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Mr. Livsey: Similar problems have arisen in my constituency. Many sheep farmers would expect the last day of February to be the normal day for moving tank sheep. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that some sort of special licence system should be established in such circumstances?
Mr. Ainger: I am sure that there is some way to achieve that, and I saw my right hon. Friend the Minister nod. It is imperative that we do so in the next few days. Genuine animal welfare issues are involved, especially in relation to the 800 sheep that I have mentioned. It has been suggested that sheep should be introduced to silage, but they do not like it and do not eat it. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to come up with the practical arrangement that we need.
When my right hon. Friend the Minister of State winds up the debate, I hope that she will say when agrimonetary compensation will be paid. I recognise that claims are not due to be registered for the European element until 30 April, but farmers will clearly be facing a severe cashflow problem, regardless of what happens over the next few weeks. I hope that the agrimonetary compensation will be distributed as quickly as possible.
I was first elected to the House in 1992, and the difficulty of distributing money to farmers in Wales existed then. Significant investment has since been made in computer technology to resolve the problem, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) knows. However, if the Government are prepared to get money to farmers as quickly as possible, it would be ironic if they were to be let down by the mechanism that they would have to use. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take up the issue with Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Assembly's Minister for Rural Affairs, to ensure that available money is paid as quickly as possible.
I dealt with one of the largest compensation claims ever dealt with by a constituency Member of Parliament. The claim arose when the Sea Empress ran aground. I listened to the argument presented by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) about precedent, who said that some people should be targeted, and that others should not. The problem is difficult and complex. In the Sea Empress case, the international oil pollution compensation fund drew red lines on a map, saying that people outside those lines were not affected.
If we go down the road of compensation for consequential loss, I fear that a similar problem will be encountered. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister is keeping open the possibility of consequential loss compensation, but he will have to grapple with the problem that I have set out: if the principle is accepted,
I have one question that I think the whole industry will have to examine. We seem to expect the public purse to be the first call when it comes to compensation for losses suffered when disaster strikes. Should not we look to the industry and say, "Isn't it about time you started looking after your own? Shouldn't you set up a compensation fund along the lines of the one run by the oil industry?" The international oil pollution compensation fund is now able to pay out up to £120 million on a one-off spill. Should not the farm industry look at establishing a similar fund?
Clearly, premiums would have to be paid, and so on, but I believe such a fund to be an idea for the future. The time will come when a serious situation arises and the Government of the day may not have been as prudent as this one. The necessary resources may not be available, as they are today. Perhaps the industry should start thinking about how it can look after itself.
Finally, my right hon. Friend has handled this debate superbly. I hope that in the next few weeks we will see the containment of this horrendous disease and its eradication. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress made so far.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I disagree with the hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) about the urgency of moving ewes off the hills to in-bye land to lamb. All farmers will see that as less of a priority than preventing the spread of the disease. To do as the hon. Gentleman suggests would, I think, increase the risk to an unacceptable level. That should come second to the eradication of the disease.
This has been a very useful debate. I should like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) about the victims of today's train crash between the Newcastle and London trains. The people of Northumberland and the north-east must be wondering what they have done to deserve this. They have had the outbreak of foot and mouth disease--which, sadly, started in my constituency--and today there has been the tragedy of the train crash. They have probably also had some of the worst snowstorms since 1962, and many houses are without power. They have had a hard time, and I sympathise with the problems that the outbreak is causing.
Foot and mouth disease is a personal tragedy. The Williamsons in my constituency, a well-respected Northumbrian farming family, were innocent victims of the outbreak; their stock was simply infected because they were near the source of the outbreak. They had a renowned herd of pedigree beef Limousin. To see those animals being lifted with a JCB and dropped on a pile to be incinerated by the side of the A69 was heart breaking. I am sure that the Williamsons will not mind my saying that MAFF officials have, in these difficult circumstances, treated them with extreme kindness and courtesy and could not have been more helpful. That should go on the record.
Another problem is that the county has only five animal health inspectors. Once animal health inspectors go to a farm where the disease is confirmed, they are categorised as "dirty" in the trade, and cannot visit another farm for a considerable period. Effectively, they are no longer very much use in this outbreak.
The outbreak has led to schools closing. Some teaching staff live on farms, and a lot of children who live on farms are not attending school. The outbreak has had a profound effect on our lives. If it were not for the snow, I suspect that it would also have a profound effect on tourism. As was mentioned earlier, tourism is an important economic factor in the constituency, and that will be seriously damaged if the outbreak continues.
Burnside farm has been said to be the source of the outbreak, but that is somewhat inaccurate. Burnside farm was split up a long time ago, and all we are talking about is a pig unit consisting of a number of sheds. I know that the Minister and his officials will inquire into the cause of this, but it seems rather a strange story. At this stage, our priority must be to control the disease, but it was something of a surprise to local people to learn that farmers at the farm that is said to be the source of the outbreak had been evicted from previous premises in south Tyneside--East Boldon--in 1995 after a long and protracted legal action by the local authority and English Partnerships, which had some ownership in the land. Once the two brothers had left, English Partnerships and the council were faced with a bill approaching £100,000 to clear up the premises. Shortly afterwards, the brothers popped up again in Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland, with a licence to go back into the pig-fattening business.
The premises were visited on a number of occasions by trading standards officers and MAFF experts. No disease was found, but I believe that the way in which the farm was being kept was criticised. Neighbours had complained regularly about conditions in the sheds, and I hope that in the fulness of time there will be a full explanation. It was obvious that the farm was poorly kept.
Finding the source of the outbreak is vital. There was a rumour that swill had come to the farm from Newcastle airport, but that has been hotly denied by the airport. I am happy to put the record straight. However, there was, and is, an extensive collection of swill to that farm and the neighbouring farm, which has also been affected by the disease. It is important to find out how the infected meat got into the swill chain.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) spoke about globalisation. That is central to the control of disease. With the way in which the world works now, it will be virtually impossible to stop some diseases moving around the world unless there is strict control of the sources of production. In Europe, for instance, we now eat more Brazilian chicken meat than ever before. Brazil is making great efforts to export chicken meat to Europe. It is vital that the way in which chickens are produced in Brazil meets European
There has been some talk about abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) is an expert on the subject, and he may wish to catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker. There is a misconception about abattoirs and their purpose, which Liberal Democrat Members have mentioned.
The problem is that abattoirs these days are very large, multi-million pound, highly technical businesses. Wanting to go back to small abattoirs is like closing the supermarkets and opening the corner shops all day. A big, modern, state-of-the-art abattoir has to work 364 or 365 days a year. Lambs in the south-west reach maturity earlier because of the better climate. However, when the supply of lambs runs out, an abattoir cannot simply shut down and pay off all its staff--it has to bring in lambs from further and further afield, which is why animals have to be transported. Nothing that we do will change that. We cannot turn back the clock. Clearly, some small abattoirs are important, but the idea that we can have local abattoirs around the country to shorten journey times is economic nonsense.