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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): I do not intend to speak for too long this evening. I share the anguish of other Members and the worries of all those who are so desperately affected in the 29 areas of the country that have been touched by this outbreak of foot and mouth.
I appreciate that agriculture is an issue devolved to the Scottish Parliament; none the less, I would hope that Members in this House will appreciate that devolution can be swept to one side. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said that there were 45 cases in my area; the latest figures I have show that that is rapidly increasing towards 60.
We must share the difficulties that face those affected. Some people, until four or five weeks ago, would have looked at agriculture and said, frankly, that it had nothing to do with them. Only now are they beginning to see that what is happening is seriously impacting on their lives and livelihoods.
Many animals in Dumfries and Galloway are still waiting to be slaughtered. The numbers involved are astonishing, especially given how many animals have been slaughtered already. I got a real glimpse of what was happening when I visited the community in Langholm in the east of my constituency a week last Friday. I was due to meet local people to discuss the impact that the outbreak was having on them, and what the future held. It was evening, and as I crossed the bridge into the town the fields to my left were on fire. That was the first time that I had ever witnessed the sight: television footage or newspaper photographs do not give a real impression of what it is like.
I hope that hon. Members attending the debate, and those who have not been able to do so, will read what has been said today, and consider the extent to which the disease is affecting people. For example, schoolchildren cannot begin to understand what is going wrong in their communities. They have been moved back and forth every day for perhaps a week or 10 days. There is smoke in the atmosphere, and the fields seem to be on fire after dark. That is not a healthy environment--not because of the smoke, but because of what people are seeing every day.
On the evening about which I am talking, I met the local community initiative group. We talked about concerns involving tourism and small rural shops. Rural areas do not have strong and vibrant economies, so everything is based on small and medium-sized enterprises. A lot of help will be needed in the future.
I have spoken in some detail with the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border several times over the past couple of weeks, and he has told me that his perception is that the authorities in Dumfries and Galloway are coping much better than their counterparts in Cumbria. The House has heard this evening, from the right hon. Gentleman and from my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), how desperate the situation in Cumbria has been.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been criticised for saying that the outbreak was under control. I want to examine what controlling the disease has meant to those working at the sharp end in my area. They have tried to keep this terrible disease within the confines of the local authority boundary, and to ensure that it does not spill over. Clearly, the disease may have spilled over from Cumbria into my area, and vice versa, but we are trying desperately to ensure that it does not go further afield and reach Ayrshire and the Scottish borders.
A lot of help will be needed, and Ross Finnie, the Rural Affairs Minister of the Scottish Executive, will be making announcements in the coming days about what help will be made available. For my part, I have spoken to the banks to encourage them to help people affected by the outbreak. Only one of the three main banks in Scotland has responded to my appeal, and I am bitterly disappointed that they are not responding quickly enough to people's needs.
My constituency has five large estates, and many tenant farmers. I am not about to say that different treatment should be given to different people, but we must look closely at what is being done. Tenant farmers watching all that they own being wiped out must wonder how they will survive. If they want to stay in the business, they will have to hang on to the end of the year, when they can buy stock. However, the price of that stock will be much greater than it is at present. Breeding will take place next season, so businesses will only start to reap any benefits 18 months from now.
There are some excellent pedigree animals in my area. People are desperately worried about the Cheviot flocks grazing on hills in the east of my constituency, and about what can be done to protect them. There are also excellent flocks of Suffolks and Texels, and we must do our utmost to protect them, as their strong bloodlines extend over generations.
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border will be sick of hearing me say what I have said so often over the past couple of weeks, which is that I have almost ceased operating as a politician. I am more of a social worker, talking to people on the telephone for 30 and 40 minutes at a time, rather than the usual five minutes. In the current situation, all hon. Members must undertake such long conversations with people, simply as a matter of decency. I am delighted to have been able to put social workers at Dumfries and Galloway council in
At the end of the day, questions will be asked about the cause of the outbreak, and who is to blame. We will have to get back to the fundamentals: if there has been something wrong in the conduct of someone's business which has caused this tragedy, we will have to deal with that. I would go as far as to say that, if necessary, the matter should be dealt with through the court system.
The shape of our countryside will be different in the future. There is always a glimmer of hope when a tragedy such as this comes along. We will have to look closely at agriculture, and all the other elements that feed into it. I hope that we will be able to do so sooner rather than later.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): No one could have heard the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and not be moved by the great devastation that has hit his constituency. He has prayed that no other farmers go through what those in his constituency have gone through, but farmers everywhere fear that that is exactly what will happen. That burden will overhang the farming industry and community over the next few weeks.
I was horrified to hear the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say that he did not think that the crisis had passed, and that there were many more cases still to come. That admission was brave, but it is worrying and scary for any hon. Member in this Chamber with an agricultural constituency.
The Opposition do not get many days on which to choose the subject of the debate, yet this is the second time that we have used our Opposition Day to discuss something that the Government should have found the time for. This is a national emergency--the Government have found no time to allow us to debate it, yet the Opposition have.
The crisis is comprehensive--the fall in farmgate prices and incomes is affecting every sector of the industry. Net farm incomes are down by 16 per cent., dairy farm incomes by 21 per cent., upland livestock farm incomes by 26 per cent., and lowland livestock farm incomes are down £1,500.
The industry was just starting to believe that there were signs of a turnaround before the outbreak of foot and mouth. Having gone through a very bleak period, farmers saw some signs that things might be starting to get better, but any improvement has now been totally wiped out.
I represent a constituency of outstanding natural beauty, which covers a large area of the Peak district. More than 20 million people visit the Peak district each year. It is, without doubt, the lungs of Britain, with a catchment area of Sheffield, Manchester and the west midlands. On a bank holiday, it feels like the whole of that catchment area comes to my constituency. Yet I believe that we have taken the countryside for granted. We think that it exists because of nature, but that is not the case. It is farmed, maintained and looked after by farmers--that is what makes it the countryside that we love and enjoy going to see. If we do not realise that, we will be in peril of losing one of Britain's great national assets--its countryside.
There has been much talk about the 1967 outbreak and the comparisons that can be drawn, but I do not think that many comparisons can be made, because the farming environment has changed dramatically. Farms are now bigger and when a farm is infected, more animals are involved. For the past 20 years, Governments of both colours have encouraged farmers to diversify but now they find that the money that they invested in diversification is not bringing in the returns that it should. That is one of the great problems of the rural economy. We must remember that we are talking about the future of the rural economy, not just that of the agricultural industry.
Too many mixed messages have been, and are still being, sent out by the Government. We heard Ministers say yesterday that the countryside was open and that people can go there providing that they do not come across cattle and sheep. In the Peak district, we do not have much arable farmland; it is mainly given over to livestock.
Help us protect our countryside--DON'T VISIT UNLESS YOU HAVE TO."
Towns in my constituency such as Bakewell and Ashbourne have been devastated by the lack of visitors. Indeed, some business people have set up a mutual self-help group, known as Hartington and Newhaven Development, or HAND. I shall be going to see those people on Saturday morning because they want to express to me their concerns about the future of their industry and the way in which they can survive the crisis. One of the establishments in the group was serving 60 lunches until a few weeks ago; it now serves three or four. That is the kind of devastating impact that the outbreak has had on small rural businesses as well as those in the agricultural sector. It is incumbent on us as Members of Parliament to tell the Government that those are the concerns that businesses throughout the Peak district have to face, partly because of the Government's mixed messages about whether access to the countryside should be encouraged or prevented. That is the problem.
I hope that the Government will get their act together in the next few days and send out one, single message so that people can understand what the criteria are for access to the countryside and certain areas. That is particularly important in the run-up to Easter, which is a tremendously busy time for our small rural businesses. If they lose their takings or their takings are substantially down at Easter, they will not be around next Easter or even this summer.
This is a crisis for the agricultural industry; it is also a crisis for rural Britain and the rural environment. For far too long, we have taken the countryside for granted. The Government have brought in right to roam measures to give people greater access to the countryside, but the truth is that this crisis threatens the very existence of our countryside.