great deal has been said about the importance of keeping rigorous controls in disease management. At the same time, a great deal has been said about the impact on tourism, everyday life and rural businesses. It is already apparent that as we see the pattern of the disease emerge there are big differences in different areas of the country. It may be that the Highlands of Scotland remain disease free for some time. At the moment East Anglia--Norfolk, Suffolk-- and the west of Wales are also disease free. We must look to the future and make sure that responses are proportionate to the risks of the disease.

Earlier I was asked to react with candour. What we have tried to do is to make public the veterinary risk assessment of various activities, whether it is the opening up of footpaths or horse-racing, and give clear advice on risk management in situations where it is necessary. The greatest risk is the movement of live animals which are susceptible to the disease. That is why we have difficulty in balancing assistance to those who need to move live animals with the risks of the disease.

I say to the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Salisbury--I understand why he is unable to be in his place tonight--that perhaps the most useful thing we can do is build on what we already have, whether it be big issues like reform of the CAP or the market towns initiative in the rural White Paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred, rather than start again on a new White Paper. I have spent more than 30 years in politics. When the right reverend Prelate said he believed that a surge of confidence would sweep the countryside if we announced another White Paper I was not convinced that that would be a universal response. I know exactly where he was coming from. We need to take policies forward, but whether we need to start again, or build on what we have, to cover the areas is a different issue.

It is important that we do not rush to judgment. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, mentioned their analysis of some of the glibber comments made about, for example, the role of intensive farming in the outbreak of the disease. We need some cool analysis rather than rushing to judgment on a great number of these issues. For the same reason, I hope noble Lords will understand if I do not comment further on ongoing investigations as to the original source of the outbreak. Therefore, it is important that we do not rush to judgments, particularly glib ones.

There is always the temptation to take an issue, which is important for one reason, and use a set of circumstances to justify it for another reason. We need a rigorous analysis of the role of rural abattoirs. There were a large number of small abattoirs in 1967 when we had a very bad outbreak of foot and mouth disease. There were specialist trades that involved movement of animals. Even when animals travel a long way to abattoirs, when they end up dead and not mixing with other animals going on to other farms, they are not an enormous disease risk.

We should pay tribute to the vigilant official veterinary surgeon of the Meat Hygiene Service at an abattoir in Essex who had never seen a case of foot and mouth disease in his life, but who diagnosed that first case. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, said that in a blink of time the disease had spread very quickly. I do not think that analysis is correct. We acted very quickly when we knew we had the disease in the country. I am grateful for the recognition of that.

The reason we have seen such a great emergence of the disease over the past three weeks is that it was incubating before anyone knew we had a single case in the country. It was being spread by movements of sheep, many of which, because of the nature of the disease in them, were not diagnosed when they first showed symptoms. There was widespread dispersal of disease throughout the national flock into large areas of the country before we even knew that there was a single case anywhere. As a result, we are still seeing the consequences, not only in those cases that were infected before the movement controls came in, but because the disease was not easily diagnosed. So we are seeing second and third wave disease in those flocks, and we are seeing cattle which have caught the disease from sheep on the same farm. That means that one is not dealing with one simple incubation period but a series of incubation periods.

We have had the controls in place. We do not have, so far as we know, more than one focus of disease. The disease would certainly be far worse if those movement controls had not been in place. But the nature of this particular outbreak, combined with the structure particularly of the sheep industry--something that has been mentioned many times--and the way in which markets work, has meant that a great deal of disease was disseminated before anyone had diagnosed a single case.

Having said that, perhaps I may update the House as to the outcome of the standing veterinary committee meeting in Brussels today as specific questions were asked about the import of meat from France after the case was confirmed today. I can tell the House that restrictions have now been imposed on all movements in and out of the departement of Mayenne where the case was found with respect to both the rest of France and to other member states. That covers the same livestock and products as involved in the movement restrictions imposed on the UK and is broadly equivalent to the restrictions imposed on Essex following confirmation of the first case in the United Kingdom. So there is an even-handed approach by the Commission. I should also tell the House that imports of meat from Argentina to the EU have been banned until 15th April pending clarification of the situation there in the light of a significant outbreak.

The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked whether we have a proper contingency plan. I have to tell him that we have a national contingency plan. That is required by the Commission. It has to be submitted to the Commission and regularly updated. It has to be there in every other member state. Each animal health office has to have a local contingency plan. Some of those--I think the one in Carlisle but I am not 100 per cent sure--were tested out and reviewed earlier this year. It is not the case that there was not a contingency plan in place. Every outbreak is different and there is not a "one size fits all" plan to deal with every situation.

I was asked about manpower, resources and the use of the Army. We have had discussions with the Armed Forces about the help that they might now give. It is likely to be logistical help; that is, in helping to dispose of carcasses and possibly in farm killing. I should like to make clear, because there has been some speculation, that it is not about killing wildlife. I was asked about the role of wild deer. The risk assessments are very clear on wildlife. One runs the risk of doing far more harm than good by the dispersal of wildlife which is not grossly infective. At the moment, there are no plans to cull wildlife of any kind.

There has not been any reluctance to call in the Armed Forces. It has been quite clear from the beginning that we could have support from any other part of government. But the point was made by some noble Lords that licensed slaughtermen should be used to undertake this distressing work, which has to be done in a humane way. The training of Army marksmen is not exactly directed in normal circumstances to this kind of work. If we can have enough licensed slaughtermen to do it, I still believe that that is the best way forward. Obviously, we have to look at the scale of disease. I am very conscious of the points that have been made today about distress in particular and the potential disease risk in terms of the delays that have on occasion taken place.

I would not pretend to the House that everything has been done in every case as quickly as any of us, particularly the Chief Veterinary Officer, would have wished. He has set himself a target of slaughter within 24 hours and disposal within another 24 hours. I hope that, in the main, that target is being met. In some cases it is not being met because of resource difficulties. But we are bringing in as much help as we can. Some of that resource in terms simply of digging trenches and building pyres can be accessed from the private sector and contractors just as speedily as--and perhaps even more speedily than--it could be accessed from the Army. We have to look at the whole range of possibilities and then decide what is the most effective under the circumstances.

I said to noble Lords that we shall and we do bury when necessary. I understand that quicklime is no longer used because it preserves the carcasses. Decomposition kills the virus due to the acidity produced during rigor mortis. The thinking in this area therefore is that we do not want to preserve the carcasses with quicklime.

Noble Lords have referred to the rendering plant that is being used. That plant is presently working for 24 hours a day. It is being supplied by a fleet of lorries that have been tested to ensure that they are leakproof. We are looking at the possibility of opening another rendering plant. However, as with the issue of burial, we have to be careful that we do not create more environmental problems, or problems of a different kind, by the methods of disposal. That is the reason why we are looking carefully at the proposal. However, I hope that more rendering capacity will come on line very quickly. Indeed, in some cases it may be possible to utilise landfill but, again, only in situations that receive approval from the Environment Agency and the relevant local authority. We shall explore those proposals as well.

Perhaps I may respond to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Lords, Lord Luke and Lord Monro. At present, most cases are being confirmed on clinical grounds alone, without the need to take cultures or wait for lab results. The longest waits for lab results concern negative outcomes. Sometimes it can take longer to secure a negative result than people might hope, but that does not represent a delay in terms of diagnosis.

On valuation, it is normal practice to value live animals. Every effort is being made to ensure that animals are valued and slaughtered as quickly as possible. On occasion, valuation has taken place at the same time as slaughter. However, perhaps I may take this issue away and discuss it at one of our regular Friday meetings held with representatives from the whole industry. I believe that different views will be held on valuation. Perhaps we shall be able to devise mechanisms to ensure that valuation does not hamper or delay slaughter.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked me about the potential slaughter of 7,500 pigs on a neighbouring farm. I shall certainly look into the details of that case, but I must say to him that this area is one where heroic measures need to be taken. Where foot and mouth disease is confirmed, it is the policy to take as a dangerous contact any contiguous pig herd. That is because of the greater hazard of disease transmission posed by pigs, which ranges over and above that posed by cattle and sheep, and for windborne spread.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, what has caused particular concern here is the fact the sheep in the field next door had been diagnosed six days before they were shot.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I understand that, but I have already pointed out to the House--the Chief Veterinary Office has confirmed this on several occasions--that there is an order of priority which starts with pigs and moves on to cattle, with sheep at the end due to their lower infectivity. In an ideal world all the animals that needed to be slaughtered would be dealt with very quickly. However, if choices have to be made, those are the criteria that are used.

Several noble Lords have asked about financial help. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, asked about the compensation on which there is no debate or argument; namely, the compensation for slaughtered livestock. As far as I am aware, as at yesterday, £33 million had been paid to farmers out of an estimated £36 million that had been valued. We aim to make those payments as quickly as possible--as, indeed, the agrimonetary payments which, as I have described to the House, have been drawn down early and are being made as quickly as possible.

So far as concerns the banks--a point raised by my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood--I was present at a meeting that we had with the banks very early on to discuss the situation and to brief them on it. As noble Lords have said, there has been an announcement--first by Barclays and then by the other banks--about a moratorium on debt repayments. There is another meeting with the banks scheduled for tomorrow which I shall try to attend. Obviously, the points raised today about the extension of help will be transmitted to them there.

As to the question of other schemes and the need for flexibility, I have dealt with the issue of force majeure and grazing on set-aside. The Commission has been extremely helpful and any other issues which arise about particular payments will be taken up with it.

The noble Earls, Lord Onslow and Lord Caithness, raised the point about Countryside Stewardship and ESA schemes. I am well aware that at this time of the year farmers are drawing up applications and that visits by officials have, for obvious reasons, been suspended. When the situation has stabilised, we shall ensure that potential applicants can still receive appropriate technical advice about joining the schemes and, if necessary, application windows will be extended beyond the end of April for the ESAs and the end of May for country stewardship schemes, which I hope will be of assistance.

Perhaps I may say a word about the very important issues that have been raised on stress and isolation and the need for support.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, on the issue of compensation, the question was raised about farmers who did not have infected herds but who were living within restricted zones and therefore could not get their stock away. I and other noble Lords asked the Minister whether her department would consider compensating them as a matter of priority.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, there are many matters of priority in terms of compensation. It is a very difficult issue. I quite understand the concerns of people under restriction; we lived through this with Classical Swine Fever. This situation affects large numbers of people over and above those who have herds; there are other people who lose out. The whole of the country is under restriction of one kind or another on animal movement; different people have different difficulties at different times.

The noble Earl spoke about people who cannot move animals to market, for example, because of restrictions, even though they do not have the disease. Another noble Lord spoke about people who have bed and breakfast enterprises on their farms and who are losing bookings. We have said that we will look at all these issues and the cases that are made for compensation. But the breadth of effect on different industries and individuals of this crisis is enormous. It would be wrong to suggest that the Government are an insurer of last resort for every financial consequence that will come out of this. I understand that people will argue for priority in their own individual sectors--we will look at all those cases--but the impact of this will go enormously wide and differentiating between different people's losses will be extremely difficult.

I am aware, however, of the point that has been made about the immediate cash flow problems for individuals. From the beginning, we have been in contact with the Department of Social Security about issues such as the Jobseeker's Allowance and the ability of people who are temporarily laid off to be able to claim it. Equally, we are in contact with the Inland Revenue about working families' tax credit. We shall continue to monitor the situation and attempt to be as flexible as possible in ensuring that people are given as much financial support as we can give in the circumstances. I shall certainly make sure that issues such as redundancy are raised with the relevant departments.

The issue of support and advice was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. Perhaps I may make it clear that we are giving the Rural Stress Information Service, which we believe provides a vital link, half a million pounds in this financial year. If it appears that current funding is to be exceeded, we shall look at diverting more resources. I can confirm that we are making £300,000 available for a second rural stress action plan for the financial year 2001-02. We shall keep the issue of funding under review in the course of the next year in the light of demands made because of the current disease outbreak. We greatly welcome the establishment of the Arthur Rank Centre Addington Fund. I know of the work that it did in East Anglia during the outbreak of classical swine fever. I am sure that it will be much appreciated.

There are one or two other issues that I should try to cover. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, raised an important question about the safeguarding of genetic material for rare breeds in particular. Outside infected areas, farmers can be licensed to freeze the eggs and sperm of cattle for embryo transfer and AI. That could not occur in an infected area but it can occur in a more general control area. Genetic material would need to be quarantined in flasks. The point has been taken on board and some provision has been made.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister give way? Does that apply to sheep as well?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, I am afraid that my briefing only tells me about cattle. If I can find out and let the noble Earl know, I undertake to do so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about the cause of the outbreak at Hawes in North Yorkshire. I understand the noble Baroness's concerns. The attempt to establish that link has taken some time. In most cases, the link is straightforward and we have published on the website where the links are. I am sorry to say that the case she mentioned is still under investigation. Obviously, we shall try to find out as soon as possible.

Talking of the website leads me to issues of communication. My noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, had some criticisms of the website. Others have been very complimentary about it. In the main, it has been an enormously valuable source of information. I have figures indicating that the number of hits on the website has reached huge proportions. It has been a source of accessible information for the majority of farmers who have direct access. It has also been used by particular breed and livestock associations and by the NFU locally in order to get information out to people who do not have direct access themselves. We can always make the website better. If there are specific criticisms, I shall be glad to hear them in terms of trying to put matters right.

In terms of "putting right", I should put right the figure that I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood. I missed out a decimal point: £3.3 million has been paid out so far, not £33 million. I thought that we were doing rather well!

As for the timetable for the lifting of restrictions that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Monro, mentioned, there is no set six-month period. Once a farm is confirmed as having foot and mouth disease, animals have to be destroyed and disposed of under official supervision. Slurry and bedding are removed and held for a period sufficient to ensure that the virus will be destroyed. Cleansing and disinfecting can then start--that is, a preliminary disinfection followed by a thorough cleansing. There is then a second disinfection and a veterinary inspection to confirm that the job has been done satisfactorily. The relevant period is 21 days after final cleansing and disinfection for any animal to be introduced on to the farm. That has to be sentient animals, which are monitored for another 28 days by the State Veterinary Service for signs of disease.

Where several outbreaks have occurred in the same neighbourhood, veterinary advice may be that lifting the restrictions on the earlier cases should be delayed until the later ones are due to be declared free of disease so as to prevent the possibility of re-infection. I am afraid that there is no simple answer about the length of time involved. It depends on veterinary assessment--

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, I am sorry to interject at this point. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that clarification. Am I right in thinking that it is a misconception that is going around that the disease has to be cleared nationally before people can start restocking? Can the Minister confirm that that is a misunderstanding?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Yes, my Lords. I do not believe that anyone is saying that restocking cannot start until we have no more cases nationally. As I said earlier, it may be possible to regionalise the disease if we clear areas, or if some areas do not have disease at all. There is a separate issue here about exports, which is a very different matter and is approached on a national basis. However, in terms of restocking, if we were dealing with only one case, the timetable could be quite speedy. I would not like to hold out too much optimism in that respect because if that case occurred in an infected area--we have some areas that are the very foci of infection--the fact that there was an early case would not mean that the ban could automatically be lifted. Veterinary assessment would also take into account the surrounding cases. I do not believe that there is a one-size-fits-all answer in national terms.

I should like to respond to an issue that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, about the outcome of the Northumberland committee. I understand that the UK law was amended to reflect the recommendations of the Duke of Northumberland's committee of inquiry. Since the UK joined the EU, imports of meat and meat products have been governed by EU legislation. Imports from countries where FMD is endemic are subject to the strictest of conditions; for example, only de-boned mature beef can be imported. As we know, bans can and, indeed, are imposed where outbreaks flare up, such as has happened in recent months as regards South Africa, and Argentina with the decision of the SVC today.

The issue of the treatment of pregnant ewes has been raised, especially by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. I believe that today's reporting about a mass cull of pregnant ewes has not been helpful in terms of policy options. Obviously there are a number of alternative ways of dealing with what is a large and in some cases intractable problem. None of the answers is particularly palatable. It is certainly not a matter of talking about mass slaughter. As noble Lords pointed out, although local movements will not be of help to many people, they will be of help to some people and they will be used. In other cases, it is possible to let the ewes lamb where they are. We are giving advice and support about how that could be managed least badly, as is the RSPCA and other organisations. We are looking at a wider movement scheme. However, even if we can introduce that--earlier I mentioned some of the difficulties involved in balancing that with disease risk--it would not solve everyone's problems because it will not be possible to move pregnant ewes from infected areas into areas without disease for reasons that the whole House will appreciate.

I am terribly conscious of taking too much time. I shall deal with two or three other points as quickly as I can. I say to my noble friend Lady Mallalieu as regards the risk assessment of racing that the conditions under which the CVO felt that animal health and diseases would not be compromised were made clear. I believe that that information is published on the website. We are trying to provide as much guidance as possible for those involved with horse related activities in order for them to take sensible decisions as to the appropriateness of going ahead with activities.

I am grateful that the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, reminded me that I ought to pay tribute to the amount of work that councils have been involved in. LACOTS has been involved from the beginning, particularly in the issuing of licences, but there is an enormous number of other matters including movement controls that have involved a great deal of effort on the part of local authorities, as the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, mentioned. I cannot at this stage make any announcement about financial support but I am certainly conscious of the costs that have been imposed on local authorities in this area.

On the vexed question of faxed copies of documents, local authorities have the duty of issuing licences but they also have the responsibility of choosing the format. We have made clear that we prefer hard copies as we consider them more effective in terms of enforcement. The police prefer hard copies. However, in some areas authorities are willing to accept faxed copies when people face snowdrifts and terrible weather. There has been variation in that regard. As I say, the format is the responsibility of local authorities.

My noble friend Lady Mallalieu also referred to disinfectant supplies. We have been in daily contact with the trade association representing disinfectant manufacturers. Production has been stepped up enormously. We believe that overall there is enough stock of disinfectant. In the first few days of the outbreak we approved 35 new disinfectants, all of which have been tested and have been found to be efficacious in terms of countering foot and mouth disease. They are all listed on the MAFF website with a link to the manufacturers' sites which feature information on availability. Inevitably availability becomes patchy in some circumstances. However, I am assured that overall there is no shortage of supply. In the past couple of weeks reports of such problems have diminished, although they were present right at the beginning of the outbreak.

I should say something about swill. That matter was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, and the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Dixon-Smith. It would be inconceivable that we did not deal with that issue in the longer term review as a matter of principle. As has been pointed out, swill is fed to pigs in a very limited number of premises--about 1.4 per cent of the pig herd is fed on swill. Schedule 5 to the Animal Byproducts Order 1999 requires catering waste to be processed for at least 60 minutes at a temperature of not less than 100 degrees centigrade. If that is done properly, it kills off any virus that is present. I assure the House that swill plants are licensed and are inspected regularly. I understand that they are inspected twice a year. The Chief Veterinary Officer has ensured that all swill plants will be paid an extra visit. It is important again to spell out that it is illegal under any circumstances to feed to farmed animals catering waste imported into Great Britain on aeroplanes, ships or planes.

Photo of The Earl of Shrewsbury The Earl of Shrewsbury Conservative

My Lords, does MAFF give notice to those farmers who use swill before it does the checks or are there spot checks with no notice whatever?

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My Lords, pass! I am writing to the noble Earl already. I shall also have to write to him on that issue.

We shall have to consider two issues for the future: regulation and enforcement. Weakness can come from either side of that equation. The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, spoke about enforcement. We will have a thorough look at the regulatory framework and the enforcement mechanism. If we can learn things from other countries we shall do so.

Concerns have been expressed about what has been termed profiteering by the slaughterhouses. The Minister made clear his long-held view that all members within the food chain have an interest in understanding each other's problems and co-operating for the long term, rather than seeking to take short-term advantage. That is even more pertinent at present. We do not have a normal market in meat operating at this time. Now the MLC is publishing prices again, I think that more transparency comes into the situation. There is additional risk of abattoirs being closed down because they have suspect animals in them and additional costs over and above those I have explained that the Government will meet in terms of veterinary supervision. If there is concern about profiteering, rather than reflecting additional risk, the Office of Fair Trading exists to investigate anti-competitive behaviour. It is possible for individuals or trade associations to raise issues about which they have concerns with the Office of Fair Trading.

I am enormously conscious that I have not dealt with a vast range of issues. I wanted to tell the noble Baroness about vibration and tractor seats because we have had some success there.

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, was courteous enough to tell me that he would raise the issue of biofuels. I could have guessed that he would do so. We recognise the environmental benefits and the diversification opportunities. The noble Lord knows that we initiated the green fuels challenge in the Pre-Budget Report and have taken action, cutting duty by 20p a litre compared with fossil diesel. I know that he will be concerned that that was not enough. But a significant expansion of oil seed production could conflict with the Government's objective of reversing the decline in farmland bird populations. I do not state that to score a point. I simply reiterate to the House that with regard to many decisions about the structure of agriculture we have to look for laws of unintended consequences. Equally, because we are looking to the future, that involves possible long-term developments which could be sustainable and important for our countryside.

The main message I gained from today's debate was the strength of feeling about the fear and desperation but, equally, the commitment to find a way for agriculture and the livestock industry to continue. It is the Government's responsibility to do everything that we can to eradicate the disease to allow that future for the industry. The right reverend Prelate was right to remind us that it is an industry with hard economic facts behind it, but we all agree that it is more than just another industry. It is integral and crucial to our sense of ourselves environmentally and as a nation. We cannot imagine hills without livestock on them. It would be a different country if they were not there. That is why the livestock industry affects all of us, not just those involved in it, or even just those involved in the wider rural economy that is under such strain at the moment.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, may I briefly say how much we have all appreciated the Minister's very full replies to all our questions, well beyond the call of duty. I know that she will not be going to bed just yet, but when she does, may she sleep well.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has indicated that he believes that it would be appropriate not to seek to press his Unstarred Question tonight. I believe that he hopes that it will be on the Order Paper at the end of tomorrow's business. All noble Lords due to take part in the debate tonight were informed.

House adjourned at four minutes before one o'clock.