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4.20 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) and hear his maiden speech. I am not sure which clan the Lazarowiczs are affiliated to, but he wove his own tartan this afternoon, and I am sure that we all look forward to him elaborating his themes and talking about his constituency. He paid proper tribute to his predecessor, who was well respected in the House; the hon. Gentleman's commitment to his constituency, his understanding of its needs and his intention to enjoy it, which is important for a Member a Parliament, came through clearly from his speech. He is certainly a welcome colleague and a worthy opponent.

I wish to ask for the indulgence of the House as I want to talk about something that is extremely important for my constituency but is not the main theme for today--the foot and mouth outbreak, which is of such imminent and urgent importance that I believe that the House will understand why I wish to raise it. Since the general election was called, there have been 80 confirmed cases and one slaughter on suspicion in my constituency and the neighbouring part of Lancashire. In addition, 326 premises have been culled out; nearly 250,000 animals will have been slaughtered in the few weeks since the Prime Minister announced that he intended to dissolve Parliament.

My constituency had already been at a standstill for weeks before that because of the impact of foot and mouth in Wensleydale, Cumbria, Lancashire and Bradford. When the rest of the country believed that things were over--indeed, the Government were telling us that the disease was under control and all the graphs happily pointed to it petering out on or about 7 June--we had a virulent, violent and destructive outbreak that consumed all other activity. For many of my constituents, the general election was a surreal event taking place on a distant planet.

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First, we had a long silence. For two weeks after the outbreak, we did not hear a word from any Minister of any description to acknowledge that it even existed. The sense of rising anger was palpable; people felt that they were being left to cope with the outbreak by themselves. Not merely did the world not know about the outbreak, it did not want to know about it. Then, we felt a sense of claustrophobic embattlement. Anybody who has driven down certain roads and seen fields where there used to be animals, but where there is now nothing, or witnessed the absolute silence and people not coming out of their houses, will have picked up a palpable sense of paranoia that is almost intimidating.

Anger followed, because nobody understood what was happening and did not want to know about the unfolding drama. We had no information and nobody explained what was happening, so we had myths, which will always take the place of information when it is lacking. We now have myths that are so virulent that they have almost become gospel. There is the myth that in 1998 the Government agreed with the European Union simply to remove the livestock industry from the United Kingdom. Some people believe that passionately. There is also the belief that on 8 June there would be a super-cull of all the remaining animals; that was part of the same process. We even had the myth--it sounds comic, but one has to live in this atmosphere to understand how it was born--that Saddam Hussein was flying across the constituency in a helicopter, chucking out infected meat. That sounds comic, and people laugh at it instinctively, but one has to have experienced the sense of living on a nervous edge to understand why those myths took root.

It is vital that the Government deal, first, with the rumours and say simply that those things are not true. That may be self-evident, but sometimes what is self-evident has to be expressed. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to the House today to make a statement. That was a good start, but she should also explain what is happening. The former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was booking hotel rooms around the country, reserving lorry parks and putting logistics in place. It was perfectly sensible do so because its epidemiologists were trying to forecast where there might be another problem and be ahead of it, not behind it. People are mature enough to understand that that is a sensible activity; they should not pick it up from rumour and assume that it indicates that a plot or conspiracy is afoot and that the Government know something that they do not.

A consequence of that is that officials of the Ministry, whom I commend, were exposed to all sorts of media interrogations on public platforms. Frankly, that is the job of Ministers, and we should not ask officials to undertake it. If, in addition, there is evidence that the disease has been spread because of improper observation of the rules and negligence, it is important that that is spelt out and that prosecutions follow. Once again, we have rumours, we have hints of a cause, but substance has not been given to those hints. In a landscape of shifting sentiment, it is important that as many anchors as possible should be put in place.

The efficiency of the operation has been generally acknowledged. I know that there have been incidences of blunders, wrong decisions and cases in which things have gone wrong but, on the whole, farmers in my constituency

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accept that the cull was carried out efficiently and with sensitivity. The problem is what has happened since. There is an enormous bottleneck in the people available to advise on cleansing operations. Farmers whose premises were culled out a month ago are still waiting to get an indication of what will take place and a timetable for rehabilitation and reoccupation. We need a bible of what happens. The real problem is not a shortage of vets; it is a myth that that is a problem. Quite frankly, vets are doing jobs that less-qualified people could do, but there is a terrible shortage of animal health officers. There are 11 animal health officers available to deal with the outbreak in my area, when usually we have five. As a result, only some 50-odd premises out of the 500 infected in Yorkshire are on the way to being cleansed and eventually brought back into use.

Of course, farmers whose animals have been culled receive compensation. If we are honest, the valuations have been relatively generous. Some of my greatest concern is reserved for farmers in my constituency whose animals have not had foot and mouth; frankly, it is in their every economic interest for their animals to get it as soon as possible. The Secretary of State announced some relaxation of movement controls, but those farmers are utterly imprisoned and have no prospect of compensation. They are simply waiting to see whether the disease will eventually advance and strike their holdings, whereas the farmers whose animals have caught the disease will ultimately receive compensation.

I have a great fear of the possibility of conflict in the countryside. Thousands of businesses have been brought to a halt by the outbreak and have been offered paltry assistance. I accept that the Government will not give collateral aid or direct compensation to businesses that have lost out as a result of foot and mouth. I do not think that any Government would do that and it is not realistic to ask for it, but the relatively small measures for such businesses pale into insignificance in comparison with some of the cheques that will go to farmers.

I do not dispute the trauma of the slaughter and the impact on families who have spent generations building herds. I am not suggesting that compensation is a pay-off for the trauma that a family suffers, but it will enable some to get out and some to go on.

Many businesses now face a summer that is already shot as far as they are concerned. Many parts of the country are now talking about getting back to business, but we face the prospect of no business, because there is no realistic prospect of the countryside being freed up this side of the summer. That will lead to a winter, for some at least, of bankruptcy. It is important to realise how much businesses depend on each other in the countryside. Farmers must be sensitive to the needs of other businesses, just as other businesses must understand the susceptibility and nervousness of farmers when it comes to opening up the countryside and footpaths being brought back into use.

I hope that the Government will not funk having a proper inquiry. It will certainly find that some responsibility must be carried by the previous Government in terms of manpower and staffing, so there is no reason for the present Government to assume that it would be one long indictment of them. If we have to get used to the disease being endemic in the United Kingdom--if it has been in the sheep flock for a long time, that is a possibility, but I hope that blood tests will

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demonstrate that it is containable--we shall have to think about how we deal with future outbreaks. My own view is that it is inconceivable that our response to another outbreak on the same scale would be the slaughter policy that we have just seen, because it would not be tolerated. A public inquiry into what went right and what went wrong, and to explore the practical alternatives, would do everyone a service.

I ask the Government for four rapid decisions concerning business. The business rate relief scheme ends this month. That means that many businesses that still have no business, no cash and no customers still need help. Government aid for the affected regions was all decided before the outbreak hit the so-called Settle- Clitheroe triangle. That means that the £2.5 million available is wholly out of proportion to the scale of the disease in our area, because it started late when decisions had already been taken. The Government aid that is given to match voluntary funding through the Countryside Agency also runs out in June, and that needs renewing. We also need some assistance with tourism, because 90 per cent. of tourists in the Yorkshire dales are from the UK. Some 80 per cent. of that 90 per cent. are regional tourists, not international tourists. I would be happy to try to reassure some of the more paranoiac American visitors that it is safe to come to the UK, but I would much rather get them in from Bradford, Barnsley--we had a sort of Barnsley chop earlier, when we heard from both halves of Barnsley--Leeds and Liverpool, because that will achieve the immediate spend that we need.

I wish to address two other issues briefly. There is a hidden industry in the countryside in Britain--the care of the elderly. We have recently discussed the issue of residential care homes and North Yorkshire has suffered particularly, because the grant system was changed and the new formula penalised us. However, a significant number of the people in care homes in North Yorkshire put themselves into care and were able to pay for it but have now run out of funding. They thus fall as a charge on the local authority but the Government do not count them in the calculation under which the local authority is funded, which is a significant problem. Proper fees must be paid if care homes are to remain in business. If they do not remain in business, all the reconfiguration of health and social services--itself the subject of controversy in my constituency--will be handicapped, because the care in the community aspect will be very vulnerable. I hope that the Government will consider that point.

I also belong to the group of Members of Parliament concerned about the future of the House, and I ask the Government to take three issues into account, the first of which is a change in style. In the previous Session, we experienced what can be described only as a Stalinist approach to managing Government business. I hope that we will see much more flexibility in the timetabling. Secondly, I hope that the Government will act rapidly so that the Select Committees can reflect the new geometry of Whitehall to enable us to start our work as quickly as possible. I do not share the view that the sole problem with Select Committees is that their members are nominated by the Whips, because attendance is also a problem. We need to move more towards the congressional end of the congressional-parliamentary scale if Select Committees are to be effective. Finally, I agree that the Modernisation Committee should be in the hands of the House and chaired by a Back Bencher.

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Having the Leader of the House chairing the Committee is tantamount to making the camp commandant the chairman of the escape committee. That does not work and I hope that all hon. Members--especially those who are new to the House--will realise that we must all seek to amplify the role of the House if we are to change voters' reactions to us. Otherwise, we will fall in with a system that will end by eroding the worth of all of us.

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