Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:37 pm on 26th June 2001.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 6:37 pm, 26th June 2001

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf. He said he did not know much about agriculture but he certainly knows much about education. I was running up a hill, trying to keep apace with what he said. I do not intend this to be an aggressive comment, but it is a great pity that on subjects such as education, the environment and agriculture only two Labour Back-Benchers are in attendance.

I congratulate the party opposite--particularly those who are present--on having won the last election. Some of us would have wished it otherwise, but the fact is that they achieved a cracking result from their point of view. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on his new responsibilities, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House who made a gracious remark when he said that he would be the servant of the House. He was right to say that and I hope that in the future we shall not have to remind him of that fact.

The only sad point is that the Government appear to be determined to get rid of the hereditary Peers, in relation to which I declare an interest. The Government appear to regard hereditary Peers as objectionable objects. We are very agreeable people when you get to know us. Fly-swatting appears to be a sport enjoyed by the Government.

I remind your Lordships of the gracious and courteous salutation that the Roman gladiators used to give before they were sent into the gladiatorial contest, which was a fight to the death. They said:

"Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutamus".

I am sure that all noble Lords will have no difficulty in translating that. But in case your Lordships have forgotten some of the Latin education that you absorbed when at school, it means:

"Hail, Caesar, we who are about to die salute you".

We do not intend to die just yet.

I want to concentrate on agriculture and the countryside. I declare an interest in that agriculture and the countryside have always been part of my life. Over the past four years agriculture has been through the most calamitous period ever. Agricultural depressions have happened before, but on top of a depression we have had BSE, swine fever and now foot and mouth disease.

When such problems occur, those in charge must pick up the parcel, as it were, and run with it. The Government had to do so on those occasions. From time to time, we had running commentaries from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I pay great tribute to her for what she did not only in this House but in MAFF and for the countryside as a whole. She used to give us hideous figures relating to what had happened.

In April, she told us that there were 1,481 confirmed cases; more than 2 million animals had been slaughtered; and a further 475,000 had been slaughtered under the welfare slaughter scheme. I congratulate civil servants on finding the most bizarre names. If one were to be slaughtered, one would not regard it as a welfare objective! She also told us that there was a disposal backlog of 85,000 animals.

The trouble is that one tends to get punch drunk on such figures and merely absorb them. But they are staggering and behind them lies a state of total misery and grief for those who owned the animals and live in the countryside. The noble Baroness told us that the scientific advice was to reduce the time between reporting the disease and slaughter to 24 hours. We are almost into July, but on 13th March the Minister said,

"We have it under control".

That was premature and inaccurate. Of course, the figures have become worse.

I believe that we went wrong at the beginning with the length of time between reporting the likelihood of the disease and disposal of the animals. The vets had to inspect them; samples had to be taken; the samples had to be analysed; and the result had to be reported to the farmer. Then one had to get people in to carry out the valuations, other people to slaughter the animals and more people to remove the carcasses. All that took time and meanwhile the animals were spewing out the disease.

As regards burning the carcasses, it took 16 sleepers and a quarter of a tonne of coal per sheep. I cannot understand that but apparently it was the case. And of course the carcinogens and the disease were wafted up into the air by the warm draught of the bonfire. Then we witnessed the unbelievable sight of young men careering around fields on motorbikes trying to kill terrified sheep with a rifle. I wonder whether the Government believe that that is a right and acceptable way for them or their agents to act.

Then we heard the astonishing story of the white calf called Phoenix who, when it was supposed to be dead, clambered out alive from under a pile of its dead friends. They tried to kill it a second time but that did not work either. Then the press weighed in and the outcry was so great that the Government decided to change the rules so that the animal could live. We had all those rules and all that expenditure to rid ourselves of foot and mouth and one pretty calf made the Prime Minister stand the rules on their head. I say "the Prime Minister" because when the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Brown, went into MAFF the next morning he did not know that the animal had been reprieved.

The hard fact is that if all those animals had to die in order to curtail foot and mouth, that animal should have died too. If it was all right to allow that calf to live, the others which were killed should have been allowed to live. If it was all right to allow one pretty calf to live, why was not the goat which used to live like a member of the family and sit on the hearth in front of the living room fire allowed to live too? No, he was killed.

Stacks of questions of that nature and non sequiturs must be answered. Some animals were slaughtered because the inspector got the grid reference wrong. Animals were slaughtered 100 miles from where the slaughterman was supposed to be. They are devastating thoughts and they were devastating mistakes.

Then we had the decision not to change to vaccination. That is a technical and complicated problem. I was pleased that the Government did not do so because when I had the privilege of being in MAFF some 20 years ago I was persuaded that the slaughter/compensation policy was correct. There is an outbreak only once in 20 years and during that period it is cheaper than vaccinating. It keeps the nation's stock free of foot and mouth while vaccine lasts only for eight months. There are a number of different strains of the disease and if one vaccinates for one and another appears the vaccination is wasted.

In those days, those on the Continent were using vaccination while we were using the slaughter policy. Curiously, those on the Continent changed to using the slaughter policy while we were considering changing to a vaccination policy. At the time, I thought it was like saying to a soldier in the middle of a battle, "Run back home and get a different gun". You cannot do that; you must stay with the policy. I believe that that is right.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford made an impressive intervention in a debate on 4th April. He said:

"The pictures of the mass slaughter of animals have been extremely distressing for a range of people who in no way could be regarded as cranky or sentimental about animals".

He was right. He asked:

"Is there no alternative? ... Animals, according to the creation story in the Book of Genesis, are there in part for the benefit of human beings. But they are also valuable in themselves, reflecting some aspect of the divine glory".--[Official Report, 4/4/01; col. 846.]

The right reverend Prelate made some fairly profound remarks and I have frequently wondered how right we are to go around killing animals and to do so on and on, even if it is for the wholly meritorious reason of keeping the disease under control. It was right not to change in the middle of the battle, but the whole question of slaughter should now be considered. As the right reverend Prelate asked: is there really no alternative?

The fashionable expression "naming and shaming" is used today. I hate it because I believe that most people do their best in life. There is something horribly sanctimonious about people who say, "We must find out who the wretched person is who has done this. We will point the finger at him and throw him out to the public as the person who has made all the mistakes". I believe that that is wrong. Most people do their best in life and Ministers and others who are landed with such problems do their best. But we must learn from our experiences and mistakes.

I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford when they said that they hoped the Government would set up a public inquiry. I do too. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will take the matter most seriously and to heart. A Select Committee inquiry will not do. Everyone, including Ministers at the time, must be able to give their views and their experiences. A public inquiry would permit that but a Select Committee inquiry would not. The Government set up an inquiry into BSE and this is a much bigger problem. After all, it has affected the whole countryside, not just the farmers, as well as towns people and people from overseas who wanted to come here on holiday and had to cancel. I repeat, it is not merely a question of trying to find someone to blame but of trying to learn from the past in order that our actions and reactions in the future may be better.

I, too, am amazed that the only thing Her Majesty's Government could think of putting in the Queen's Speech relating to agriculture and the countryside was the resurrection of the spectre of a ban on hunting. I could not have thought of a more insensitive act at such a sensitive time. That is yet another reason why everyone feels that Her Majesty's Government do not understand the countryside and do not care about it. That contrasts with what the Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard, the Queen's bodyguard, said yesterday. He said,

"We want to spread prosperity more widely. This is an opportunity to improve the lives of people in the country".

I hope that that applies to the countryside, too.

What have the Government done to show their dedication to agriculture and the countryside? They have disbanded the Ministry of Agriculture; they have vaporised it. All the Ministers have gone. The last Minister has been demoted to the Minister of Works. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has gone as have Miss Joyce Quin, Mr Spellar and Mr Meacher, who headed the Department of the Environment task force. All the Ministers have gone. As a final blow, Her Majesty's Government have ensured that the new department does not even contain the word "agriculture" in its title. One cannot be much more demeaning and humiliating than that. On top of that, there is no Minister responsible for food and farming in another place. The only Minister is the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is very competent and charming. I am sure that his expertise will flow to another place, too. But the fact is that there is no Minister in another place for agriculture or food.

I hope that someone will take a grip and realise that agriculture and all that goes with it is the backbone of the countryside, whether the interests are wildlife, tourism, food production or ancillary employment. They all depend for success on thriving agriculture. It is not good enough to say that the CAP needs reform. We all know that. My noble friend Lord Wade referred to it. I liked his proposals about that policy. We all know that it has to be reformed, but that is long term because we have to persuade 15 other members to agree, which they will not because they have too much to lose.

Meanwhile, life has to go on. Agriculture and the countryside want to feel that they have a Government which cares. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford said, they need hope. They do. When estate agents value a property they take into account what is called "hope value". The countryside needs hope and the hope value also. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be able show that the Government can give that and that he can also give that commitment.