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Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. As I explained, it is my wedding anniversary today. I planned a whole evening of fun, frolics and Mrs. Banks, and I would not want to disappoint her. She has not had many fun frolics with me over recent months--or, I hope, with anyone else.

I want to raise a couple of issues on the Adjournment. First, I very much support the Government's decision to delay the local elections--and therefore, we must conclude, the general election. To hold a general election against the backdrop of foot and mouth would not have looked very good, to put it mildly, and it could have been potentially disastrous, given the record of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. No one should ever underestimate MAFF's ability to foul up big-time, and the idea of that happening during a general election is too awful to contemplate.

I feel very sorry for my right hon. and hon. Friends who are MAFF Ministers, because they are caught between an agricultural industry seemingly bent on self-destruction and the daleks that staff MAFF, who are always chanting, "Exterminate them, exterminate them!" I really cannot understand why MAFF seems to be obsessed with slaughtering animals.

Bovine tuberculosis has been prevalent for many years, and MAFF's only response seems to be to kill the badgers. I find that totally unacceptable. Badgers are a protected species, but of course the Government have given themselves a dispensation in that regard, and I understand that MAFF is spending something like £34 million over seven years on killing badgers. It is also using surveillance techniques, police helicopters and photographers, and that is just to deal with concerned members of the public and journalists who try to discover what is going on.

There seems to be considerable weight of scientific opinion around the world that badgers are not responsible for bovine TB. Perhaps those at MAFF should look rather more carefully at the standards of animal husbandry before they go around slaughtering thousands of badgers.

Like many things at MAFF, killing badgers seems to be based more on voodoo than science. Of course, the same is true of the mass slaughter of healthy animals during the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The slaughter seems to have nothing to do with animal welfare; it is all about commercial viability. Even if we were to accept--clearly, opinion suggests that we should--the slaughter of infected animals, the slaughter of healthy creatures is cruel and wanton, if only because it flies in the face of nature.

Thank God MAFF does not run the national health service, although if it did it would certainly have a dramatic impact on waiting lists! The agricultural industry has played dice with nature for far too long, and now we are paying the price. First, innocent animals pay the price--they are slaughtered in their tens of thousands--and secondly, the taxpayer does so.

I cannot believe something that I read in the newspaper. I very rarely believe what I read in the newspapers, but I hope that it is untrue that Mr. Waugh, the farmer at Heddon-on-the-Wall who is allegedly responsible for starting the foot and mouth outbreak in this country by feeding pigs infected meat, is to receive about £50,000 in compensation. I hope that we will find out whether that

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man is guilty. If he is guilty, he should be prosecuted. If he is guilty, he deserves to go to jail; he does not deserved to be given £50,000 in compensation, paid for by the taxpayer. Indeed, others deserve to be punished--those farmers who moved sheep around the country among their own fellows to fiddle the common agricultural policy.

I feel very sorry, obviously, for decent farmers, but they must be protected by eliminating the rogues and crooks in the industry. My own humble opinion is that there should be a farms inspectorate, rather like the factories inspectorate, which would enable inspectors to enter any farm to assess the standards of animal husbandry and other matters that relate to the production of food. The agricultural industry has acted irresponsibly. We should remember that it brought us salmonella in eggs, BSE, CJD and swine fever, and now it has brought us foot and mouth. We do not need to be experts; we just have to understand nature to know that if we fly in its face, something will go badly wrong.

I remember saying from the Opposition Benches that it was obviously plausible that BSE would enter the human food chain, and Ministers saying that there was no chance of that happening. They were being advised by their MAFF officials, and they said that there was no chance, but our own innate sense told us that if animal protein was fed to herbivores, there would be a price to pay. If a species is fed to the same species--same species feeding--there will be a price to pay. People do not need qualifications in animal husbandry to understand those very basic points of nature.

Intensive farming also represents a blatant disregard for nature, and in the end nature will extract a hideous price from us. I only hope that the next Labour Government will implement a full inquiry into how we produce our food, as the Prime Minister promised--assuming, of course, that we have not all been poisoned by then.

The second issue that I want to raise is the culling of harp seals in Canada, around the Magdelene islands in the north of Newfoundland. This year's cull, which is going on at the moment, involves 275,000 harp seals, leading, some experts say, to a decline in the seal population. Hon. Members may not know that there are two methods of killing seals in Canada. In most cases, a sealer will approach a young seal and club it over the head with an instrument known as a hakapik, which has a 1.5 m handle and an iron head with a curved spike on one side and a short, blunt projection on the other. The seal is hooked and dragged to a central location, where it is skinned.

Alternatively, sealers will shoot many seals from boats, incapacitating the seals so a sealer can approach them for clubbing or skinning. In many cases, the group of seals will writhe in agony until they are killed, and it is common for shot seals to skip into the water and bleed to death, because they are lost to the sealers.

An international panel of vets has claimed that as many as 42 per cent. of seals killed were likely to have been alive when they were hooked, dragged and skinned. How on earth can the Canadian Government allow that barbarity to continue? They say that the fishermen maintain that the seals predate on cod, which is leading to a rundown in the cod stocks. However, we know that industrial fishing methods have depleted cod stocks

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around the world. There are times when human beings can be venal, selfish and purblind about this planet's resources. The slaughter of harp seals is a disgrace to the entire Canadian nation. What protests have the Government made to the Canadian authorities to let them know how detestable the practice is in the eyes of the public not only in this country, but around the world?

It is a pretty depressing note to finish on, but there are times when I think that human beings as a species are positively detestable. On that cheery note, I set off for a night of fun and to prepare myself for the general election.

5 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): It might surprise the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) to hear that I agree with a small part of what he said. I, too, am concerned about the wholesale slaughter of healthy animals, but I will not embark on a discursive argument with him because I want to confine my remarks to foot and mouth disease.

I know from personal experience that border controls on the import of meat and meat products into New Zealand are very stringent. That point was confirmed to me at New Zealand house only three weeks ago, when the opinion was given that it is far easier to smuggle drugs and duty free into New Zealand than animal products.

We should contrast that situation with the United Kingdom, where smuggling is now big business, and the smugglers, unlike the totally harmless vendor of a pound of bananas in Sunderland, are having a bonanza. Alcohol and tobacco smuggling now costs the Treasury £4.25 billion per annum and has led to the loss of countless jobs in the brewing industry and the retail sector. Asylum seekers are smuggled--as many as 100,000 entered the country last year, and doubtless there are more in the pipeline. It is impossible to quantify drug running, but drugs are undoubtedly widely and easily obtainable. The Government have lost control in all those areas. Notwithstanding the fact that we live on an island and are separated from our nearest neighbour by 21 miles of sea, or that we are intrinsically a law-abiding nation, smuggling is rife and extends even to the commodity in which I declare an interest--meat.

On 21 March I asked what response the Agriculture Minister had made to a letter from Mr. Lawrence of Ciel Logistics in May 2000 concerning the health risks associated with consignments of bush meat arriving at Heathrow from Africa. The Minister of State answered:

Mr. Lawrence had written to express his concern about the lack of control over the movement of products of animal origin for human consumption via UK ports, with particular reference to Heathrow airport. In his letter of 10 May to the Agriculture Minister he said:

Unfortunately for us all, the answer to that question seems to be yes. Mr. Lawrence subsequently had to write

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again highlighting the problem. Speaking to the Farmers Union of Wales, he described how at Heathrow his organisation had found

He added:

When asked in Agriculture questions by the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), about personal imports of meat and meat imports the Minister of State replied that

In other words, Ministers have consistently said, "Not me guv. I'm only the Minister." These are matters for Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, for the European Union or for anyone other than this craven Government.

Nothing better illustrates the Government's whole approach to the foot and mouth epidemic sweeping the country than their failure to heed the warnings, their failure to follow the advice in the Northumberland report that followed the 1967 outbreak, their failure to act decisively and to establish a workable command- and-control system, and the paralysis in the decision- making process that has invariably resulted in too little too late.

Part of the explanation for that miserable state of affairs is the fact that agriculture policy decisions are taken at the centre; there is no local, regional or national autonomy. The agriculture collective in which the British industry is enmeshed is controlled from Brussels. That is why, when the European Union decided to close all livestock markets, the Minister could not without reference to Brussels tell the House whether the United Kingdom could continue to use market premises as collection centres for abattoirs. That is why, to the utter amazement of the British public, the Government--of whom the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is still a member--cannot make the ultimate decision about vaccination. So it goes on.

Last year, I told the House that the common agricultural policy had failed and failed comprehensively. I said:

Those words have been echoed by the Prime Minister. Last month, he was reported as saying that the common agricultural policy was

The Prime Minister and I make unlikely bedfellows, but I am delighted to welcome him to the real world.

News bulletins today are saying that, since movement restrictions were imposed, there have been 300 illegal sheep movements. It is impossible to know whether that figure is an overestimate or an underestimate--who knows?--but we know for certain that those illegal sheep movements are a direct consequence of the European Union sheep regime based, as it is, on quotas and headage payments. Unlike the old UK deficiency payment scheme, it is wide open to fraud and abuse.

To return to the Government's handling of the outbreak, a week last Friday I had a site meeting with my constituent, Mr. Michael Holloway of Gwarthlow farm,

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Churchstoke. He had been told the previous day that his dairy herd was to be slaughtered. Present at the meeting was an Army officer who assured me that organisationally matters were generally well under control, but that operationally there were problems because there was a shortage of vets and of slaughtermen. That was on the very day that I read in my newspaper that the British Small Animal Veterinary Association had offered to cancel its annual conference so as to volunteer its members to assist the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with the cull, an offer that MAFF had apparently declined.

In the meantime, my constituent, Mr. A. C. Webster of Ludlow, who is a qualified slaughterman, had been refused permission to take unpaid leave to go on the cull even though he was temporarily without work with his employer, the Meat Hygiene Service, which is another agency of government. The facts simply do not add up. If they do, they add up to a picture of muddle and confusion out of which the Government emerge with little credit.

We have the nonsensical situation in which fit animals in restricted areas cannot be consigned to abattoirs, but animals in the welfare disposal scheme apparently can be. We have the ridiculous situation in which healthy animals in contiguous and firebreak areas are being killed sometimes against their owners wishes, while the cull of 1.5 million animals that owners want to dispose of under the welfare disposal scheme is endlessly delayed.

The situation is appalling. Healthy animals are being dispatched, even though there is a massive backlog of carcases to dispose of. In addition, we have the phenomenon of the Minister urging farmers not to appeal against the culling of healthy animals when, from day one, the biggest problem has been the Government's failure to authorise the prompt dispatch and disposal of animals known to be infected. That is against a background of the ban on the export of meat and meat products from other countries with foot and mouth disease being applied on a regional or provincial basis rather than a national basis, as in the case of the Netherlands and Uruguay. In fairness, I note that restrictions on Northern Ireland will be lifted next week, subject to there being no further outbreaks. I welcome that.

In the few seconds remaining to me, I want to deal with another aspect of the crisis and draw Ministers' attention to the plight of my constituents who, through no fault of their own, are without an income. It is self-evident that if one is running a business and there are insufficient customers or profits on sales to cover the overheads, the business is unsustainable. Even worse, if there are no customers, the business must cease trading. It could not be put better--

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