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7.24 pm

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I welcome the debate, because the tone of the House has reflected the extreme gravity of the situation. As many Members have said, the problem does not affect just agriculture. Anyone who has read the front page of The Times today will have seen that the village of Porlock in my constituency reports a total absence of visitors and that there has been a collapse of all the businesses involved in tourism and with the wider Exmoor community

I have just received a report of a meeting in Porlock village hall today, where I shall be on Friday. Two hundred people in the village hall, the chairman and director of the national park, the local director of the National Trust and the chairman of the district council all recognised the extraordinary gravity of the situation.

I was concerned whether it was appropriate to table this motion, and I discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). However, it is

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important to make a distinction. I believe that we should take a bipartisan approach to this serious and growing problem, but the Government should realise that some real problems need attention. That message must go right across government.

On an earlier occasion, I pointed out to the Minister that people did not know what foot and mouth looked like. I urged on him the need to advise people on how they could recognise the symptoms and he made a reasonable reply. He said that he understood my reasonable suggestion. Most of the people dealing with the problem have never seen foot and mouth, and I understand--I may be wrong--that Mr. Jim Scudamore is about the only person serving in MAFF who was involved in any significant way when the previous outbreak took place in 1967.

The great problem with such issues is the collective memory. No Minister has ministerial experience of dealing with foot and mouth; hardly anyone in MAFF or in Parliament has either. I have been here a long time--some people say too long--and I came to the House two years after the previous outbreak. Therefore, I hope that someone is keeping a careful diary of every event in this outbreak.

Although the Minister said that it was a good idea and that he had the matter in hand, it was nearly 10 days before the first pictures appeared showing what foot and mouth looked like. They were good because they showed what to look for in cattle, pigs and, in particular, sheep, which are liable to get blisters on the palate which makes the disease very difficult to recognise. I hope that those pictures will be stored and a stockpile will be kept so that they can be printed instantly should an outbreak occur again.

Today, we heard the Prime Minister commending burying in line. The 1968 report shows that that was the preferred method then. It warned against burning because of the risk of spreading the disease further. It is only now, in week five, that we seem to be returning to one of the strong recommendations of the 1968 committee. It is important that we learn lessons. Prompt slaughter is another of the 1968 recommendations. Discretion should be given to vets so that they can move faster. It is as though we have had to reinvent the wheel.

A further recommendation in the 1968 report was that we should bring in the Army earlier and provide assistance at an early stage. I have just received the excellent foot and mouth bulletin that is produced by the National Farmers Union in the south-west; I always ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk receives a copy. The bulletin says that Major Belinda Forsyth has now appeared on the scene in Devon. She is the commander

That is jolly good. However, the bulletin adds:

No Minister should be embarrassed about asking for military assistance. In the Ministry of Defence document "Defence Policy 2001",

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The leader of my party implied in his speech two nights ago that a vast resource is available. I might have to disagree with him. The Royal Engineers are overstretched, so I am not sure how large the resource is. However, whatever is available should be used and, with great respect to the Minister, should be in place because such arrangements take time to organise. That was a recommendation of the 1968 inquiry.

That inquiry made another recommendation. It is obvious and, I think, starting to be accepted that it is impossible to manage the crisis from Whitehall or regional offices. One Member made a profoundly true remark when he said that the Ministry and all Government offices are institutionally urban. Calls to the regional office in Bristol are answered by terribly nice people who have probably never seen a farm in their lives. They have been recruited in Bristol to do a call centre job or whatever. The problem in the south-west is that the regional office in Bristol is going to close and has lost some of its key people. The Minister should worry about the wisdom of that closure, because suddenly that office is desperately needed.

Management of the crisis cannot be run from a regional office; there must be local discretion. I understand that we are to have a south-west supremo who will be based in Worcester. That will not serve Devon and Cornwall too well. Let me give the Minister an example of a pathetic case. People are ringing up because they have seen ewes in a village called Enmore. The west country has had terrible weather in the past few days, with 2 in of rain and snow on Exmoor. The animals are out and there are welfare considerations. The farmer has asked to move his sheep to new grazing which is 5 miles away, but an earnest, decent and conscientious person sitting in Bristol has read up the rules and told him that he cannot have a local movement order because that is limited to 5 km. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals turned up, looked at the ewes in the field in the village of Enmore and ordered them to be shot. They have been killed because someone in Bristol who has never been to my constituency looks at a map and cannot use his or her discretion. That cannot be right.

I understand the problems that Ministers face. I dealt with a few when I was in Government and recognise that the crisis has a complexity beyond most of the difficulties that I encountered. It cannot be controlled from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Nobel house or the regional offices. There must be local discretion.

Common sense must be applied. To make a further movement of livestock, a lorry has to be sent to a regional cleansing centre. When a farmer in my constituency gets a movement order and wants to move animals, the closest regional cleansing centre is in Exeter. A farmer from Weston Zoyland, which is 5 miles outside Bridgwater, would need to send his lorry to Exeter, bring it back to Weston Zoyland to load the animals and take it to a farm four miles away, before sending it back to Exeter to be

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cleaned again. South Molton has a regional cleansing centre, but there has been an outbreak two miles from there.

On the market situation, a large pig producer in an infected area--thank God it has now been cleared--cannot move his pigs because the price has collapsed and the slaughterhouses will not take them. The other slaughterhouse in my constituency deals mainly in beef. Although it could be open, the flood of Irish beef has meant that it has laid off its people because it cannot sell beef at commercial prices.

The rising trend of outbreaks will continue for some time. Farms and the rural community as a whole are facing a crisis. Half our potential county councillors are farmers who are locked on their farms. For the Prime Minister to parrot what the Leader of the House said about holding the county council elections on 3 May sends a bad signal. It seems that the Government's best argument for not cancelling them is that people throughout the world would say, "Good Lord! The British have cancelled their county council elections."

If those elections go ahead and any Agriculture Minister goes near the hustings, there will be a riot. They know that it is their job to work. They will not be able to campaign because the Government have responsibilities at a high level to deal with the crisis. If we get a measure of control in force and the election and its related activities cause the disease to burst out again, I shudder to think what fate would face the Government, and they would deserve it. Although I understand the pressures, I hope that people realise that we are in a major crisis and it must be given top priority.

7.36 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): If the debate is to have any value, it should focus on two issues: first, whether the Government's strategy is right and, secondly, whether that strategy's implementation is satisfactory. We have heard little about the strategy. The farming community accepts that the Government's objective to eliminate the disease as fast as possible and restore our country to its previous disease-free status is right. Our strategy is to identify each outbreak, trace it and eliminate the animals involved and their contacts. My only concern is that, although farmers are persuaded of that, the population at large are not sure that that is the only route to eliminate foot and mouth in this country.

I have just received a briefing from the Soil Association, which is promoting a meeting tomorrow to discuss the possibility of using vaccination around the areas with the highest concentration of the disease. I shall be surprised if that proposal does not receive a good deal of support from people who are concerned about the welfare implications of the strategy and the likelihood of succeeding with the methods that we have chosen. Although my right hon. Friend touched on the possibility that there might be a plan B should the mechanism that we have identified fail, we need urgently to work out whether there is a fall-back strategy that could be implemented reasonably quickly.

The current strategy has my support. We have not established that it cannot work, although there is evidence that, in some parts of the country, resources are being overwhelmed by the demand placed on them. I have received many inquiries from people who are concerned

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about the need for slaughter and the possibility of exploring alternatives. We should continue to keep an open mind and engage with the wider public in some of the complex issues that have not been played out. That is why I welcome the announcement of a briefing to journalists on Friday.

I want to concentrate on the effectiveness of our delivery of the current strategy. We need to put any comments into context. I listened with care to the remarks made by experienced Conservative Members. It is easy for us to criticise with hindsight, and there has been a tremendous number of references to 1967. It is clear that this outbreak of the disease was not identified early, which means that the virus had numerous routes of transmission that could not be shut off because it had already passed through them. There appears to be far more movement of stock, particularly of sheep, than in 1967, making spread of the disease rapid and exposure wide and not readily predictable.

The main carrier is our sheep flock, in which movements and locations of animals are far less traceable than in other species. Flocks and herds are far larger than in 1967, making the sheer scale of the outbreak far greater given the lack of early identification. This virus is particularly hard to spot in sheep, making early identification hard. Sheep are farmed extensively, making identification even more difficult in most conditions.

The outcome of those disadvantages is that the disease is far more widespread than in 1967. I share the gloom of Front-Bench Members about the prospect of an early end to the disease or even an early sight of its peak. We face a logistical nightmare. Instead of the relatively tight concentration of outbreaks in the midlands in 1967, we have outbreaks the length and breadth of the country. That makes the concentration of scarce critical skills in the right places much harder to achieve than before.

When faced with such a problem it is normal, first, to define where those skills add most value and, wherever possible, to simplify the processes that skilled individuals have to follow and, secondly, ruthlessly to prioritise the tasks that they have to carry out. On that point, some of the comments about inexperience this time round have some resonance. Insufficient care has sometimes been taken to define clearly what vets do best and on what they should concentrate all their time. We have not used some of the key analytical and management skills early enough.

The critical tasks in disease control are identifying the disease, valuing the stock, killing the animals and disposing of the carcases. When risk analysis is also involved, movement control management requires analytical skills of a high order. We have had to increase the number of vets available, and identification remains a vital task for the farmer himself. The Government have done their best to recruit vets, but a lack of vets is not the major cause of our difficulty. Understandably, there have been difficulties with valuation, for which there should be simple, fair formulae. I was encouraged by the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister said that we are moving towards that.

There is clearly a difficulty in getting qualified slaughtermen to the right places at the right time. As abattoirs are running well below capacity, it should surely be possible to bring those skills to the places where they are needed. Live animals pass on infections--as far as we can tell, often within hours. It is critical that the gap

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between identification and slaughter be cut from days, which is how long it takes in some parts of the country, to hours.

Destruction of carcases is less critical. In disease control, the critical issue is whether the animal is alive. The presence of carcases is obviously distressing to farmers and others and runs the risk of spreading other kinds of disease, but the destruction of carcases is clearly a lesser priority than some of the other tasks facing the team confronting the disease. As other hon. Members have said, burial is less of an option than in 1967 simply because of the scale of the herds and flocks that we are dealing with. There is also a greater awareness of the potential for pollution from burials. In my area, where there have been seven outbreaks, I would be extremely doubtful of the value of burials on land that lies within the flood plain. Nevertheless, it is clear that burials should be made easier, and we urgently need to clarify what might be the Environment Agency's concerns.

Movement control is a complex process of risk analysis. The disease could be incubating at the time of movement and animals could be infected during that time, so any movement carries some risk. My constituents expect vigilance to prevent the further spread of the disease in the area. Many farmers have expressed concern to me about the complex process that must be undergone to acquire movement licences. That should be simplified for the convenience of farmers and, just as importantly, to reduce the work load on our hard-pressed public servants, who have better things to do than shunt bits of paper around the countryside.

Clear information is critical to the handling of this crisis. Although MAFF's website is excellent in many respects, it is not always up to date. It should include details of sites where a form C has been issued. People should be aware of the high risk attached to a vet's opinion that an outbreak is likely to occur. Farmers have had one high-quality mailing, and I myself received one. They now need much more detailed practical information on issues such as obtaining movement licences, access to the voluntary scheme that has been referred to, rules on disinfectant and restocking and aid packages for farmers considering alternative uses for their property. They need to know how agrimonetary compensation schemes will be firmed up, how exactly the schemes will work and within what timetable.

Initiatives are being taken in my area which are outside the Government's grasp. I commend the Derby Evening Telegraph campaign to aid farmers in the area. It works directly by fundraising and encouraging support for local rural enterprises that have been badly affected by foot and mouth because visitors and business partners have been discouraged from coming to see them. We need market support mechanisms to maintain the prices of the tradeable sector now and through recovery. I commend also the Minister's approach for examining the long-term issues. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made some intelligent remarks about the issues that we must confront.

Finally, we urgently need definition of the policies necessary to aid recovery. Many farmers face a complete reassessment of their life prospects, and it is entirely understandable that they may be considering retirement or an alternative future. We should help them in their time of need. Rural development plan resources are almost

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certainly inadequate to meet that requirement. We should review the resources already set aside for schemes, which are available to fund alternatives to farming.

Farming and related rural enterprises have a great future in this country. I have said that before and I say it again--

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