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I have great sympathy with all the hon. Members who have spoken about the way in which their constituencies have been directly affected by outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. I am fortunate enough to have a large farming constituency that has not, so far, had an outbreak, although a suspected case a few weeks ago turned out to be negative.
I intend to speak on the impact of the current situation on my constituency and my farmers. I have some suggestions for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State that may ease matters. My farmers have problems of animal welfare and the costs that flow from that. In particular, the establishment of the longer-distance licence movement scheme has raised some problems. It is, I accept, a brand new scheme, which is bound to have
Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and, to a lesser extent, Ceredigion are areas in which there are many sheep during winter. Thousands of sheep from elsewhere in Wales are now on pasture that should be used for dairy herds. That is adding significantly to animal welfare problems for sheep that should be moved elsewhere and to the costs of farmers who want to get their dairy herds into the fields.
There are also welfare problems for dairy herds that are off their home farms and within the same area but outside the short-distance movement radius for the previous licensing scheme. That problem was brought to my attention by Mr. and Mrs. John, whose home farm is near Templeton in my constituency, but who rent land 25 to 30 miles away in Angle. They have 50 dairy cows calving on that land at the moment. They want to bring the cows to their home farm for obvious reasons. They are travelling three times a day back and forth, which is not a good thing when we are trying to limit the number of movements. It is essential that the licence scheme for longer-distance movement should be got up and running.
The initial problem with the availability of application forms has now been sorted. That was followed by the problem of centres for disinfection and cleaning of vehicles, which are essential. That, too, is now up and running. Now, however, as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) said, there are questions about the licences themselves. I understand that matters are in hand, but the licences must be made available as quickly as possible.
I perceive a further problem. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said that movements would be accompanied, and I have reservations about that. I understand that agricultural development advisory service staff will accompany the vehicles, but as some round trips may amount to 100 or 200 miles, tying up staff to accompany some vehicles may create a problem with finding personnel to accompany others. As the vehicles will be sealed, just as Customs and Excise seals bonded vehicles between a port and a bonded warehouse, would it not be better for ADAS staff to seal a vehicle at one end and have another member of staff at the receiving farm to ensure that the seal had not been tampered with? It would seem better to use ADAS personnel in that way than to insist on them making the full journey.
I want to raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State the over-30-months scheme, to which other hon. Members have also referred. An early decision is needed that payment will be made to farmers with beef cattle who, through no fault of their own, cannot get the cattle to market before the 30-months deadline and who thus make a substantial loss. That would be welcome.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food referred to the need to establish collection centres so that the smaller beef producers can put together a load of animals to be taken to an abattoir. I realise that there are difficulties, but I hope that work will continue on such schemes; they offer a way of ensuring that beef cattle get to an abattoir before the 30-months deadline.
I have some comments on the wider rural economy. As I have pointed out in previous debates, I was a Member of Parliament when we were dealing with the Sea Empress disaster, which had a massive effect on the tourism industry although there was a huge compensation scheme. In my constituency, the tourism sector is probably far larger than the agriculture sector in that it employs more people and generates more revenue. Even in seaside resorts such as Tenby and Saundersfoot, hoteliers are already expressing real concern about the impact of foot and mouth.
We learned several lessons from our experience after the Sea Empress disaster in 1996. The first was that perception is all. News programmes covered in great detail, rightly, the environmental damage--the huge amounts of oil washed up on the Carmarthenshire and south Pembrokeshire coasts. During the first week of that disaster, the phones rang constantly at the hotels and caravan parks; unfortunately, all the calls were cancellations. Even though the disaster happened in February, people were cancelling their July and August holidays because of their perception that the whole environment of Pembrokeshire was so seriously damaged that they would not be able to take their holidays. That was not true, but that was the perception at the time.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who is not in his place at present, referred to the cancellation of the county council elections--as did his hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). If that happened, the perception would be that the whole British countryside had closed down. We know that that is not true--especially those of us who live in our rural constituencies. We know that people are moving about. I accept that there are real restrictions in those areas where there are outbreaks, but the vast bulk of Britain has no restrictions--people just need to be sensible.
The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) said that the advice from MAFF was hit and miss--it was not clear. However, it is horses for courses. We cannot have people walking across the moors in the Peak district, where there are huge areas of open land and a large number of sheep; but elsewhere, people can go into the countryside to visit particular attractions or towns--to castles, beaches and so on. We have to get that message across.
Timing is all. That is the second lesson that we learned from the Sea Empress. It is pointless to mount a massive advertising campaign--as has been suggested--if, while we are trying to promote the idea that everything is okay in the countryside, we see only burning pyres on our news programmes.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment rightly announced, following the work of the taskforce, that investment and additional resources will available to tourism associations and so on, but it is essential that the advertising campaign is timed correctly, otherwise it will be completely fruitless. The intention will not be achieved because people's perceptions will be formed by what they see on their television screens. No matter how many adverts are run and how many articles appear in newspapers, we shall not achieve our aims while those pictures remain on our television screens. It is essential that the campaign takes place and that we gear up for it, because there is no question that it will be needed.
There will be very large consequential losses not only in agriculture, but in the tourism sector. I am very pleased with yesterday's announcement, but it is an interim statement, and the taskforce clearly needs to undertake further work. However, I remain convinced that substantial funds will have to be made available in various forms to the rural economy, to our farmers and to our tourism sector, so that they can fully recover.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Together with the constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), my constituency, which is in south-west Cheshire, is the largest milk field in Europe and the most intensive dairy farming area in the United Kingdom. That area was at the epicentre of the 1967-68 outbreak of foot and mouth, which devastated the farmers, their families, the rural communities and many of my constituents and their forebears in Darnhall, Winsford and the other villages in the area.
The book, "Plague on the Cheshire Plain"--published in 1969, by the then editor and his colleague of The Chester Chronicle, Messrs. Herbert Hughes and J. O. Jones--records, in all its horrific detail, the scale of my constituency's appalling experiences of that time and the beginnings of the recovery that took place a little under a year later. The preface states:
I did not intervene on the Minister about that point because I understood why he seemed not to want to take interventions at the time, but the 1967 outbreak, which geographically was relatively contained compared with today's epidemic, lasted nine months, which may be a guide to the time scale that we must seriously contemplate today. Following that dreadful time, there were many lessons to be learned, most of which were set out in the excellent and thorough 1969 report. Sadly, I am now doubtful whether all those lessons were learned, although many were.
In Eddisbury today, there is real fear, stress and anger. However, my constituents are responsible people; they support the measures that have been taken, but they want them to go much further, much faster. In the interests of time, I shall not list what many right hon. and hon. Members have already mentioned, but I endorse all that they have said.
Of all the lessons in the 1969 report, the key one is speed of action in containing the spread of disease. Speed is of the absolute essence, especially between farmers contacting the vet, the vet investigating the clinical suspicion and confirming the presence of the disease, and the slaughter and disposal of the animals. It is important
Safe zones have been mentioned, but it is unfortunate that zones that were safe in Cheshire on Tuesday then became unsafe on Wednesday--the very day the Minister talked about the concept. That is unhelpful and we need much greater clarification. I call on the Government to give aid to all who seek to help the farmers, as well as to provide that clarification for all those who live in the country and depend on the rural economy.
A problem arises out of yesterday's announcement by the Minister for the Environment about compensation. Understandably, he focused his remarks on the retail sector, even though many, such as Mr. Clacker's company in my constituency, are contractors laying pipelines across farmland on behalf of the utilities. They are not in the retail sector, but they have been desperately seriously affected. However, because they have a job but now no income, they are not able to access the compensation arrangements. It is important that their needs should be taken into account, so I call on the Government to consider carefully the needs of the non-retail sector.
I want to be brief, and I know that the Minister has sought to address today the issue that I shall raise now. I received information on the day that the outbreak was announced suggesting that several constituents had heard that timber supplies for pyres had been sought many weeks before the outbreak began. With due diligence, I spoke to those sources and I raised the issue in the proper manner in a named day written question that is due for answer tomorrow. I shall not prejudge the issue even though I know that press speculation and some excitable comment has attracted headlines. However, as far as I am concerned, the answers will be received tomorrow and that is when we shall judge them. I look forward to that, and I am grateful to the Minister for addressing my concerns.
I want to ensure that the Minister and his team are aware of an issue on which I have been guided by Mrs. Perry of Pear Tree farm, who has experience of the 1967 outbreak, and the House of Commons Library, which at breakneck speed came up with some evidence today. I have not heard much from the Ministry about the contact that it has had with the Meteorological Office. Weather is a key issue. According to historical records, we are entering the windiest time of the year and we have extensive evidence from the outbreak in 1967, notably from Mr. Rowland Tinline, about wind-driven spread.
I am conscious that I need to keep my remarks brief, but it is appropriate to share with the House something that has touched me greatly in the current crisis. It is an anonymous prayer--that is typical of farmers and their folklore--that appears in the book "Plague on the Cheshire Plain". It was written by a Shropshire farmer in 1967, and I am sure that the whole House will share in these sentiments:
Let us give thanks for the fortitude of the few who labour in the task and for the understanding and self denial of the many.
Let us pray for the winds to be stilled so that a calm and peaceful countryside can open its pleasures once again to all people."