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5.14 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I, too, welcome the Minister's contribution. I welcome also the constructive opposition evident in the tone and content of the Conservative motion, which has enabled us all to debate the issue.

Almost a fortnight ago hon. Members discussed the aftermath of BSE; I do not think that any of us thought that we would be debating the serious issue of foot and mouth only days later. The BSE crisis led to the Phillips report, which made me think about the lessons that we might have learned from the 1967 epidemic of foot and mouth disease and the single outbreak on the Isle of Wight in 1981. Hon. Members have referred to incidents of the disease in Europe, such as that in Greece only a year ago.

It is inconceivable that, following those incidents, nothing was done and no reports were commissioned to consider the way in which the spread of disease was changing along with the patterns of farming and trading. Indeed, it has come to my attention that the European Commission published an agriculture report entitled "Animal health and related problems in densely populated livestock areas of the Community", which detailed the proceedings of a workshop held in Brussels on 22 November 1994--quite some time ago. I will not quote large chunks of the report, but I hope that officials and others will take the opportunity to re-read it because Phillips taught us that we must look back to see what lessons could have been learned and what measures could have been taken.

There are some telling paragraphs in the report's conclusions and recommendations. Under the heading "The problem", the report says:

It goes on to say:

It further says:

and suggests ways in which those risks might be reduced.

Perhaps most telling is the paragraph on long-term solutions, which says:

I do not know whether any of those avenues have been explored, but as that workshop was held almost six and a half years ago perhaps someone decided that we ought to examine the issues. One might postulate that if there had

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been some such activity, we might have been able to put preventive measures in place. This island nation could, perhaps, protect itself from disease better than any other part of the European Community.

I do not want those remarks to divert attention from the No. 1 priority, which is to find the source of the outbreak, to contain it and to eradicate it as soon as possible. Like others, I am concerned about whether we have the resources--not financial but human--to deal with the whole problem. Experienced vets have to be in an enormous number of places. If the spread of foot and mouth disease continues, vets will be able to continue for a while but they will be working a tremendous number of hours. I wonder whether we shall have the necessary human resources to undertake all the controls and inspections.

Mr. Nick Brown: The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question. The state veterinary service and private sector vets are working long hours and extraordinarily hard to try to get the epidemic under control--the condition under control. It does not yet have epidemic status.

The question that the hon. Gentleman asks is one that I put daily to the chief vet, Jim Scudamore. I have said to him on behalf of the Government that if he needs extra resources and needs to recruit extra vets, he should do so. He knows that that is the position. At present, he says that he has the resources that he needs, or is getting them. We have had generous offers of help from our European Union partners and from our trading partners more widely.

Mr. Breed: I am extremely grateful for that news. It might be an appropriate moment to congratulate the chief vet on the way in which he is handling the mechanics and logistics and on his openness, honesty and balanced communications through the media, which have significantly reduced panic.

One of the issues is the growth of what might be called dealers. I am talking about farmers and dealers and even abattoirs and dealers, and the way in which animals are moved. Only today, one of the farmers in my constituency, Mr. Martin, who farms near Mount Edgecumbe, told me that he bought a suckler calf in a market about a couple of weeks ago. When he received the paperwork, he was astounded to learn that the calf had been through two farms and three markets in the previous four weeks. That is extraordinary. The calf had travelled a long way before Mr. Martin bought it. He was not aware of that at the time. That highlights the fact that animals are tradeable commodities.

If an animal is going through several markets, it is incurring additional costs, such as transport costs, commission costs and auctioneers' fees. Those charges add cost to the animal, and none of that is coming back to the farmer. It is all being dissipated at a distance from the primary producer. If some of the money were part of the profit on the animal for the farmer, we would not be facing some of the current problems.

I know that, in a way, dealers underpin the market. They sometimes provide fluidity and liquidity, but they have a serious effect that needs to be considered by the Ministry.

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Compensation is on many people's minds. They are fearful, and much of that fear relates to the fact that they are losing money every day. The industry has gone through a period of intensification and specialisation. The opportunities for farmers and others--we have heard already about hauliers--to derive income in other ways is much diminished. They are specialist suppliers for a specialist industry. The intensification and specialisation of the industry to achieve economies of scale have driven away multi-providers. That is the significant difference between now and the past, when consequential losses were not considered because there were opportunities to make money elsewhere. Those opportunities no longer exist, and that should focus the Government's mind.

We have talked about the over-30-months scheme. The sooner that we can deal with animals that might be caught up in it, the better.

With regard to consequential loss, I shall quote from a couple of letters, which are heartfelt. The first is from a farmer in South Molton, who writes:

Those are some of the worries that our constituents are experiencing.

The letter continues:

The second letter is from a haulier, who states:

The letter goes on:

Those letters graphically describe the fears and worries of those who are operating in a specialist area where there is no opportunity for other income to be raised.

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