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Regulatory Reform

Question agreed to.

28 Nov 2001 : Column 1063

Foot and Mouth (Tatton)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

9.6 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the ongoing hardship and distress that the aftermath of foot and mouth disease continues to cause to so many of the people I represent. I make no apologies for choosing a narrow subject tonight—the impact of the disease in my constituency—although if I had known that I would have an hour and 24 minutes to talk about the impact of FMD, I might have broadened the scope of the debate to allow more of my hon. Friends to join in the debate. However, I would welcome any contributions that they might wish to make.

The issues that I shall raise affect all rural constituencies, both those that were particularly badly hit in Devon and Cumbria and those that never had a case of FMD. Tatton was not the worst affected area, but it did suffer from the effects of FMD. The first outbreak occurred at Little Leigh in the west of the constituency on 25 March. Outbreaks at Over Peover and Sproston followed, and the last outbreak was identified at Crowley on 29 May. During those two months, there were seven confirmed cases in the Tatton constituency, out of a total of 17 cases in Cheshire. I should say that I checked the Department website today and it listed only 16 cases, but I am reliably informed by the county council that the correct figure is 17. My constituency had the largest number of any one of the county's constituencies.

Given that I have a little more time to cover the issues, I shall briefly break—as I willingly concede—the agreement I made with the Minister's private secretary a couple of days ago and touch on some of the issues surrounding the Government's handling of the disease, although I hope to do so in a non-partisan spirit. I certainly do not wish to repeat the extremely heated exchanges that I read about between the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) in the debate in Westminster Hall some days ago.

The issues that I hope any inquiry—I shall deal later with the question of a public inquiry—will cover include the Government's immediate reaction to the outbreak in the first few days of receiving news of the disease. We need to know how those crucial hours were handled by Government Ministers. We need to know whether those three days in which livestock movements were allowed to continue were crucial to the spread of the disease. I hope that the inquiries will also examine the epidemiological evidence that might show that the outbreak would have been much smaller—as some have suggested—if the Government had imposed movement restrictions immediately, rather than waiting for those crucial three days.

I hope also that the inquiries, when they are conducted, will look at the way in which animals were disposed of. There is great concern in farming communities that the large funeral pyres used at the beginning of the outbreak contributed to the spread of the disease. It was felt that thermal currents from large pyres spread the virus over large areas.

Moreover, there is concern in my constituency, especially in the western part, about the way in which the animals were transported by road through uninfected

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areas. The first outbreak in my constituency was very close to one of the main A roads used for the transport of a large number of animal carcases to the rendering plants near Runcorn. I hope that the inquiries will also consider that issue.

I hope, too, that the inquiries will consider whether the Government need to adopt the draconian new powers proposed in the Animal Health Bill. There is little understanding in farming circles of why the Government believe that they have to act in that way now, when the great many other matters arising out of the foot and mouth outbreak will not be attended to until lengthy inquiries have been conducted.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which will be rather longer than he expected, in prime time. Was there any evidence in his constituency of the Department's officials breaking their own very strict biosecurity rules and entering clean premises after working at infected ones?

Mr. Osborne: There were no such cases in my constituency. We were lucky, if that is the right word, in that the disease had been raging for several weeks before an outbreak was reported in my area. As a consequence, by the time the disease occurred there, the Army had been involved and the Government had sorted out their methods of culling and disposal. The culling in my constituency was well handled by the Army, but I know that that is a real issue in many other areas. Again, I hope that the inquiries that will be held will look at that matter.

The question of when the Army should be brought in is crucial to future consideration of how such outbreaks should be handled. I believe that the Northumberland report—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. This is not a general debate on foot and mouth disease. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would confine his remarks to the impact of the disease on his constituency.

Mr. Osborne: I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall briefly round off my remarks by saying that none of the matters that I have set out can be dealt with by the various inquiries that the Government have set up. People in my constituency do not understand why a full and independent public inquiry will not be held. Such inquiries have been held to investigate rail disasters and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is rather a long rounding off.

Mr. Osborne: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall now focus on the present, and on the future. There are four issues that directly affect my constituency, and which cause great distress and hardship for my farmers and rural business.

The first matter is the heavy financial losses suffered by many of my farmers. Although the disease did not break out on their farms, their businesses were all but destroyed by the Government's movement restrictions. I shall give one example out of dozens in my constituency. In June, I went to see Mr. Ken Gee on his

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farm in Mobberley. Those who know my constituency will know that Mobberley is some distance from the locations where outbreaks of the disease occurred, but Mr. Gee was as badly hit as almost any farmer in the constituency. When I visited his farm, he showed me two prize cows. In early February, he had agreed to sell them for a couple of thousand pounds. However, the Government's movement restrictions came into force a few days before they were due to be sold, and the animals could not be moved anywhere. By the time of my visit, the cows were more than 30 months old, and therefore unsellable under the Government's BSE regulations. They were good only for the over-30-months scheme. They were worth a fraction of what Mr. Gee had budgeted for and, as a result, his farm suffered a financial loss which was, for him, considerable. The reason has nothing to do with the way in which Mr. Gee runs his farm or conducts his biosecurity arrangements. It has everything to do with the combination of two, quite understandable, Government regulations. One prevented cattle movements in the midst of the epidemic and the other, for good human health reasons, prevented the sale for consumption of cattle over 30 months of age

In a written question last week, I asked the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), whether farmers like Ken Gee, who have suffered heavy losses solely because of the Government's regulations, would receive any compensation. I received this answer:

In other words, the Government have, by deliberate—albeit understandable—action made someone's property all but worthless, and they will not provide compensation. Why not? Why have they reached this conclusion? I should be grateful for the Minister's explanation.

I have used Mr. Gee's two cows as a simple and single example of one of the many thousands of ways in which the Government's foot and mouth regulations have caused huge losses to farmers in my constituency and across the country who are not directly touched by the epidemic. Indeed, it is commonplace in farming circles these days to remark that in many ways it was better to have the disease than not to have it. I heard that myself when I visited the National Farmers Union in Chelford a couple of weeks ago. The farms that were infected went through the trauma and shock, which I do not underestimate, of seeing their livestock destroyed, but at least they received full compensation, their business was kept afloat and cash flow was maintained. Those who did not have the disease on their farm but were next to areas being culled may have suffered almost as much trauma and loss of business but they have received nothing, and many of them in my constituency face ruin.

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