Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:52 pm on 13th March 2001.

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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.