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Mr. Nicholls: I agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the Minister and the way in which he has conducted himself in this debate, which has been exemplary, but does not the country's ability to face up to the consequences of what has happened depend largely on the success of the economy? For all sorts of reasons, the economy is doing extremely well. Although it would be unreasonable to ask the Minister to give an open-ended commitment to compensate everyone for everything, the situation is vastly different from that in 1967. We hope that he will be able to say that he will at least consider a slightly wider band of compensation than he perhaps has so far been able to consider.

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend makes an important point in support of my case. It is not entirely true that there is no precedent for further compensation. My attention has been drawn to remarks made in 1996 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) in which he mentioned moving towards compensation for consequential loss. Additionally, the over-30-months scheme itself is a form of compensation for loss.

Mr. Nick Brown indicated assent.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful that the Minister acknowledges that. Consequential compensation could save money if it shortens the crisis. If agisted sheep, which I mentioned earlier, cannot return to their original farms, it might be cheaper, however horrendous that may be, to kill them out and provide compensation than it would be to succumb to the temptation to weaken the restriction orders.

I should like to mention some of the organisations that deal with the impact on farmers--including the rural stress information network, the Royal Agricultural

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Benevolent Institution and the Samaritans, which have reported a tenfold increase in calls in the past few days. Last year, the Government provided more money for the rural stress information network. Although it was a tiny sum for the Government, it was not a small sum for the organisation. I hope that the Minister will consider whether it needs more help.

The Opposition strongly support both the legal and the voluntary measures to restrict movement. I hope that the Minister will confirm that all Government agencies--not only the obvious ones such as the Health and Safety Executive and farm assurance, but even the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the countless others that are involved in these matters--have been told to cease farm visits.

I hope that the Minister will also do as he suggested in reply to an earlier intervention from me and examine whether the pig development scheme could be extended to cover the position of pig farmers which, as he rightly acknowledged, is somewhat different from that of sheep and cattle farmers.

Earlier, I also mentioned wild deer. Since 1967, the United Kingdom's wild deer population has exploded. Although that is very welcome for many reasons, will the Minister comment on what should be done about wild deer in areas where there are outbreaks? It would be disastrous if the disease were to infect the wild deer population. I do not want one, but is a localised culling of deer necessary to stamp out the disease?

Today is not the time for recrimination, or even for detailed examination of the background to or the causes of the crisis. As the Minister said, we must now concentrate on controlling and eradicating the disease and on helping farmers to get through the crisis. However, the day will come when we have to examine the cause, how it has been handled, and whether it was caused by illegally imported pigmeat.

On that issue, it is now five months since Ministry veterinarians said that the swine fever outbreak was caused by illegally imported pigmeat. To my knowledge, despite several requests from the Opposition, the Government have not yet made a further statement about the origins of that outbreak. I therefore hope that the Government will be considering additional import controls--about which, as I am sure the Minister will acknowledge, we have repeatedly expressed our concerns. Such measures are not protectionist controls, as he has sometimes chided us, but controls for protection. [Interruption.]

Other import and export issues have to be examined. They may seem far-fetched now, but--[Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary is rabbiting away on the Treasury Bench. The whole of this debate has been conducted in polite appreciation of one another's points of view. I am sorry that he seems to want to alter that at this late stage.

We have to examine, for example, whether the virus is coming from countries where foot and mouth is endemic, but from which we do not import meat. Could it be carried on the surface of fruit, for example? That may seem far-fetched, but it is an issue related to the globalisation of trade that has to be examined.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) talked about what might be called domestic imports, when people bring in items such as sandwiches and other food in their luggage. Another issue is whether

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the virus can be carried in semen or embryos, both of which are important export markets for the United Kingdom that have now been closed.

As other hon. Members have said, we shall also have to examine the issue of abattoir closures. My assessment of the way in which the crisis has been unfolding is that, although there are many reasons to lament the closure of abattoirs, and although the initial outbreak in Essex was at an abattoir, most of the cases that we have heard about seem to be related more to livestock markets than to abattoirs. It appears that the very innocent purchase by Mr. Cleave of stock in Northumberland has been the primary cause of the spread of the disease. I feel immensely sorry for him, given the responsibility with which he--unwittingly and innocently--finds himself burdened.

Circulation of livestock is not a new phenomenon. I can remember as a child seeing trainloads of Irish cattle coming into this country to be fattened. That circulation has been going on for decades, and it is not the new development that other hon. Members have suggested.

Foot and mouth is a horrendous disease. It has implications for animals, wildlife, farmers and hauliers, and for the countryside. Some farmers may decide not to restock, and that will have implications for the landscape. Nothing must be left undone in dealing with the outbreak, and I hope that the Minister understands that clearly.

It is very rare to wind up an Opposition day debate without partisan rancour, but I am happy to do so today on an issue that has brought all sides of the House together. I wish the Minister and his staff the best of luck in the challenge that lies before them. Most of all, however, my thoughts are with the farmers and their families, who despair for their future.

9.46 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Before I respond to the debate, may I briefly associate myself with the sorrow expressed by the whole House at the rail crash earlier today? Many hon. Members who have spoken in this debate are, like me, regular users of the east coast main line. Many will have constituents among the passengers or crew, or the relatives of those people. The House has certainly been united in sorrow at that incident.

The House has also been united in this debate on the crisis caused by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and on its effects on farmers, agriculture and the countryside. The length of the debate allowed many issues to be addressed, and I welcome that. It allowed my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is always generous in giving way, to deal with an enormous number of interventions and direct questions from hon. Members of all parties. However, many other issues have been raised in the course of the debate. That reinforces the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and others about the importance of the Government keeping the House informed at every stage about developments with the disease and its effects.

The participant in the debate for whom I have most sympathy is the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). He responded in a very public-spirited way to the House's desire to listen to the statement by my

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right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. However, he thereby sacrificed a large amount of time to which I feel that he would have been entitled, given the importance of events that took place in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman has been very active in pursuit of the interests of his farming constituents and of those employed at the Cheale abattoir. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) came to see me at an earlier stage to discuss their concerns about the abattoir's ability to attract business under the over-30-months scheme. I therefore know that the hon. Gentleman's interest is of long standing, and that it does not arise solely out of the tragic circumstances of the past week.

The hon. Gentleman addressed some questions to me, one of which was when the abattoir in his constituency might reopen. He will understand that the Ministry must be totally certain that the virus has been totally eradicated first. There are national and European Union rules about the time that must elapse before the various checks and tests can be carried out. I shall let the hon. Gentleman know if we have further information on that point.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned checks on wild deer, an issue referred to also by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). The state veterinary service is carrying out a rapid risk assessment and we hope to share the results of that as soon as possible.

My right hon. Friend the Minister gave the House an update of the situation and told us about the number of confirmed cases, which stands at 26. As is usual, and as has happened in recent days, a number of cases are still under investigation, of which two or three at least seem highly suspicious.

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