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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Some time ago, when the Secretary of State was making her statement, she said that she was hoping for a return to normality in the farming industry. May I point out to her that if there is a long-term 20-day restriction on movement of livestock, there will be no return of the livestock industry at all in many areas? The Government may learn many lessons from foot and mouth disease, but such a long-term 20-day restriction will make livestock farming in upland Scotland, Wales and many areas of upland England non-viable. Would not it be an irony if a farming business were to survive the ravages of mad cow disease and foot and mouth, only to find an administrative regime making its livestock business non-viable? Do not do it.
Margaret Beckett: It is hard to find any phrase to describe the end of the outbreak. On this occasion, we used the phrase "return to normality", which is not subject to challenge or query. Of course, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. We have been consulting on some of the proposals on restrictions on movement and we are aware that there would not be a return to precisely the circumstances that obtained before the outbreak of the disease. There has been consultation, and Ministers are considering the outcome and the responses to it. I am conscious that the proposals are not at all popular with many people, clearly including some who have spoken to the hon. Gentleman. I am also aware of people's anxiety about the impact of the proposals on the future of livestock farming. However, the House would genuinely consider the Government to be in dereliction of our duty if we did not consider whether changes needed to be made in the light of what we have all learned about the potential impact of the disease in the circumstances of today's agriculture.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): On 9 March, American scientists on Plum Island offered the Government the loan, on trial, of a portable computerised device that can detect foot and mouth disease in stock before any symptoms show. This device could have had a significant impact on tracking the development of the disease, and could perhaps have saved many millions of pounds. What progress have the Government made in pursuing this kind offer?
Margaret Beckett: I am aware of the reports, which have appeared before. I am also aware that that is only one of a number of miracle techniques that, if only the Government had used them, would have prevented the outbreak, probably from starting and certainly from spreading. I do not recall the precise detail of that to which the hon. Gentleman referred, although I am aware that similar claims have been made, for example, of a
We must all bear it in mind that there are all sorts of ideas, offers and proposals that can be made and that might assist in dealing with some of those matters, but, as far as I have been able to judge, no one has been able to show that there is some miracle technique that the Government could have used that would have prevented the development and progress of the disease.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): The Secretary of State may be aware that one of the major mass burial sites lies in my constituency at Throckmorton, but is she aware of how serious the continuing impact of that site is on those who live in the immediate vicinity, despite it not being used for a considerable period? The odour from the rotting carcases is a great deal more serious than was expected and those living in the immediate vicinity find that they cannot sell their houses, which has serious consequences for their personal lives. Will she or the appropriate member of her ministerial team agree to meet me and a small group from the Throckmorton airfield site to discuss its implications for their private lives?
Margaret Beckett: I can certainly undertake to consider the hon. Gentleman's request and of course I take the point about the impact that he describes. Equally, I am sure that he takes the point that, sadly, there is no way to deal with a disease of such gravity and scale that does not involve unpleasant impact for all concerned. That is one of many reasons why the Government's key priority has to be to bring it to an end as speedily as possible.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): In Somerset, we thought that we had escaped the worst ravages of the disease, only to find our area reinfected when the spotlight of media and politics was elsewhere. Does the right hon. Lady understand how many businesses in Somerset and across the west country face desperate circumstances? Some are in difficulty as a direct result of disease precautions and some have nothing to do with agriculture or tourism. Certainly, few are directly connected with the shibboleth of footpath closure.
Does the right hon. Lady understand that the one thing that those businesses want at this stage is, to put it crudely, cash? They want cash beyond the scope of rates relief to enable them to survive until the end of the year. Does she further understand that, for many of my constituents, the task force seems to have no concept of either the urgency or the scale of the problem in the rural economy?
Margaret Beckett: Of course I accept that those who are affected in any way, shape or form hope that the Government can find some means to assist them. Sadly, such compensation or support, if it is not direct compensation, cannot always be made available. One of the first steps that I took in the Department was to ask questions and to push for speedier handling of cases in which people have grounds or opportunities to claim under schemes that have been made available. We shall continue to keep up that pressure, but I can only say to the hon. Gentleman, without in any way disputing the seriousness of the position that he described and the
Tony Baldry (Banbury): I was surprised to be approached yesterday by a farming constituent whose livestock were slaughtered at Easter who has yet to receive any compensation whatever. Will the Secretary of State undertake that, if we give her private office chapter and verse on such cases, they will be investigated as a matter of priority?
Margaret Beckett: We have reinstated the Members' hotline, and the point of that is to ensure that cases can be considered speedily if they come to Members' attention. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am a little surprised to hear of such an outcome, but I undertake that, if he provides us with details, we shall endeavour to ensure that it is properly investigated
I endorse the call for the right hon. Lady not to introduce the 20-day standstill rule, which would simply compound the utter ruin that many farmers face, particularly in North Yorkshire. Incredibly, the Vale of York has not yet had one case of direct infection. Will she today express her regret that the rural task force may have brought unnecessary force to bear on North Yorkshire county council, making the council reach a decision--during the general election and while county councillors were being re-elected--to reopen many footpaths, which will result in contact between livestock and human beings? One particular footpath at Tockwith is causing concern because it is less than two miles from an infected area. Surely such footpaths should not be reopened at this time.
Margaret Beckett: I have taken on board the comment of the hon. Lady and others, and I suspect that more people will express their anxiety about the 20-day movement proposal. I am not aware of the issue that she raises about specific footpaths. She will recall that I said in my statement that we are mindful of getting the balance right between risk of infection and freedom of movement. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will look into the issue that she raises, and the more detail that she can give us, the more helpful it will be.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): First, will the Secretary of State agree to meet her opposite numbers in the Welsh Assembly to find out where the delays in payments to businesses and farmers in Wales are originating? Secondly, will she commit to responding personally to me if I contact her in writing about some form D notices that were imposed in my constituency on the basis of erroneous judgments about the presence of the infection?
Margaret Beckett: It has always been my practice in successive Departments to attempt to reply to hon. Members as speedily as practicable. I was not aware of the potential delays to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall draw the matter to the attention of relevant colleagues.
While organic conversion grants are still being paid to arable farmers in England, is there a risk that the sums available from the Treasury for the purpose of organic conversion will be used up purely on arable farms, making it harder for livestock farmers to get organic conversion grants later?