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Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, and for making it available to me about half an hour ago. I start by expressing our appreciation of the work of his Ministry's officials, the vets and the others who are in the front line of the efforts being made to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease.
I reiterate our general support for the Minister and our backing for most of the specific actions that he has taken so far. On a personal note, I offer him my genuine sympathy for the substantial burden that he is carrying. The Opposition hope that the crisis is brought to a speedy and successful conclusion.
Last Sunday, the Minister said on television that the situation was under control. Since then, the number of confirmed foot and mouth cases has doubled. New cases are being confirmed this week at a much faster rate than in either of the two previous weeks. Disease has entered Cheshire for the first time, causing alarm and fear among farmers in that important livestock area. The first case is strongly suspected in my constituency in Suffolk, on the farm of Richard Easton, who today, like many others in a similar position, is extremely distressed.
Tens of thousands of diseased animals still await slaughter around the country, and tens of thousands of carcases of slaughtered animals are lying around in the open, awaiting disposal. Whatever the reason for the Minister's claim last Sunday that matters were under control, events have quickly shown how unfounded it was.
On the measures that the Minister announced, we support the Government's decision to embark on the slaughter of sheep that may have been infected through contact at the markets to which he referred. Further large-scale slaughter will clearly put huge extra strain on resources that are already stretched. I urge the Minister again to make wider use of the Army to assist the task than is currently proposed by the Government. The Army's skills and disciplines could be put to good use in the difficult task of slaughter and disposal.
The Minister will be aware of the concern about the lengthy journeys involved in sending carcases for rendering. There are persistent reports that some of the lorries used are not properly sealed, and that that method of disposal therefore runs the risk of spreading infection further. Bearing in mind the backlog of carcases that is still building up, will he examine the possible use of burial
Does the Minister acknowledge that large-scale slaughter is distressing, especially for farmers who have reared their animals, but also for the wider public? Will the Government undertake a public information programme to explain more clearly the reasons for the slaughter, and why vaccination, which is widely canvassed, is not an acceptable alternative?
Will the Minister give greater discretion to vets who suspect the presence of foot and mouth disease in a herd to authorise immediate slaughter to reduce the risk of spreading infection posed by large and increasing numbers of diseased animals awaiting slaughter? Does he agree that time is of the essence in responding to all aspects of the crisis? Delays between suspecting and confirming a case, and between confirmation and slaughter, can mean that diseased animals are not slaughtered as quickly as is desirable for effective control of the outbreak.
Last week, the Minister asked me to suggest ways in which to extend existing compensation measures. I am sorry that I have not yet written to him. I warmly welcome his announcement about the pig welfare disposal scheme or a similar arrangement. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) recommended such action when he wound up the debate on 28 February. How quickly will the new arrangements become operational? How much money will be available for them?
I shall make two more specific suggestions on compensation; I may make others later. First, farmers whose cattle pass the age of 30 months suffer a sharp, unrecoverable loss of value. They are a definable, fairly small group, and they should be compensated for their loss. I stress that the suggestion is not intended to apply to farmers who can obtain licences to send their stock for slaughter. Help should be given to those who are unable to obtain or even apply for a licence.
Secondly, I recognise that industries other than farming are badly affected by the crisis. Tourism is the prime--but by no means the only--example. Cash flow problems are immediate and acute. As I said in a previous debate, many people who work in the public sector and receive their salary cheque on the 28th day of every month have no concept of the anxiety and agony of business men who simply do not know when they will receive their next income. The only permanent solution for such businesses is the control of foot and mouth disease. In the meantime, will the Government instruct local councils to grant businesses that have been hit by the crisis immediate relief from business rates?
The Minister knows that we have supported his efforts through his licensing scheme to facilitate the movement of ewes that are in the wrong place for lambing. I welcome the further measures that he has announced today. I share his anxiety that efforts to facilitate
I apologise for the length of my response, but much has happened in the seven days since Parliament last had the opportunity to question the Minister. There is some conflict between statements from the Minister for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Neither is present today. That conflict has caused confusion about the Government's policy on the countryside. Are people encouraged to visit it to support businesses there or discouraged from visiting it to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease? The Minister for the Environment called some parts of the countryside safe. How can any part be so described when foot and mouth disease may be incubating there? Will the Minister therefore clarify the Government's priorities, so that the public understand what is expected of them?
I agree with the Minister's statement about the gravity of the crisis. Its consequences go far beyond the livestock sector. He ended with an appeal to the whole country to work together, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I hope that that will be accompanied by a real effort in all Departments to work together and a willingness to use resources available from outside agencies and industries. I also hope that the Government will be willing to apply any lessons learned from the policy adopted in France and Ireland, if it appears that those measures are effective, and from reports written in the aftermath of the 1967 outbreak.
Mr. Brown: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks about public officials, who are working extremely hard to exterminate and resolve this terrible disease outbreak and to get everything back to normal. He is right that we should learn from the experience of others and previous episodes. I am guided, of course, by the key conclusions of the Phillips report. There are lessons to be learned from that in the management of animal disease. I am following very closely Lord Phillips' recommendations on managing the disease outbreak.
I want to do justice to the hon. Gentleman's range of perfectly proper questions. First, should people visit the countryside? Everybody wants to do what is right to help bring this outbreak to an end, and it is clear from what the tourist industry is saying to the Government that overseas visitors are not coming to our country because we have foot and mouth disease; they are even not coming to London. The domestic tourist market, which is about twice the size of the overseas one, is also constrained in the countryside. I think that that is largely because people want to try to help, so they are staying away. They are going much further than Government advice suggests.
The advice from Government is very clear: the public should stay away from farmed livestock. The risk is that the virus will be transferred from the livestock to the person, and that the person, unwittingly, will then transfer it in a sufficient amount to spread the disease. That does
On bureaucratic issues, the hon. Gentleman said that there were individual delays and anomalies. In a very fast-moving situation such as this, where control measures are having to be implemented and necessarily operated locally, there will be issues of dispute from time to time. He was right in our previous exchange when he referred to the micro-management of some of these issues. That is the correct approach. By and large, however, we have received an enormous amount of praise from farmers for the work of veterinarians and those in support. In these difficult circumstances, that speaks very well for both the farming industry and public services.
The hon. Gentleman made a fair point about the over-30-months scheme. I cannot say anything about that today, but I promise to keep the matter under review. He also asked about the cash flow of other industries and countryside businesses that are not directly agricultural. That is being examined by the taskforce that has just been set up.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on the welfare disposal scheme. Having set up the scheme in the circumstances of the classical swine fever outbreak, I envisaged right from the beginning of this outbreak that we might want to use such a scheme, as it was necessary for movement restrictions to endure and to deal with the problem of sheep on winter grazing. So it has turned out. I emphasise again that the scheme is voluntary, but it is intended to help very hard-pressed farmers and to prevent unnecessary cruelty to and suffering of animals.