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The second thing that I hope will be of some comfort to the right hon. Gentleman's constituents is that I am trying hard, with all the other things that I have to do, to pay particular attention to the problems of the pig industry, which has been through tough times. I am also very conscious that, for reasons that we all understand, the normal European Union routes for helping agriculture do not work for the pig sector. I am considering ideas, including the suggestion by the hon. Member for South Suffolk, about other market intervention that might be of help.
Such matters have to be thought about very carefully, and I cannot announce the introduction of a new scheme today. Please have my assurance, however, that I am not going to overlook the interests of those involved in the pig sector, particularly the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, who have been through such tough times.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): The right hon. Gentleman may want to say a little more about licensing. However, in deciding which arrangements can be licensed, will he bear in mind the situation at the Malton bacon factory, for example, which is probably this country's biggest abattoir? Currently, 2,500 people are laid off, but many pig producers within 25 to 50 miles of Malton could benefit from the type of arrangement that he has suggested, which would allow the transport of animals ready for slaughter directly from farms to the abattoir. The alternative is not only serious damage to our pig production capacity--
Not only could there be damage to production capacity, and further difficulties heaped on the problems of classical swine fever, but domestic product could be replaced by imports. That could not be in the interests of any part of our own meat business or in those of consumers.
Mr. Brown: I will get British product moving again for the purpose of providing for our domestic market. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is nothing that I could do to help the pig sector more than getting it moving again. However, as he also knows, no farm species is more vulnerable to foot and mouth disease than pigs. Not only does it seem to affect them in a particularly virulent way, but they pump it out more than other animals do.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The right hon. Gentleman is being very helpful. May I bring him back to the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) about livestock hauliers--many of whom were already in
Mr. Brown: Meetings are, of course, taking place across Government, and yesterday's ministerial meeting presided over by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was significant among them. I cannot promise direct financial assistance to the sector about which the hon. Gentleman asks, but he is right to emphasise the specialist skills of those drivers. My plan is to get them back to work and make use of their specialist knowledge in ensuring that the effect of the crucial licensing regime, combined with responsible handling of the animals, is maximised. That is especially important when animals are being moved to a holding area rather than to an abattoir.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): My right hon. Friend will be aware that foot and mouth disease has been confirmed in my constituency. Does he know what movements of cattle trucks there may have been at the farm involved? Are the vehicles' routes being tracked back? Are the vehicles being checked, and fully and professionally cleaned?
Mr. Brown: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he so properly seeks. There is an enormous amount of work to be undertaken by the veterinary authorities, but every vehicle is being checked. All point-of-slaughter records at abattoirs are being checked, as are all market records, and the latter takes an enormous amount of work. Checking is also being conducted on a farm-by-farm basis.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute): I congratulate the Minister on his extremely helpful response to the debate. Will he confirm that there has been no outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Scotland? Does he agree that farmers and other folk must not be complacent about moving around the Scottish countryside just because there has been no outbreak there?
The Prime Minister touched on the question of the disinfectant supply. He said that disinfectant was being produced but that difficulties were being experienced in getting it to certain areas. I know that the supply has run out in part of Argyll. Has the right hon. Gentleman anything to say about that?
Mr. Brown: In response to her question about disinfectant, I can tell the hon. Lady that we will make an order this afternoon to add 35 disinfectants to the approved list. That administrative act will ensure that supplies of substances that are effective in this context increase dramatically. In general there is sufficient disinfectant, but the problem is that it is not in the right
The hon. Lady asked about Scotland's present disease-free status. I want that status to be maintained. I am working closely with Ross Finnie, and my veterinary authorities are working closely with their counterparts in Scotland. Our best hope of defeating the disease lies in there being a close working relationship between the devolved Administrations and the United Kingdom Government.
If it is possible to make an early bid for disease-free status for part of the UK--Northern Ireland is probably the strongest candidate--I am willing to grant that status, as long the claim can be substantiated with the European Union. However, the hon. Lady probably knows that there are substantial movements of animals--especially sheep--between Northumberland and Scotland. Although I hope that Scotland remains disease free, it is too early to say with complete assurance that it will. We are doing everything possible to eradicate the disease throughout the United Kingdom, and I am grateful for the help and support that we are getting from the authorities in Scotland.
Mr. Jack: I thank the Minister for his kindness and courtesy in taking so many interventions. Mr. Tom Fare is a very worried pig farmer in my constituency. Like many others, he would be most grateful if the Minister would return to a point that he made earlier and say a little more about the work being done to track down the disease's true origins, rather than simply where it started. A number of rumours are swirling around about whether it was caused by imported meat or swill from airports, schools or goodness knows where. The answer to that question will determine our strategy in defending ourselves from this scourge in the future.
My constituent also asks whether, when the immediate crisis has passed, the Minister will give consideration to launching a national exercise to assess whether we have abattoirs in the right places and in the right numbers.
Mr. Brown: I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman quite the response that he wants about abattoirs. However, he is right that it is essential to understand how this virus--and, indeed, the classical swine fever virus--got into our country. We have been free of it for something like 20 years, and it is absolutely certain that it has not been hibernating here in the United Kingdom. It got into the United Kingdom from somewhere else, and I will have more to say about that later.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I support everything that my right hon. Friend has done, including closing footpaths and stopping people walking on open land, but the effect on the tourist industry in Cumbria could be drastic. We are fortunate in the Lake district that things are quite quiet at present, but if the ban continues over Easter and into the summer, the tourist industry will suffer great devastation. Many of those affected will be farmers who have diversified into tourism. Will my right hon. Friend talk to his colleagues about help for those people?