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Alistair Burt: That is kind of the right hon. Lady, and I appreciate it. If she is not in the mood to apologise for the matter that she mentioned, is she aware that in the previous Parliament the number of press and publicity officers in Whitehall Departments increased so that they
Margaret Beckett: I have some respect for the hon. Gentleman's past record. I hope he appreciates that I shall want to check his figures before I comment on them. Let me take a slightly different example, where I am familiar with the figuresI am not familiar with those that he cites. Conservative Members often claim that the number of civil servants in Whitehall has soared. The number of those who deal with the Government has fallen, whereas the number of police officers, customs officers, immigration officers and those who detect social security fraud has soared. Those people carry out policies that the Conservative party claim to support.
I have described our record and what we have already achieved. Of course, there is more to come: investment in the post office network, investment in the renewal of market towns under the rural White Paper, investment in affordable homes and investment not only in more transport, including rural bus services, but in a programme of support for the police. In a variety of ways, we are working to deliver a more prosperous future for the rural economy.
Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): If the Opposition want to bandy figures around, perhaps they can discuss the £20 billion of cuts that they proposed at the election, which would have cut a swathe through all the services that we are developing in rural areas.
Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Indeed, when the hon. Member for South Suffolk demanded expenditure on this, that and the other, it struck me that in the run-up to the general election the Conservative party complained we were extravagant and investing too much public money. As ever, that does not apply to any scheme that at any given moment it claims to support.
While we believe that we have the plans and the investment in place to deliver a more prosperous future for the rural economy in the longer term, there remains the pressing need to carry on fighting the disease outbreak, which continues to blight much of our countryside. I want to tell the House of the intensified campaign that we plan in order to bear down more heavily on that disease.
A campaign targeted on disease hot spots is under way, led by Ministers and supported by vets and scientists. It highlights the fact that biosecurity is crucial in bringing the outbreak to an end, not only for farmers but for the supply trade and those working for the Government on disease eradication.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): The campaign that the Secretary of State has touched on is welcomed by my constituents, but they are deeply concerned that the farmers who need the help are not the ones who are already disinfecting. Those who did not disinfect have been through the disease and now have the money, but, going forward, the welfare of the stock will be left to
Margaret Beckett: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point and the concerns that are felt across the countryside. Depending on people's circumstances, they are differently affected and I understand the case he makes. Nevertheless, few if any of those farmers would want to have suffered an outbreak of disease or to have lost their flocks, and I know that that is not what he was suggesting.
We have taken steps to link biosecurity standards with the granting of livestock movement licences. We have agreed new arrangements with local authorities, which will be introduced from tomorrow, on requiring licence applicants to certify that they understand and will comply with the cleansing and disinfection rules and on issuing formal warnings where bad practice is found, leading to the withholding of licences if necessary. Local authorities will also seek better targeting of their enforcement efforts.
We are imposing tighter movement controls around new cases of the disease, focusing restrictions on the 10-km area around new cases and bringing movements in those areas to the absolute minimum for 30 days. I have more to say, but I give way first to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).
Mr. Tyler: Does the Secretary of State recognise that, although it was understandable in the early days that responsibilities were confused, we are so many weeks into the crisis that it is inexcusable that trading standards departments and her Department seem to have different criteria for their disinfecting and movement licensing responsibilities? How can better co-ordination be ensured?
Margaret Beckett: I was not aware that such disparities were continuing. I say to the hon. Gentleman and every Member that, on this or any other issue that arises in observing biosecurity and treating the outbreak, my Department will be only too pleased to hear concrete examples of difficulties that Members believe are continuing to arise. We shall pursue and attempt to deal with them.
Mr. Atkinson: On movements, can the Secretary of State clear up a problem? Some time ago, she announced that movements from controlled to non-controlled areas would be relaxed, which meant that animals could be taken to more distant abattoirs. One problem with that is that her officials require that the vehicles involved should not stop on the journey. Drivers' hours regulations mean that they have to stop after four and a half hours, so, effectively, the relaxation is helping no farmers in the north-east of England.
We shall seek the continued assistance and support of the National Farmers Union and other such groups to improve co-operation between the Department and farmers locally in carrying out culling on contiguous premises as quickly as possible. We are keen to continue to provide farmers with as much information as we can on what they need to do to have the best chance of continuing to avoid the disease and, in the unfortunate event of stock having to be destroyed, how they can help to protect their neighbours by working with the Department's staff at all times.
Looking further ahead, I am also examining ways to improve the incentives for farmers and others to maintain good biosecurity standards. The system that applies in the Netherlands, where levels of slaughter compensation are conditional on farm hygiene standards and other criteria, could not be introduced here immediately because it would require changes to the Animal Health Act 1981. However, it is an interesting idea that I want to consider and discuss with the farming industry and others as a possibility.
In the same context, I want to examine the arrangements for cleansing and disinfecting infected premises. We need to find ways to ensure that farmers and all who come on and off farms have an incentive to maintain high biosecurity standards. It is not entirely clear that the present system, whereby the taxpayer automatically picks up the entire cost of the cleansing and disinfection operation, is the best way to achieve that. I would like to discuss that with farming industry leaders.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into the case of my constituent, Mr. Lewis, who was told by her Department that he could move his cattle and apply for a licence? He was then told by the local vet that the Department was wrong and then told by a trading standards officer that the Department was right. Now the Department has admitted that it was wrong. Is it not vital that the Department gets the information right when it is dealing with people's livelihoods in a desperate crisis?
Margaret Beckett: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. It is important that people try to give correct information and I fully appreciate that nothing spreads more difficulty and confusion than people getting a conflicting story. Again, concrete examples brought to the attention of my Department will help to ensure that that happens as rarely as possible.