Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:28 pm on 13th March 2001.

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

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.