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Sir Robert Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I was surprised to learn that another group affected are pelagic fishermen, whom most people would not see as immediate victims of the foot and mouth outbreak. At a time when the mackerel fishery is becoming important, the Russian Government have decided to ban the import of fish as a precaution. I hope that MAFF will do all it can to persuade the Russian Government to be a little more rational about food safety.
On the situation as it affects pigs, I remind the Minister that we had a successful pig welfare disposal scheme last year, following the swine fever outbreak. Perhaps a similar scheme should be reactivated in the current situation.
Mr. Brown: On the basis of professional advice and pleadings from the entire industry, the Government are not considering vaccination, although we have stocks of vaccine, of course. The European Union has enormous stocks of vaccine, to which it would allow us access if necessary, but to compromise permanently our disease- free status by using vaccines would eradicate much of our export business and would have a deleterious effect on the long-term future of the livestock sector, so we will not use vaccines.
Mr. Breed: I am delighted to hear that. If we, as an island nation, with the obvious barrier of the sea, cannot protect ourselves and retain our disease-free status, it would be a bad show. No doubt the suggestion originated from some of our French colleagues, as France is one of the largest producers of the vaccine and they may have seen a ready market.
The Government's message must be clearly stated. We were disease free for many years, and we must return to that situation. Such protections that were in force, and should have been in force, must be reinforced if we are to ensure that, once this terrible outbreak has been conquered, we do not become susceptible to it ever again.
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): It is appropriate that the House should not today debate transport policy, other than the statement that is to be made later. I am pretty sure that, one way or another, some of my constituents will have been involved in the terrible accident that took place this morning. My thoughts and sympathies are with the injured and the families who have suffered fatalities.
The debate has provided an opportunity for a useful question-and-answer session. During Monday's statement, some doubt was expressed about whether the House could pull together on this serious matter affecting not only the countryside but the whole country. Today's debate, the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister has given way so generously and hon. Members' serious questions show a change of tone, which I hope we shall be able to sustain. Few who are involved in the issue believe that it will disappear tomorrow, next week, or even next month. If the House is to give the country a lead, we must, wherever possible, avoid unnecessary political division, however difficult that might be.
The Minister is a colleague of mine from Newcastle upon Tyne and I have the highest admiration for the way in which he is leading his team in tackling this terrible disease. Everyone to whom I have spoken in the farming and the urban communities has the highest regard for the dedication and determination with which my right hon. Friend has conducted his business during the past weeks and before.
Many of the farms in my constituency are what I would call nouveau farms--not the typical farm where the farm owner and farm workers live on the farm. That is becoming less typical in many more traditional agricultural areas, but in my constituency many farms are contracting farms where the land is owned by a third party, a farm business in another part of the country, and a contractor manages the farm business. The dangers and difficulties in that become all too obvious in the situation that we now face.
The farm where it is alleged that the outbreak began straddles my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). Most of the farm buildings are in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and much of the land is in mine.
The second farm that has been infected at Black Callerton is almost entirely in my constituency. The farm owner has just taken over from his father, who died recently. He is a well-known and respected agriculturalist in the community of south Northumberland and north-west Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a tragedy that his farm has been affected by the events of the past week.
Last Sunday evening, there was a big bonfire on Burnside farm, which is a few hundred metres or less from the A69, just outside the urban area of Newcastle. Carcases were piled high and the flames went higher; 70 tonnes of coal were used to attempt to burn away the disease, producing a terribly acrid smell across the surrounding farmland. It was extremely traumatic to witness the event. Its impact on the lives of young people who saw it, whether they came from the farming community, perhaps in Heddon-on-the-Wall, or some of the other traditionally industrial villages in my constituency, such as Throckley, Lemmington and Newburn, will last for ever.
From all those locations, one could see the flames and get the impression of what was happening. It was bad that people had to suffer the event, but there was some benefit. It demonstrated to the local community the seriousness of the situation that we face. As it was well covered on television, it also showed the gravity of the situation to a wider community within the country. That probably helped a lot of people who might otherwise have needed a bit more persuasion to understand what needed to be done. It was unfortunate for my constituents and those of the hon. Member for Hexham that they were nearer the fire and felt more of the impact, but it will none the less raise public consciousness of the seriousness of the disease.
I do not like to be a historian unnecessarily, but I think that there is a need for more public education than has previously been provided. In 1960-61, when a major outbreak lasted six months, it was only seven years after rationing and only 15 years or less since war controls had been in place, so there was public understanding of the need to play by the rules in times of national emergency. I am not so sure that our community is as prepared now. We have a public education duty to explain that the
My right hon. Friend the Minister has relieved some of our fears and dealt with some of the genuine points that have been made. I should like as succinctly as possible to outline the themes that should be reinforced as part of the public education that I have described. First, we must continually emphasise the need to tackle the problem as it exists. We must all be prepared to do what is necessary to make our contribution, whether farmers are marooned on their land, businesses cannot conduct their activities as they wish or people cannot travel to the areas that they normally visit for whatever purposes, be they recreational or otherwise. We must take the necessary measures and stress continually that all must play their part if we are to tackle the disease as speedily as possible.
Secondly, people are asking a question that I raised in Question Time on Monday: "How could this possibly have happened in our community? We thought that foot and mouth disease had gone, so what has happened to allow it to recur?" As a political community, in the Government or the House, we must reassure the public that everything has been done to get to the root cause. We must use the best scientific advice and investigatory powers to find out why Burnside farm, on the edge of my constituency, was probably the source. Where did the disease come from? How did it get there?
Lots of rumours are flying about Tyneside: perhaps the swill was not dealt with properly on the farm, or poisoned or infected food may have got into it. There is an international airport nearby. Did the swill come from there? All those questions are being asked by local people and the farming community will be well aware of the need to identify how the disease got to Heddon. If we can find that out, we shall be much better able to trace what happened afterwards and find out how the secondary infection began. We must do so to raise public confidence.
The agriculture industry has suffered in recent times because of unforeseen and previously unexperienced events such as the terrible problem of BSE. Now it has to deal with foot and mouth on top of that. It must try to re-establish its credibility with the public, and we have a responsibility and a duty to help it to do so. For that reason, we must identify the source of the infection, although my right hon. Friend the Minister may face another issue in discussions with the European Union.
Although the outbreak began in the United Kingdom, and even though we have taken unilateral action with the co-operation and support of the EU, we cannot predict what will happen. We do not know the extent of the spread of the infection. We do not know how many EU countries will become involved. We do not know what the extent of that involvement will be or what relationship those countries have with their suppliers in other parts of the world.
The EU will probably become involved farther down the line in the way in which we resolve a number of matters such as how we put in place measures to try to prevent what has happened at Heddon-on-the-Wall and elsewhere from happening again and the eventual relaxation of controls in this country and perhaps in others. It may also become involved in how we consider
We must be prepared to take action for a sustainable period. A constituent asked me how long that might be, but I do not know and I doubt whether my right hon. Friend the Minister and the scientists know. We should consider the pattern of the major infections of 1960-61 and 1967: it was impossible to predict when we would reach the critical point at which the graph would dip, the extent of the spread would begin to reduce and the measures put in place to counter that spread could be relaxed.
We may not be aware of the critical point until we have passed it, and dealing with such a crisis is like climbing a mountain: we may have reached the first peak, but we will not know how many peaks we have to tackle until we reach the final one--the summit. We may get convincing scientific documentation and opinion that shows that the situation is beginning to improve only after we have passed that critical point, which we cannot predict. My reading about previous major infections suggests that we perhaps have better controls in place, so we should get a grip and control the spread of the disease more quickly. However, we are in the hands of the gods in many ways.
Another priority for the House is a quick return to normality for farmers. Those in Newcastle and in Northumberland will welcome Friday's statement on putting into practice new licensing arrangements to allow, where possible, sound animals to be taken to the marketplace. That represents a first step back to normality; we shall expect others to be taken in due course.
I understand that the current compensation scheme has been in place for many years. It might be useful if the Ministry considered whether it should be reviewed. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) mentioned the effect on the tourist industry in the Lake district. Is there a case for helping that industry? In my area of Northumberland, the wall generates a sizeable tourist industry in summer, and must provide access for many hundreds of thousands of people if it is to remain viable. Clearly that activity will be curtailed if this dreadful infection persists into the spring, with financial consequences for many who are involved.
I think that the public will rally if we can convince them of the seriousness of the situation. The farming community knows how serious it is, but the public have to be convinced. It is important for the House to give them a lead, and we can best do that by backing sensible measures taken by Government. I do not mean to be obsequious to the Government--I assure you that I am not that, Mr. Deputy Speaker; not even to my right hon. Friend the Minister--but I believe that we must give that support. It will involve accountability on the Government's part, however, so that questions can be asked about the way in which the situation is developing, and about progress on investigation and curtailment. Such questions will be asked here on a number of occasions in the coming months.