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6.30 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): May I say to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who made his usual thoughtful speech, that the one time when I did not feel at all sorry for him was when he was describing his trip through Wensleydale to his advice surgery? He should try the trip to my advice surgery, which is a walk down the Romford road from Forest Gate to Stratford during which I am assailed by a number of sights and smells that are nothing like those in his constituency. He is very lucky indeed.

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman probably sees more foxes on his walk than I do on mine.

Mr. Banks: Thanks to foot and mouth disease, we are probably seeing a few more than usual.

May I say to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that it is a pleasure to see him on the Back Benches? I do not mean that in a nasty way. He looks far more relaxed than he did as Leader of the Opposition, and we can see that in the excellent portrait of him by Johnny Yeo, our election artist, which is in Portcullis House. I hope that all hon. Members will have the opportunity to see it. We have got ourselves a pretty good deal because it will not take much amending to portray the new Leader of the Opposition—although of course we would not do that.

I admit that there are not many farmers in Newham, although all the cattle on the Wanstead flats, which were culled because of BSE, used to represent a pleasant connection with the rural aspects of the area, which is on the edge of Epping forest. I had many letters from constituents about the images of foot and mouth disease on the television and in newspapers, which were not good at all.

I have several serious reservations about the Bill, starting with its short title, Animal Health Bill. I resent and dislike the euphemisms used in this place, particularly those concerning animals and MAFF, or DEFRA, as it is now called. The Bill is about the more rapid slaughter of animals, so perhaps it should more appropriately be called the Slaughter of Animals Bill, although given the propensity of DEFRA officials to kill things it might plausibly be entitled the "We have come to slaughter your pet llama" Bill.

I have not plucked that example out of the air—although plucking a llama out of the air would have been a good trick—because it is one of the animals at risk from foot and mouth disease. The reference is in no way connected to the fact that our former colleague, Matthew Parris, has two pet llamas, which are suitably exotic pets for an exotic gentleman. Under the Bill, people should take steps to protect their pet llamas and, given the extensive powers that Ministers will have, a number of other animals that will be at risk in any foot and mouth outbreak.

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The welfare aspect of the Bill concerns the livestock industry. I fully appreciate that foot and mouth had a profound impact on livestock farmers, but I understand that 68 farmers received compensation cheques for more than £1 million, and I do not hear many complaints from them. When everyone is jumping up to defend farmers and those who work in the rural economy, it is worth bearing it in mind that the total cost to taxpayers of foot and mouth was more than £2 billion. The Secretary of State and other hon. Members have referred to an irresponsible minority, and surely that irresponsible, and indeed criminal, minority must include the pig farmer in Northumberland who probably kicked off the whole wretched outbreak when he fed his pigs infected swill and transported them all the way to Essex to be slaughtered.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) rose

Mr. Banks: I give way to the hon. Gentleman because he is obviously going to defend that farmer.

Mr. Wiggin: I am curious about how one could start an epidemic by feeding one's pigs infected swill. Surely the person or persons who provided the farmer with that swill triggered the epidemic.

Mr. Banks: That goes back to the points that were made about biosecurity. The swill was probably infected by imported products, but the fact that the pigs were transported so far down the country shows that the farmer was acting irresponsibly.

There are other examples of irresponsible behaviour, including one from The Daily Telegraph in which it was suggested that a farmer was offered a sheep infected with foot and mouth. There is anecdotal evidence involving a number of infected animal parts on farms, but I heard that there was not enough evidence to proceed with a prosecution. I am only going by what I have read and heard, but unless someone is making all that up, there must be farmers who were responsible for the rapid spread of the disease throughout the country, and we ought to be investigating them.

Opposition Members, including the Front-Bench spokesman, seemed to be trying to point the finger at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleagues, as though they were responsible for the spread of the disease, which is bizarre. Ministers might be criticised for their conduct during the outbreak, and that is a matter for debate, but they cannot possibly be accused of having kicked off the whole damn thing.

I accept that there is no conclusive evidence of how foot and mouth entered the UK, although there seems to be general acceptance that the speed with which the disease spread was due to the fact that animals were transported in and out of markets and other premises several times in quick succession. It seems crazy to have allowed that. There is also the matter of animals being transported long distances to be slaughtered. I mentioned the pigs taken from Northumberland to Essex, and I understand that in September several consignments of sheep were transported by sea from Scottish islands to the west coast port of Oban and then by road to Birmingham

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to be slaughtered. It cannot be sensible to transport animals such a long distance to slaughter, particularly at times of high risk.

Mr. Drew: Does my hon. Friend accept that the specific, overwhelming evidence of the role of the dealers in that process needs close examination and must be dealt with?

Mr. Banks: I do accept that. I echo the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber when I say that perhaps we ought to pause and give more extensive consideration to the way in which the disease originated and spread and to how we can deal with it in future. I shall not assault my Front-Bench colleagues—although I am sure that they have the substance to withstand any puny blows from me—but I am singularly uneasy about a number of points in the Bill. Concerns have been expressed by Labour Members as well as Opposition Members.

Obviously, one of the most significant mechanisms by which the disease is spread must be contaminated animal products, and we need to look at how those are brought into the country. I find the stories of people importing infected meat amazing. Indeed, the idea that people are allowed to bring meat into the country is amazing. As a regular traveller to the United States, I know how vigorously one is questioned there about any products that one is taking into the country. We have no such procedures, and given the importance of agriculture in this country, we should have far greater controls and protective mechanisms at the point of entry. I hope that the Government will turn their attention to that.

I shall certainly not accept criticism from the Opposition about the supposed failure of the Government to act, given that for 18 years the Conservatives were in charge of agriculture policy. Apparently, they can see with clinical vision exactly what is wrong now that there is a Labour Government: somehow they could not see it at all when they were in government. The Opposition should be careful before they point the finger and mount opportunistic and unjust criticism of Ministers.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: One of the reasons why we are calling for a full, independent public inquiry is precisely because we want to know what went wrong.

Mr. Banks rose

Mr. Martlew: What about BSE?

Mr. Banks: As my hon. Friend says, the Conservatives were not so keen in government to call for an inquiry into BSE. I remember the complacency with which various Conservative Ministers approached the problem of BSE and CJD. I can still remember the questions. One does not have to be an expert to know when something is likely to happen. One can rely on one's sensibilities and instincts. Anyone who was interested in the processes of nature could work out that BSE was going to get into the human food chain, yet Ministers constantly said that it was impossible. They were saying that not because they had scientifically deduced it: they were going on the advice of MAFF officials, and that advice was rubbish. That is what bothers me. That is why I keep telling my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and my hon. Friend

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the Under-Secretary to beware of those experts who still inhabit the Department. The acronym has changed, but the cast has not changed much—nor has the culture.

When I criticise the Bill, I want my hon. Friend the Minister—who is a good friend—to know that I do so to try to protect him, not to attack him. For years, I watched as MAFF officials sabotaged Conservative Ministers; now that they are called DEFRA officials, they will sabotage Labour Ministers.

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