Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Foot and Mouth

Question again proposed.

7.45 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): This is an important debate. Unfortunately, my constituency is one of the two within Lancashire where foot and mouth has been confirmed. The other is that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) where that horrible disease has been confirmed at an abattoir in Great Harwell; that is tragic news. My hon. Friend is suffering the same pain as I am, and people are rightly at a loss about what to do next. My hon. Friend is working hard and has been in touch with MAFF requesting help and advice on behalf of his constituents. They could not been represented by a better Member.

On Monday, we heard on the bush telegraph that there was a suspected case of foot and mouth in Chorley. MAFF was informed, and by 11 o'clock the next morning I had a telephone call confirming that foot and mouth had been established in the village of Withnell. To have such a horrible disease confirmed in a constituency such as Chorley, which has hundreds of farmers who are now worried for their future, is the worst news possible.

After I received the telephone call confirming the disease I telephoned the police, but I was told that they had not received confirmation. I was able to tell them that I had had confirmation from MAFF, but that matter requires urgent attention. Clearly, the police and other services involved should be told, and those who answer the telephones on behalf of the Lancashire police should be aware of the situation. The police should set up hotlines so that people who fear, or suspect, that they have foot and mouth on their farms can be dealt with immediately. We have the MAFF and the NFU hotlines, but the police, too, should have such a hotline. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn feels the same. People in Lancashire are worried that they cannot always get though to the right people in the police, so I hope that that problem is addressed quickly. Other constabularies in Britain should also ensure that they, too, have a hotline.

Before hearing the news I had spoken to the leader of the council, Jack Wilson, who had also heard whispers on the bush telegraph. When 11 o'clock came I knew we had to move quickly. I spoke to the local authority, which had already established that refuse vehicles would not enter farms within the constituency, but would stay on the highway and refuse would be brought to them. The local authority had therefore responded quickly.

Lancashire county council was also involved. I spoke to one farmer who rightly got in touch with the county council which, in turn, got in touch with me. Through its good offices, the council has played a major part. It has closed footpaths and is working with the police to ensure that people do not walk across the fields and spread the disease--the worst danger that we all fear.

The problem is that people are in fear and do not know where the disease will strike next. The district council and the county council, including County Councillor Steve Holgate, rightly played their role. I have spoken to local councillors, who share the same views whatever their political persuasions. This is not about politics. Councillor Iris Smith, who represents the Withnell ward, and Councillor Kerry Jones were the first two people to whom

28 Feb 2001 : Column 974

I spoke. I mentioned to Councillor David Dickinson of the neighbouring ward that there was a problem just down the road from him. I also spoke to the local farmers on the district council, including Councillors Harold Heaton and Frank Culshaw, to ensure that they were aware of what was happening within the Chorley constituency. Everybody rightly showed great sympathy and worry. The constituency may cover an area of 80 square miles and have hundreds of farms, but it is close-knit, and the message went out.

The anxiety is about where the disease will go next. I feel sorry for farmers; indeed, I always have done, as they have done badly for many years. I know that the Government have tried to address that problem, but now farmers face a new one. I want to ensure that this outbreak is not the final nail in the coffin of agriculture. I know that we all feel the same. Whatever happens and whatever is being said, we all know one thing: we want to ensure that when we have eradicated the disease, there is still a farming industry at the end of it. The House is united on that, and we should move forward. We want to ensure that farming will continue.

The plight of a farmer whose land neighbours an infected farm is a lonely one. He cannot go out and does not have any contact with other people. Farming is lonely at the best of times, but now is the loneliest time for a farmer. He does not know what is going on and has no contact with other people. The Government have tried to address the problems with extra financial resources for farming. However, many farmers may lose out financially because of the over-30-months scheme. I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that those voices are not lost, and that people who are struggling will be helped and looked after.

The danger of any compensation scheme is that although people will get the money, they never quite know when that will happen. That danger is faced by farmers who have already experienced financial ruin. As they now face the extra problem of the disease and the burden that it brings, I want us not only to make the money available and award the compensation, but to consider making interim payments in cases of need, especially if the process is to be a long one. I would have thought that that was not impossible, so we should consider making interim payments available.

Mr. Nick Brown: I make no firm commitment tonight, but I intend to see what can be done to pull the agrimonetary payments forward to the earliest date on which they can practically be made. I shall be talking to Commissioner Fischler to see whether I can have the Commission's help in achieving what my hon. Friend asks for.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank my right hon. Friend for that comment, which all hon. Members will welcome. I know that he is genuine and means what he says. We all recognise that and we welcome his assurance.

It is sad in itself that the slaughtering has occurred in my constituency. No hon. Members ever want that to happen in their constituencies, but the problem also affects the farms adjoining those where the presence of the disease has been confirmed, which are waiting to see whether there are any signs of the disease. The farmers and their families sit there worrying, and they, too, face a

28 Feb 2001 : Column 975

serious financial plight. They cannot take their animals to the abattoir or use the special rules that we introduce. The welfare of their animals is important. They must be fed and looked after, so there is a running cost.

The clock is ticking away, and we cannot say how long the farms that neighbour those where foot and mouth disease has been confirmed will last. We do not know how long it will be before any cattle can be moved to special abattoirs. It is the plight of those farmers and the worry that they face that I am highlighting. I appeal to my right hon. Friend to consider whether special payments can be made to those adjoining farms. Nobody wants to move anything off them or to have any contact with them. Will my right hon. Friend consider that serious financial problem, which must be addressed?

People will ask why we must eradicate foot and mouth disease. We must do so for the future of farming in this country. It is our utmost aim and our main objective to ensure complete eradication. That is the only way in which we can export in future, especially to the United States, which will not touch a country that has not completely eradicated foot and mouth. It is those markets that we need, and to which we want to return. It is crucial for farming that we get back into the international market. On that basis, can we ensure that we do not import from countries that have foot and mouth disease? Let us be strong and take a firm stance, like the United States, to ensure that we do not receive imports from countries that have the disease and are not dealing with it properly.

I know that my right hon. Friend takes care of the farming industry. I know that that aim is in his heart and that he will continue to work on the industry's behalf. I speak on behalf of the industry, but especially for the Lancashire farmers, and my right hon. Friend came to Chorley to meet some of its hundreds of farmers. It is crucial that we look after them and do not allow our farming industry to bleed to death because it lacks the finances to carry on.

I know that the Government are committed to meeting the needs of those farmers, but these things always come down to time. As my right hon. Friend said, time is essential and we must consider the matter as urgently as possible. I know that MAFF has played a super role and that he has done a super job. MAFF must continue to work with the farming industry and local farmers in the Chorley area, as well as with the National Farmers Union. We would struggle without MAFF, and I cannot praise it and the Minister enough on farmers' behalf, but I look forward to quick help and support to ensure that their livelihood is preserved. Let us get behind the industry and ensure that British farming is put back on the world map, and once again leads the world in quality farming with quality welfare. That is what I want to see.

7.58 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Several hon. Members have mentioned the plight of abattoirs. Before I add my comments on that facet of the discussion, I must declare an interest. It is unlikely that there will be an abattoir owner in the next Parliament, although there might be so many redundant owners that many will seek nomination for election to Parliament.

I question whether this Parliament has profited from the presence of an abattoir owner among its Members. I have regularly and persistently tried to flag up the threat to our

28 Feb 2001 : Column 976

small abattoirs and the consequences of their closure. Just as regularly and consistently, however, the Government have tried to avoid facing up to the reality. Twelve months ago, I asked the Minister of Agriculture when he would implement the recommendations of the Pooley report. In reply, I received a written answer from the Minister of State, who stated:

I shall not bore the House by quoting from the many, many other questions that I have asked in the intervening 12 months, but I received an answer to a question on the same subject this week. I asked the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on meat inspection charges for smaller abattoirs. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), who had to answer because of a change in duties and responsibilities, said, "I shall let the hon. Member have a reply as soon as possible." Twelve months have passed since the Minister of State said that she intended to act as speedily as possible, but the Under- Secretary is now saying the same thing. Smaller abattoirs, which were seriously worried even before the foot and mouth problem arose, are still living in uncertainty because a new meat inspection charging regime is due to be implemented on 1 April and, as far as I know, they have not yet received from the Ministry a categorical description of what will happen.

Before I pursue that theme, I must say that we heard an excellent, sensible speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who pointed out that many abattoirs are large and specialist, and that that fact necessitates the movement of large numbers of stock over great distances throughout the United Kingdom. Those abattoirs are so big because their customers are the big supermarket chains, which smaller abattoirs are unable to supply because they cannot guarantee the volume or meet the specifications regularly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) referred to the abattoir in his constituency that specialises in killing sows that are exported to the continent. However, there are two other categories of abattoir. Historically, a large number were associated with meat products factories, where the product of the abattoir was fed into the production of the factory. A few still exist, but my concern is for the future of small abattoirs, and the particular relevance of the small local abattoir in the context of the debate.

The whole House wants the movement ban to be lifted as soon as possible, but hon. Members will appreciate the Minister's difficulty in lifting the ban completely and allowing the mass movement of livestock up and down the country to large specialist abattoirs, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham referred. That would, of course, risk spreading the disease further. It seems to me, and perhaps the Minister agrees, that if the ban is to be lifted, it may have to be lifted incrementally and only within a radius of a few miles of abattoirs.

In that context, smaller abattoirs will perhaps be able to reopen their doors, whereas larger abattoirs, denied the large numbers that they need to make their economics come right, may not be able to open on the same basis until the Minister can lift the ban completely.

Next Section

IndexHome Page