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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am grateful for this opportunity to debate farming in the north-west. This is a vital time for farming, and the industry is at a crossroads and will need clear direction from the Government. I have received an apology from my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who is a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for not being able to be here.
There is no doubt that farming is now seen in a completely different light since the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Those who felt that it was a stand-alone industry can think again. Farming was reeling from its own recession, which has lasted for about the past five years, and foot and mouth was just another body blow to it. Its impact has also hit tourism and allied trades with enormous repercussions.
The foot and mouth outbreak is obviously important to tourismone of the fastest, if not the fastest, growing industries in the world. The outbreak has had enormous repercussions in Ribble Valley on industries such as rural garages. There are still some garages in villages, and they have been hit, as have post offices. Many post offices run tearooms, which rely on passing trade for business, and at least one simply shut up shop halfway through the outbreak because of the fall in custom.
Pubs have also experienced a decline in trade. I spoke to the landlord of the Coach and Horses at Bolton-by-Bowland today, and he said that the trade from walkers, which is the cream to his industry, fell away completely as paths were closed. That had an enormous impact on him, and he could not make the financial progress that he wished to make. An enormous investment in time as well as money is made in village pubs.
The foot and mouth outbreak hit the Lake district particularly hard. In March this year, the Cumbria tourist board conducted a business survey, which showed that the total tourism spend in that month suffered a 53 to 68 per cent. drop, which has had enormous repercussions throughout the Lake district.
So a healthy, vibrant countryside means a healthy, prosperous countryside. Although my debate is entitled, "Farming in the North-West", we should also consider the state of the north-west itself. There are almost 18,000 farms in the north-west, supporting 38,800 workers, and 17 per cent. of the cattle and calf population of England and Wales is found in the north-west. The Council for the Protection of Rural England reported in a paper that it published on the strategic lessons of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease that 40 per cent. of rural microbusinesses in the north-east had suffered a high or medium financial impact, according to a survey carried out in April. The outbreak had also adversely affected a quarter of all firms in the United Kingdom, and we know that to be the case in the north-west.
In October 2001, a survey by Deloitte and Touche showed that farm incomes had declined, year on year. For example, a 500 acre family farm earned £18,000 in 1995-96, but that figure was down to £8,000 last year, and it is estimated that that farm would now earn about £2,500. Farmgate prices have fallen, although consumers might be forgiven for thinking that they have not.
It has also been estimated that there are 500,000 farmers in the country and that 50,000 have left the industry in the past two years. That, too, will have an enormous impact. Many farmers who were involved in full-time farming have switched to part-time farming. Commenting on the haemorrhage from the industry, the president of the National Farmers Union, Ben Gill, said:
That has had an impact on farmers in many ways; bank borrowing has increased; farm incomes have decreased by 70 per cent. over five years; and investment in the industry is at its lowest level since the 1970s, which will, of course, have an enormous follow-on effect in years to come.
Dugdalesa feed merchant in my constituencyis a perfect example. I spoke to Stephen Dugdale today, and he said that the tonnage of feed that he was selling had decreasedpeople simply do not feed dead animals. It will take a long time for that business to come back; it is doing so slowly, but the impact on businesses such as his has been enormous, especially during the outbreak's peak.
One farmer in my patchAndrew Bristolspoke scathingly about the way in which the clean-up operation was handled, especially given the delays that followed the Prime Minister's intervention in it. Andrew had to wait eight weeks for his contract to arrive, which has delayed considerably the clean-up and disinfection of his farm. Fortunately, he was signed off just two days ago, but he thinks that he will not restock his farm until March or even later. When he does restock it, he says that he will have to wait before his first cheque comes in.
There are similar examples. A farmer from GrindletonDavid Couplandshowed me his initial contract for the clean-up operation. It was estimated that it would take him two hours to clean one very large shed, with concrete at the back and wooden sleepers on each side. That estimate is totally unrealistic; it takes me more than two hours to clean my living room. I simply do not know how anyone can reasonably be expected to clean and disinfect a barn properly in that time. Even J. K. Rowling would not get away with thatit is more potty than Potter. We need realism in the estimate times for the clean-ups. The contracts need to be issued more quickly and the payments need to be made on time.
That view was reinforced by Steve Fawcett of the NFU. He said that the mood of farmers in Ribble Valley was still downbeat, with many questioning whether there is a future for farming. Henry Rowntreeanother farmerbelieves that the industry now needs more focus. He said that there is no doubt that some farmers will have to bite the bullet and that they will leave the industry. He also said that they definitely need to become more competitive, but he has told me that the French will introduce a ban on imports of sheep older than six months with their spinal cords in place as from 1 January and that they are using certain health measures to do so.
There has been a lot of unease about the importation of cheap or inferior meat into this country. I suspect that no debate on farming would be complete without the term, "level playing field", so let us get it out of the way sooner rather than later. I spoke to a farmer in my constituency, Janet Wallbank, who said that, when one of her friends took a car across to Ireland, the family was questioned by officials when they got off the ferry to discover whether they had any food on board. They said, "We've only got some milk", so the officials took the milk from them, yet on their return to the United Kingdom, they were not even questioned about whether they were bringing in any food.
I went to Australia this summer, and there were posters on either side of the entrance to the main hallway at Sydney airport, and one person was employed to shout at the passengers, while pointing at the bin, that it was their last opportunity to get rid of any foodstuffs that they had brought into the country, including anything that was on the plane; otherwise they could end up with a costly fine. That does focus the attention, but nothing like that happened when I returned to the United Kingdom. So we must consider, yet again, what happens with food imports into this country.
Those involved in airport security are very strict about anyone with knives or metal objects, and we need the same effort to be made against the importation of foodstuffs, which we believe led to the initial outbreak of food and mouth disease. We need the same determination to stop foodstuffs coming in as we show in preventing metal objects or anything that might be dangerous from being taken on to planes. We need to focus our attention on that problem.
Janet also said something about the insurance problem. It has been argued that all farmers should insure against an outbreak of foot and mouth but, once the outbreak began, we know that it was impossible to obtain insurance. Henry Rowntree wondered what factors the insurance companies would consider in determining a proper premium and he told me that one of the issues that they would examine is how the outbreak was handled this time. Before they can set a realistic premium, they will want to know exactly what action the Government will take in any future outbreak. I ask the Minister to address that issue.
Touch wood, we hope that we are coming towards the end of this outbreak; there has not been a case in my patch or in the country for several weeks. It is therefore time to focus attention on what we will do to prevent any future outbreaks.
Henry Rowntree told me that the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food knew that there were virulent strains of foot and mouth in other parts of the world and that it had been told about the imports coming into this country. However, no checks were made on the meat stuffs coming in. He also told me that farming was under great economic strainwe know that from the decline in farm incomesthat the state veterinary service had been cut and that there was fragmentation of holdings within the industry.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): It is only fair to ask the hon. Gentleman to put to one side the comment that there were no contingency plans. Whether those plans were adequate for the recent outbreak, which was quite different from the one that we had in the 1960s, is an entirely different matter. However, the suggestion that there were no contingency plans has been refuted on a number of occasions.
Mr. Evans: I want to come to that point shortly. I have reported what a farmer in my patch said, so the Minister must accept that many farmers believe it. However, when Ministers were asked about the rumours that abounded that phone calls were made before the outbreak to order wood for funeral pyres, we were told that they had been made because rehearsals and practice take place every year.
Alun Michael: My memory from when we were in opposition is that it is the role of the Opposition to spread enlightenment rather than unfounded rumours. Some things are believed because they are repeated. It is not the job of Members on either side of the House to repeat things that are not true.
Mr. Evans: It is also the job of Opposition to spread a little realism in light of whatever we face from those on the Government Benches. Although biosecurity will never be perfect whatever we do, the Minister must accept that it could be better. We must work towards improving it.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): The Minister has just referred to the contingency plans, but my hon. Friend will be aware that I tabled many written questions about those plans towards the end of last Session and received very inadequate and exceptionally late answers. They did not deal satisfactorily with the questions of what contingency plans were in place and why, after a gap of 34 years, certain people had been rung up for timber supplies. It is incumbent on us to question seriously why, at least two months before the initial outbreak was announced, such inquiries for supplies had suddenly been made. Satisfactory answers have simply not yet been produced. It is our job to hold the Government to account.
Such questions relate to the 1967 outbreak and to the report that followed an independent inquiry. Recommendations were made but we wonder why they were not properly followed in the current outbreak. Perhaps they were not good enough.
Mr. Evans: If I were quicker on my feet, I would come straight to that point. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and I shall come shortly to the concerns expressed that delays led to the outbreak being far worse than it would have been if action had been taken straight away.
I have already mentioned David Coupland, and he came to see my at my surgery. Any Member who represents a rural constituency has been visited by farmers since the outbreak began and some of the stories that they relate are very sad. There are also some horror stories about the mishandling of the outbreak. David told me that a number of animals were culled on his farm and that the vehicles that turned up to remove the dead bodies spilled all sorts of fluids on to the roads. Anyone who knows my constituency will realise that farmers drive around those roads.
David Coupland also said that some of the personnel involved clearly did not follow their guidelines. It was a hot day and they were wearing only half their protective uniforms; they had no protection on their heads. He said that what was most depressing is that farmers were blamed for spreading the disease. It is upsetting when farmers are told that they and their animal movements are spreading the disease when the people from MAFF and latterly the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were not following the guidelines.
Robert Parker of the Clitheroe auction mart believes that there is much talent in farming that the Government are not using. He hopes that, after the outbreak, they will listen more to the experts who can provide good advice about biosecurity and the future for farming. I give the Clitheroe auction mart 100 per cent. support, because it has suffered badly since the cessation of sales. Robert has started a farmers' market where he has more than 20 stalls and he says that it is doing really well. That is a superb example of the industry supporting the industry.
I turned up at the auction mart a couple of weeks ago when John Barber of the rural stress network organised a whole day of activities so that the community could support the farming industry. A number of stalls from all sorts of countryside organisations were present and more than 1,200 people turned up to support the day. It ended with an auction of items that had been donated by the community, and the money went to the charities that have supported the farming industry since the outbreak of foot and mouth. I congratulate everyone involved.
Will the Minister specifically consider the activities of the Bowland initiative in my constituency? It is supported by a number of organisations, including, in the past two years, MAFF and DEFRA. However, DEFRA has announced that it will no longer support the initiative, which is sad because that support has been
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the assistance and advice that is available to farmers. The Bowland initiative is excellent and I have given it specific consideration. The problem is that it was part of the objective 5b arrangements. Those have been changed and that option is no longer open to us. I assure him, however, that we have learned lessons from the Bowland initiative and objective 5b. We are keen to make advice and help available and are considering ways in which that can be delivered. Unfortunately, the strand of funding to which the hon. Gentleman refers is no longer available. That is the simple answer.
Mr. Evans: I accept that and I am sure that farmers will be grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I hope that the ingenuity and flexibility of his Department will allow it to find a way to support that initiative so that it continues.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me correct him immediately. The Devon inquiry issued a press release welcoming my response to its questions. We made it clear from the beginning that getting involved in giving evidence directly might look as though we were anticipating the independent inquiries established by the Government. That was understood by the Devon inquiry and the chairman, to whom I spoke only last week.
Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that clarification. I understood that written rather than oral evidence was submitted. I appreciate why the right hon. Gentleman has acted in that way. However, if he believes that the two inquiries announced by the Government will be sufficient to compensate for a full and independent inquiry he is sadly mistaken. Northumberland county council is holding an inquiry and I asked Hazel Harding of Lancashire county council to do the same because of the impact of foot and mouth outbreaks on our patch. Sadly, she said that the council is not prepared to do that. It is a pity that we have to rely on county councils to do the Government's job of setting up inquiries.
The Farmers Guardian, which is published in my constituency, had an interesting front-page article on 9 November about the lack of an early ban on animal movements to combat the spread of foot and mouth disease, which relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) said. It refers to what two Government advisers, Mark Woolhouse
It is also interesting to note that page 2 has an article on the foot and mouth disease inquiry in Strasbourg. It is fair to say that I am not the greatest supporter of the European Union, but it is odd that we have to rely on county councils and the European Parliament when we cannot rely on our Government to establish an independent inquiry. I suspect that the Government fear that something may come out of an inquiry which will embarrass them, but they should take that embarrassment on the chin. It is far better to have a full independent inquiry that gets to the core of why the disease spread as quickly as it did because it did not spread in the same way in France or Ireland. We need to get to the real reasons for that. Let us take evidence from as many groups as possible so that if we have another outbreakheaven forbid that we dowe will at least have learned the lessons and have recommendations to follow, such as those in the Devon county council report. Far better to be embarrassed than to have no proper full public inquiry.
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman has come to a disgraceful part of his speech. If he really cared about the farming industry, farmers and the damage that foot and mouth has done, he would wantas he has said that he doesa full independent inquiry to get to the bottom of the matter. We have established three inquiries to do just that and speedily provide recommendations for the future. There is an open invitation for people to give evidence to them. The diversion of pretending that a public inquiry would be a magic wand is an irresponsible indulgence.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am keen to take issue with the Minister. If he is correct about how quick and efficient his inquiries will be, why on earth has he introduced the Animal Health Bill when he has not received the results from those inquiries?
Mr. Evans: The case for a full public inquiry is overwhelming. Those who suffered from the worst outbreak of foot and mouth ever to occur in this country want it; the only people who do not are the Government. I can only conclude that they are afraid of what a full and independent inquiry would produce, but it would be much better for the industry and its future if such an inquiry were held. Farmers whose animals were culled are thinking about restocking. They are unsure about
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): As the only representative in the Chamber of Cumbria, the county that was by far the worst affected by foot and mouth, I have yet to meet a single farmer, tourist business or constituent of any party political affiliation who does not want a full public independent inquiry and who believes that the Government's proposals are adequate.
Mr. Evans: That is also the opinion of every organisation involved in the farming industry, and I suspect that it goes further. We saw the disease's impact on tourism and other allied trades. The Government should bite the bullet and get on with it.
I am glad to say that the last outbreak in my patch was in July. We have just moved from being classified as a high-risk area to an at-risk area. I hope that we will be free of foot and mouth disease next week, which offers the industry some light at the end of the tunnel. We need an integrated approach on the part of organisations in the north-west, with the North West Development Agency, the county councils and rural development bodies working together to ensure that there is a future for the industry.
Certain issuesthe old chestnutsstill need to be resolved, and it is important that we get things right. Supermarkets should prioritise local produce, which needs to be clearly labelled and promoted. We talk about the web of industries that rely on one another, and local supermarkets can do much to help local farmers. We must reconsider the costs and burdens on the industry. The livestock marketsthe auction martsneed to be given hope that they can start up again because they are an important part of the farming industry. British produce needs to be properly marketed again to enable consumers to appreciate the benefits of buying British meat.
There must be proper and clear guidance for the future. There can be no hidden agenda for the farming industry. Our farmers are important not just as producers of foodstuffs, but for the health of the countryside, of tourism and of employment in areas where it is difficult to create new jobs. Farmers will look to the Government, post-foot and mouth, to come up with the answers. I hope that the Minister will reassure them.
Mr. John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order. Quite a number of Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye. We have a limited amount of time for the debate, so if contributions are relatively brief it may enable everyone who wishes to speak to do so.
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing a debate on an important issue for many of us in the north-west. The hon. Gentleman represents the upper reaches of the Ribble Valley, where the countryside is
As we look to restructure the farming industry in the north-west, we should recognise that the parts of the industry that will face the biggest challenge in restructuring are those that depend on subsidy or trade protection measures. As a result of the reform of the common agricultural policy, the recent agreement at the meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Doha and the continuation of those changes, many upland farmers who are involved in livestock farming face real challenges in maintaining the sustainability of those farms. Over the next few years, the challenge for my Governmentand for the industrywill be to consider ways to ensure that as many of those farms as possible are sustainable and viable in the medium to long term, and ways to move from direct production-based support for the livestock industry to different forms of support.
Those changes are coming; we cannot assume that the existing regime will last more than a few years. Change arising from forces outside the United Kingdom is inevitable, so the Government and the industry must work closely together to ensure that as many businesses as possible survive, and that those that do survive are sustainable and have a long-term future. Some very difficult, painful decisionswhich have little to do with foot and mouth diseasewill have to be taken.
On the inquiries that have been set up into foot and mouth disease, my view is that it is important to get some interim reports back into Government on what has happened and what measures need to be taken to prevent a repeat of the outbreak. The inquiries that have been set up by the Government are independent of Government. They may not take the form of an independent public inquiry of the type that some people have demanded but, given the time that it took for the public inquiry into BSE to report, I am not sure that we can afford to wait so many years before we have something definitive on which to base a decision.
My view, which differs from that of Ministers, is that when those inquiries have reported and we have studied the reports, there may well be a demand for a further public inquiry of the traditional type, which may take several years, but which may be welcome at that point. I am not yet convinced that such an inquiry can happen now.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) made a comment about the Animal Health Bill. In my view, we need to take measures urgently to deal with possible further outbreaks of the disease on the basis of the information that we have, so I support the Bill. On Second Reading, I commented on the way in which the Government had handled its introduction, but the need for the measure has been demonstrated. We need to sort
Mr. Wiggin: The difficulty in what the hon. Gentleman has just said stems from the fact that none of the inquiries has reported, so your argument, which so sensibly suggested that you would wait to find out what the results were before legislating
Mr. Wiggin: I apologise. The argument that we should wait before legislating is negated because the legislation is already under way. What is disturbing is that, whatever evidence emerges from these public inquiries, it will be too late to help shape the Animal Health Bill.
Mr. Borrow: In my view, if Ministers have information on the ways in which the existing system is not adequate, they have a duty to report to Parliament and to introduce legislation as soon as possible to put those things right. They may not be able to put everything right because they may not have all the information, and when the inquiries are concluded the Government may need to introduce further measures, but I do not believe that one should delay doing anything simply because one does not have all the information necessary to get everything right at once.
I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) is here this morning. I was fortunate in that none of the livestock farmers in my constituency suffered from the foot and mouth disease, but the nearest outbreak was in my hon. Friend's constituency, so I am sure that he will refer to the subject if he gets the opportunity to speak.
I wish to discuss some of the broader issues surrounding agriculture. In the past few years, it has often been assumed that all agriculture is livestock agriculture. That assumption is wrong and causes difficulties. In my constituency and others in the north-west, thousands of people work in agriculture that has nothing to do with livestock. The bulk of those constituents work in parts of agriculture where the CAP does not apply. They do not rely on subsidies at all. In the arable sector and the horticulture sector, they are working in a market situation, competing with producers throughout the world.
Most people who work in the livestock sector are members of a farming family, who own and run the business themselves. Most of the horticultural firms in my constituency are family firms, but they do not simply consist of a farming family. A significant aspect of the horticulture sector is the large number of employees who work in it. Consequently, the horticulture sector operates differently.
In the four and a half years that I have represented South Ribble I have noticed that, in the arable and horticulture sector, the industry has moved away from the north-west towards eastern England. Several aspects have contributed to that move.
Given the good quality of the land in Cheshire and the Lancashire plain, the north-west has traditionally been an important area for arable farming and market gardening, but the areas are somewhat isolated from the main part of the rest of UK agriculture. Although they have strong local markets, many of the major supermarkets and other purchasers of products have moved their purchasing to eastern England. That change has come about partly as a result of the decline in traditional wholesale marketsLiverpool and Manchester in particular.
Many of the small businesses that, traditionally, took their produce to the wholesale markets no longer have that means of access to the market, and most production now goes directly to supermarkets. Therefore, for many supermarkets, contracts are increasingly made through large companies in eastern England rather than with smaller companies in the north-west. There needs to be recognition that one problem of the sector in the north-west is the fact that many businesses are not operating in a co-operative way with one another as happens in other parts of the country, and many businesses are relatively small, which means that, in a market situation, they do not have the muscle of producers in eastern England.
I believe that the weather in the north-west has helped to encourage production and purchasing in eastern England. In the very wet autumn of last year, a large proportion of the vegetable production was never taken out of the ground. Many of the potatoes were left frozen in the ground, which delayed the spring planting, so most of the production moved from winter crops to spring crops, which are less profitable. That ties in with the long-term decline of production in the north-west.
Figures that I got from the National Farmers Union in my area yesterday show that some 20 out of the 60 sugar beet producers in the north-west are likely to leave the industry in the immediate future. All that points to the fact that the arable sector in the north-west is in decline, and much of the production is moving to eastern England. We need to look seriously at those issues.
I turn now to horticulture. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the number of people leaving farming. Horticulture relies to a large extent on casual labour, much of which now has to come from overseas, and that is a significant problem. The season for horticulture production is longer than the period for which the seasonal agriculture worker scheme operates. Many businesses in my constituency use the scheme to bring in workers, particularly from eastern Europe, but they are not in the UK long enough to complete the season. There have been incidents of gangmasters bringing in illegal workers, but the farmers to whom I have spoken would much prefer to know that their casual employees are here legitimately.
As local farmers have pointed out to me, in a constituency where the unemployment rate is under 1.5 per cent., there is a long-term problem in recruiting full-time, permanent employees, even when people are paid significantly above the agricultural wages board figures. There are casual workers who show aptitude and could take on a full-time post, but immigration rules do not allow them do so. I am aware that the Home Office is reviewing the rules governing workers from overseas taking specific jobs in the UK, and the needs of horticulture must be considered in that review.
Another bugbear for the horticulture and market gardening sector is its relationship with supermarkets. The Department of Trade and Industry has introduced a voluntary code of practice covering the relationships between supermarkets and farmers, but there is concern that the consultation on it was largely with the supermarkets, and not to any significant extent with farmers. In addition, the code of practice simply deals with foodstuffs and excludes the domestic plants sector. The production of house plants is a growth area in horticulture, and if it is not covered by the code of practice, there will be no solution to the problem of the producers' weakness in relation to the supermarkets. In addition, many of the companies that sell house plants are not supermarkets but big do-it-yourself chains, and they are not covered by the code of practice
Mr. John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is going a little wide of the debate. There is a boundary between horticulture and farming, although it is not always clear. He is pursuing the subject of horticulture into areas that are beyond the normal definition of farming, and I hope that he will be brief. I have been indulgent so far.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) mentioned the climate change levy. I have always found it difficult to understand how we can apply that policy to greenhouse horticulture. I am pleased that the Government have agreed to a 50 per cent. discount for horticulture, but I am not convinced that it will solve the problem. The levy is linked to the use of energy rather than to emissions. In the glasshouse sector, emissions are used within the glasshouses and are absorbed by the plants, so we can ask whether the levy should apply at all. A year ago, when gas prices were increasing rapidly, I suggested that Ministers should monitor the situation towards the end of the first year of operation of the climate change levy, to see what impact it is having on horticulture. I should be grateful if the Minister could say in his reply whether he is prepared to do that.
Finally, I turn to the long-term effects of the decline in salad crop and vegetable production in the north-west and nationally. If we increasingly import salad and vegetables, instead of producing them in the UK, and particularly in the north-west, we will not only lose jobs in agriculture, but find that the food processing industry increasingly relocates. If potatoes are being imported rather than produced locally, there is less need for factories making crisps, and when those companies are looking to reinvest, they are increasingly likely to do so overseas. If we lose a large proportion of the vegetable and horticulture sector in the north-west, that will have serious effects on food processing.
Those sectors are not subsidised and expect to compete with other countries on a level playing field. The Government need to think what they can do to ensure that these industries are not affected by short-term changes, and if long-term movements are taking place, they need to consider how to assist them so that they remain viable.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Farming in the north-west, like that in other regions, has already diversified. Eddisbury shares with Congleton, Tatton and North Shropshire the largest milk field in Europe.
Mr. O'Brien: Indeed. I think that my hon. Friend's constituency contains a few more sheep than mine. As a result of the foot and mouth crisis, we have had to face yet again a major collapse in confidence, as well as the very severe practical difficulties that have been heaped on the farming community. Although the incidence of foot and mouth in the current outbreak has been considerably lower than in 1967, it should not be suggested that that has in any way diminished the sheer fear, concern and stress that have been the condition of life for farmers and their families throughout my constituency.
Given the pressure of time, I need not rehearse all the criticisms about the Government's actions, or rather inactions, in relation to the crisis that we have just experiencedluckily, Cheshire has had FMD-free status since the middle of last month, so certain movements are now occurring again under licence. In 1967, when my constituency was the epicentre of the outbreak, the Northumberland inquiry reported within nine months. The inquiry was holistic, complete and thorough. As it happensI make no connectionthe
My farmers and the communities in the rural areas of Eddisbury wish that what happened then could have been emulated now. I dare say that that feeling reaches across the north-west, especially in Cumbria, where my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) and my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) have had to face by far the worst of the crisis. There have been lost opportunities, for which the Government must stand accountable, in what all of us feel has been a very sad episode in the life of farming in the north-west. I urge them to think again about having a collection of inquiries, not least as there is a very large question mark about whether they are truly of a public nature. While they have a number of inquiries, it is impossible to dispel concern and suspicion about their motivation being an intention to divide and rule. There is anxiety that the inquiries represent the desire to use a more manipulative approach, rather than a genuine attempt to learn the lessons, however hard, for all concerned, as we go forward and try to build a future for the rural economy, which is so critical to my constituents and to people throughout the north-west.
It is right that the Animal Health Bill has been criticised. Yet again, the Government are using the title of a Bill to try to lull people into false security. If one looks very carefully at the detail of the clauses, one has the impression that animal health is not necessarily the motivation of the Bill. The more that I have looked into the matter, the more that I am concerned, especially in the light of representations from my farmers, that the Bill is the nearest that I have seen in my two and a half years in the House to the introduction into a Parliament of a Stalinist measurea suggestion that I am loth to make.
There is something that the Government could do nowor could have done previouslythat would alleviate the problems. I refer to the need to address issues relating to honesty in food labelling. I make no apology for the fact that this matter is something of a passion of mine. By dealing with it, the Government could not only help farmers, but demonstrate once and for all that they have grasped that the link between producers and consumers is essential to the survival of the rural economy in the north-west and elsewhere. By breaking that link in the value chaina simple and obvious business and economic notionthrough the Food Standards Agency's introduction of labelling regulations, they have ensured that accountability now rests with the Department of Health. The Government have suggested that they have only a consumerist agendaor perhaps an eye on voting intentionsrather than a true understanding of the true drivers and economic underpinning of food production in this country.
It is a great shame that the Government are taking that approach. Such proposals are a lost opportunity and they could easily take them forward, instead of hiding behind what is becoming a nightmarish and bureaucratic set of skirts around the EU. To realise what they are doing, one has only to look at the latest letter from Lord Whitty, the Minister for food, farming and waterways, to the public relations manager of the National Farmers Union. In the letter, which is dated 15 November, Lord Whitty talks much about illegal imports and tries to give some sense of confidence to all of us who are concerned about these matters and the desperately anti-competitive position that is created for our farmers, but there is not a word about food labelling and the need for honesty. The letter is yet another smokescreen that attempts to get away from the essential element that should be addressed.
Dairy farming is, patently, critical to my constituents, but it is also fundamental throughout the north-west. It is clear that the collapse in incomes has been severe. The Government are often focused on the need to dispel the idea that intensive farming is a way forward and to suggest that we should consider diversification. Most of my farmers have diversified to the nth degree and have continued to try to do so. When the Prime Minister appeared in the Ceredigion by-election and was spouting diversification, it was notable that he came with none in his pocket. In a number of conversations, farmers in my constituency have told me that diversification is all very well, but often relies on the tourism industry. That has also been shattered by the foot and mouth epidemic, which has broken confidence in tourism. For most farmers, who cannot alienate the assetthe land is where it issuch an approach is tinkering at the edges and is not fundamental. Many have been encouraged by the Government to go organic, but the organic market is now over-supplied, often by products from abroada problem that is causing intense difficulty for those who have got to undergo a long period of adjustment.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend presents a splendid case on behalf of farmers in the north-west. Will he also comment briefly on the right to roam, which will cause immense difficulty for livestock farmers, especially in respect of guaranteeing safety for people when they are on the land? Moreover, the Government
Mr. O'Brien: As always, my hon. Friend makes a topical and important point. Cheshire is one of the first areas in the country to be mapped for those purposes. To relate the matter to the debate, I turn to one of the major points that I hope the Minister for Rural Affairs will take away with him, even if he is not in a position to respond to it today. In the light of the Lord Haskins report, there has been a comprehensive attack on the underpinning of the rural economy and market. I refer to the suggestion that cattle marts should be put to a slowor even fastdeath. The lorry that comes to take cattle to the abattoirsadly, this one of the only services that workscan go past the end of the farm gate. The calves cannot be taken to the gate for picking up. However, people who would like to roam and ramble can come to the lane, if there happens to be a public footpath, and there is no control over them, especially as the vehicles will travel along the route. There is a complete and utter discrepancy between the approach regarding those who wish to enjoy the countryside for its amenityI would certainly encourage them to do soand that which relates to those who have to earn their living from it. That is causing deep distress to many of my constituents.
Mr. Michael: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his words about encouraging people to come to the countryside contrast starkly with what he has just said? He appears to be suggesting that there is a risk of walkers spreading foot and mouth disease when the veterinary risk assessment demonstrates that that is not the case.
Mr. O'Brien: On the contrary. The Minister has helped to reinforce the point that the discrepancy works against farmers, rather than for the ramblers. No doubt, there will be discussion of routes that ramblers can take, but many of my constituents are upset by the fact that farmers are continually subject to enormous pressures from regulation, which is driving many of them to despair and is certainly attacking their income. Fear of a renewed outbreak of foot and mouth has created the difficulty that sheep from north Wales will not be overwintered on the flat pastures of the Cheshire plain, which will lead to further loss of income. Cheshire county council and Business Link are aware of that and have sought to give advice, without much funding to back them up, to help businesses through the worst of recent times.
It would be right to record that during the collapse of incomes there has been a dearth of young people wishing to join the industry, which is causing intense concern among family businesses. To make sure that the Minister at least takes something away from our debate, I should like to put on record again the fact that Cheshire is on the front line in the increasing spread of tuberculosis. We are waiting, with bated breathif we carry on holding our breath I dare say that we will all expire before we get an answerthe results of tests originally conducted on the recommendation of Professor Krebs. Measures on the spread of TB need to be thought through, and we must consider whether the
This is not a case of special pleading for farmers; we are doing the job of representing our constituentsour farmers, all those involved in the rural economy and communities that are dependent, first and foremost, on a thriving farming industry and have faced many pressures recently. I accept that there is probably no quick fix, but a number of farmers will no longer be able to survive in the industry. I urge the Government to look at that major strategic issue. The industry is worth fighting for. The Government should not simply tinker at the margins and give priority to people who see the countryside as something to be enjoyed. If farmers in the north-west are not supported, the countryside will not be the attractive place that the rest of the community wishes to enjoy.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I thank the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for ensuring that this debate has taken place. I am sorry that we do not have more time; Members have been a little greedy this morning, and could have shared the time a little more.
My constituency was one of the first to be affected by foot and mouth; one of the first cases in the country occurred there. We were lucky that MAFF was effective in south Lancashire; it dealt with the case although, unfortunately, a neighbouring farm lost its cattle as well. However, I congratulate the Department on the way in which it dealt with the problem; we had no further cases. I am pleased that our farmers were lucky. However, I am concerned about the effect on farmers whose animals did get foot and mouth. They suffered, are still suffering and have not secured free transportation for their animals; they cannot get into the export market. Farmers in our area got out of beef farming because of BSE and the problems that it created. They went into sheep farming, but now they cannot get a proper price for their animals and are beginning to suffer. Will the Minister consider seriously the idea of blood-testing sheep to get them into the export market? I hope that he will take that on board because Mr. Lawrence, a farmer in my constituency, is suffering; he has done everything right but, through no fault of his own, is beginning to suffer because he cannot get back into the export market.
On BSE, I am interested in figures for France and Germany, since our export markets are still blocked. We must look at that and get the ban lifted; we want to make sure that the same thing applies to all countries. Without question, tourism in south Lancashire has been affected. The Salmon family have run Rivington Barn for many years, and provided a good quality service. However, it was affected, just like the farming community. I hope that we can ensure that tourism will return.
Mr. Hoyle: I agree with my hon. Friend. We must look at how to assist farmers who want to diversify; it is important that we help them. A moorland farm in my constituency can apply for funding, but the adjoining farm cannot. We need to deal with that and ensure that there is a level playing field for all farmersthat all have an equal opportunity to diversify and can all apply for funding.
I turn to the issue of labelling, which has already been raised. We need clear, open labelling to ensure that people know where food is sourced from, where it has gone and what is on the shelf. We want to develop that and make sure that it is introduced. People have asked for a public inquiry, and I believe that we should have one: indeed, I would go even further. Many people will not agree but, once this is over, we should have a royal commission on the future of farming in the new millennium. The Government could consider that proposal. We should also conduct research into vaccination and the effects of cattle vaccination on wildlife, because without vaccination, foot and mouth can be transferred to deer herds. More money, resources and research are needed. In future, better resources for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are needed; at the moment, they come in cycles and we never know when the next cycle will be. We want to ensure that money is available.
The armed forces played a major role during the outbreak, but did so too late. They should have been brought in much earlier and quicker. They were good and effective and we ought to be ready if they are needed again; we must ensure that they know what their role is and what they are expected to do. It is important that their role is established, and they are ready if the situation ever arises again. I hope that it does not, as many farmers have been affected in the north-west and we must look after them.
Members of Parliament should have been briefed at the beginning of the outbreak. MAFF would not reply to us and said that we had to go to a Minister. How could a Minister deal with our inquiries, when we were asking questions posed by our farmers? We cannot rely on the press to inform Members of Parliament; it should be us who inform the press. Local authorities were receiving information. Luckily, I have a good working relationship with my local authority, which informed me of what was happening, but that is not right. There should be a clear route from DEFRA, locally and regionally, to Members of Parliament and their offices. At the end of the day, farmers were in dire straits. They were suffering and were under the cosh. They needed support, and the way to provide that is to ensure that we have the information in the first place.
I want to say a couple of things about something that is turning into a great divide. Some farmers have a choice because they have received compensation and have a particular holding that gives them opportunities. Their age and family situation give them a choice about what they can do in the next year, or in two, five or 10 years' time. However, a considerable number of struggling farmers have little choice. They have not received any compensation, but have been hugely affected by foot and mouth, especially the movement restrictions. The banks have been sympathetic to them, but they have had to borrow considerably more money. Although interests rates have come down a bit, which has cushioned their position a little, they are now borrowing more than they have ever borrowed in their lives. Their borrowing is going up and the value of their assets is going down; they are locked into a bleak future. Some of them are tenant farmers who have received littlein some cases, nothingin assistance at this critical time.
There needs to be a strategy for both sets of farmers. For those who have a choice, there should be an understanding of the Government's over-arching strategy. They need to know how they will play their part in future farming patterns. Diversification is a matter for them. They also need to know what investment they may be able to make and how they can spend their compensation money in restocking or moving into something else. In other words, they need to understand what their future is and the best way of using their assets to invest.
Those farmers will be able to have a future, but we need a strategy for those who will remain in agriculture, to ensure that they can provide the safe, sustainable, animal welfare-friendly and properly labelled food that we all want.
I have considerable sympathy with the views of the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). There is a desire to move the debate on and to tackle the issues. I know that some of them are difficult from a European perspective, but consumers want us to get on and do our job in providing honesty in labelling.
Will farmers who have seen their income fall and costs increase be able to trade their way out of that situation? If the answer is yes, how long will the process take? Will banks be sympathetic for ever? What support can be given to them? What is the strategy for those who are locked in?
What about farmers who have reached the age at which they are thinking of retiring? Many farmers in my constituency, and I am sure in the south-west as a whole, are rapidly approaching the time when they would like to retire, but they cannot. They are locked into an
There are businesses that will fail this winter; through no fault of their own, they will not make it through to next summer. Given the costs that they have endured and the income that they have not had during the summer, they will go under. There will be little information about that published in the newspapers. I hope that the Government will not abandon farmers who find themselves in that position.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I join other Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on introducing this timely debate, which has been extremely interesting. I shall have to gallop to pick up some of the points that have been made.
My hon. Friend stated categorically that agriculture does not stand alone. It underpins the economy of rural areas. Foot and mouth disease has had an enormous impact on farming, with shock waves going through allied industries, including machinery and feed merchants, and particularly tourism.
The north-west is a large livestock area. The impact of the foot and mouth epidemic, especially in counties such as Cumbria, has been dramatic. It has devastated the industry. The point has been well made that those whose farms have been culled out have the time to consider whether they should restock or change their enterprise. Livestock owners whose farms have not been culled out are suffering dreadfully, especially those in the hills. Over-stocking has taken place because of the inability to move the animals. There are difficulties with forage. This is the busiest time of year for movements of sheep, but livestock owners have been unable to move anything from their holdings.
Mr. Collins: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Does she agree that it would be helpful if the Minister addressed the great difficulties for hill farmers in my constituency and elsewhere which stem from the operation of the 21-day restrictions, and their fear that they will be made permanent? There are serious agricultural necessities that make it necessary for farmers to move livestock on and off farms within 21 days. The weather makes it impossible to operate otherwise. The Minister must address the difficulties that arise from the introduction of such a system.
Mrs. Winterton: I cannot add more to the important point that has been made by my hon. Friend. Having been fortunate enough to visit his constituency recently, I know only too well that what he says is true. The sheep sector and other livestock sectors would be devastated if the 21-day rule remained.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley called for fair competition for farmers, with no more added regulation being placed on their shoulders by the Government. The climate change levy is one example
Biosecurity has been mentioned. Farmers feel sore about being accused of spreading disease themselves. I said only the other day that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials and others are equally to blame, if blame is to be apportioned. In another areanot the north-westI have seen the poor biosecurity arrangements at DEFRA headquarters. In Cumbria, however, I was most impressed by what the county council had done in terms of biosecurity. We all know that delays in the slaughter and disposal of dead livestock were more responsible for spreading foot and mouth. The initial delay in making decisions meant that twice the number of animals were slaughtered than need have been.
I think that everyone is still in favour of a full independent inquiry. We believe that that is essential if there is to be transparency. Until the Government face what went wrong, no real progress can be made. Confidence in the Government's integrity will remain shattered until such an inquiry takes place. Every farming and rural organisation demands an independent inquiry. We commend Devon and other counties for their individual initiatives, but the Government should be taking the lead.
The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) mentioned horticulture and arable areas. Those are extremely important, but we should perhaps concentrate on the livestock sector. The hon. Gentleman talked about the need for co-operation among smaller units if they are to get together to build a critical mass. That is equally true of the livestock sector. Unless it can negotiate with supermarket chains on better terms than at present, it will continue to be screwed into the ground.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury mentioned the Northumberland report and the lessons from that which were not learned by the Government. He mentioned the importance of honesty in food labelling. He referred to diversification, which has been going on since the 1980s. However, that can never replace the necessity for farming and agriculture to thrive in the United Kingdom, with commodity prices at added value, to ensure that the countryside is kept as we all wish to see it kept. We all want to see a vibrant industry.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. Will she emphasise that unless the countryside is farmed and farmers are making a profit, we shall not be able to maintain the countryside in a way that will attract tourism, which is so important?
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on obtaining a timely debate, in which we have examined the impact of foot and mouth disease on the north-west; I have witnessed its effects on people and the economy in the region. Monday was the 50th day since the last outbreak. It must be cause for some optimism that 52 days have passed since 30 September, when the last outbreak occurred. Despite that, there is no doubt that times are tough for many farmers, and foot and mouth disease has hit the north-west hard. The problems have been compounded by low world commodity prices, exchange rates and other matters.
Several excellent contributions have been made to our short debate. It is difficult to do it justice, especially when many contributions were one-sentence interventions about massive issues. It is impossible to respond to them adequately in such a short time. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) made a thoughtful speech in which he referred to the inevitability of change and the importance of events at Doha, and challenged the Government to engage with change. We accept that challenge.
We must record the success of farmers such as those in my hon. Friend's constituency who compete effectively as businesses. He was right to stress the need for farmers to work co-operatively if they are to have enough muscle to ensure that a greater proportion of supermarket prices reaches their pockets as primary producers. Good examples exist, but we must continue to encourage that. Many more farmers need to learn the importance of working together. Pressure of time prevents me from responding to all the points in my hon. Friend's considered contribution, but I shall do that in writing.
I shall also write to the hon. Member for SouthEast Cornwall (Mr. Breed) about some of the points that he made and to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), whose intervention covered a big question, to which there is hardly time to refer, let alone respond in detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) stressed the need to get back into export markets. I assure him that we are focusing on the international dimension of the challenge to farming. Diversification and extending opportunities are also important.
The hon. Members for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) and for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) missed an opportunity when they referred to measures that are currently being considered. Surely they acknowledge that speedy action
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman claimed that the organic market was oversupplied. It is not being oversupplied by British farming. That is why the Government support diversification into organic produce.
The hon. Gentleman's ranting intervention about opening rights of way should have been treated with contempt. If Conservative Members examine the veterinary risk assessment of a variety of activitiesfarm-related and non-farm-relatedthey will appreciate the care with which controls have been placed on them. All controls are based on the assessment.
Promoting the myth that walkers spread foot and mouth disease damages the countryside and farmers who depend on tourism, as my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) said. Movement between farms and groups of animals creates the problems. Farmers have commented on the interdependency of farming and tourism. Many say that they had never appreciated it before they witnessed the impact of the outbreak on the whole rural economy.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley made several serious points, although I fear that most of them were negative. However, he and the hon. Member for Congleton indulged in some regrettable populism when they suggested that a public inquiry would act as a magic wand. The Government's arrangements, which comprise three strandsconsideration of veterinary issues, the future of food and farming and especially what may have gone wrong at different stages of the outbreakhave been established to ensure that lessons are learned quickly and measures are introduced so that failures are not repeated. That is the correct approach to issues that hon. Members have rightly raised.
I have spoken to many people involved in farming and other parts of the rural economy. Some understand the difference between a public inquiry, and the mantra that suggests that it is simple, and the alternatives
Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I am sure that hon. Members appreciate that the Minister has 10 minutes in which to reply. There are tried and tested, orthodox means of intervening. May I prevail on hon. Members to keep the background music at its lowest volume?
Alun Michael: I am grateful, Mr. Benton. It would be nice if Conservative Members listened. Having put them right on a public inquiry, I need to set the record straight on the Government, who have been a good friend to farmers.
Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I have already asked for hon. Members' co-operation. I now ask hon. Members to listen patiently to the remainder of the winding-up speech. If any hon. Member feels it necessary to intervene, it is up to the Minister to decide whether to give way. I ask again for the background music to be kept low.
Those who peddle scare stories are not undermining the Government, but the confidence of those who deserve encouragement and support. Those people desperately need confidence. Let me nail the rural myths. The Government are not trying to shut down British livestock farming; there is no European Union plot to sabotage farming; we are not using foot and mouth to close down large parts of the sheep sector. The Government are committed to viable, vibrant and sustainable British agriculture, which comprises livestock and arable farms.
Alun Michael: It is understandable that most of the debate has focused on foot and mouth disease because the crisis has devastated farming communities. It has affected not only farmers but tourism and rural businesses generally. It has also highlighted the strong interdependence of farming and other parts of the rural economy. It is therefore encouraging that the crisis has brought together previously disparate rural interests to collaborate on mutually supportive solutions. I am sad that that has not been reflected in Conservative Members' contributions.
I want to place on record my thanks and those of my ministerial colleagues to the staff who have shown such dedication and commitment throughout this period. I have visited the disease control centres in Carlisle and the north-east. Many relatively junior members of staff have taken on major roles and risen to the occasion, and they deserve our appreciation.
The interruptions have meant that I have had little time to respond. I undertake to examine the record of what has been said by all hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, and ensure that I do not fail to cover in correspondence any points that I have been unable to tackle in the debate.