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3.41 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I beg to move,

You may be anticipating events, Mr. Speaker, in asking the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) to move an Opposition debate.

Britain's livestock industry is in peril. The rural economy is haemorrhaging. There is visible evidence day by day that the gathering crisis is growing. As of last night, more than 100,000 animals were awaiting slaughter and more than 80,000 carcases were rotting in the open air. In the six days since the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last came to the House to make a statement, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease has risen by more than two thirds, to 411, and the number of animals condemned for destruction has almost doubled to 350,000.

The crisis is spiralling out of control. The Prime Minister's bland words a few moments ago could have been spoken only by a man ignorant of what is happening in his own country, is contemptuous of those communities whose prosperity his policies have done so much to damage and is still refusing to devote the resources that the crisis requires for its resolution. [Interruption.]

Contrary to the politicking of which the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food accuses me from his sedentary position, let me make it clear that the Opposition will continue to give the Government full backing for measures that are necessary and effective if we are to get the disease under control. Even when they are unpopular, as with the large-scale cull proposed last week, we shall not shrink from giving our support if it is right to do so.

I pay tribute again to vets and others in the front line for their efforts to contain the disease. I offer my personal sympathy, too, to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his departmental colleagues. They are carrying a heavy burden on behalf not just of Government, but of the nation. They are clearly working under enormous pressure.

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Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Is my hon. Friend aware that the divisional veterinary officer in Staffordshire faces a difficult situation? A constituent of mine, Christopher Jackson of Bagots Pigs, finds himself in breach of welfare regulations because his pigs have given birth to piglets, causing overcrowding, yet he has been told that he can neither slaughter nor move the pigs, and the divisional veterinary officer has said that he has had absolutely no guidance from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend raises an important point; the farmer whose position he describes so succinctly is by no means alone in facing such difficulties. The Minister will have paid careful attention to my hon. Friend's point and I hope that, in the course of the next 24 hours, someone in the Minister's office will be able to get a message to my hon. Friend's constituent to deal with that impossible situation.

Above all, our hearts must go out to farmers: working with livestock is not just a job--it is a way of life. The men, women and children who see the animals that they have reared prematurely destroyed are losing not only their livelihood but part of their family. I hope that the thoughts of every hon. Member are with them at this time of profound distress.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), one of my constituents is in a similar predicament. He has 2,500 sheep in Staffordshire; he wants to bring them back to Worcestershire but he cannot move them because of a D notice on the Worcestershire farm. Sadly, we have foot and mouth in Worcestershire. He, too, has an incredible animal welfare problem: his sheep are trying to graze in muddy fields where there is no grass and the ewes are lambing. In normal circumstances, he would be prosecuted on animal welfare grounds. Will my hon. Friend put to the Minister the case for such animals to be culled under the programme?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend is right. She describes a problem that faces a large number of farmers. We have raised it with the Minister, and I know that he is very conscious of it. The solution is not easy. We do not want to weaken the measures that have been taken to try to curb the disease, but it is those measures that prevent many farmers from moving lambing ewes to the places where they want them to be. As a result, there are serious animal welfare consequences. I know that the Minister will have taken note of that point; I intend to return to it later and to suggest a way forward.

We are also concerned about the effect of the crisis on other industries. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition proposed a new scheme to give businesses in rural areas financial help in the form of a loan of up to £10,000, repayable, when they return to profitability, by a surcharge on future tax bills.

In the past half-hour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) has returned from the British travel trade fair in Birmingham, where he met people from throughout the country who are charged with the difficult task of supporting the tourism industry. People are becoming frustrated and angry at the lack of positive action. They have received plenty of sympathy and warm

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words, but they want clarity and financial help to deal with a cash-flow problem that becomes more acute day by day.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On financial packages, will my hon. Friend focus on national insurance contributions? Perhaps such contributions could be deferred in order to keep people in employment. Will he seek an assurance from the Government that no interest will be payable on deferred tax and VAT?

Mr. Yeo: My right hon. and learned Friend makes two important points. Like many Conservative Members, he was disappointed by the lack of tangible measures to help from the Minister for the Environment, who spoke yesterday after the second meeting of the taskforce. My right hon. and learned Friend has proposed an extremely practical way to help--relief from national insurance contributions--that, no doubt, could be introduced quickly.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): My hon. Friend will be aware that compensation for farmers whose livestock had to be killed as a result of foot and mouth is paid at today's market price and that that is well down on recent prices, which themselves were low enough. Will my hon. Friend press the Government to ensure that compensation for destroyed herds and flocks is paid at a reasonable rate and not at today's market price?

Mr. Yeo: The Minister will have heard that point. He was shaking his head as my hon. and learned Friend spoke--I believe that compensation is now being paid at pre-crisis levels. However, the point is important and the fact that my hon. and learned Friend felt it necessary to raise it shows that the message about the basis on which compensation is paid has not yet been effectively communicated to all the farmers in his constituency and in many other constituencies.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Minister has very clearly stated that no consequential loss payments will be made. Will my hon. Friend seek assistance from the Ministry to help those farmers who have received no income for the past five weeks and are facing severe hardship because their farms are covered by a form D, or are in an exclusion zone?

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend describes a problem faced by a large number of farmers. We have made it clear that, given the severity of the problem on this occasion, we believe that it would be right to give help for consequential losses to a number of carefully defined farmers. Without such help, many farmers will find that survival is a matter of weeks, possibly even days, and unless the principle of providing help for consequential losses is accepted, a chilling message will be sent to them, because there is no other prospect of their receiving any kind of relief.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): If the principle of help for consequential losses were accepted, where would the hon. Gentleman draw the line? My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food invited the hon. Gentleman to write to him a few weeks ago, so will he inform the House where the line would be drawn?

Mr. Yeo: We have already suggested a number of categories, one of which includes farmers whose cattle

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pass the age of 30 months, at which point the value of the cattle suffers an unrecoverable decrease. Movement restrictions can prevent farmers from realising the market value before cattle reach the age of 30 months. They are the sort of people to whom compensation should be paid for their consequential losses.

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