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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I want to ask the Minister about the pig outgoers scheme and the announcement that he made yesterday. He introduced that scheme to deal with the serious crisis that existed in the pig industry until about a year ago. However, last autumn or late summer, he introduced the pig industry development scheme, which we shall debate in Committee tomorrow. That scheme was aimed at the problems caused to pig farmers caught in the swine fever outbreak who could not move their pigs off the farm. That operation, rather than the outgoers scheme, seems much more analogous to the current position. It is perfectly understandable that the Minister is shopping around his budget and looking for some money to use, but will he explain why he is using the outgoers scheme, not the development scheme, to help the industry?
Mr. Brown: There is a long history to this issue, and I fought to get the scheme in place before the outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia occurred. I had the money from the Treasury, but not the approval of the Commission. Both elements were necessary to get the scheme under way, but the other parties tried to attach a whole range of conditions to it.
My immediate purpose is to try to help people who, because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, are wondering again about their long-term commitment to the industry, and who have not bid for the first round of the outgoers scheme, but who might now like to do so. I am not saying that there are people in those circumstances; I genuinely do not know. However, if there are, they will be among the most worried, and they might suddenly like to find an exit route. It is to help them that I have managed to get permission from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to draw some moneys forward.
That does not mean that I have stopped thinking about the rest of the industry. However, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) knows, although we have gone through the most terrible downturn in trade, with incomes falling below the costs of production--that is not sustainable in the longer term--prospects for the sector are looking up. We have all worked hard to bring that about, and individual farmers making business decisions might not find the scheme an attractive option, or may prefer to wait until they see how the condition--it is not an epidemic--emerges in the national herds and flocks. It may be significant--I say, touching wood--that the latest cases, with all the attendant difficulties, involve cattle and sheep but not pigs.
Mr. Brown: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I accept that I am under an obligation to keep the House regularly informed; all Ministers are accountable to the House. I will consider what more we can do to keep Members of Parliament informed as this rapidly changing situation develops. I intend to write to Members with front-line advice that will help them to deal with individual constituency inquiries, but a bulletin that sets out progress and is available to Members might also help. I will have a hard look at that suggestion and come back to the hon. Gentleman with a definitive answer.
Private storage aid has been mentioned. I have said that we shall consider that, as it might be a way forward. I am raising a range of issues with Commissioner Fischler, who I know will try to help. All sorts of anomalies arise with the administration of the European Union support schemes, and they require the good will of the Commission in these difficult circumstances. However, it is right that I should report to the House that I found nothing but sympathy and good will from Ministers, the presidency and the Commission when I addressed them at the Council meeting late on Monday night.
Those who hold ministerial office realise what a difficult and intractable problem this is. The expressions of good will have been given practical effect by offers from our European Union partners of extra veterinary assistance should the chief veterinary officer need to call on it. He can call not only on the resources of the European Union, but on those of our major trading partners worldwide.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I echo what has been said about the Minister's response today. Will he ask the Commissioner to consider the issues that affect smaller abattoirs with low throughput? The Minister will recall that I have met him with several delegations to discuss the issues that affect smaller abattoirs, and I note that the Minister for the Environment has said today that special help will be given to them in future.
Given the number of smaller abattoirs that have disappeared--to be fair, I must add that that happened under his predecessors rather than while he has been in office--will the Minister consider particularly the issue of locality? It is not just the size of the abattoirs but their location that has caused the problem. The fact that animals have to travel long distances has undoubtedly accentuated the difficulties that we now face. Will he consider that specific issue?
Mr. Brown: Even in this day and age, there are many abattoirs between Northumberland, where the original outbreak started, and Essex. It was necessary for the animals to travel such a long distance because of the specialist nature of the abattoir trade. It is not the last journey that is the most dangerous, because the animals are isolated from other livestock when they go to
There are other public policy reasons why one might want to support the small abattoir sector. We are addressing those across Departments. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has said. In addition, the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is doing with the Food Standards Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service is also relevant. My immediate task is to devise a movement scheme that encompasses not just the large operators, but the small and medium-sized sector too, so that they have hope for the future. I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will do everything that I can to achieve that objective.
Mr. Brown: Yes. We carry out inspections, and individual abuses are sometimes found, but journey times and patterns conform with the regulatory regime. The hon. Gentleman knows that I am trying to get that tightened, but it is a matter for European Union law.
We are also in contact with the clearing banks to discuss the issue of cash flow to farm businesses affected by the disease outbreak. The clearing banks are interested in our assessment. I cannot be as certain as I should like to be, but the announced intention to draw down not just the compulsory part of the agrimonetary scheme but a much larger discretionary element will have a significant impact on our discussions. However, I cannot give a commitment on compensation for other losses in the supply chain. I do not want to mislead people by holding out the prospect of another source of financial aid. The best help that I can give is to control and eradicate the disease as soon as possible.
I want to add a caveat: the Government are keeping a close eye on the implications for farm animal welfare. Given the experience of the classical swine fever outbreak last summer, it is clear to everyone involved that an important issue is at stake. I hope that we do not have to reconsider it, but I alert the House to the fact that we may.
The Government's priority is to control and eradicate the disease. The licensing of movement between farms and abattoirs from the end of this week will begin to get the haulage business, the abattoirs and the food processors that use British food products back to work. We all want that to happen.
I am grateful for the tone of the Opposition motion, with which I fully agree. I am also grateful for the measured way in which hon. Members on both sides of the House--who are, of course, worried on behalf of their constituents--have put their questions. This is a serious issue for our country. I hope that we can unite to support the necessary control measures and, by working together, eradicate the disease. Once that is done, we can take a close interest in how the outbreak started and what extra measures are necessary to prevent it from happening