Foot and Mouth Disease

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:03 pm on 13th March 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

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.