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Mr. Gill: Has it occurred to the hon. Gentleman that we may have to reconsider vaccination? It is all very well to talk about having a high health status in this country, given that we live on an island. We could keep disease out of these islands if we did not import from other parts of the world. However, we are importing and there is perhaps a great political imperative to continue to do so. Perhaps there is a contradiction in thinking that we can retain the total health integrity of our own animals in this country, while importing products from all over the world. Has it occurred to him that we may have to revisit that territory?

Mr. Drew: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not sure whether he makes an anti-European or an anti-world point, but I would approach the issue from the other direction. We should begin to question some of the global food chains. Instead of using vaccination to make animals more immune to those threats, we should try to remove the threats. I am not in favour of a little Englander approach, by which we eat what we produce. Clearly, that could not be contemplated; it is not what most people would want. However, we must revisit some parts of the food chain and perhaps get more balance back into it. That would encourage localisation, which I have always advocated. I shall not get into the argument about abattoirs. The hon. Gentleman has far more experience and knowledge of such matters than I have. However, we need to address those issues seriously.

Science has brought us successes such as traceability, which has allowed us to check most animals origins. However, we must check what we feed to our animals, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point during the investigation. Most people would argue--perhaps with limited knowledge--that risks have been taken with animal feed and that we should carefully consider the causes of those risks.

I should like to ask my right hon. Friend some questions about some matters that have already been mentioned, and he might like to investigate and consider their wider implications.

Earlier, hon. Members raised the issue of common land. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) attended a briefing by those who implement the policy; it highlighted the problems of areas such as the Forest of Dean, where sheep graze openly. It would be nice to think that we could contain the animals, but the sheep in the Forest of Dean visit people's gardens as well as the more open areas. Therefore, we need clarity on how we should deal with those animals, because they and their contact with human beings could spread the disease. The issue affects me because of the common land in my constituency.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), I asked how we could assist farmers markets and farm shops. The people whose main business is to supply those outlets face a particular difficulty at the moment. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to offer them clear advice. At present, it is not to hold the markets and not to open the shops, but the time will come when people's livelihoods will be affected not just because of their inability to farm, but because of their inability to attend the markets.

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We are always told that one of the reasons we cannot offer compensation in the form that some of us might like is that it would fall foul of the state aid rules. At this time of crisis, it would be helpful to know that we could go to the European Union for a dispensation on any help that might be forthcoming.

Regaining access to markets after the crisis is another issue. We must have a systematic approach to that, but it will not be easy. When the disease is eradicated--let us hope that that is soon--there will be a period in which Europe and the rest of the world will want reassurance that we are clear of foot and mouth disease. Regaining access to international markets is an issue, because there is a problem not only with the raw commodity--the animals--but with all the other products that we need to sell.

Whatever our views on the European Union, we must all recognise the importance of the negotiations in which my right hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues will engage. We need the EU's support at this time. Although we may criticise it on how aspects of policy worked out in the past, we now need to pull together with our partners. I pay tribute to the sterling work that my right hon. Friend has done not just in this country, but in the discussions in Europe. The most important thing is to eradicate the disease, but we need to keep our markets open so that we can access them at the earliest possible opportunity.

6.53 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He made a very interesting speech that was based on his great knowledge. His contributions to the debate and his media appearances have added to our understanding of the problem.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the conduct of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: it has been exemplary. Despite the pressure that he has been under, it has been noticeable that he has answered interventions thoroughly. Even though I was critical of some of his remarks on Monday, I have nothing but praise for his conduct and performance today.

I am sorry to learn that a further outbreak of foot and mouth disease has been found in Essex. Chelmsford is very close to the abattoir in my constituency where the disease was found. The sight of the smoke that rose over my constituency from a great cauldron on Monday was depressing; I am sure that it will remain with me for a long time. I suspect that I have had a foretaste of what other Members may see. People's livelihoods for many years were literally burned before their eyes.

The Minister was right on Monday to express sympathy for the farmers and abattoirs involved. He said:

Colleagues in the House have asked me about the abattoir in my constituency. In particular, they are surprised at the enormous distances that animals travel on their way to Brentwood. Inappropriate conclusions have been drawn from that. It is sad that a number of small abattoirs have disappeared, but it is wrong to draw the conclusion that Cheale Meats is responsible for the

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decline in the number of small abattoirs and the fact that animals have to travel long distances. Cheale Meats is a specialist abattoir that is of enormous strategic importance to the pig industry. More than half the pig carcases exported from the United Kingdom come from Cheale Meats. Without the abattoir and its facilities, the number of live exports would increase dramatically, so it is critical that it gets back into operation as soon as possible.

Ironically, an application to extend the abattoir's facilities for the storage of stock has been before Brentwood council. Had those facilities already been in existence, the transfer of the disease to Old English farm probably would not have occurred. Matters were in hand to deal with the possible threat of foot and mouth disease even before the outbreak. If it were not for the efficiency of the abattoir, the current outbreak of the disease probably would not have been detected as quickly as it was.

Rumours have been flying around about the nature of the business of Cheale Meats. I am grateful to my Friend the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who told me about an anonymous telephone call to his office today suggesting that there was a financial link between the abattoir in Brentwood and the firm in Heddon-on- the-Wall in his constituency--[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Sylvia Heal): Order. Members should please keep their voices down when an hon. Member is speaking.

Mr. Pickles: The telephone call suggested that there was a financial link between the abattoir and the pig farm in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have checked that allegation, and I am pleased to say that there is no financial connection--either direct or indirect--between the two. I have spoken to the directors of Cheale Meats, who have given me that unqualified assurance. We have many problems to deal with in the current outbreak and people--especially those who do not have the courage to make themselves known--spreading malicious falsehoods does not help us to do that. I am happy to put the record straight on that particular point.

It is not easy to telephone a farmer whose stock is being destroyed. However, at the weekend I called my constituent, Mr. Gemill, and was struck by the quiet dignity with which he took the news of the destruction of his life's work. The valuers are examining his stock and he will receive compensation, but he still has to go through the process of replacing those animals in six months' time. Many hon. Members will have to make similar calls, and they, too, will not enjoy them.

Is this a convenient time for me to stop speaking, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker: When the hon. Gentleman finishes, we will commence the statement. [Interruption.] Does he detect a hint?

Mr. Pickles: I am as good as the advice that I am given. I thank the Whips Office for telling me that I should sit down at 7 pm, which I am happy to do, and then continue after the statement. I do not want to keep

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the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions waiting, because the subject of his statement is important.

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