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1 Nov 2000 : Column 222WH

Swine Fever (Norfolk and Suffolk)

10.59 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring this issue to the attention of the House, because the outbreak of swine fever in East Anglia on 8 August has had a crippling effect on pig farmers in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and a major impact on the local farming community.

I am delighted to be joined in the Chamber by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) and the hon. Members for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). Several other colleagues from the region cannot be present, although farms in their areas have been affected, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and my hon. Friends the Members for Central Suffolk and Ipswich, North (Mr. Lord)--a Deputy Speaker--for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley). Many of them have been in contact with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and have received representations from pig farmers in their areas.

This swine fever outbreak is expected to cost the pig industry about £20 million. About 1,200 pig producers were trapped by the movement restrictions in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. It is calculated that they have lost about £4 million and bank borrowings are rising every day. The United Kingdom's largest pig producing company--BOCM Pauls--says that about £2 million is owed by producers in the surveillance zone. By any calculation, that is a massive potential indebtedness, which affects not only the pig producers, but the whole farming community in our area and has a knock-on effect on the entire local economy.

To put the crisis in perspective, let me give the figures that I obtained this morning. The Minister may have more up-to-date figures. About 175,000 pigs have been killed since 8 August--115,000 of them under the welfare scheme, which means that they were clean, healthy pigs. Other pigs have been killed on the farms. That is an enormous number. Nearly all the pigs killed under the welfare scheme were killed at an abattoir in my constituency.

Pig farmers and their families in our area have been devastated by the outbreak. Members of Parliament frequently lobby or make representations on behalf of their constituents. We are all guilty of using hyperbole at times, but those of us in the area know what an impact the outbreak has had. The men and women affected had already endured a pretty awful two and a half years. They were only just recovering from the downturn in the pig market. This spring, things were just beginning to pick up and now they have been hit again. For those whose pigs were directly affected, it has been a horror story. For hundreds of others, all sorts of restrictions have meant that they stand a chance of going out of business. Many have had to lay off workers and there is a deep feeling of helplessness.

All that has happened in a sector of farming that has, by any definition, adopted the highest standards of animal welfare and efficiency, certainly compared with most UK competitors. I am sure that we can all find

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examples of pig farmers who do not meet those high standards. However, as the Minister said at the Meat and Livestock Commission breakfast, at which the national pig awards were made, Ministers accept that that sector of farming has been outstanding. Pig farmers are, therefore, depressed and angry. They look to politicians, in particular Ministers, for short-term remedies and long-term answers.

The crisis has been going on for three months. For almost all that time, Parliament has been in recess. Pig farmers in East Anglia, the local community, the media and all MPs have been frustrated at being unable to question Ministers and hold them to account. Comments are often made about the relevance of Parliament today, the fact that it has been sidelined and that Members of Parliament simply draw a large salary and do not do much else. However, it has been brought home to me and many colleagues this summer that when Parliament is not sitting, not only constituents but Members of Parliament are frustrated by not being able to get answers from Ministers. When Parliament is not sitting there is, strangely, a democratic deficit.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Would the hon. Gentleman concede that Baroness Hayman paid four visits and met pig producers in Norfolk and Suffolk in the recess?

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): It is indeed the case that the Minister of State in the other place has her second home in my constituency. On two occasions she found it possible to visit a single farmer on her way home. The visits were carried out in extreme secrecy, as the press were not informed until afterwards. At the beginning of the outbreak, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I say this for the clarification of the House--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. We are already stretching the rules by having one intervention on another. I should hate to allow an intervention to become a speech.

Mr. Simpson : Obviously you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that feelings are running high. I shall return shortly to ministerial responsibility, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North raised the matter. I am speaking not only as a Conservative Member, but on behalf of many pig farmers who have suggested to me that the ministerial appearances have been like drawing teeth. Indeed, at the first appearance, the Minister in the other place was going to a small meeting near Bury St. Edmunds when she was effectively forced to come to a large meeting to hear the views of several hundred pig farmers. That is well recognised.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): Does my hon. Friend also recognise that not only have Ministers failed to visit the area properly, they have failed to answer correspondence? I have written three times to the Minister and I have not had one reply.

Mr. Simpson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. I shall give an example in a few minutes.

After taking into account all the external extenuating circumstances surrounding the outbreak of swine fever, people in Norfolk, Suffolk and, until recently, Essex,

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have felt let down by Ministers. Since 8 August, I have been asked continually when would the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food come to Norfolk and Suffolk to see the crisis for himself and to talk to pig farmers. It is no good the junior Minister coming four times. The right hon. Gentleman promised today at the national pig awards that he would come to East Anglia in the near future to have discussions with local pig farmers and others.

Colleagues from other parties will say that I am merely trying to make partisan political points, but this question has been put to me by a large number of pig farmers who may or may not vote for me. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food promised at the Labour party conference on 28 September to come and find out at first hand by the time that Parliament met on 23 October. He has broken that promise. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was able to attend a meeting on 17 October in Norfolk to hear the concerns of pig farmers. The failure of the responsible Cabinet Minister to come and see for himself bears directly on the anger and frustration felt by pig farmers and others that this attack of swine fever has not been handled well.

The first priority for everyone has obviously been to prevent the spread of swine fever and make certain that it is completely eradicated. However, pig farmers have asked me if the policy of Ministers and officials harmed that first priority. On behalf of the pig farmers in my constituency, I have some direct questions for the Minister of State, which I want her to answer now.

Welcome though the lifting of restrictions in Essex and Norfolk have been, to date 242 pig producers are involved and more than 1,000 are still locked in to restrictions. Pig farmers and the public want Ministers to answer the following questions. What was the cause of this outbreak of swine fever? Was it caused by a pig's consumption of infected material discarded by a member of the public? Was that source an infected pig product from outside the United Kingdom? If so, what action will the Minister take to curb illegal imports of meat products and to enforce higher standards of traceability and warranty on the importers of meat products so that the United Kingdom's standards are met and can be proven to be so?

Given the slow and at times chaotic response of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the outbreak in the first few weeks, what operational procedures did MAFF have in place, based upon the previous swine fever outbreak in 1986? Will there be at least a Ministry assessment of lessons learned from the outbreak, so that if we are faced with a similar outbreak, procedures will be in place to deal with it?

Does the Minister believe that MAFF had, or still has, sufficient resources to cope with the outbreak? Farmers have given me countless examples. They are unable to get answers from MAFF, and there is order and counter order, with frequent changes of personnel. Even taking into account the fact that the outbreak happened in August, the chaos and confusion made it even more frustrating for pig farmers trying to get a common line from the Ministry.

There is particular anxiety about the time that it takes to obtain the results of blood tests on animals subject to movement--it took 27 days, on average, for results that should have been known within eight to 10 days. That puts an ever-greater strain on pig farmers.

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The restrictions placed on the movement of pigs have led to gross overcrowding and suffering. Pig farmers are amazed that although MAFF claims that animal welfare is its responsibility, it closed the pig farms on 9 August but the welfare disposal scheme was not introduced until the end of that month. Is the Minister prepared to take responsibility for the serious decline in the standards of pig slaughter? Slaughterers are paid £1 per pig, and slaughtering consists mainly of shooting pigs with a 2.2 rifle with an enlarged bore, which, to say the least, is pretty bloody.

Has MAFF been constrained in its efforts to deal with the crisis by financial restrictions imposed by the Treasury? If MAFF had been able to extract £10 million to £15 million from the Treasury at the outset, many of the operational problems could have been met.

Finally, there is the matter of compensation, which is of great interest to pig farmers--and, I suspect, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker--but is also the cause of great frustration to them. The laggard way in which the Ministry has responded to this crucial issue is seen by pig farmers, the wider farming community and people who live in rural areas as too little, too late. Pig farmers have never been subsidised and have been proud to stand on their own feet to meet the challenges of animal welfare, but the incomes of pig farmers caught up in the surveillance zone have collapsed, while their debts have mounted through no fault of their own. Indeed, they have had to find the funds to provide the necessary accommodation for the extra pigs crowded on to their farms, which they have been unable to move.

I remind the House that the Government first offered £35 for animals that weighed more than 60 kg and £10 for smaller pigs, despite the fact that the average cost of each pig lost would have been nearly £100. As a result of pressure from the farming community, the media and politicians, Ministers were then forced to offer £50 plus an additional £15 levy.

For a month, Ministers have been considering a revised compensation scheme suggested by the National Pig Association. No reply was received. The House may be interested to know that at the breakfast attended by some of us this morning, courtesy of the Meat and Livestock Commission--it was to celebrate British pig products and bestow the National Pig Association award--I was told that the Minister of State rather than the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was expected to make the award. However, in the event, the Minister appeared and made a statement--not to the House, but to the National Pig Association--accepting a revised scheme of compensation. My colleagues and I have not yet had a chance to study the details, but any refinement is welcome. It would have been more appropriate if the right hon. Gentleman had made a statement to the House. That, after all, is what Mr. Speaker has been saying in the past fortnight. I am not making a nit-picking parliamentary point; it is important because of the parliamentary deficit of the past three months. Although the revised scheme is welcome in general terms, the farming community and politicians on both sides will want to examine it in detail.

The crucial point for the Minister is that when the compensation will be paid is as important as how much. Initially, the National Pig Association believed that as a

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result of legal and financial problems, the first payments would not be made until spring 2001. It is no exaggeration to say that if we have to wait that long and the banks are unwilling to wait, the pig industry in East Anglia will face considerable collapse. I welcome the revised scheme, but there is a need for much greater honesty and clarity.

The past three months have been a disaster for our pig farmers. They are frustrated and angry and feel that Ministers and MAFF, having displayed lethargy and a lack of grip, lie behind the crisis. The Minister of State will doubtless say that she was working hard throughout August, September and October, which is partly true. Other questions must be asked, and pig farmers in my area do not gain that impression.

It was a mistake for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food not to have visited our area within a few weeks to listen to pig farmers and show that he was, as he claimed, directing the situation from Whitehall. The right hon. Gentleman is in danger of being regarded, without too much hyperbole, as a caricature of a first world war general--"I feel your pain and I am dealing with the paperwork". The Minister of State is shaking her head, but if she visited my constituency and met some pig farmers, she would find that that was so. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to fulfil the pledge that he gave at the Labour party conference and again this morning--to come to Norfolk and Suffolk, meet pig farmers and understand the extent of the crisis. If a financial package is not introduced quickly, a large part of our pig industry will be destroyed, with enormous knock-on effects on the farming community. He owes it to the pig farmers, their families and the wider farming communities of Norfolk and Suffolk.

11.18 am

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I am pleased to speak in this important debate. I represent an Essex division, which comes within two miles of the Suffolk border, so I hope that I shall be forgiven for intervening. Parts of my constituency have been subject to the restricted zones and, in any event, the ancient kingdom of Essex used to stretch into Suffolk. I am therefore qualified to speak.

I shall not go down the route of discussing second homes, correspondence and breakfasts. I am sorry that I did not attend the breakfast this morning, as I am not certain what was announced about the revised compensation scheme. That shows the disadvantage of political meetings so early in the day. However, from what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, I gather that the scheme may be along the lines of that advocated by the National Pig Association.

In many ways, this outbreak is more severe than what happened in 1986 because it comes on the back of probably the greatest depression in agriculture since the 1930s. It is the greatest depression that the pig-farming sector has faced within farming living memory and it is the one depression on top of the other that has made the crisis so acute in the eastern counties. Let us briefly consider the crisis that pig farming has suffered in the past two to three years. The price of pigmeat has fallen from the top price of 140p per kilo to way down below the perceived break-even figure of 90-odd pence per kilo.

The reasons why such a situation has come about are manifold. The ubiquitous argument about the strength of the pound comes into it, as does the argument about

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the extra costs that the sector has borne with regard to the well-advanced and well-received welfare standards that our pig sector introduced way ahead of many of our competitors. There may have been a misjudgment on the back of the BSE crisis--in that more consumers would switch to pigmeat away from beef. That did not occur on the scale that was anticipated. In any event, owing to the strength of the pound we were not able to take advantage of contracting the Danish or Dutch shares of our domestic market. All those problems existed in any event and those of us who represent pig farming constituencies will know that the industry has been in severe crisis for some time.

The problem amounts to a tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions. Classical swine fever came along at the very moment that the corner was being turned, when the price was rising and edging up towards £1 per kilo and when there was a streak of hope about what had been a bleak prospect. Pig farmers in my constituency understand that the industry has not been subsidised for many years for various historical reasons. I do not think that they want the industry to be subsidised. We are in a unique situation in that the industry has received a double blow, which requires a broader view to be taken of what might be possible. There was a real risk beyond what we are facing now--that confidence in the product would have been undermined. I was most grateful to learn from the various radio shows that I listen to while driving around my constituency that the disease poses no danger to humans. Fortunately, for once, there has been no irresponsible scaremongering. It has been accepted that the disease cannot threaten humans and, consequently, the price of pigmeat has remained steady and on an upward position, as it was throughout the summer.

I shall not go into the more polemical parts of the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk. That is for Opposition Members to do and for my right hon. Friend the Minister to resist. I certainly can say, however, that she has replied to my entreaties in correspondence within a relatively short time. I am a supporter of the scheme that has been advanced by the National Pig Association: that compensation should take the form of a headage payment. There should be a sliding scale based on the weight of the pig. I do not know the figures that were announced today, but £12 per head and 55p per kilo have been advanced. That seems an eminently sensible way in which to proceed.

As for the industry levies, they should be introduced in good times to provide an insurance fund for bad times. These are bad times in pig farming, and difficult times to collect such a levy. I understand the Ministry's trepidation that the fund may not yield what is predicted and that the £15 may not be paid. The Ministry may take a chance, if it is allowed to do so by the Comptroller and Auditor General, and advance the money on the basis that other matters will fall into place and the levy can be collected.

There is a case, however, for taking a longer term view about the possibility of a levy to be used as a fund against future outbreaks of swine fever or other diseases. One pig farmer in my area mentioned the outbreak of another disease some years ago. He asked me whether the levy that was made then had all been paid out. I have yet to ascertain the facts and ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of State to inquire further

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about it. A longer term levy at an appropriate rate, that could be adjusted in bad times and increased in good ones, may be an appropriate answer to the problem.

It does not help, during the current agricultural crisis, to make party political points. The problems for those involved in the industry are so severe that they will want to hear about the steps being taken that will benefit them now and in the long term. My right hon. Friend the Minister is sympathetic to the position in which the pig sector finds itself, so I hope to hear a positive and progressive response from her.

11.26 am

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. As he says, the difficulties and problems suffered by the pig industry in our constituencies since the end of July have been compounded by the fact that we have been unable to get comments or facts from the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This debate has provided us with our first opportunity to confront Ministers with the problems that our constituents have suffered since the end of July--for that, thanks be to Parliament.

I congratulate my hon. Friend also on the comprehensive way in which he covered not only the unfolding of a situation that brought many farmers in my constituency near to ruin, but the problems that remain. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) added some pertinent points, which may not have referred precisely to Norfolk and Suffolk, but which showed that his heart is with us.

We are all pleased that the outbreak was contained. Local farmers, with whom I have been in constant touch since the end of July, appreciated the regular briefings that they received from vets and other officials. When the emergency operation centre at Bury St. Edmonds was set up, farmers found that they could approach it with some ease. Of course, we have not had such an outbreak for 14 years. We all--producers, the Opposition, Ministers and Ministry officials--hoped that there would be no need to introduce arrangements for dealing with this difficult notifiable disease. However, it is also true that the machine had to cranked up--vets had to be brought in not only from other areas but from other countries. One wonders what might have happened had there been an outbreak in Cornwall or Devon--thank goodness, there was not--that could not have been managed from the same operations centre at Bury St. Edmonds.

Dr. Gibson : Will the right hon. Lady consider being more positive about the action taken over the outbreak? The BSE crisis extended across the country, but the actions taken in this instance prevented an extremely infectious virus from spreading from Norfolk and Suffolk to other parts of the United Kingdom, so compliments are due. I remind hon. Members of Baroness Hayman's visit to pig producers, from whom she brought extremely positive answers back to the Ministry.

Mrs. Shephard : Obviously the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I said, as he was preparing his question

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instead. I had just said that we were all pleased that the outbreak was contained, and that farmers appreciated the briefings from officials and others.

Dr. Gibson : I missed that.

Mrs. Shephard : Yes. Such measures were appreciated, and I took the trouble to write to the Minister in the other place at the beginning of the outbreak to make the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk painted a telling picture of the outbreak's devastating local effect on agriculture and the rural economy. I shall be brief, but I want to underline some of what he said. The financial effects of the outbreak must be set against a background in which, according to the Eastern Daily Press of 18 September, local farm incomes have fallen 50 per cent. since 1996. The figures are taken from a report by Larking Gowen, a Norwich-based firm of accountants, and it is pointed out that farmers in East Anglia currently earn less than the statutory minimum wage. That also underlines the point made by the hon. Member for Braintree, who said that the pig industry was hardly in a happy situation before the outbreak.

That figure--farm incomes falling by 50 per cent. in the past four years--was calculated before the financial effects of the swine fever outbreak or the Government's fuel tax policies had been taken into account. The Ministry will be aware that, before the outbreak, the pig industry was only starting to recover from its own crisis and survived thanks to the determination and good husbandry of producers involved. Although farmers certainly appreciated the co-operation and helpfulness of officials at the containment centre in Bury St. Edmunds, farmers themselves should be congratulated. They showed great responsibility by complying with requests made to them in containing the disease, despite the heavy financial effects that those requests imposed on them.

Owing to the regulations imposed by surveillance zones and movement restrictions, the impact on cash flow for farmers whose livestock has not suffered from the disease has been devastating. Neville Kemp, a constituent of mine from East Harling, expressed the problem at a farmers' meeting on 17 October, saying, as reported in the Eastern Daily Press of 21 October:


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Another farm in my constituency that has been adversely affected is the old, established farm Pilgrim's of Banham, which has calculated that its loss over the period amounts to £168,461. That is the most extraordinary loss to expect a company to bear and survive. It is a matter not only for pig producers but for the rural economy. The knock-on effects if such a company had to cease trading would be felt in employment and haulage, by suppliers and throughout the rural economy, which is already suffering because of fuel tax and other difficulties.

At the beginning of the outbreak, the Minister of State in the other place attended a meeting of producers, despite much reported hesitation. It has been difficult to hear by rumour that she has visited on other occasions and for us to be unable to meet her because her meetings with individual farmers have been reported only after the event.

Despite repeated invitations, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been notable by his absence. He has apparently been unable to reply to letters from colleagues. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Braintree had received replies to his letters. Clearly he was wise to address them to the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin). The matter is not trivial, because we are trying to help producers and answer their questions. I was driven to tabling a parliamentary question as soon as the House returned to ask when I might receive a reply to my letter to the Minister of 31 August. I had one of those wonderful replies that told me that he would answer as soon as possible. Today, the day of the debate--what magic, the power of Parliament again--I received a letter from the Minister, although it took four days to arrive from Smith square, which must be something to do with the rain. It is of course dated after 31 August. It did not arrive until 1 November, but it is dated 27 October. A terrific mystery is involved. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, the Minister promised to visit on 28 September, but regrettably he has not done so. Earlier today he again promised to do so, and it will be welcome if he manages to fit a visit to that hard-pressed area into his equally hard-pressed diary.

Many unanswered questions remain. The Minister made an announcement at the Meat and Livestock Commission meeting this morning. I do not know whether he should have made it to Parliament, but had he done so we would have been able to question him on the content and the point of it. We shall not have the same opportunity today with the Minister of State, because her contribution comes at the end of the debate. However, I shall ask her some questions now that relate to the legislative arrangements necessary to bring into force the compensation package, which will include a levy from the industry.

I understand, and expect the Minister to confirm, that legislation will be necessary to bring into force the levy from the industry. When is that due to be considered and when will it come into force? Will the levy cover all notifiable diseases and any human-health related diseases, as producers have apparently been told? The eastern region chairman of the National Pig Association

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has written to the Minister about that, but naturally has not received a reply. The right hon. Lady will be able to tell us this morning.

Does the agreement of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have to be obtained? If so, is that likely to be forthcoming given that there has been no trace of the disease in those parts of Britain? Given the uncertainties of the timing and availability of the levy, do the banks accept it as a bankable proposition? Is it fair that pig farmers have to bail themselves out because, as they believe, a consignment of pork reached this country illegally from abroad and caused the disease? What responsibility do the Government take? The pig industry clearly needs answers and it needs them fast.

I hope that the Minister will be able to enlarge on the announcement made elsewhere this morning by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As far as one can tell, there seems to have been some restructuring of the compensation arrangements but it was not clear whether additional money is to be provided for compensation and what the ceiling for compensation per animal is to be. It is welcome that the right hon. Gentleman has listened to concerns about the structuring of the compensation from the industry, but there are other questions. The Ministry will have to think about the implications of consequential losses that result from this kind of disease. The worst losses have been incurred by those whose herds have not had the disease. That is the point. The Ministry must take account of that. According to veterinary sources, climate change is likely to bring about more unusual and unexpected outbreaks of disease. The Ministry will have to come to grips with the question of consequential loss.

I am grateful finally to have had the chance to put these concerns directly to a Minister. The right hon. Lady will answer them conscientiously--that is her reputation and that is how she always responds. However, I cannot emphasise enough the disappointment and sense of let-down felt by pig producers because of the lack of ministerial response at a time when their livelihoods are tumbling down around their ears.

11.42 am

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): It is a great honour to follow two excellent speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) who have covered many of the issues that I wanted to raise this morning. We all know that the pig industry is a roller coaster. Prices go up and down from great extremes. The difference in the past three years has been that until very recently prices have been stuck at an incredibly low level. For about three years the pig industry has been on its uppers and unlike any other sector of agriculture in this country it receives no subsidies. The situation has been made worse for pig producers because they have to compete with imports that do not have to comply with the same high hygiene and welfare standards as our pigs. Our pig industry has not been supported by the degree of honesty in labelling that could have been expected.

The past three years have been extremely difficult. Farmers with mixed farms have had little joy in other parts of agriculture, with wheat at £55 a tonne and sugar

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beet down to £27 a tonne. There is great uncertainty about the future of the sugar regime, allied to the fact that the cost of fuel has been rising steeply. The cost of ammonium nitrates and other chemicals has meant that the farming industry has been going through a crisis and a depression the extent of which is unmatched, certainly in my lifetime, and probably not seen since the 1920s and 1930s. The fact that swine fever came on top of that was the last straw for many producers, so it has had a disproportionate effect.

The impact on individual families involved in the pig industry has largely been one of cash flow. Their sole source of income stopped. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk said, many pig farmers have received no money at all for some 10 weeks. A typical farm with about 300 sows receives a regular income of £10,000 and that income has just stopped. The problem has caused a great deal of hardship. Barclays bank estimates that the level of indebtedness of pig farmers in Norfolk and Suffolk increased by £2 million during August and September. The impact of the problem has been felt not only by the pig farmers, but by their suppliers, the feedstuff suppliers, other related industries and by the pigs themselves. Figures show that pig mortality in some herds has increased from 5 per cent. to nearly 30 per cent. The implications of dealing with that level of mortality are horrendous for the men involved.

What has been the Government's reaction to the problem? I have tried to get in touch with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food since the end of August, but I have not yet received a reply. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk received a letter from him today, but I have received no communication at all. To me, as a Member of Parliament, that shows a lack of interest and understanding and it is absolutely disgraceful. What am I supposed to tell my constituents who work in the pig industry? Their livelihoods are severely compromised, but the Minister cannot even be bothered either to visit them or to reply to correspondence. It is a disgrace.

The Government will have to come up with a lot of answers about the handling of the dispute. Why is the testing for swine fever taking almost a month, when it could be done in 10 days? Why has it taken so long to kill the confirmed units? Why are there stories of dead pigs being left overnight with crows and foxes feeding on them, spreading disease?

Mrs. Shephard : Reports in my constituency have circulated about dead pigs being left in fields for far longer than overnight. Apparently, they have been left for four days, and carrion seekers have pecked at the bodies and carried the disease heaven knows where.

Mr. Prior : I have heard stories about dead pigs being left for more than 24 hours, but obviously four days is much worse than that. The story about the 24 hours happened in the Quidenham zone, where literally hundreds of pigs were left in a heap overnight. As my right hon. Friend said, they are a prey to carrion. One of the problems in Norfolk and Suffolk has been the great expansion in outdoor pigs over the past five to 10 years, partly in response to welfare regulations. It has made the containment of the disease that much more difficult.

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The compensation package should have been designed to contain the disease as much as possible. It has clearly not done that. Had farmers been irresponsible, there would have been a tremendous incentive to contract the disease and claim full compensation or to shift pigs out of containment zones before they were announced by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is only because pig farmers have taken an incredibly responsible attitude to the problem that the containment and restriction zones have worked. There has been an incentive for farmers to keep pigs weighing more than 100 kg. That has resulted in the welfare problems that we have discussed and has cost the Government more. It would have been much better had farmers put smaller pigs into the scheme without suffering a financial penalty. Perhaps the Minister of State will say something about that when she replies to the debate because the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may have changed the compensation rules.

Will the Minister of State explain what happened in Holland? When the same problem arose there, what compensation was made available to its pig farmers? I have been told that that the compensation programme was much more generous and, instead of simply including a profit element, compensated farmers for the full cost of production. It would have amounted to about £100 for a 100 kg pig.

The Government will need to answer many questions. They have been fortunate that the disease has not spread further because there is nothing in the compensation scheme to prevent that from happening. Many farmers feel bitter and upset that the Government have not been prepared even to visit them, let alone answer their questions, so I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.49 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on raising this issue and on his miraculous timing. The debate is taking place only hours after the Minister's important statement at breakfast this morning.

I agree with many hon. Members that pig farmers are a special breed of people. I say that from one Breed to another. In recent years, they have complied with everything that has been thrust on them. They co-operated almost immediately with the stall and tether bans, investing huge sums of money to comply with them. They grappled with meat and bone meal feed and high abattoir charges, which were not their fault, but due to BSE.

Having ensured that their industry met welfare and health standards, pig farmers were subjected to perhaps the ultimate insult of seeing imported meat re-labelled as if it were British. A couple of weeks ago, we heard about a farmer from Honiton in Devon who was effectively acting as a trading standards officer, because he identified a product in Tesco as wrongly labelled. After complying so quickly and efficiently with everything that was asked of them after this outbreak of classical swine fever, pig farmers feel, not unnaturally, rather disappointed that the compensation and the way in which things have gone have not helped them much.

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I welcome the Minister's announcement this morning that the Government have accepted the industry's compensation package. I suspect that there are many lessons to be learned from the Phillips report on BSE, but one is that compensation has a significant effect on the motivation and intention of farmers who receive it. Part of the problem with BSE was that the compensation package changed and did not compensate farmers fully. If the pig farmers had not responded so magnificently, this outbreak might have been more significant.

The compensation package lacks one final aspect, which shows the way in which the Ministry views BSE and classical swine fever. Almost everything has to do with timing, which in commercial terms manifests itself in cash flow. There is a relentless rise in borrowing from the bank, because of lack of income. That places various additional costs on top of interest and banking costs and the inability to pay bills. There is a knock-on effect throughout the sector.

Although a compensation package has been announced, people fear that it may not secure for the industry all the benefits that it should, mainly because of timing. An important element is the levy payment of 20 per cent. from the industry, which must be collected at a time when things are difficult, processed and paid out. That 20 per cent. may not be available for many months, yet the industry has major cash flow problems.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the idea of what in banking is called a bridging loan. Farmers could receive that portion of the compensation more quickly. The MLC could pay it out and repay the Treasury later when it has collected it. The securing of compensation payments will be a key element in the industry's continued success after this disastrous episode. However, there are lessons to be learned and, as we have found from the Phillips report, they are wide and many. I have a few questions in addition to those that other hon. Members have asked, many of which were on my lips too.

I want to raise the issue of pre-planning. We heard this morning that the pig industry had changed significantly since the previous swine fever outbreak. That is true. In a commercial context, "what-if" exercises can be carried out, to establish what would happen in certain circumstances. The Ministry should address itself to pre-planning for the relevant scenario, not least to ensure that with the new format of closed MAFF offices, other parts of the country will be equally well served if a similar outbreak occurs. Does the Ministry have a proper pre-planning exercise to ensure that swift action can be taken throughout the country?

Because the compensation package is new, a monitoring system will be necessary to ensure that all the appropriate needs are met and that the Ministry stays close to the situation. Many pig farmers are on the brink and they will be highly dependent on their business planning. They will need to ensure that compensation payments and their business plans in relation to the bank can be properly relied on and that the Ministry will provide the compensation package quickly.

The origin of the outbreak seems to have been in some imported infection. What closer scrutiny of imports is now being undertaken? What regulations are being tightened?

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I have been thinking for some time, not least because of the problems of farming incomes generally and the way that prices have been driven down by supermarkets among other factors, that the value of mixed farming should be recognised. We seem to have departed from that. When farmers engaged in a variety of farming activities they were cushioned from the effects of a problem in one sector by their operations in another. We seem to have arrived at a stage of specialisation, be it in dairy, pigs or poultry, whereby farmers depend principally on one activity for their income. A problem in that sector affects them massively.

It is now being suggested that the industry should raise a levy or that other ways of providing compensation could be pursued. The greatest cushion for many businesses is the opportunity to derive income from a variety of sources, such as having customers in different places or engaging in different activities. There is certainly merit in examining the way in which over the years we have arrived at a way of farming so specialised that each sector is vulnerable.

Mrs. Shephard : I much appreciate the hon. Gentleman's thoughtful presentation. However, while undoubtedly over the years a steady concentration and specialisation of farming activities has taken place, at present every sector has taken a nose dive. The result is that even being in mixed farming--and many farmers are--is not much help.

Mr. Breed : That is also a thoughtful contribution, but in general terms it should be recognised that the stability of businesses depends on a wide customer and activity base. I hope that perhaps there will be some investigation of that line of thought, if only to eliminate it.

11.59 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on obtaining the debate and the opportunity to question the Minister, and on the way in which he opened the debate. He clearly set out the state of affairs in the pig industry, in particular in Norfolk and Suffolk, although there are peripheral effects in Essex and, potentially, consequences for the rest of the country.

I am the only former pig farmer in the Chamber--and probably the only one in the House. My pig unit would have been in one of the restricted areas, so I come to the debate with some empathy for those who are so seriously caught up in the situation. As my hon. Friend said, the pig industry is not normally subsidised; however, it is not true that it has never been subsidised. At one time, it was subsidised to the tune of 50p a score--a now outdated measurement of pig weights. My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that that occurred in the late 1970s, under the previous Labour Government, because of the state of the industry.

As several hon. Members have said, this outbreak of swine fever follows two and a half years of serious losses. About 26 per cent. of the breeding herd in England has gone and, as has been emphasised, farmers have no reserves on which to call to carry them through the new crisis. Although the hon. Member for Braintree

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(Mr. Hurst) chided my hon. Friends for being, as he put it, partisan over the issue, the music has for the moment stopped and we have these Ministers in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. If there are criticisms of the way in which the situation has been handled, they should be made.

My right hon. and hon. Friends were justified in making an issue of the Minister's failure to visit the area--in such a crisis, one would have expected him to do so. There is evidence that farmers would prefer the organ grinder--I will not continue the analogy. The Minister told the meeting that was referred to earlier that he cancelled his holiday. That is a noble gesture, but not many farmers would believe that he had to sit in his office for the whole of August without being able to visit the area.

On 4 September, I wrote officially to the Minister on behalf of the Opposition and pointed out, among other issues, that the £66 million outgoers scheme announced by the Government at the end of March has still not been put in place and farmers have not received a penny of it. That potential cushion is still not available to farmers and probably will not be for several months. Hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that it took seven weeks for me to receive a reply, even to an official letter from the Opposition. The letter came from the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), but was signed by her private secretary. Unfortunately, it did not even mention the outgoers scheme and, what is worse, it was factually incorrect in its references to the proposals of the National Pig Association. I shall return to that issue.

My first question to the right hon. Lady has to be when she expects the outgoers scheme to begin to deliver to farmers, who are in desperate need of that small extra support. Furthermore, will farmers who have been slaughtered out because of the swine fever outbreak and who have decided not to restock because they do not wish to continue pig farming also be eligible for the outgoers scheme?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, around 170,000 pigs have so far been slaughtered under compulsory slaughtering and under the welfare scheme. Although the scheme is in the interests of welfare--I understand the reasons for that--the restriction orders create huge costs for the industry. Cash flow, to which the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) referred, is crucial. Farmers have no cash flow for extra feed, labour and housing costs.

David Hodgetts of Barclays bank was present at the meeting that my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) attended. As reported in Farming News, Mr. Hodgetts told my right hon. Friend:


The scheme on which the Government made an announcement this morning was submitted to them by the NPA almost a month ago. We may all question why

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it has taken the Government so long to reach a decision; perhaps the Minister preferred to announce it on a platform rather than address the urgency of the situation. However, the Government have now decided to ask the industry to fund a levy. In passing, I say to the hon. Member for Braintree that a levy was raised on an earlier occasion during an occurrence of Aujeszky's disease that caused serious problems for the industry. There is still money outstanding from that levy, which the Government have failed to make available.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) referred to the legal procedures needed to get the levy in place, which will be long and drawn out. Consultations are going on, and the industry has already requested that the Government provide a bridging loan. I believe that they have refused to do that, but I ask the Minister to reconsider that decision. We are talking about only £2 million, which will be recouped through the levy and will make a great deal of difference. After all, it represents 20 per cent. of the compensation that will be available, according to new figures.

On the administration of the welfare scheme, among the articles that have come out of various discussions and meetings taking place in East Anglia is one from Farming News, written by Mr. Brian Rivett of Fakenham, in Norfolk. The author lists a catalogue of what might be called administrative overkill, which I shall not detain hon. Members by detailing. He refers to the fact that people count the pigs out and in again and, if there are any errors, go back to square one. More people are supervising the killing than doing it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk, mentioned pigs that are left around at risk of carrion feeders, which could then spread the disease. Has a Minister or a senior official gone to watch the procedures and seen what is happening? There can be no smoke without fire and, although--who knows--there may be some journalistic licence in those articles, there is almost certainly some truth behind them. I hope that the Government will respond to those matters.

I must refer, as others have, to the cause of the outbreak. From the letter placed in The Veterinary Record by Ministers' officials, it seems certain that it was caused when a pig in an outdoor unit ate an imported pork product. I believe that the unit has been identified. It is ironic that the supposedly more welfare friendly scheme in which pigs are kept outdoors may have been the cause of the infection, which has had such damaging consequences not only for farmers but for pig welfare. Clearly, pigs kept outdoors are more prone to scattered waste than those kept indoors.

The aspect of the letter placed by people from the State Veterinary Service in The Veterinary Record that most astonished me was the statement that the


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For the past three years, the Opposition have been challenging the Government about the quality of our imports and the control of standards. When the Food Standards Bill was considered in Committee, I tabled an amendment to ensure that the Food Standards Agency had the same controls over imports as it had over domestically produced food. At the time, the right hon. Lady's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said that the Food Standards Agency


Well, if the agency has such powers, they are not being applied satisfactorily. If the very serious outbreak of the disease in East Anglia was by illegally imported foodstuffs, what else is being imported illegally into this country that might have even more serious and far-reaching consequences for animal or human health? I hope that the right hon. Lady will now do as some of my hon. Friends have suggested and tell us what the Government are doing to improve dramatically the quality of control over imported food. We cannot continue to have such problems.

The catalogue of delay and indecision by the Government has made matters worse. There has been little criticism of how the control of the disease has been managed by the officials of the State Veterinary Service and others, but there is plenty of evidence to show that the decision-making process and the delays have caused more serious consequences for pig producers than would otherwise have been the case.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall referred to the Phillips report, which cost £32 million. One of the clear lessons that has been learned from the report is that one has to make timely decisions and make them urgently on the best advice that is available at the time. The record of the past three months has not shown that the Government have learnt from the report. Ministry vets have taken admirable action, but there has been woeful inactivity by Ministers. Although the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food parrots his concerns, and did so again this morning, in his understanding and warm, emollient style, he and the Government will be judged on the way in which they have delivered results to the farmers.

My right hon. and hon. Friends have posed some questions this morning and I have added to them. The Minister of State now has a certain amount of time to answer them. They have not been made up by us; they are being asked by pig producers throughout East Anglia, who are suffering seriously from the outbreak. I hope that the right hon. Lady will now seek to redeem the Minister in the eyes of the farmers and produce some results so that they can begin to see a way forward.

12.13 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin ): We have had an important debate this morning and I shall try to respond

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to as many of the points that have been raised as I possibly can. I completely understand the concern and the depth of feeling that right hon. and hon. Members have expressed about the plight of the pig industry in their constituencies. I do not accept some of the comments that were made about ministerial approaches to the situation, which I shall outline shortly. Nor do I accept the charge that procedures have been slow, chaotic or confused. That is not the case, but I recognise the depth of concern expressed by right hon. and hon. Members about the problem. After two difficult years faced by the pig industry, the situation has rightly been described as serious and tragic.

First, I shall explain the nature of classical swine fever. Secondly, I shall summarise the steps taken by the Ministry to control and eradicate the outbreak in East Anglia. Thirdly, I shall deal with pig welfare issues and the steps adopted by the Government to help farmers to cope with them. In addressing those three elements, I shall endeavour to respond to issues raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and other hon. Members from all political parties.

As hon. Members know, classical swine fever is a highly infectious and contagious viral disease, which can result in very high mortality rates. It occurs worldwide, but until this year there has been no outbreak in this country since 1986. Several hon. Members mentioned the 1986 outbreak this morning.

The disease cannot spread to humans--well known to hon. Members, but an important message for the wider public who may be following the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) mentioned attempts by radio broadcasters and others to disseminate that crucial public safety information. The Food Standards Agency has advised that classical swine fever poses no risk to consumers.

Procedures for controlling classical swine fever are set out in European Union legislation. All pigs on holdings where the disease is evident must be killed and destroyed. The carcases of all slaughtered pigs in East Anglia have been destroyed by rendering. Movement controls must be imposed within a minimum of a 10 km radius of each infected holding to prevent the spread of the disease. Hon. Members have understandably pointed out the contrast between farmers whose holdings are infected and those whose holdings are subject to the restrictions arising from the surveillance and wider measures in the area. I shall endeavour to deal with both elements in my response.

The source of the infection must be investigated and, where possible, identified. The extent of the spread must also be established. Controls cannot be lifted until the competent authority is satisfied that infection is no longer present in the zone. Let me assure the House that in dealing with the present outbreak, we have scrupulously followed European Union rules.

The current outbreak started on 8 August with a confirmed case of classical swine fever on a holding in Suffolk. All pigs on the holding were slaughtered, and pig movements to and from the holding were traced. These tracings led to a number of other confirmed cases and to further movement restrictions.

Various comments were made about the source of the infection. Investigations suggest that the original infection was introduced in early June to a breeding unit

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in Norfolk. Infection then appears to have spread to four pig-rearing premises through the movement of infected weaned pigs. Lateral spread appears to have taken place from one of these to two neighbouring holdings. Others were infected either by the movement of infected pigs or by the movement of vehicles or people.

The first priority of the State Veterinary Service, and of Ministers, has been and remains to eradicate the disease. Protection zones of 3km were placed around all infected premises, within which initially any movement of livestock was prohibited. Wider zones have also been established, within which all farms with pigs are inspected and kept under surveillance. In total, classical swine fever has been confirmed on 15 premises during the outbreak: one in Essex, six in Suffolk and eight in Norfolk. Nearly 60,000 pigs have been slaughtered as infected or as dangerous contacts. The Essex outbreak has been dealt with and the surveillance zone around that outbreak was lifted on 22 September, as my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree recognised.

I am also glad to say that the zone around one of the Norfolk outbreaks, the breeding unit where the infection is thought to have originated, was lifted on 28 October. It is encouraging that there have been no new cases of classical swine fever since 4 October. Provided that we see no more, the State Veterinary Service hopes to lift the remaining zones by the end of November. One thing that unites us all here is our keenness to see that timetable implemented if at all possible.

Throughout the outbreak, veterinary investigations have been made more difficult by the fact that, in its early stages, classical swine fever looks similar to another pig disease known as PDNS--porcine dermatitis and nephropathy syndrome. The State Veterinary Service has, therefore, had to adopt a very cautious approach to ensure that PDNS was not masking swine fever before releasing holdings from restrictions.

So far, investigations have been unable to identify the precise origin of the virus that caused the present swine fever outbreak. Using molecular techniques the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge has precisely typed the strain of swine fever virus responsible for all the confirmed cases in East Anglia. It is not the same strain as caused the much larger outbreak in the Netherlands in 1997. It may be of Asian origin, and may therefore be linked to imported meat products, but at the moment the exact route of its introduction remains uncertain.

Throughout the course of the outbreak, Ministers, the Chief Veterinary Officer and MAFF officials have been kept in close touch with representatives of the pig and meat industries and all other interested parties. My right hon. Friend the Minister met pig industry representatives on several occasions in August in the early stages of the outbreak. My noble Friend Baroness Hayman visited the area on four occasions to meet pig farmers and see the problems for herself. As she is the Minister with responsibility for animal health it was entirely appropriate for her to fulfil that role.

Officers of the State Veterinary Service, including the Chief Veterinary Officer, have also attended many local meetings of pig farmers in East Anglia to keep them

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informed of progress. Indeed the Chief Veterinary Officer was in Diss two days ago when he made the important announcement about the timetable that we hoped to implement for the remaining areas. That was welcomed by the industry in East Anglia. Indeed, contacts have been invaluable in ensuring that Government and industry have worked together to eradicate the disease. I should like to join with other hon. Members who have paid tribute, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) did, to the work of the State Veterinary Service and veterinary officials. Other hon. Members pointed out the responsible attitude of pig farmers in the areas concerned. I concur with those remarks and am happy to endorse them.

We have also put in place a helpline for farmers, and information is provided by Ceefax and on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We have made great efforts to keep farmers as informed as possible, to help them through the difficulties caused by the outbreak.

Several hon. Members referred to animal welfare and related problems. I accept the fact that existing regulations provide more compensation for those on infected premises than those caught in the surveillance zones. For that reason, in learning lessons from the outbreak, it is important to do what we can to set up a long-term system so that the discrepancy does not recur. Previous Governments have not attempted such a system, but I hope that we can try to find a long-term solution. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk talked about the importance of short-term measures, and of the longer term. I agree. We have taken effective short-term measures, but the Government and the industry are keen to tackle the long-term issue together. I hope to talk about that shortly.

Obviously, the movement restrictions that had to be introduced to control the outbreak of swine fever pose severe economic problems for the farms affected. When animals cannot be sold or moved from premises as planned, accommodation or space needs to be found for an increasing volume of them. Careful management of farms is needed to avoid overstocking and the consequent increased risks of poor welfare and disease.

On 29 August, the Government introduced the pig welfare disposal scheme to deal with the potential welfare problems, in recognition of the exceptional circumstances affecting pig producers because of the movement restrictions required to eradicate the outbreak of swine fever. The measures are important. Several hon. Members referred to the outbreak of classical swine fever in 1986, in which there were 10 confirmed cases, but no compensation was paid other

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than that for pigs slaughtered. There was no animal welfare scheme of the kind that the Government have introduced.

We also introduced the scheme reasonably quickly. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire understandably referred to some of the frustrations involved in achieving European clearance for the pig industry restructuring scheme. Part of our motivation for bringing in the animal welfare disposal scheme was that we could get it up and running quickly. It was therefore frustrating for me to be charged with "chaos, slowness and delay" when we wanted to work with the industry to give some relief and support to farmers whose premises were not infected, but who were caught up in the wider surveillance measures.

As of the end of October, 134,000 pigs had been offered to the scheme and claims worth £4.1 million had been submitted for payment. That money is substantially in excess of that paid out in the 1986 outbreak.

Mr. Keith Simpson : Obviously, because of the time restrictions, the Minister will be unable to answer all the many questions asked. Will she assure us that her officials will answer those questions as soon as possible, so that we can pass the answers to our constituents?

Ms Quin : I am more than happy to give that assurance. When I saw that I had 15 minutes in which to reply, I knew that I would not be able to deal with every question. In no sense do I want to try to avoid them; we have good answers to them.

I was taken to task about correspondence. I am fairly certain that I remember signing a letter to the hon. Gentleman who raised the issue. However, if having read that reply he wants to pursue further issues with me, he can do so.

I hope that the modification to the scheme that my right hon. Friend the Minister announced at the Meat and Livestock Commission breakfast this morning will be welcome. It has been worked out with the industry. It is not a change of policy or a new scheme but a modification to the rate of the existing scheme, which was why my right hon. Friend the Minister felt that he could tell the industry this morning. It was not the sort of statement that it would, as hon. Members said, have been necessary to present to Parliament. It is simply a modification of an existing scheme.

As promised, I shall endeavour to write to hon. Members about outstanding issues raised and I shall place copies in the Library. The Government have acted speedily to help farmers who have infected premises and who are outside the immediate infected area to ensure that the problem is tackled as speedily and effectively as possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. Time is up.

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