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Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I do not know the circumstances that led to the appalling incident in Llanidloes in which a farmer took 23 sheep with suspected foot and mouth to the abattoir. However, will my right hon. Friend tell me what information farmers are given about the disease by way of leaflets, videos
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right to appeal for vigilance. He is also right to say that many younger farmers will not have seen foot and mouth disease previously. I have written to every farmer in the country to explain the symptoms and to set out where advice can be found. I hope that is of some practical value.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Setting aside the strong rumours that officials were inquiring as to the availability of railway sleepers suitable for funeral pyres three weeks before the first outbreak, will the Minister now answer the question that I tabled last week? I asked him when he was first advised of a potential risk to animal health from imports from Africa.
Mr. Brown: If there can be a red herring in an animal disease outbreak, that is it. This is nothing to do with imports from Africa, as far as anyone in the Ministry knows. The strain of virus, which has, of course, now been typed, is found in about 23 regions right around the world. Work is going on to find out, first, how it got into our country--I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it must have come from abroad, as it could not possibly have been incubating here for 30 years or whatever. Secondly, we want to know how the disease got to the point of first infectivity, which we believe to be the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall. We are all too familiar with the rest of the story. Work is being done in the Ministry. When it is complete, I shall consult on it. I promise that the hon. Gentleman will be among those who are consulted.
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): When the Minister looks at the map of the outbreaks in Cumbria and then applies the policy of killing everything within 3 km of every outbreak or suspected outbreak, he will know that nothing much will be left in between. I and my constituents will, with deep regret, support that policy of complete extermination, provided it can be done quickly.
In Cumbria, the story is that farmers spot definite foot and mouth, there are delays in having it confirmed--understandably--and vets do not have the authority on the spot to begin the slaughter. Please can they be given that authority? We trust Ministry vets to know what they are doing--let them bring in the slaughter teams and kill the animals immediately so that the disease is not spread.
Finally, I know that I should not bounce the Minister at the Dispatch Box, but in view of the severity of his announcement for my constituency, I should be very grateful if he could spare 15 minutes later today or at any time tonight to meet me.
I am not advised that road closures are necessary for disease control reasons. On the question of veterinary authority, I am advised that in 80 per cent. of all the current cases, slaughter of the animals was carried out because of clinical examination by the vet, on the spot, there and then.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that when members of the public ask regional MAFF offices in north Wales for advice about the problem, they are referred to the offices of Members of Parliament? Surely that is not good enough. Will he ensure that people are given up-to-date advice? I realise that it is a fast-moving scene, but please can better advice be given to the offices and can they pass it on when necessary?
Mr. Brown: My understanding is that it is a United Kingdom taskforce and that the devolved authorities are represented on it. I met the Assembly's Minister for Rural Affairs yesterday to discuss the agricultural aspects of this matter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we meet monthly to discuss the agenda for the Council of Ministers, but we also deal with other agriculture matters. Much of our time yesterday was taken up in discussing a co-ordinated approach on the foot and mouth outbreak. That is especially important because one of the centres of difficulty straddles the England-Wales border, while another straddles the England-Scotland border.
Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): South Hams is mercifully free from foot and mouth; all the area south of Dartmoor is also clear. Licences are the problem. Will the Minister ensure that licences for pig slaughter are speeded up for the local abattoir in the area that is free of foot and mouth--Henry Lang in Ashburton? It could be more fully used.
Secondly, will the Minister issue licences for farmers to move animals from one part of the constituency to another, where the distance is more than 6 km? Many farmers have animals stranded in various parts of my constituency that cannot be brought back to base.
Mr. Brown: I hope that the announcement I made today will deal with the second of the problems identified by the hon. Gentleman. As he knows, there is already some limited local movement--within a 5 km radius or for a 10 km road journey. Today's announcement is intended to help in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes.
On the hon. Gentleman's first question, licensing is an issue for local authorities on the spot. However, I shall ensure that the constituency case he raises is drawn to the attention of the local supervising authorities.
Mr. Brown: The scheme about which the hon. Gentleman asks is voluntary; it is not one whereby we compulsorily purchase the animals. The scheme is voluntary, and application for it is a matter of commercial judgment for the farmer. I shall get it open as soon as I can. I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that officials are working on it now, both at MAFF and at the Intervention Board. To make use of the arrangements, a veterinary certificate is required to state that the welfare of animals is compromised or at risk of being compromised.
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Will the right hon. Gentleman clear up a point that has been causing concern? He will recall that where a farmer is on a premium scheme and an animal is lost through force majeure, the farmer has to give notice to MAFF, and there is a great deal of attendant paperwork. When a farmer has had his animals slaughtered, would it be possible for MAFF to deem that due notice had been given, instead of the farmer having to sit down straight away and do the paperwork?
Mr. Brown: We are looking at how to protect the position of the premium scheme for farmers whose animals have been slaughtered. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the technical point that he raises, but I can state the principle: the Commission has allowed us to invoke the force majeure rules on the five principal livestock premium schemes. In principle, the case that he describes will receive the premium--unless there is some caveat that I do not know about. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the administration of the scheme.
Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): As the Minister knows, the farming crisis also affects small businesses and tourism. Will the Government consider relief on rates, VAT and business rates? Councils would like to give business rate relief, but they do not have the money. Will he urge fellow Ministers to promote the marketing of tourism, both now and, especially, at the end of the crisis?