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Mr. Brown: I have written to every farmer trying to give information about the workings of the helplines and the front-line advice. The Minister of State, Baroness Hayman, is meeting representatives of the main agricultural banks to urge them to do what they can to help, particularly with cash flow, in the present outbreak.
I have asked that where the state has purchased the animals and an agreement has been made, the payment be made to the farmer as quickly as it can be expedited. I have also asked to be told the average time it is currently taking to make payments, but I do not have that information yet.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that vehicles have to be disinfected for every journey. The extra resources that he pleads for are coming. He is right--but we must remember that our priority is to get the animals killed to prevent the spread of the disease. At the moment there is a delay between killing the animals and moving them. I am trying to shorten that delay, and I hope that it will be possible to prevent dead animals from remaining on farms for an inconvenient and distressing length of time.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking local authorities, not just those employed by central Government, for their very hard work. I discussed the situation yesterday with Ross Finnie, the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does the Minister accept that there is a good degree of confusion, and perhaps even anger, among farmers and people in the tourist industry? Both occupations are immensely important in my constituency. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said that the countryside was open for business, and the Minister has reiterated a similar message today. Does he accept that that is demonstrably not the case?
In my constituency, the Badminton three-day event, which is the largest single sporting event in the world, has been cancelled. Tomorrow's visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Chippenham, a town of 30,000 people, has been cancelled. The countryside march, involving 500,000 people coming to London, has been cancelled. Church services across my constituency have been cancelled, and schools are closed. It is simply not the case that the countryside is open for business.
If that were so, however, would the Minister really welcome it? Will not the tourist industry, for example, recover only when this appalling disease has been finally eradicated from the countryside? In the meantime, no one should try to pretend that it is perfectly acceptable for people to trudge all over the countryside--the roads, that is, not the fields; people know that they must not go near livestock farms.
As going anywhere in the countryside carries a strong risk of spreading the disease, no one wants to go to Chippenham. Surely the message ought to be that the countryside is closed for business until such time as this killer disease has been eradicated.
Mr. Brown: I agree with the final point, but not with the others. I do not think that we shall re-establish our tourist industries and other rural businesses properly until the outbreak has been exterminated and we can demonstrate that we can maintain that position, but there is no reason why people should not visit Chippenham. Indeed, there is no reason why people should not come to London, and no reason why church services should be cancelled. [Hon. Members: "What about the countryside march?"] That was not cancelled at the Government's request; nor have I, as the Minister, asked for racing events to be cancelled.
If schools in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have been closed as a result of foot and mouth, will he give me their addresses so that I can take up the closures with the Department for Education and Employment as a matter of urgency? There is no disease control reason why schools should be closed.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): As my right hon. Friend will know, the discovery of foot and mouth disease in Cheshire has been a great blow, although there may be a direct link with the markets that he has mentioned. He will also know that the veterinary investigation service is anxious for culls to take place speedily when clinical signs of the disease are readily identifiable. Will he please do all he can to ensure that if
Mr. Brown: When a veterinary inspector identifies clinical signs, killing of the animals can be authorised there and then. For 80 per cent. of all animals that are culled to control the disease, authorisation is given there and then on the basis of a clinical inspection by a vet.
I agree with what my hon. Friend has said. I am sorry that the outbreak has reached Cheshire; it must have been incubating there for a while, and now it has come to fruition. I hope that we shall be able to contain it, and then to exterminate it and keep as much of Cheshire as possible disease free.
Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): People will be relieved to learn of today's announcement of the introduction of a voluntary welfare disposal scheme. Will the Minister confirm that it will cover all uninfected animals that come not only from uninfected farms but from the huge infected areas?
I cannot stress sufficiently the importance of introducing the scheme as soon as possible. There is a build-up of animals in farms in my constituency and, indeed, throughout the country. That applies especially to pig farms. Last week, about 2,000 pigs were born in my constituency. Nature does not stand still: inexorably, the numbers rise.
Will the Minister tell us when the scheme will be up and running? Will he also tell us that it will be as unbureaucratic as possible? Will he please assure my constituents, and constituents throughout the country, that it will apply to pigs, sheep and beef, and--I beg of him--that it will be introduced without delay?
Mr. Brown: The scheme will be introduced without delay, and it will apply to all infected species. The intervention board is working on the plan now, and I hope to have it up and running within days. As I have said, it will apply across the country and is open to all species, but a vet will have to certify that a real welfare risk exists and is being dealt with. I understand the special importance of the scheme to the pig sector because of the impact of movement restrictions on the sector. The model closely follows the first use of the scheme in East Anglia during the outbreak of classical swine fever.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): There have been no problems in my constituency so far, but people are concerned when they hear of the spread of the disease throughout the countryside. To be fair to business people in the countryside, however, they fully support all that the Government are doing.
Only this morning I received a call from a business man who said that he had lost 70 per cent. of his business on the day the outbreak was declared, but nevertheless he wanted all that the Government were doing to be carried through. His main concern was about the need to make clear where people may or may not go in the countryside. There is undoubtedly confusion about that, and he, like me, would like much more use to be made of local media. Would that not make the position plain, and maintain
Mr. Speaker: Order. Before the Minister replies, let me say that I require short questions. Some hon. Members will be disappointed today, but the shorter the questions, the more hon. Members I can call.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The organisers of the countryside rally did not need to wait for the Government to ask them to postpone it. They postponed it themselves, because they are responsible, they love the countryside and they did not want the disease to spread.
Will the Minister ensure that the money he has announced so far will be available as speedily as possible, and that the taskforce knows of the urgent need of those involved in tourism? Some businesses have only one week left before they must close their doors and lay off staff. Rose County Foods, an abattoir in my constituency, had to lay off 100 workers for two weeks, and is only now starting to take them on again. Much of the meat that it kills and bones normally goes to Northern Ireland. What discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister to ensure that food supplies are properly checked by hygiene specialists, so that it is clear that they are not diseased, can be packaged in Northern Ireland and distributed to a much wider market?
Mr. Brown: Those are all fair points. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is working with officials on the relationship between Great Britain's and Northern Ireland's trade. I can give the hon. Gentleman the other assurances that he seeks, including the one about work between Ministers in my Department and the agricultural banks on the cash flow problem that he correctly raised.
The only point that I make about the countryside march is that the Government did not formally ask for its cancellation. Let me express my support and gratitude to the organisers, who took what would have seemed to them to be a responsible approach, and tried to do what they could to help the countryside through these difficult times.