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Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this matter in many forums on many occasions, and he will know that I share his general support for the importance of the market. However, I am very concerned about the pernicious effect of supermarkets, for example, in breaking the link between the supplier, the retailer and the consumer. The extension of food-produce supply chains of the type that the hon. Gentleman described is largely the result of the breaking of that link. We need to look for ways to reunite purchasers with the source of the goods that they purchase. Farmers' markets represent one of those ways, but I fear that, sadly, they will be among the victims of this outbreak.

Mr. Todd: I note the hon. Gentleman's comments. He and I have disagreed in the past. I do not think that it is possible to roll back history, but we need to understand what we have done. I am not sure that we do understand that, and I shall return to the point at the end of my remarks.

I want to make three final points. First, we have failed to grasp the consequences of farm diversification. We press on farmers the need to diversify, and it is right that we should: I do it too, but the problem came home to me again yesterday, when I visited a farmer in my constituency. We talked--I should add that the meeting took place outside his premises--about the impact of the outbreak on his business. He told me that he had moved into horses, for which he lets out some buildings. People come in to look after the horses, or to go riding from the farm.

That diversification introduces a further risk that the disease might be spread by the movement of animals. It certainly makes control more complex: the farmer to whom I spoke has had to stop people entering his farm, horses from leaving it, and so on. Such difficulties for farmers are in part the consequence of the thrust to move away from the raw material production on which they had concentrated until recently. We must try to understand the risk implications of diversification rather better.

Secondly, reference has been made to globalisation and the implications associated with imports. It is clear that this outbreak started from something imported but, once again, we cannot roll back the frontiers in that regard. We must try to understand better the risks involved with imports, and to establish more robust controls at our borders. We cannot avert those risks utterly, but we must try to minimise them wherever we can.

We must understand that increasing proportions of our foodstuffs come from abroad because that is what our consumers want. It has been said that our consumers

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really want to buy British. I wish that that were true, but all too often consumers either want to buy foodstuffs that are not--and cannot be--produced in this country, or foodstuffs that can be produced here but at a cost that is higher than people are prepared to pay.

Mr. Hayes: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene a second time. In case he is worried, I assure him that I shall not attempt to intervene a third time. I believe that, sadly, most consumers have become less discerning. They do not know the origins of the products that they buy. That is part of the break in the link that I described earlier: people do not know where their food--whether it be processed food or all sorts of other foodstuffs--comes from. It is not that they do not want to exercise choice, but in many circumstances choice is now almost impossible to exercise.

Mr. Todd: It was never possible for people to have the totality of knowledge that we might wish for, but we have another opportunity to bring home to consumers the importance of thinking carefully about what to eat. The outbreak almost certainly derives from an import of some sort, and we must recognise that the choices open to consumers carry implications. We cannot stop people making the choices that they want to make, but we can make sure that they are aware of the risks involved.

Finally, we have very little knowledge of the consequences of the intensification of agriculture in Britain. That intensification took place for entirely market-oriented reasons. I subscribe to that motive, and I do not want to roll back the process entirely. However, very often we have intensified agriculture in ignorance, and sometimes with a painful lack of knowledge of the scientific and risk implications.

I say that because, at my suggestion, the Select Committee on Agriculture started an inquiry, prompted by the Phillips report, into research into transmissible spongiform encephalopathy and into the implications of intensive farming. So far, we have had a good deal of evidence on research into TSE, which I expected. There has been a strong emphasis on that important subject. However, there has been virtually nothing on the revolution that has taken place in agriculture over the past 30 years and the possible implications that that may have for animal health, human health and our environment.

It is painful to acknowledge that we seem to be so poor at understanding the revolution that has taken place before our very eyes--certainly in my lifetime, and I have lived in the countryside for most of my life. That process has crept past us without our having any proper understanding of its implications. We have simply accepted incrementally, on the argument of the marketplace, what has come about, without examining thoroughly enough what steps have been taken and whether we have subtly and silently accepted a risk that, frankly, we would not have accepted had we known more about it. What I am suggesting is not an immediate task for the Minister, who has plenty to do, but I would like us to consider whether we need a much stronger research programme into the implications of some of the choices that we have made.

I will say what I have said many times in these debates. I believe that there is a bright future for United Kingdom farming--and this is a strange time to say it. To be honest, the brightness is not shining through the gloom around us.

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However, there is a tremendous amount of enterprise and a strength of product that could create wealth and jobs in our countryside into the future. That vision is always before me, even when we face a dark subject of this kind, and we should constantly hold it up to our farming communities. They are feeling about as gloomy as one can imagine at the moment.

We are giving our farming communities more support, but I think that we also need to give them greater evidence of our faith in their future. I constantly hear it said that the Government no longer care about farming. As a committed supporter of British farming, I find that terrible. Any lover of the English landscape would find it terrible too. We need to give far stronger evidence of our commitment and faith, particularly at times of crisis such as this.

8.37 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): It is always fascinating to follow the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), although I do not share his limited optimism about the future of the farming industry in the United Kingdom. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I and my many constituents who farm find it difficult to imagine that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. However, I hope that he is right. I, too, believe, that we have the science, the farming, the soil, the weather and the history to beat the pants off any other agricultural nation in the world. Sadly, the problems facing the industry are such that I, for one, am not enough of a visionary to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, like the hon. Gentleman, I hope that it does exist.

I congratulate my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench on calling this vital debate at this time in our farming history. I do not wish to bring any hint of party political bickering into what has thus far been a level-headed and sensible debate, but in the long history of the Government failing to call any debate on farming--I think that there has been one Government debate in the past two or three years and eight or nine called by Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, which strikes me as a strange record--it is particularly unfortunate that in this of all weeks the Conservative party has had to call the debate and force the Government to come to the House to discuss this vital topic. As recently as the day before yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was decrying the fact that we were wasting his time by calling him to Westminster to answer to the nation for what is going on.

This has been a good debate, and I intend to talk about the crisis that faces the nation. None the less, it is worth registering the fact that the Conservative party cares enough about the crisis to have called the debate, but that the Labour party does not. The Labour Government spent yesterday banning foxhunting. They feel more strongly about a few foxes than the many hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep that may have to be destroyed. I regret that. I feel passionately about foxhunting and about farming. The history of this week will be noted by people in the countryside and if they were able to be in London on 18 March--unfortunately, they cannot be--the Government would know that.

Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman chastises us for not holding a debate. I welcome the fact that we have held a

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measured debate. Before it began, I looked at the history of BSE; it is interesting to note that, during the period when the hon. Gentleman was an adviser to the then Conservative Government, nearly all the debates on BSE were called by the Labour Opposition because the Conservatives did not want to talk about it.

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