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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am rather perturbed to hear that. When we debated the issue last week, I thought that there was unanimity on a difficult decision. As it is widely understood that we do not know what caused BSE, surely the precautionary principle should be foremost. Does the hon. Lady agree?

Mrs. Winterton: No. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, as the Minister was faced with three options and took the most severe one. In doing so, we have all let common sense fly out of the window. Naturally, we all regret the people who have died from the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but those numbers must be balanced against the fact that the chance of contracting the disease is one in 600 million and falling because of the policies that have been introduced over the years to minimise the risk.

The British people showed what they thought of the new decision when they rushed to the supermarkets last week to buy ribs of beef and T-bone steaks. We live in an age when we are expected to take no risks. I probably took more risks getting out of bed this morning and

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coming to the House than ever I would by eating T-bone steaks every day for the rest of my life. Last week's decision lacked balance and judgment, and beef farmers will suffer as a result.

I have represented Congleton for 14 years. Although there have been ups and downs, there has never been so much depression and such low morale in all sectors of agriculture.

I should also mention badgers and tuberculosis. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) commissioned the Krebs report on badgers and TB, and we are awaiting its publication. The problem is extremely serious; Members representing the west country may wish to mention it later. The disease is spreading northwards to Shropshire and Staffordshire, where it has a considerable impact on the farming industry.

Let me quote from an article in Farming News on 28 November to

It was about a Staffordshire farmer who

    "has lost 20 cows through TB. He was aiming to expand his herd to 120 cows and took on a herdsman in the summer, but after 20 reactors were found, his expansion plans are back on hold."

There is strong circumstantial evidence that the badger is implicated in the transmission of TB to cattle. The present policy is not working because it does not allow proper clearance of infected badgers. I agree with the many people who believe that the system should be changed to allow clearance and that it should be a top priority. Badger numbers are growing dramatically in certain parts of the country and, where badger numbers are high, there is a strong likelihood of spontaneous outbreaks of TB. Shropshire is a graphic example; the badger population there must be managed.

Compensation to farmers is grossly inadequate. It needs to be at least 125 per cent. of replacement value to cover the increased costs involved and the long-term effects on farm businesses.

I am grateful for the time of the House today. I have tried to impress on the Minister the need for positive and urgent Government action to assist British agriculture.

10.7 am

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) on his good fortune in being able to initiate a debate on the rural economy at such a pressing time.

I shall confine my remarks entirely to agriculture, and I hope that the Minister will communicate to his ministerial colleagues in the Scottish Office and other Departments the strength of feeling--underlined by the presence of so many Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches--about the present crisis. The word crisis is often overused in politics and in the House. None the less, if anything underlines the fact that there is a genuine crisis not only among farmers but among their leadership, it is the resignation of Sandy Mole yesterday as the president of the National Farmers Union of Scotland.

People such as Sandy Mole do not walk away from the jobs that they have been elected to do, and which they have done with diligence and honour, unless there is a

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deep-rooted problem. I hope that Scottish Office Ministers will have observed the sad fact that he has given up his post before the end of his term of office, and will recognise that that is a sign of the crisis of morale that has gripped Scottish agriculture, as it has gripped United Kingdom agriculture as a whole.

I hope that any sense that the Government may have had that this is all just farmers crying foul, or Opposition politicians demanding action, has now disappeared. There is much more than that. This is serious stuff. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine was right to use the opportunity to raise the matter today.

While we are talking about individuals, I must point out that the Government have one great worry--the sole unequivocal support that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food received in the House last week came from his immediate predecessor, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg).

There may have been a perception at European level that the previous Minister of Agriculture was doing too little, too late, but the great worry is that in connection with beef on the bone, the present Minister may have done too much, too soon. None of us, especially among the Liberal Democrats, would disagree with the idea of making available to the public scientific advice that is in the pipeline and is being put on Ministers' desks, but it would have been more sensible if the Minister, while reflecting on the advice that he had been given, had passed it on to the public and allowed them to make their decision.

The consequences of that decision over the past week, in terms of both prices and morale, have been catastrophic. I hope that the Government will realise that they have added to an already inflamed situation at the ports, and that they therefore need to take decisive action.

What decisive action should the Government take? I said that I would contribute only briefly to the debate, so I shall confine myself to making two essential points. First, for the rural economy in general and for agriculture in particular, the fact that British taxpayers are subsidising beef production and imports everywhere else in the European Union except in the United Kingdom adds insult to injury. That is a crazy state of affairs; it is like an episode of "Yes, Minister". The Government must do something about it.

Secondly, cognisant of the fact that we must send the right signal not only to United Kingdom farmers but to Brussels, the Government must get off the fence and clarify and confirm the terms and the remit of the independent inquiry that will be set up into the whole sorry saga of BSE.

The state of affairs at the moment is ludicrous. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and I raised the matter in the House last week. The Prime Minister's press secretary--let us be clear about who I mean; it was Alastair Campbell--was briefing people at No. 10 that the decision had been taken in principle some time ago, and that we now had to move ahead with a remit.

However, in the House both the Minister of State and the Leader of the House responded to questions from me and my hon. Friend by saying that no final decision had been taken, and that the Government were not yet in a

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position to clarify matters. Why are the Government at sixes and sevens over the issue? They should listen to the voices in the Chamber, where it has been made clear that the Labour party is in favour of, and my party has been a long-standing advocate of, an inquiry. The dog that will not bark is the Conservative party. The Conservatives are the only people who are not calling for an inquiry into BSE.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): I wonder why.

Mr. Kennedy: We know only too well.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kennedy: In a moment. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who has experience of the Scott report--and the scars to prove it--will be the first to underscore the need to confirm not only that an inquiry will take place, but that it will not take the same form as the Scott report. It must be open, independent and accessible, as that process was not.

Mr. Paice: May I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the Conservative party is happy to have a public inquiry? However, we are anxious to ensure that the setting up of an inquiry is not used by the Government as a smokescreen to curb other action that may be necessary immediately. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Mr. Kennedy: I certainly agree. There will be no disagreement among the Liberal Democrats with the statement that a public inquiry should not be used as a smokescreen. That is not the point of a public inquiry, which is a flushing-out rather than a covering-up exercise. I note the hon. Gentleman's recommendation and the endorsement that he has given on behalf of his party. I expect that we shall rediscover his comments in due course, as and when such an inquiry takes place--or, more important, when it reports.

The history of the problem, which goes back far beyond the immediate BSE crisis, will demonstrate that actions taken by the previous Government on deregulation and so on are extremely relevant to the situation in which we now find ourselves. I am talking about not only agriculture but the rural economy as a whole.

I hope that the Minister who is to respond will be able to say something positive about the need to access European funds to help the farming community, and about how swiftly the Government will press ahead with an independent inquiry.

There is no doubt about the strength of feeling. The Minister will know that, if he has spoken to his Secretary of State. When 500 people turn out in Kirkwall to confront the Secretary of State for Scotland, as they did last Thursday night, to make their point in a peaceful and considered way, that is an expression of the depths of despair in the agricultural community. I know that that point is not lost on the Secretary of State, and I hope that it will not be lost on the Minister.

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