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9.31 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Anyone who has listened to our debate over the past few hours will have been struck by two things: the sheer scale of the crisis facing our countryside and the extent of the misery that it has created for communities across the United Kingdom. We wanted an Opposition day debate because of our alarm--which is increasing day by day--about the fact that, in some ways, the response to the crisis in the countryside does not measure up to the scale of the problem.

I have no complaint about the Government's motives and objectives, especially those of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, whose speech was, I think, appreciated by the whole House. He is much more aware of the desperate nature of the situation than, I suspect, some of his colleagues. However, some of the Government's actions have been late, half-hearted and not effective enough. There are two separate crises hidden within the overall problem: the farming crisis, and the collapse of various local economies that depend on a combination of tourism and agriculture. Our motion and the Government amendment both make that clear, yet the wider economic aspects were only touched on by the Minister. However, they should be taken just as seriously as the farming crisis.

I shall say a few words about farming first. In the past few hours we have heard from Members on both sides of the House that farmers want speedy and decisive action. They need quick diagnosis, quick slaughter if necessary and quick disposal of carcases. Above all, they need immediate, authoritative and clear advice. All too often they are still getting none of that and I am afraid that all the Minister's charm cannot hide that fact. Too many farmers in Britain today are not just frightened: they are confused and are getting contradictory advice from local and regional offices.

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That is why, a few days ago, we proposed three specific actions that the Government could take. As many Members on both sides of the House have said, we recognise that this is a national crisis, and in those circumstances, it is the role of a responsible Opposition to be constructive as well as critical. That is what we have sought to be, and we shall continue our role as the crisis proceeds. The Minister has made moves following our suggestions about speeding up the slaughter without requiring a lab test and bringing more vets to the front line. I am glad that he recognised that our suggestions were genuine and constructive. In return, may I say that we welcome the steps that he has taken, but we want him to do more and we want him to do it quickly?

Last week, we suggested that the Army be used for the disposal of carcases. We welcome the small steps that the Government announced yesterday, but they are not enough. The average wait of two days between diagnosis and slaughter, and another two days between slaughter and disposal, disguises the longer and more dangerous gaps that are occurring in some cases. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said that he was pleased that, in Cumbria, 36 hours is now the going time between diagnosis and slaughter. I am sure that many of the farmers in Cumbria, about whom we heard some eloquent tales from my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), still regard the 36-hour wait as inadequate as the crisis threatens to envelope them.

I hope that the Minister will deal within the next few days with the welfare of animals, which is becoming one of the new focuses of the crisis. My hon. Friends have said a lot about pigs, but he should deal also with the thousands of sheep that are starting to lamb in unsuitable land, miles from where they should be. For two weeks, farmers have known that many such sheep are dying. They cannot move them and they are asking MAFF for guidance, but too often they are getting none. I know that from my constituency and from colleagues representing areas around the country. I profoundly hope that the Minister's words will be followed by action within hours, rather than days. That is what is needed if a serious animal welfare crisis is to be prevented from hitting large areas of the country, including some that have not been as badly hit as those about which we have been hearing. The outbreak could spread and hit new areas.

I am also grateful to the Minister for his unequivocal statement that he and his officials had no knowledge of any infection before 18 February. I am happy to accept his assurance that the phone calls that were made to timber merchants were part of a regular contingency planning process. However, that gives rise to another vital question: what does all this contingency planning achieve? If there is a contingency plan and it is regularly practised, why is it taking so long for sensible solutions to be put in place? The Minister made welcome comments about valuation tariffs, but we are now a month into the outbreak. Is not the Army included in the contingency plan? Various hon. Members spoke about using the Royal Engineers. Whether or not one believes that it is right to use them--the Opposition believe that it is--surely the Army would have been included in any contingency plan. There is no evidence in the Government's reaction to suggest that it was. Whatever time and effort was put into the regular contingency plan, it was, frankly, a waste of energy, as the Government seem to have started from scratch.

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Similarly, as the debate is rolling on, we are hearing that the Environment Agency is gearing up for action with regard to on-farm burial. Will the Minister of State tell us whether the agency is included in the contingency planning process? When was it brought in to consider suitable burial sites? Does not it already have records telling it where the sites are located? If so, why are we not using them now, four weeks into the crisis? From the outside, it is impossible to tell whether the Environment Agency is being dilatory or whether its attention was directed at the problem too late. It holds the key to the solution to one part of the crisis and it needs urgently to raise its game.

The crisis goes much wider than farming. Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment announced some welcome steps towards dealing with the wider issues, although I fear that they are too tentative. As many of my hon. Friends said in response, more needs to be done and it must be done now. I am delighted that the Minister for the Environment has joined us. It is regrettable that he has not participated in the debate, not least because the motion and the amendment make clear that there are two sides to the outbreak: the agricultural crisis and the wider crisis.

Indeed, I agree with one of the points that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) made in a thoughtful speech. She said that, as someone who followed the crisis carefully because of her constituency interests, she did not know what the taskforce was doing. She wanted more information; the debate afforded a good opportunity for providing it.

Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment made some welcome announcements. However, it is significant that, in a 16-paragraph statement, he used the word "consider" four times. That sums up the statement; the Government are considering doing many things. I shall quote part of a fax that the chief executive of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association sent my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) a couple of days ago:

It continues:

He is right.

In a 24-hour period, the organisation received many damaging cancellations. They include 12 adult German groups, representing a value of £1.4 million, and 21 student groups, representing a value of about £1 million. The Austrian Government have advised their nationals not to travel to the United Kingdom. Ninety per cent. of language students for a particular course have cancelled. Tour operators report that forward bookings are non-existent.

Confusion at the heart of Government exacerbates the problem. The Prime Minister and Labour Members have told us that we must encourage tourists to visit the British countryside and that it is open for business. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out, Derbyshire county council, doubtless with the best intentions, has taken out adverts headed "Help Stop the Spread of Foot and Mouth", which state:

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Mr. Luff: I am delighted that my hon. Friend is highlighting that point. In tonight's Worcester Evening News, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock), is reported as urging

Is not that different from the message that the Prime Minister gave the House this afternoon? Is it not time for the Government to clarify their message?

Mr. Green: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There is confusion in Government about solving the crisis. Resolution will remain difficult as long as the confusion continues.

Many businesses besides tourism are in severe, possibly terminal, difficulties. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) therefore called today for interest-free loans for businesses that qualify for rate relief. Attracting tourists back to the English countryside will take some time. It is clear that we need practical action now to help the cash flow of those businesses so that they continue to exist to take advantage of any upturn. Conservative Members will continue to offer practical ideas; they are desperately needed by thousands of businesses, which will go under unless the Government act now.

Everyone in the House and in the country shares the objective of ending the crisis as soon as possible. I hope that everyone shares the view that the Government should concentrate all their energy on dealing with the crisis. The Minister admitted with characteristic honesty that the epidemic will get worse and that the outbreak will show a rising trend. If he is right, the British people will not understand it if the Government do anything to suggest that solving the crisis is not their highest priority. If they have another matter at the forefront of their thinking in the next few weeks, they will fail to tackle the crisis in the countryside and earn the condemnation of those who live and work there. They will pay the penalty, and they will deserve it. For the sake of those who are clinging to their livelihoods throughout our country, I hope that the Government will choose the honourable path.

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