Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I have heard the hon. Gentleman say that before. The senior Territorial

21 Mar 2001 : Column 419

Army regiment in Britain is, of course, the Honourable Artillery Company, which is 200 years older than the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers.

Mr. Edwards: Thank you, Jamest--that was really useful. The hon. Gentleman has intervened on me on that point three or four times, and I still believe that I am absolutely correct. The regiment that the hon. Gentleman represents is the oldest, whereas the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers is the senior regiment. I hope that my point has been made.

Farmers with pedigree herds are also concerned that, if the disease spreads, they will have their entire herds wiped out after building them up for many years. The previous owners of their farms, perhaps their fathers, often helped to build up such herds, and it would be a tremendous tragedy if they were to be lost completely.

I am grateful for the way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has dealt with the crisis. As I said in the House a week or so ago, the farmers of Monmouthshire do not often compliment Agriculture Ministers. I have represented them when there has been a Conservative Agriculture Minister, as I now represent them when there is a Labour one, and there is a feeling that my right hon. Friend has handled the crisis rationally and soundly. That is not to say that they have not been concerned about some aspects of the crisis and how it has been dealt with. Of course, there has been concern about the delays in having sheep and other livestock identified and slaughtered.

I am grateful that my right hon. Friend has made available the agrimonetary compensation. It is important to reiterate that this Government have devoted more than £600,000 to agrimonetary compensation, whereas the previous Government did not devote one penny to it. Agrimonetary compensation is not compensation for foot and mouth, but it is right that it has been brought in as quickly as possible to provide an important mitigating form of support.

The tourist industry in my constituency is very important. My constituency includes the beautiful Wye valley, and the Llanthony valley, of which many people are unaware. I hope that, when the time is right, they will be able to visit it. In those tourist areas, market towns such as Monmouth, Chepstow, Abergavenny and Usk have all been affected by people's sense of responsibility that they ought not to travel into rural parts of the country. Perhaps that feeling is genuinely felt, but it is somewhat misguided. We have so many attractive pubs, restaurants and hotels, probably all of which have been affected in one way or another by the lack of custom resulting from the restrictions.

I have been speaking to the proprietors of the Crown hotel at Whitebrook in my constituency. It is a beautiful small hotel with an equally beautiful restaurant, which has suffered quite considerably. I know that the proprietors appreciated the measures that the Minister for the Environment announced yesterday. Those announcements went further than many people in the tourist trade had anticipated, and I am sure that those people are grateful for that and will look forward to the introduction of any future measures.

The farming community has been subject to a number of crises in the past five to 10 years, and now it is facing another crisis. I hope that we can all work together to

21 Mar 2001 : Column 420

support those in that community who have worked with great resolution. I feel the greatest sympathy for them, but they need much more than sympathy and I hope that we can work together to bring about a resolution to this crisis.

8.23 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) and I express my commiserations to him and his farmers. Mine was the first constituency in which the fires started to burn, and I know exactly what he must be going through. It is very difficult talking to farmers whose livelihoods are being destroyed before their eyes. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) talked about Members of Parliament all being social workers now, and that is indeed the case. We are spending a lot of time with our farmers, trying to solve various problems.

I am pleased to see the Minister of State on the Front Bench. It would be churlish of me not to thank her for her office's help when I had a problem earlier last week with getting some sheep moved to Brindles farm in my constituency from the neighbouring fields. The farm is well outside the 3 km net, and was working within the regulations, but people on the ground were unwilling to take the necessary decision. Had it not been for the kind intervention of the right hon. Lady's office, that movement would not have happened, which would have led to the unnecessary deaths of perfectly healthy sheep.

That case illustrates the problem that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) mentioned, which is that people are unwilling to take decisions. It is absurd that a Member of Parliament has to ring the Minister of State's office to arrange for a few sheep to be pushed through a hole in a hedge in a field in Essex. There is a lesson to be learned from that.

I also need to thank the right hon. Lady for the decision to speed up the opening of the abattoir in my constituency in which the foot and mouth outbreak was first diagnosed. I went round the abattoir last Friday with the owner, looking at the preparations for reopening, and I was struck by the necessity of getting that abattoir back into operation. It was strategically important for the pig industry of the United Kingdom, and it will help enormously in dealing with the problems from which that industry is suffering. It is a good thing that it is going to reopen, particularly as it ensured, by being so vigilant, that the foot and mouth outbreak was identified so early.

One of the more chilling aspects of the Minister of Agriculture's statement this afternoon was his saying that the crisis--far from being over and far from being under control--is going to get much worse, and that the number of cases, and the number of herds affected, is going to rise. The disease is undoubtedly going to spread. We are experiencing exactly the same sort of thing that we did in 1967. This is a peculiar disease, because it will jump over a farm, missing it completely, and occur in another one. It will then jump again, quite wildly, across the county.

My worry is that, while we are trying to get this outbreak, this epidemic, this great crisis under control, we now have to start to think about what is going to be left. I believe that we need a rescue package. We have gone beyond talking about compensation now. We have gone beyond haggling over individual carcases. We are talking about what is going to be left, what kind of British agriculture will exist, and what kind of support services there will be, in terms of abattoirs and haulage services.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 421

Gaining control over this dreadful disease should not blind us to coming up with a rescue package. After all, in one small section of the pig industry, 800 tonnes of sow carcases are being processed every week. Something is happening to those pigs that are not going to slaughter. We know the effects and we have to ensure that, as we start to bring the industry together, there is some means left by which the industry can survive.

Many problems that farmers face, especially the fall in farm incomes, have been described today, most notably by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). About three weeks before the outbreak, I met about 16 farmers who are well established in my constituency to discuss the crisis in the industry. They said that few of their children want to take over their farms and many have gone into other businesses. A young farmer who graduated from Reading university about three years ago told me that only two of his class are active in agriculture. People have moved into jobs elsewhere.

Farmers tell me that they are simply overstaffed. Many are keeping people on because of the commitment that they feel towards their employees, but the prospect of their being able to retain staff is beginning to diminish as the crisis deepens. Farmers quote a long list of burdens that have been placed on them by the Government and local government, such as having to collect taxes, having to distribute benefits, having to fill in forms and having to duplicate paperwork for different Departments.

Yesterday, I was surprised by the Minister for the Environment's comments on the climate change levy. He said, "Don't worry about the climate change levy. It will not really affect farms." He added that

I am sure that that is absolutely right. More urban businesses will be involved, but rural businesses will also be affected by the levy. Significantly, my farmers raised the climate change levy with me and I have also received telephone calls about it since the outbreak.

Even if the Minister for the Environment is right about the long-term benefits that the levy will achieve, surely it makes sense to ensure that farmers who are facing up to these great difficulties are relieved of that problem. Why place additional burdens on farmers at this most difficult time?

Today, I talked to an old friend who is a hill farmer in the Pennines, where I used to live. His farm and his area are fortunately free of foot and mouth, but he wanted me to tell the House that if foot and mouth strikes, he will give up. That applies not only to him, but to the majority of his neighbours. Restocking simply would not be worth while--he could not afford to restock--and if farmers go out of business, the nature of the Pennine foothills will change for ever.

May I make a suggestion to the Minister about how to get the pig industry back in operation when the crisis passes? East Anglia, for example, has been hit badly because it has suffered from classical swine fever, so we must recognise what has happened to that industry. When foot and mouth descended on us, pigmeat imports increased enormously, but some supermarkets underestimated consumers and put on the market joints that people simply did not want. The net result was the complete collapse in the price of pigmeat.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 422

To retrieve the position, we need to go with the market and the way it operates. We must support infrastructure and we should encourage the private commercial storage of pigmeat by giving aid to abattoirs. Such a system could operate only if it went with the general trend: modern consumers want meat traceability. Encouraging private storage of meat by commercial abattoirs would enable us, in time, to offer a guarantee that such pork came from a farm free of foot and mouth. That would be a better way in which to stabilise quality in the market after the crisis and I hope that the Minister will consider ways to achieve that which flow with the general mood of market.

I have one message to pass on from my farmers: the crisis is about respect. They expect the Government to respect the countryside. Ministers talk about people going to the countryside, but that runs contrary to what they know is right in respect of ensuring that the outbreak does not spread. When they talk about tourism, my farmers say that what they are really talking about is the enormous amount that the Labour party has spent on posters and its publicity campaign.

The signal for which the outside world does not look is a Labour candidate wandering up the drive in a borrowed Barbour and a red rosette. That is not what will end the crisis.

Next Section

IndexHome Page