Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.44 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The debate has reflected accurately the fears and anxieties felt in all parts of the country as a result of this dreadful disease. Right hon. and hon. Members of all parties have spoken of the immense distress caused to farmers who have had confirmed cases or suspected cases, or who are in infected areas. Members representing non-infected areas have also vividly expressed the fear of farmers in their areas that they might be affected in their turn. A number of hon. Members mentioned that, including the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who also praised the Opposition for holding this debate.

While I fully understand that the Opposition would choose this subject for debate, I do not accept that Ministers have not made time to address the House on these issues. The Minister for the Environment made a statement yesterday, and regular statements have also

21 Mar 2001 : Column 439

been made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who was also, quite properly, giving evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture all morning.

The severity of the situation has understandably and powerfully been referred to by many Members. Not surprisingly, that has been particularly true of Members from Cumbria. The speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and other Cumbrian Members showed that they were deeply concerned. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has an Adjournment debate on this very subject tonight.

The south-west has also been very badly affected and, not surprisingly, has been referred to throughout the debate. So has the area round the Welsh border--particularly Powys--and the area of Dumfries and Galloway, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown) made a powerful speech. There are a number of worrying hotspots around the country. Even in my own part of the world, we are very concerned about the concentration in Durham, Tyne and Wear and the adjacent area of Northumberland, where there are also a considerable number of cases.

We have also heard outstanding contributions from hon. Members representing other areas who are very close to the situation of farmers in their constituencies. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith).

Let me say something about the role of all Ministers in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on this issue. As has been pointed out by many hon. Members, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has shouldered a huge burden of responsibility, and I certainly echo the many compliments that he has received in the Chamber today. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman, as Minister responsible for animal health, has also been fully involved in the issue and has to report regularly to the other place.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is the Ministry's representative on the taskforce, building on his experience working on the rural White Paper and as the Minister responsible for the countryside. I have responsibility for trade issues, not many of which have been aired today. None the less, many companies throughout the country are affected by export restrictions. I assure the House that we are working closely with companies to provide the necessary certification for when they are able to export again. We also work with them when they encounter export obstacles created by other countries--either European Union or third countries--because import blockages are imposed, even against products not covered by the restrictions. That is an important area of work. As a result, I have a weekly meeting with representatives of the trade and the companies concerned to tackle some of the issues.

21 Mar 2001 : Column 440

I pay tribute to officials and staff. People are working round the clock. I have experienced that on visits to offices around the country, and I know that many administrative staff in the Ministry's regional centres and animal health staff are making Herculean efforts to tackle the problems.

A number of Members, including the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), referred to the 1967 situation. He and I bumped into each other in the Library last night and we discussed that outbreak, to which the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) also referred because of his constituency interest in it. We have learned lessons from 1967 and it would not be true to say that no one involved in tackling the disease this time has any knowledge of what happened during that outbreak. Indeed, the chief vet himself, Jim Scudamore, has such knowledge.

I accept the differences, to which hon. Members referred, between the two events. Many Members on both sides made the point that the current outbreak has occurred at a time of enormous difficulty for farming. The tourism industry was perhaps not as important to the national economy in those days, but this time round, Cumbria and Devon, two of England's premier tourism areas, are affected, as is tourism in other parts of the country, as hon. Members vividly described.

There are also differences in our knowledge of the environment, which affects some possibilities, but not all, of disposal by burial. On wider losses, the Government have already been more imaginative than were the Government in the 1967 outbreak--certainly in respect of considering the welfare disposal route for animals, the work of the rural taskforce and other, wider measures.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the Minister accept from me that the wider losses are analogous to a natural disaster and that they will place a great burden on local authorities? Local authorities can take advantage of the Bellwin scheme, so can we consider a similar measure to support them in their dealings with local businesses in affected areas? Will she also consider the Treasury suggestion for a community investment trust to achieve urban regeneration, which could be used to regenerate rural areas as well?

Ms Quin: I know that the hon. Gentleman wanted to contribute to the debate and he makes some useful points. Obviously the rural taskforce is examining some of those issues, but it makes sense to consider what has worked elsewhere--urban regeneration schemes, for example--and think about whether such ideas can be applied to the current situation. The Bellwin scheme can be considered in that context.

Another difference from 1967 is that this country is a significant agricultural exporter. That was pointed out in an interesting article in the press yesterday by Professors Thompson and Oswald. Not surprisingly, many Members on both sides of the House referred to the different measures taken to tackle the disease, including the various ones mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

There are measures for disease control and for protecting specialist breeds and flocks, which two Members raised, and we have introduced a scheme to

21 Mar 2001 : Column 441

allow movement of animals to slaughter to help the market to pick up. I hope that the welfare disposal scheme will start very shortly.

Mr. Duncan: When?

Ms Quin: I said "very shortly", which is what we expect. I want to pick up points made by hon. Members by saying that it is best to introduce the scheme properly and in a way that will work. That is why we are preparing it in the way that we are.

Many Members mentioned the various schemes relating to the movement of animals, including short-term movement. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) thanked my office for its help, but I take his point that we want the scheme to work without the need for our private ministerial offices to be contacted. The longer-term movement scheme is also important, and is now under way.

Members on both sides of the House have said that bureaucracy must not override common sense, and I accept that.

Mr. Maclean: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin: I will not, because I have only a few minutes in which to finish my speech, and I want to respond to a couple of points made by the right hon. Gentleman himself. As he knows, we spoke earlier about the situation in his area.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made an interesting point about variation in the size of restricted zones. The borders of the zones are sometimes pushed beyond the minimum to natural boundaries, or for topographical or meteorological reasons. The hon. Member for Eddisbury mentioned the importance of meteorological considerations. None the less, the distance to which he referred seems lengthy, and we shall therefore look into the example that he gave.

Mention was made of the increase in the number of vets. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) met a vet from overseas who had come to help us, and the number has indeed increased considerably. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) mentioned on-farm burial. Animals have been buried when it has been safe to do so, but in each case we have been guided very much by environmental considerations.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater said that we should not be embarrassed about asking for military assistance. I assure him that we are not, and that the Army is already deploying successfully at three levels. We expect its contribution to increase in the way outlined by my right hon. Friend the Minister.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington mentioned changes in management in Cumbria. I am glad that he welcomed the arrival of Jane Brown as director of operations. I also commend to him the assistant chief veterinary officer, Richard Drummond, who will oversee veterinary operations in the area.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about the countryside stewardship scheme. I assure him that we are considering whether it may be necessary to extend the deadline for applications beyond 31 May, as

21 Mar 2001 : Column 442

he suggested, and also considering ways in which we can help farmers to make applications between now and the deadline.

Wider issues were mentioned, particularly by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green)--who now seems deep in conversation. Those wider issues are important. Many speakers have talked movingly of the effect of the crisis on the wider rural community, and of the devastation faced by some members of that community. It is particularly frustrating that in many cases that devastation--that reduction in commercial opportunities--is unnecessary, which is why it is so important to convey a clear message. Over the next few days, we shall embark on television and other publicity to make that message as clear as possible.

I applaud some of the efforts made by the Cumbria taskforce--which has been mentioned--by the taskforce comprising Exmoor businesses that have united to seek opportunities, and by similar efforts in the area represented by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire.

The Government have kept the House informed and responded to hon. Members' concerns. We have to bear down on the disease as effectively as possible.

Next Section

IndexHome Page