|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both points. I have already appealed to print journalists and those in the broadcast media to stay away from farms and, if they absolutely have to go on to farms, to ensure that they take the appropriate precautions. I have also asked those in the media organisations not to fly over the infected areas in helicopters. The virus is airborne, and stirring it up with helicopters is a very bad idea indeed, so I appeal again to people not to do it.
On information and input from the local NFU, my hon. Friend is on to a good point, which I discussed in some detail with the president of the NFU at our meeting earlier today. The NFU has offered information contacts, area by area, and we are putting in place a departmental structure to make full use of that because local knowledge can sometimes play a valuable part in helping to control the outbreak locally.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Farmers in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), on whose behalf I also speak, will have been devastated by the announcement that the case in Bromham has been confirmed. They will have welcomed much of what the Minister has said today, but will he accept that although farmers and other people in the area accept the restrictions that he describes, many of them have no idea what to do? For example, those in the village of Lacock, which is a tourist attraction and 1 mile from Bromham, or in the town of Chippenham, which is covered by the restriction, do not have a clue about what the restrictions will mean.
In response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who requested a debate on the subject, the Minister said that he had no time for such a debate. Is it not a rich irony that the House will spend 10 hours tomorrow discussing foxhunting, but we will not have an opportunity to discuss this appalling catastrophe for the countryside?
Mr. Brown: It is not a question of not wanting to debate important countryside issues--in normal circumstances I am very willing to come to the House to take part in a sensible discussion of the issues. However, in the middle of a disease management problem the proportions of which are not yet properly understood, it would not be right to divert ministerial, administrative and, above all, veterinary resources away from controlling the disease and into discussing it here. Perhaps we can hold a debate after the outbreak has been brought under control, and not in the middle of a rapidly changing situation.
The hon. Gentleman's other point was perfectly legitimate. Many people earn their livelihood in the tourist industry and in areas that attract visitors. There are, of course, difficulties when such activities take place side by side with the livestock sector. All I can do is repeat the advice that I have given, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will echo it locally: the public should refrain from going on to livestock farms or near to farmed animals.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the decisive steps that he has taken to isolate and eliminate this dreadful disease in this country and on the actions that he has taken to ensure that the disease does not spread to other countries. That is in marked contrast to the attitude that the previous Government took to BSE. BSE has had incalculable consequences on world trade, particularly in third-world countries, but, if we consider the lessons that we can glean from that, is it not true that modern, intensive, globalised management grossly magnifies the risk of the spread of disease? Has anyone tried to calculate the cost- effectiveness of cheaper food when it is compared to the enormously increased risk of the spread of disease, considered whether we should have huge global regulation to prevent the spread of disease or less intensive, less globalised food production?
Mr. Brown: The implications of the modern methods of agricultural production for the livestock industry and other processes further down the food chain are issues that I have asked my Department to consider. When we have its report, we shall consider the consequences for policy makers. Indeed, we may even want to debate them here. My hon. Friend says that we are trying to contain and then exterminate the problem and must not export it. He is absolutely right.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): No one in the House envies the Minister in his job, but we all wish him and his officials every possible success in what they are trying to do. That remains the case despite one or two of the slightly unfortunate partisan remarks that he has made today.
I wish to press the Minister on one issue. He talked about the possibility at least of providing new advice on the closure of footpaths and other points of access. He was quoted--possibly inaccurately--over the weekend as advising walkers to go into national parks instead of on to farm land. Parts of two national parks are in my constituency, so may I point out that 80 to 90 per cent. of the area of national parks is made up of farm land? I have received reports today that, unfortunately, very large numbers of people ignored the warnings and walked over livestock land this weekend. Will the Minister therefore work with the national park authorities to deal with that issue as part of the many other measures that he needs to put in place?
Mr. Brown: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have time after time appealed for people not to go near farmed livestock. When I suggested that they visit a national park instead, it was of course implicit in my remarks that I meant national parks that do not have farmed livestock. I understand his point, but there are areas where it is perfectly possible to go for a walk in the country without going near farmed animals. There should be no disagreement on that point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the measures that the Government are taking.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It is impossible to overestimate the gravity of the situation facing us. In his responses to Labour Members, my right hon. Friend has said that it might be possible to undertake a wide-ranging investigation into animal health, the problems that we have come to realise recently and their link to intensive farming. Will he go as far as to say that he will include other parts of the food chain in that investigation, so that farmers are not singled out? Other parts of the food chain may bear some responsibility for the risks that we now face.
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. The study that I have asked for does not focus exclusively on farming practices; it is designed to consider more broadly whether the industry's current structure, throughout the supply chain and including the catering sector and export industries, makes us more vulnerable to disease outbreaks than the way in which it operated some years ago.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I do not think that I have heard any Opposition Member criticise the work of the admirable state veterinary service or, indeed, that of MAFF to contain this wicked disease. It is therefore all the more surprising that the Minister should cavil at the prospect of a debate in Opposition time on such a fundamental matter affecting the survival of agriculture in this country.
Having said that, may I ask the Minister to take a more robust line on footpaths? I urge him to work with local councils to enable farmers to shut paths if they feel it necessary to do so, because people are tramping across those paths without disinfectant, and, when asked not to do so, are often extremely abusive to the farmers concerned.
Mr. Brown: I would be grateful to the Opposition if they could postpone their debate and let me and my officials get the disease under control. The hon.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his immediate introduction of robust measures. That contrasts with the action taken on BSE, which was always too little, too late. It is much wiser to take vigorous action from day 1.
If the newspaper reports are accurate, the living conditions of pigs on the farm in Northumberland give serious cause for concern. It defies belief that the farmer involved could not recognise the symptoms of foot and mouth when they were well advanced--seven or 14 days into the outbreak on his premises. MAFF's animal health inspectors inspected the farm two or three times in December and January, but apparently did not comment on how bad the animal welfare conditions were. Do we not need a full inquiry into animal welfare, particularly for intensively farmed livestock, including pigs and poultry? There is something badly amiss here.
Mr. Brown: The veterinary inspectors' reports on the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall are consistent with what we know about the incubation time of the disease. The chief vet is satisfied that the disease was not present on the farm when the inspections took place. The whole issue is being considered by the appropriate authorities, and it would be wrong for me to say more about that now in the House.