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8.13 pm

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster): Obviously I do not agree with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) about the Government and the Minister of Agriculture. However, I say without reservation that it is a pleasure to follow him. As he knows, I was born in Wales and I have some knowledge of the importance to Wales of farming and of its small farmers. On the other side of the border, I represent some 800 square miles of English farming territory.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caernarfon for referring in some detail to the slaughtering capacity in the border area because that makes it easier for me to make a point more quickly than would otherwise have been the case. Herefordshire has no operational, designated abattoir. One has been designated, Williams of Weobley, but having been designated, it cannot be serviced by the renderers. As we all know, that is the major part of the problem. I join hon. Members in spurring the Government on to increase rendering capacity and to move the beasts through the abattoirs by increasing cold storage capacity.

My 800 square miles of border country has many farmers, some of them small, and livestock producers. It is the home of the Hereford breed, and perhaps that says it all. My farmers, in common with those of other hon. Members, have had a dreadful time. Many of them may be ruined and more will go out of business as a result of what has happened, which is far from over. My meetings with farmers have led to fairly vigorous exchanges, but farmers generally have been calm and reasonable in the face of the problems that they are trying to deal with. A tribute is due to them and to the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association for the quality of their leadership in a difficult situation.

The nation has to hang together in dealing with our friends in Europe, but our farmers need to see a way ahead and they need to be kept afloat during these bad times. They are grateful for the assistance that has already been given, but there may be a case for more. I shall specify those areas in which further help is needed and concentrate on the prime beef producer, the person who is not picking up a milk cheque but whose livelihood is being grossly undervalued by the market and who receives no subsidies. Before coming to that, I should like to deal with three issues.

First, the country has contributed to the making of the crisis. We had an emergency on our hands, and from it we have created a first-class crisis for beef producers in all parts of the United Kingdom and in Europe. I am not referring to the Government, but to the beginnings of the crisis. The press leak to the Daily Mirror, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) mentioned, about the SEAC meeting in Edinburgh was quite deplorable. That led to a chain reaction and the general press treatment of the matter was equally deplorable.

In the media, the issue was sensationalised and dramatised and matters that would have better put moderately were put in an extreme way. The dear old foot and mouth photograph from, I think, 1967--showing

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hooves sticking in the air as cattle were burned in the fields--was trundled out and printed in the tabloids yet again.

I would be the last to criticise the scientists who have carried out valuable work, but some of them have little media experience. By and large, what they said on the media was cut into soundbites. One scientist gave the nation the impression that it faced a first-class general epidemic, which was about as unhelpful in this difficult area as anything could be. My final criticism--which is directed into the past although it is necessary to say it--is that there was a panicky and somewhat irresponsible immediate reaction by the representatives of some consumer organisations. They could not get on "Newsnight" quickly enough to condemn the entire British beef industry and to give the nation the impression that it would never be right or safe to eat beef again.

I am pleased that the good citizens of Herefordshire did not succumb to that panicky reaction. In fact, on the Friday and Saturday of the week of the initial announcement, some supermarkets had the good sense to lower the price of beef and their shelves became bare quite quickly. I believe that the British people have a sound reserve of calm and good sense.

Mr. Dalyell: The hon. Gentleman is referring, partly, to the work of the neuropathogens unit in Edinburgh. I agree with him about the press. However, to be fair to the scientists concerned--one or two of whom are my constituents--they thought that they were doing a speculative, serious scientific job and they had absolutely no notion as to the purpose for which their work would be used. They are careful and serious people. I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Temple-Morris: I hope that I did not give the hon. Gentleman the impression that I was getting at those people. I was referring to the way in which certain comments were reported. Their work is both valuable and vital. The way in which that work was allowed to come into the public domain and the way that it was treated thereafter--mainly by the media--are far more at fault than one particular comment by one particular scientist.

Mr. Dalyell: One of the tragedies in all this is that those people were working on small animals--I wish the Minister would listen to this--as the Government had curtailed funding for the follow-up research that should have been done on the bigger animals.

Mr. Temple-Morris: I am pleased that I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to make some points to the Minister; I hope that he will now allow me to complete my speech. Secondly, there is no need for undue party politics in this issue--fortunately, it has not been abused in this debate. It is perfectly proper for the Opposition parties to criticise or make suggestions about things that are within our power to accomplish and to improve. However, when it comes to an approach to Europe, any criticism that might be made about approaches being in the wrong direction will be taken up by other European Ministers for agriculture who, for one reason or another, want to block us or to impede our progress. I welcome the spirit of the debate.

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The third general point is that there is no need for Euro-bashing in this matter. It is quite insane. If we want the help of an organisation--without which we would be in a much worse mess--we should not attack it. These sorts of odd threats have crept into the media, coming from the usual anonymous commentators who abound in these corridors, and they are most unhelpful and do a lot of harm.

We have had two rather dramatic entries into the House by harbingers of misfortune. They have no doubt spent the entire evening watching the Press Association tape to be the first to regale us with the bad news. They regaled us by way of intervention and then left the House. Thanks to the Minister of Agriculture, we know that they got it utterly wrong.

Mr. Tyler: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the two carrion crows who came into the House at such speed and disappeared again. When it is the usual suspects, Ministers from other Governments will not take much notice of what they say. The Conservative Governments of France and Germany must be aware that there are some curious people on the Government Back Bench. The chairman of the 1922 Committee--the right hon. Member for Shipley (Sir M. Fox)--has adopted the attitude that we have to bludgeon our colleagues in Europe into submission. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that approach has been helpful?

Mr. Temple-Morris: I cannot be seduced into having an internal debate at the behest of the hon. Gentleman. The chairman of the 1922 Committee is well known for his plain speaking Yorkshire views, which are often robust and, on occasion, do not have the quiet diplomacy of which other hon. Members are more capable.

I refer to the beef producer. We have heard a lot about the ban and about slaughtering capacity. I shall concentrate on the plight of the pure beef man, particularly the small producer. As I have already said, such people do not receive a milk cheque to get through this crisis. The under 30-month prime beef producer is selling into the market and, so far as I can see, he is taking a 20 per cent. loss on his beasts and the delays are causing more losses. The whole situation has become a disaster.

There is a need for some sort of top-up or deficiency payment in this area which can taper off as the market improves. I understand that this is happening and that the Government will approach the Commission in May in an effort to get European involvement in the scheme. We must have a scheme quickly. If we are to have any hope of getting European help and involvement, there must be British involvement as well.

Mr. Beggs: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the top-up must apply to heifer carcases as well as to steer carcases? All subsidies are currently directed towards steers.

Mr. Temple-Morris: I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out and I agree with what he has said--in fact, I shall adopt it as part of the case that I am urging on the Government at the present time.

I refer to the more than 30-month prime beef producer. This is another area and it affects the same people. These people are obviously grateful for the 25p per kilo top-up.

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However, one of the most tragic aspects of this tragic situation is that we are dealing with some of the nicest beef in this country. I refer to the specialist herds--Northern Ireland and Scotland have already been referred to in this regard. We need to have progress there. As part of the partial approach to lifting the ban, it would seem to me that that is a good candidate to lead in on.

The first matter is obviously gelatine, tallow and sperm. That avenue is open. From what my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture has said, the news there is not necessarily bad and it could be good. I should have thought that specialist herds would be dealt with next. In the meantime, we need to secure the support of the Commission and the support of the Government for further help in this area for those people.

There are other areas of general additional help. One that has not been mentioned is a generous approach to European Union discussion about increases via the beef special premium and the suckler cow premium. These are areas in which help can be given. So much for the limited aspect that I wanted to approach--I hope that I have not unnecessarily taken up the time of the House. I conclude by saying that the economic, financial and political ramifications of this crisis are very considerable. We need to progress with all due speed, and that progress has to be perceived by the public as well as being proclaimed by us.

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