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Mr. Paterson: On burial, who decides where flocks will be disposed of? As I told the right hon. Gentleman in the Select Committee this morning, the Environment Agency says that burial is the least preferred option, which is in direct contravention of the recommendations of the 1969 report. Someone in the agency is making a decision on a constituency case of mine today. Will the Minister ensure that hon. Members are able to telephone a senior official of the agency to ensure that burial takes place, because that is the preferred option in my area?
Mr. Brown: Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis on the advice of local officials. Our officials make the decision and we consult the Environment Agency. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the anomaly. Of course burial is an attractive option for people who wish to dispose of carcases for disease control purposes. However, for those whose responsibility it is to protect the environment--including the water table--it is less attractive. We are looking at what can be done. Essentially, our approach is pragmatic, but we cannot poison the water table, and I am sure that no one is asking us to. The decision is made locally by the officials in charge. In the areas that are subject to the new control structures, that is by the appointed Ministry official. We consult the Environment Agency but, ultimately, it is for the Ministry to make the decision on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Sean Jackman, a self-employed farming contractor in Winslow in my constituency, has not been able to work for three weeks. On the assumption--at which I am not cavilling--that the Government will continue to resist calls for compensation for lost earnings, and further to what the Prime Minister said at Question Time about building on the loan guarantee scheme, will the Minister explain the time scale for that extension?
Mr. Brown: I have been candid with the House and said that I cannot promise that we will consider all contingent losses. No Minister could. It is a difficult issue. If the hon. Gentleman compiles a list of the contingent losses that he thinks the Government could accept, he will face the same problem. I am not trying to make a party political point. The problem is intractable. I cannot make a statement today in response to the issue that he is pressing
Mr. Ian Bruce: The right hon. Gentleman quickly covered areas such as mine that have no cases of foot and mouth. Will he consider sending out good information--perhaps in the form of advertising--to tell people where they can go in rural areas, such as the seaside? The Government have £30 million of television advertising booked for an election that I suspect the Prime Minister will want to delay. Perhaps those slots could be used for that information campaign.
Mr. Brown: The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who represents the Ministry on the taskforce, tells me that the matter is under examination, and we hope to be able to put something into the public domain shortly. As well as being authoritative, that information has to be crisp and accurate. That is being considered, and the work that the hon. Gentleman properly asks for is under way.
I turn now to the compensatory arrangements. Our overriding priority is to bear down on the disease and eliminate it as quickly as possible. That is not a matter that divides the House. We are also doing a lot to help farmers financially. We have agreed to pay £156 million in extra agrimonetary compensation. To the average beef farmer that is worth £450 on beef special premium and £650 on suckler cow premium. To the average dairy farmer it is worth £2,300 and to the average sheep farmer it is worth £650. We have made special arrangements to make the payments over March, April and May.
We are fully compensating for animals that have to be slaughtered because of infection or exposure to infection, and that includes the value of common agricultural policy subsidies that would have been claimed on the animal. So far, committed compensation for compulsory slaughter stands at £80 million, and it will rise further in the weeks ahead.
We have taken steps to safeguard subsidy payments to farmers whose claims might otherwise have been put at risk by animal movement restrictions. Assistance is being given to the Meat Hygiene Service so that abattoirs, including small ones, do not bear all the increased costs that arise from the exceptional measures being imposed at present. We are working to do more. I recognise, for instance, the concern of beef producers whose animals are subject to movement restrictions that push them over the 30-month age limit. The Opposition have been pressing me on that point, and I am considering what I can do. As hon. Members would expect, I know the arguments in favour of pump-priming the pig industry development scheme levy, and I am considering whether that will be possible.
I also have to look to the longer term. I want to consider the effect on disease control of movement of sheep across large distances and through livestock markets. I want to examine the risks to animal health of illegal imports of meat products. I want to look at the role that swill feeding might have played in the disease outbreak. I want to look in particular at the sheep sector, as I explained briefly to the House earlier, and consider how the rebuilding of the flock should be handled. We are working on improving
Some of the problems of the livestock sector are deep seated. Many result from a long history of production-based subsidies under the common agricultural policy. We need to take the long view and work with industry to create a sustainable future for the livestock farmers in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. The more that we can do that in a bipartisan spirit, the better. There is not much disagreement between us about the need to reshape the common agricultural policy or to provide enduring, sustainable support measures for livestock farmers, so I hope that we can take a relatively politics-neutral approach to the matter.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Minister mentioned the cause of the outbreak and he spoke earlier about urban myths. Is he aware of the rumour circulating in certain elements of the press that animal rights activists are claiming that they stole a phial of foot and mouth disease from a MAFF centre at Pirbright and that they were the initiators of the outbreak? Will he state, once and for all, that that is not the case, and put that myth to bed?
Mr. Brown: We should all take a deep breath. My strongest suspicion is that there will be a far more prosaic explanation. That does not mean that we should not concentrate on finding out why our country has had two viral disease outbreaks in animals in a short time. It is right to focus on what has made us more vulnerable. But I have to say that animal rights activists are at the far end of a scale of suspects. The Ministry are working on the matter, and I am afraid that I must tell the House that the outcome is likely to be far more prosaic. The remedy is likely to be pretty prosaic as well, which is something that we can discuss together. Again, I would wish to consult the House before putting any further measures in place. However, if further measures are required, they will be introduced.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; he has been tremendously generous in doing so in this debate. Does he accept that an outbreak of foot and mouth is an extreme psychological blow to the farmer concerned? Compensation can never bring back the animals, but even if it is an amount on account, will the right hon. Gentleman personally ensure that it is paid as quickly as possible with minimum bureaucracy?
Mr. Brown: I hope to do better than that. I am looking at further support that can be provided immediately and at what can be done to provide a medium and long-term future for the livestock sector. In particular, I am looking at the relationship between measures necessary for recovery immediately after the disease and those which, for a range of reasons with which the hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members are familiar, are necessary in the longer term. If we can pull all those strands together, perhaps some good may come out of a great evil. If that can be achieved, preferably with some consensus between us, it will be a good thing.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): May I tell the right hon. Gentleman, who is an experienced member of the House, that whether hon. Members seek to intervene on the Minister is entirely a matter for them? Whether the Minister gives way is entirely a matter for him.