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Mr. Gray: I accept the hon. Gentleman's chastisement. It will also have been heard on his side of the House, so the Government will have understood that he is equally unhappy with their record on the matter.
This matter is not one for levity or for party political bickering. I hope that the House will forgive me for introducing a slight element of that, but I wanted to register those points at the beginning of my remarks.
I am deeply concerned because my constituency is primarily a livestock and dairy farming area. One hundred yards across the border with the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), there is a confirmed case of foot and mouth disease in the Bromham abattoir. I understand that a second case has been confirmed today at a farm a short distance from the abattoir.
My constituents include a large number of livestock farmers. I saw many of them last Friday at Chippenham market. Naturally, they are holding their breath as they watch the appalling tragedy that is unfolding across the nation; those of us who are not farmers, who live in towns and have occupations such as that of Member of Parliament cannot understand that. Farms in my constituency tend to be family farms and are generally of 400 or 500 acres, with between 100 and 150 milking cows. The farmers tend to do most of the work themselves nowadays; because of the crisis in agriculture, they have laid off most of their workers.
What an awful prospect those farmers face. Day in and day out, they work with about 150 animals--milking them twice a day, knowing their background and pedigrees. They know their animals as many of us know our families. They face the prospect that, by tomorrow, there may be huge bonfires, such as those we saw in the north of England, and that their yards will be eerily quiet and they will have nothing to do. They will have no means of employment and no income--they have precious little at the moment. What an effect this outbreak will have on those individuals; we have not touched on that matter sufficiently in the debate.
Farming is not only about large farms and abattoirs; it is about family farms such as those throughout the west of England. It is also about people who live, work and breathe farming and livestock. If foot and mouth came to their farm, it would bring a catastrophe that those of us who do not farm can only imagine.
Before I discuss the practical handling of the crisis in my constituency, I express the hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friends about the overwhelming importance in the medium to long term--once this horrible event has passed--of finding out why the outbreak occurred. We know that it came from abroad--the Minister said so during his opening remarks--but we do not know whether it was a sandwich in an airport rubbish bin or illegally imported meat; we do not know
Having been rather ungracious towards the Minister earlier in my speech, I now add my voice to those that we have heard throughout the debate to point out that he seems to have acted with decisiveness, clarity and urgency. He has taken precisely the right steps to contain the outbreak.
I was at Chippenham market at 1 o'clock last Friday, when the auctioneer made the announcement about the ending of the transportation of livestock to the dairy ring, which was then in use. Hon. Members can imagine the feeling around the ring about the appalling catastrophe facing farmers. I went around speaking to them, and, to a man, they all said, "Thank goodness that is being done. It is a terrible prospect, but it is exactly the right thing to do. We've got to contain the outbreak now, and we must take urgent and dramatic action to do so." The Minister and his officials have done exactly the right thing.
One or two of the farmers in my constituency have been in touch with MAFF officials in the south-west. They were very impressed by how efficient, courteous and, to use a rather new Labour word, caring the officials were; they have been absolutely switched on and first class. Similar comments were made earlier, and I am sure that the Minister will pass our thanks to the south-west office in particular. The people facing the appalling events that may happen on their farms or in their abattoirs are under great stress, but they have been handled extremely well.
I congratulate the people, whom I saw last night, from the Countryside Alliance on acting with equal determination and straightforwardness in cancelling the march that would have taken place on 18 March. They have been working flat out on the project for 18 months. Half a million people were planning to come to London, using a large number of buses and trains. A ship was even chartered in the north-east of England, and four of my constituents who are disabled were planning to attend. It was a huge event to cancel, but it was absolutely right to do so. Irrespective of one's views on hunting, I congratulate the people in the Countryside Alliance on having taken the clear and straightforward decision to cancel the march.
I should like to raise two or three issues on the practicalities of the past few days' events. First, I want to touch on the way in which the livestock industry operates. Of course, I accept the great wisdom of those who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), rightly think that the meat industry tends to deal in large quantities. It is true that the supermarkets demand 5,000 head of sheep one week and 5,000 head of something else the next. Those animals must be found and transported to the abattoir that the supermarket requires.
Of course meat production tends to involve a large-volume industry, but our experience in the west country is slightly different. We still have a large number of family butchers, purchasing meat from animals killed in local abattoirs. In my constituency, apart from the abattoir affected by foot and mouth disease, the excellent Drury abattoir at Tockenham is still struggling and surviving the crisis in family abattoirs. However, Newman's abattoir at Malmesbury has had to close,
In the west country generally and in my constituency, many family farms still produce livestock that is slaughtered at the abattoir down the road, with the meat being sold at a local retail outlet. Huge movements of animals across the nation, huge abattoirs and cellophane- wrapped meat in Sainbury's may be inevitable, but rather like the inevitability of the closure of village shops, I hope that it does not happen. I will continue to support Drury and the local meat retailer in the hope that we can preserve some localism in the meat industry.
Mr. Nicholls: Bearing in mind that my hon. Friend and I both come from the west country, does he agree that it is heart-rending that, even in the absolute misery of their despair, farmers are saying that if there is compensation in due course--we have all been impressed with what the Minister has said recently--it must be for not just themselves, but their communities? The fact that, when they are in the depths of despair, they are also thinking about the others who have been affected says something about the communities that we represent.
Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. I hope that his constituency will not be affected, but it may well be because Devon is one of the centres of the outbreak. He is right that those who operate abattoirs or run heavy goods vehicles to transport animals are currently receiving no income at all--they have had to close down. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire told us about the worker from an abattoir in his constituency who has been laid off today. That will happen across the nation. However, those businesses have not been told that they will receive compensation from the Government, but they will seek some means of surviving when the crisis is over.
We should be particularly concerned about two sectors in the livestock industry. First, what are farmers to do with beasts that are just under 30 months old? How long will they have to keep them and what compensation will they receive for the feed that they have to give the animals until they become eligible under the over-30-months scheme? I know that the Minister will give careful thought to that issue.
The second group is finishers. They finish the beasts off, but what will happen if they cannot do anything with them and the animals go beyond the specified date? How can one assess the value that one has lost from such a finished animal? Will the Minister also consider that point?
We know about the restrictions on the movements of animals and the restrictions on walkers, but what will happen if large areas of the countryside are closed off? Chippenham is only a mile or two away from an affected abattoir, and the people there do not know what they should or should not be doing. For example, there has been talk about closing schools, but should the schools remain open? I have set an absolute rule that members of the Conservative party should do no campaigning of any sort in villages or the countryside. We shall continue to campaign in the town, where we should be reasonably all right. However, people do not know what they can and cannot do in the restricted areas.
That point applies even to the Avon Vale hunt that is based a few hundred yards away from the affected abattoir. It was told nothing at all, and it learned only from the news that the neighbouring abattoir had a case of foot and mouth. It was told nothing until it took the trouble to ring MAFF officials in the south-west. It was then treated courteously and was told precisely what it could and could not do. It has been given a special dispensation to bring in fallen stock. Everything is fine now but, initially, the hunt did not know what it could do.
If the tragedy expands across the nation, I hope that the MAFF official responsible--it may be the press officer--will find ways of getting the message across. It should go not only to livestock owners and to farmers--they probably already know what they can do--but to the much wider audience in an area such as mine. People are very worried about the disease, and they do not want to contribute to it spreading. Apart from the obvious point about not walking across farms, they are not clear about what they can do.
Hon. Members have referred to how other organisations, such as the police, should react to the crisis. I have been asked to raise an interesting case with the Minister about the way in which the Wiltshire police reacted to the actions of the farmer at Manor farm, Thorn Hill, Wootton Bassett near Swindon. He lives down a dead-end road that no one, apart from the residents of two or three cottages alongside it, uses. He was determined to stop the disease spreading on to his farm, so he decided to put straw and disinfectant on to the road. That may not be entirely effective in preventing the spread of the disease in all circumstances, but it makes a useful contribution.
Unfortunately, the police told the farmer that he was not allowed to put straw and disinfectant on to the road and that he would be responsible if anyone driving along the road were involved in an accident. They insisted that he should clear the road of the straw and disinfectant. I am told such cases have also occurred in other areas, because the police are unclear about the road traffic regulations and about the risks that straw and disinfectant on small roads, such as this one, and larger roads create.
MAFF officials should talk to other agencies, such as the police and the emergency services, to make it clear to them what farmers can do and what would happen if straw or disinfectant on the road resulted in a tragic accident. Who would be responsible? Is it possible that the farmer might not be held responsible? Will the Minister take the trouble of letting Mr. Tim Bennett of Manor farm know the answer to those questions? The issue has been raised in newspapers and in other areas.
The Minister knows the appalling consequences that livestock farmers face. The debate has been useful. It has given us many opportunities to ensure that he is fully aware of the catastrophe facing farmers, such as those in my constituency. I hope that he will listen carefully to those concerns. Of course there are urgent matters to which he must attend to contain the disease, and that is the priority. However, in 1967 the farming industry was reasonably healthy and could handle a similar crisis. I doubt that areas such as mine, where there are predominantly family farmers, can handle this crisis.