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Margaret Beckett: Of course, I shall take on board the hon. Gentleman's observations. He will appreciate that there are always enormous pressures on the time of

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Ministers when a new Department is set up. I know that he and the whole House will want Ministers to give top priority to dealing with the practical day-to-day issues, which may help us in bringing the epidemic to an end. I regret that he should repeat what has occasionally been heard from Opposition Members about the bad handling of the outbreak. I remind them that--[Interruption.] It is in the nature of things that no one is infallible, except possibly the Pope when he is speaking ex cathedra, but not even he is infallible all the time. [Interruption.] The matter is one of definition. Of course, I fully expect that everybody will have made mistakes. Indeed, it may even be that Opposition Members, including Front Benchers, have occasionally been wrong.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I welcome the right hon. Lady's full and detailed statement and also the fact that she has made it very soon in the new Parliament. Will she respond to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and tell us whether she will extend the business rate relief scheme beyond the period for which it is scheduled to run? Will she also give me an answer on why the borough of Macclesfield, which I have the honour of representing in this House, is not included in the scheme, even though 90 per cent. of its geographical area is rural and agricultural? Furthermore, will she confirm that it would be irresponsible and wrong to open at this time footpaths that run through livestock farms? Will she also ensure that milk collectors properly disinfect their vehicles on each and every occasion they visit a livestock farm to collect milk?

Margaret Beckett: On the first issue, I cannot add to what I told the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). We are conscious of the point that he made about the rate relief scheme and, as with other issues, we are taking it under active consideration. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a more helpful reply about the position of Macclesfield borough council than my right hon. Friend the Minister for Work gave when he made his last statement as Minister of Agriculture. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will continue to press his case, as he always does so effectively.

I wholeheartedly endorse the rest of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, in which he put his finger on a number of key issues. It is important for all those who travel in the countryside to observe the correct precautions. Obviously, we are all conscious of what is needed to keep the disease at bay and, it is to be hoped, to bring the outbreak to an end. That is the consideration that local authorities and others have in mind with regard to footpaths. There should be no question of dispute about a footpath in an area where infection still exists. The key is to keep people and infection away from livestock, and I assure him that that point will be under consideration, but I am sure that he would be the last person to suggest that continued blanket closure, potentially throughout the country, is required.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): May I offer my warmest congratulations to my right hon. Friend on her new appointment? I am sure that she will do a fine job.

My right hon. Friend will know that the spread of foot and mouth in 1967 was much slower and narrower than on this occasion. As has been pointed out, that is due not

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only to the notification time on first discovery, but to the trading patterns of the industry and the availability of abattoirs. Will she engage with the industry, or is she already engaged with it, to consider ways of reducing the average mobility of livestock, so that the extent and speed of spread of any future outbreak can be limited? Will she weigh the cost of such changes against the massive cost of an outbreak not only to agriculture, but to the tourism industry?

Margaret Beckett: I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations. His last point is correct; from the beginning, the Government have been mindful of the impact on the whole economy, not only on rural areas and agriculture. He is also correct about the differences, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) highlighted, between the 1967 outbreak and the current one. The delay in notification and different trading patterns in agriculture are crucial.

I am not sure whether the argument about abattoirs is as strong. There were many more abattoirs in 1967, but that did not prevent the number of cases from being substantially greater, even though notification occurred much earlier and the disease was much easier to detect. The significance of the number of abattoirs is therefore in dispute. However, whatever discussions and inquiry follow the outbreak, animal movement will form a key part of the consideration.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The anxieties and severe problems that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) identified are not local, but relevant to all affected areas, including the south-west, where they are reflected in my constituency and adjoining constituencies.

When the Secretary of State reads Hansard tomorrow, she will regret the complacency on which some of her answers verge. The Government must accept that their handling of the matter has been confusing and complex. The crisis has been difficult to tackle, but I hope that she agrees that it is vital to improve the clarity and certainty with which the Government deal with the problem.

We all accept and welcome the relaxation of movement restrictions. However, does the Secretary of State accept that the biggest problem that confronts those who are indirectly affected in agriculture or related industries is lack of clarity about their cash flow, and uncertainty about compensation and their future? Those are urgent matters. If she continues to give an impression of complacency, the Government will be held to account.

Margaret Beckett: Of course I accept that there is always a greater need for clarity and certainty, not least in making information available to those who need Government support or seek compensation. However, I wholly reject any charge of complacency. I do not feel the slightest sense of complacency about the handling of the outbreak, and I share the anxiety that has been expressed by hon. Members. Nevertheless, I am not prepared to accept unjustified criticism of the Government without responding to it.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I welcome my right hon. Friend to her new job. I was delighted by the establishment of the Department, which is the way forward for the rural parts of my constituency.

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My right hon. Friend knows that there was a recent outbreak of the disease in Westerdale in the North York moors national park and that the rural economy, especially tourism, in Castleton and Danby has been devastated over many months. I wholeheartedly support the remarks of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry).

When the regional development agency and others put together the recovery plan, especially for Yorkshire, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the national parks are included in its construction? Will she also make sure that small rural business, such as those in Castleton and Danby, are not forgotten? Sometimes their remoteness makes them believe that they are out of touch with developments. It is essential that they are not excluded and forgotten.

Margaret Beckett: I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. Of course we shall take account of the problems that arise in the national parks, and involve them. I do not believe that any hon. Member is under an illusion about the difficulties that small, rural businesses have experienced. Although some of the communities to which he referred are small, they are often well known and popular with a much wider group in the community. I therefore assure him and his constituents that there is no question of overlooking their anxieties, fears and problems. The Government will endeavour to tackle them as fully as possible. I know that he shares the view, which the Government have repeatedly expressed, that we can get on with the task better when we bring the outbreak of the disease to an end.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I welcome the Secretary of State's decision to relax the movement restrictions on livestock for slaughter. However, I want to highlight another problem that is looming in the upland areas of northern England, including my constituency, as we approach the annual sheep sales. Unless movement restrictions are lifted, the sellers of breeding ewe lambs will not be able to sell to their normal traditional markets in non-infected areas in the south of England. The lambs would then end up being fattened for slaughter, and going into an already over-subscribed market. Will she consider relaxing the restrictions on movement of breeding ewes under careful controls to prevent a considerable welfare problem?

Will the Secretary of State clarify who will be the next de facto Minister of Agriculture? Will it be the Minister for Rural Affairs, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or Lord Whitty? We would like to know.

Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the change in movement restrictions. I assure him that, although it has not featured particularly in today's statement for obvious reasons--I have been seeking to give the House the opportunity to consider what has been happening in the interim period--we are all mindful of the further developments that will naturally be taking place in agriculture, and of the impact that they will have on the market. I cannot give him an announcement today, but I can certainly tell him that the Government are mindful of the seriousness of the issues that he raises, and that we are keeping them under active consideration.

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On who is the de facto Minister of Agriculture, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the strength of my excellent ministerial team. He is right in detecting that my noble Friend Lord Whitty will be dealing day to day with many of the issues, but we are conscious as a ministerial team that there is much overlap and we intend to work closely together to keep a close grip on the issues. With regard to who speaks in this House, it will primarily and usually be me.

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