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Mr. Livsey: Is it not extraordinary that people with lambs that are ready for marketing and--in my constituency, certainly--are within 10 miles of a slaughterhouse cannot market them, because they are in a restricted area? This morning the Minister told the Select Committee that sending animals directly to the slaughterhouse was the option carrying the least risk. Would it not improve farmers' cashflow and get the meat to the supermarkets?
I understand that there has been an almost automatic derogation to allow grazing of agri-environmental scheme land under the current emergency. That is very welcome, but will the Minister also consider delaying the 31 May deadline for new applications for the countryside stewardship scheme? At present, no application can properly be made because no one can go on to the land--and once the deadline has been missed, a whole year will pass before assistance is received.
Let me ask a more fundamental question. Will the Minister look at commodity prices? We hoped that the dairy industry had finally secured an uplift in milk prices over the past month or so, but that now seems a forlorn hope. We also hoped that there might be an improvement in meat prices, but there is now a very variable situation throughout the country, and the lack of an effective market--because of the lack of literal markets--means that prices are depressed, especially in certain sectors. Will the Minister consider the National Beef Association's proposals for a price-fixing mechanism as a temporary measure? That would restore at least some common sense while no genuine market exists.
Will the Minister ensure that the strongest possible case is put to the Government for proper use of contingency funds? If this is not a crisis of the kind for which such funds are intended, I do not know what is. The Ministry should ensure that other Departments are mobilised as well, because we are fighting a war against this disease, and if we are to continue to do so we must ensure that all available resources are deployed effectively. I am afraid that many people in rural areas, while applauding some of the Minister's actions, say that not enough has been done so far.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): There is a lot of anguish in my constituency today. That was demonstrated this morning, when a number of my constituents from the inner Lakeland area, in particular, the town of Keswick--under the flag of the Cumbria crisis alliance, which was set up recently--spoke of their concern. I have also had meetings with representatives of the tourism industry over the last couple of weeks, most recently at my home last weekend. A number of people attended, including representatives of all the tradesmen in my constituency and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
There are problems, and there is a feeling that many of them are not being addressed. It is not just a question of a Government response. So far, 193 businesses have told the Cumbria tourist board that they are in trouble. For example, 17 of Cumbria's 24 youth hostels have closed. In fact, however, the Lake district is effectively still open, because many of our towns and villages are still providing the facilities that they have historically provided. The problem exists on the fells and at the access points. They are closed, but there are still many parts of Cumbria that warrant visits by tourists. Keswick is still open; our attractions are still open.
Before reaching the centrepiece of my speech, I want to say something about the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment yesterday. They are welcome as a first stage, but it is important to keep a close eye on developments over the coming weeks. There will be further problems despite the introduction of those measures, and dramatic action may be needed to resolve them.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) advocated a subsidy for hoteliers and other operators in the Lake district national park to help them with their advertising bills, so that they can decide where to advertise in the national media. I support that idea, and also ask my hon. Friends to keep in mind the suggestion that I made yesterday--that attractions in the county should be subsidised. Honeypot attractions may well be the best way of bringing people back. The county contains more than 100 such attractions, many of which are still open. There are lake cruises, sports centres and environmental attractions, all of which could well be supported with taxpayers' money.
I think that the county's car parks should be free. I also think that, as the crisis develops, we should seriously consider introducing a system of free public transport, enabling people to travel throughout the Lake district easily and without expense.
I turn to what I believe to be an important issue. There are problems within MAFF in Cumbria. I believe that they will be addressed, but I think that my constituents and certainly the farmers are entitled to know that we know what they are.
The work that the vets have been doing is wonderful; they are much appreciated by the farmers. In my office, we have had repeated calls from farmers saying how pleased they are with the service that is being provided. However, the problem in the county is in MAFF's management structure. Indeed, the director--the local officer responsible for operations--has not proved competent in dealing with the crisis. The machine has been desperately slow. There has been a lack of lateral thinking. That local officer has not got things in Cumbria under control, despite the information that he has been giving Ministers and the private office to the effect that things are under control: they are not.
There has been too much sticking to protocol. As far as I can see, there has been a complete breakdown in communication between Cumbria and MAFF officers in London. Information has not been getting through on the failure of resources to deal with the escalating crisis, but I am assured by Ministers that the financial resources are there. That is not the problem; it is a logistical problem. Indeed, I welcome the most recent initiatives that have been taken by the Government in that area.
One very informed person told me that the management insisted on every box being ticked. That perhaps indicates the nature of the problem. Others have said that the local machine has been an old dinosaur at work, and that decisions were taking too long.
More control is needed at local vet level so that fast action can be taken and all the necessary arrangements introduced. The six-day delay from notification to disposal has been unacceptable. That has been exploited by the media in the county, reasonably, in my view, because it is a matter of legitimate concern. To this day, I cannot understand why the MAFF representative in Cumbria was not relaying to the Department his particular concerns in that area. I do not think that, in 22 years, I have ever criticised a civil servant from the Floor of the House of Commons, but the way the situation has been managed by senior management has been such a disaster that I have to say it; this is the forum in which to say it.
Another constituent said that we were not getting on top of the problem. We are still dealing only with reported cases, not with potentially traceable cases. I understand that the water board and a number of contractors have offered heavy equipment. I am told that they have been turned down. Where are the Royal Engineers? Why was there a shortage early on of slaughterers? Why was the centre told that everything was in order when there was a shortage of slaughterers? Why were we not told nationally that there was a shortage of vets? Every hon. Member in the county was picking that up, but the last people to admit it were those in the Department itself.
The other day, when a MAFF official was being interviewed on camera by Border Television, I had to intervene to protest at the way in which the questions were being answered. Even as late as our meeting in Kendal last Thursday, officials were not prepared to spell out what the deficiencies were in the county. It was only after I had intervened that I noticed a change in the approach of that interviewee. I am told that there is no shortage of money; I am satisfied that it is simply a matter of organisation.
May I say how much I welcome the appointment of the new controller of operations, Mrs. Jane Brown, a grade five civil servant who in the past day has gone up from London? Let her be fully aware of the fact that I will unreservedly support her, as I hope other hon. Members will, in some of the difficult decisions that she will have to take. If we are going to wipe the problem out, we must adopt a fresh, almost ruthless approach. We cannot afford the delays that have characterised the approach up to now; delays have certainly characterised the approach in Cumbria.
I congratulate Ben Gill on the courageous way in which he has led the NFU during this difficult period. He has had to stand up to complaints in Cumbria from local NFU representatives, who are under pressure from local communities. He has stood by a principle that he believes in--the idea that real action was necessary.
I refer to the future. My view is that the way the disease has been managed in Cumbria has been so unsatisfactory--I have mentioned a civil servant who has been responsible for the programme--that the National Audit Office will inevitably have to hold an inquiry. It will be as a result of that inquiry that the truth will unfold.
What worries me--I will be frank--is that the Government will be blamed for deficiencies at local level that were not fully revealed to Government. [Interruption.] Oh, yes. Ministers are certainly responsible for what has happened. I understand that, but I am worried about the fact that a lot of the information was not getting through to them. We expect our civil servants to reveal to Ministers in times of crisis precisely what is happening on the ground. In this case, it did not happen.