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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): How should I respond to a farmer who exploded, saying that it would be grossly irresponsible of politicians to hold a general election, with people trampling around the countryside? What thought is being given to that serious issue?
Mr. Brown: I am appealing to members of the public to avoid unnecessary visits to farm premises, regardless of the reason or justification for them. As for the remainder of my hon. Friend's remarks, I shall ensure that they are passed on to those who take more interest in those matters than I can.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the Minister re-emphasise that he understands that we face not just an economic catastrophe for rural industries and a financial disaster for individual farmers, but a growing animal welfare problem, since beasts that should be at the slaughterhouse are accumulating on farms? How optimistic is the Minister that the discussions that he has mentioned will lead to controlled transportation--perhaps under licence; certainly supervised by the Meat Hygiene Service--from individual farm to slaughterhouse so that we can get the food chain moving again?
I welcome the statement made by the Minister on "Breakfast with Frost" yesterday that, if they remain disease free, the countries of Scotland and Northern Ireland could have the ban lifted early. What time scale do he and his colleagues envisage for that most desirable objective?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it may be possible at some future stage, although we most certainly have not reached that stage now, to regionalise the ban. The initial beneficiaries of such an approach would clearly be those areas that could demonstrate to our trading partners that they were free of foot and mouth disease and that measures were in place to keep them so. I have an open mind on whether that would be the correct approach for us to take. We shall have to see how the disease develops, since further cases from the primary source may remain to be reported. However, we may very well end up taking that approach.
On the food chain, I am conscious of the points made by the hon. Gentleman. I hope to be able to make an announcement soon, by which I mean within a matter of days. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that any responsible Government would want to keep animal welfare consequences closely under review. We must balance animal welfare considerations with disease control considerations, but disease control must be the
Mr. Brown: The issue of disinfectant supplies was raised with me by the president of the NFU earlier today, and I am asking for urgent inquiries to be made to ensure that we have sufficient supplies of materials essential to helping control the outbreak.
Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does the Minister accept that farmers in my constituency, who are deeply apprehensive about the current position, will have been appalled to hear him say that, because the Government have to contribute 80 per cent. agrimonetary compensation, even with the massive war chest that they have built up by stealth taxes, they will not make that money available to farmers?
Secondly, on the legal reasons that the Minister mentioned, does he agree that, if there is any responsibility or any question of negligence on the part of officials as regards the place in Northumberland where the initial outbreak occurred, those officials should not invoke Crown immunity, and that consequential loss could thus be payable?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman is on to entirely the wrong point, given the thrust of his final question. As for his first question, he should tell his constituents that the Labour Government have paid out about £630 million in agrimonetary compensation. The previous Conservative Government, whom he did not support as enthusiastically as he might have done, paid nothing at all in agrimonetary compensation. The state of the public finances is the result of good stewardship by the Labour Government; it ill behoves the Conservative party to tell us how such money should be spent.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I visited the MAFF website today, to find out what a pig infected with foot and mouth disease looked like--its snout looked very strange indeed. It is intriguing that the farmer at the centre of this--at the farm in Northumberland--was unable to spot the virus for so long. Is my right hon. Friend happy that farmers nationwide know how to spot the symptoms of this and other diseases? If they cannot do so, what educational programmes is he putting in place to ensure that such a horrific disease never takes hold again because of the ignorance of the people who should be looking after the animals?
Mr. Brown: We have not had the disease in this country for 20 years, so many people will not have seen it. The disease is called foot and mouth disease because that is the literal description of its early symptoms. As for the other matters that my hon. Friend raises, I hope he will understand that I do not answer them for pretty obvious reasons.
The Minister says that he is not prepared to consider any consequential compensation. Does he accept that many abattoirs and auction markets throughout the country are currently operating at the margins? If they fall through, that could have even more damaging consequences for this country's agriculture industry once foot and mouth disease is completely eradicated.
Mr. Brown: I am looking at what we can do to help, but I cannot, on behalf of the taxpayer, accept an open-ended commitment to compensate for the consequential losses arising from an outbreak of animal disease and the steps that the Government have to take to control it.
I have not requested the postponement of the countryside march, but I pay tribute to the organisers for having postponed it as a contribution to the national effort to control this foot and mouth outbreak. I congratulate them on the decision that they have made.
Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Many contributions to this discussion have highlighted the cashflow problems for farmers and those in other sectors of the farming industry. Can we look at that matter, rather than compensation, as a key priority? It might be possible to consider ways in which loans and advances against future moneys payable into the sector could be brought forward so as to assist people who are currently in desperate trouble.
In the longer term, once we have eradicated this disease, may I urge my right hon. Friend to reflect on whether we need to examine further the mechanisms currently in place--intensive farming and increasingly large abattoirs that are ever further apart--and the possible contribution of such methods to the rapid spread of this disease?
Mr. Brown: I have already asked for the work that my hon. Friend requests--on whether current structures in the industry make us more vulnerable--to be done. He is absolutely right to ask for an examination of such matters, and he is also absolutely right to want to help. I have to be mindful of the state aid rules and of the cost to the British taxpayer of any commitment that I make, but I want to help and am looking very carefully at what the Government can properly do.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Minister recognise the devastating impact that the outbreaks could have on such a prime livestock-producing area as Northumberland? Although he cannot make an open-ended commitment, will he consider the interdependence of those farmers who are affected by the movement restrictions and the hauliers, traders and other rural businesses, whom he must take into account in future measures because of the outbreak's effects? Although he cannot now comment on the rumours about whether airport pigswill was used in this case, surely we must be
Mr. Brown: The right hon. Gentleman is right; I must not comment on the specific case. More generally, he is absolutely right to point out the dangers to farmers in Northumberland and elsewhere. I am considering what I can do to help. A number of avenues are open to the Government, and I hope to have more to say about that in the future.
Angela Smith (Basildon): It always comes as a surprise to some hon. Members to hear that there are farms in my constituency. Earlier today, I spoke to Mr. Ian Frood, who is a farmer and an NFU regional organiser for the area. He put to me points similar to those made by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) about information and stressed how important it is that MAFF officials locally keep the NFU fully informed because they are better placed with local farmers to do away with the kind of rumours that circulate in these circumstances.
A further issue was raised with me by a farmer in my constituency. Today, a national newspaper reporter walked through his farm and knocked on his front door to ask questions about the outbreak, even though he is in an area where no cattle can be moved. That is completely irresponsible. My constituent did not take my advice and hose the reporter down with disinfectant, but, given the problems that we face, would it not be wise for reporters to realise that the best story for farmers is that there are no new outbreaks, and that all reporters and members of the public should act with the utmost responsibility?