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18 Dec 2001 : Column 62WH

Foot and Mouth (Devon)


Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to raise the impact of foot and mouth in Devon. I am grateful to Devon county council, Torridge district council, West Devon borough council, Dartmoor national park, South West Tourism, the National Farmers' Union, and numerous other farmers and business men in my constituency for the help that they have given me in preparing for today's debate. I should also put on record that I farmed for more than 20 years in my constituency and I still own farmland there, which is rented out.

I believe that it would help the Chamber if I gave some stark statistics about this years' outbreak of foot and mouth in so far as it has impacted on Devon, and particularly on my constituency, which was the most severely hit of all the Devon constituencies that suffered foot and mouth. We had by far the largest incidence of the disease. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), had the second largest incidence of the disease in the county.

In Devon, we had 173 confirmed cases of foot and mouth and 4,500 farms were placed under D form notices and movement restrictions. Taken together, nearly half the farms in Devon were directly affected. A total of 386,203 animals were slaughtered in the county and 3,000 miles of footpaths were closed when the disease was at its height. I hasten to add that they are virtually all now open. We lost 2.6 per cent. of the county's gross domestic product, which meant that about £316 million went out of Devon's economy as a result of foot and mouth. In West Devon borough, of which my constituency envelopes the bulk, 89 per cent. of firms reported a downturn in business as a result of foot and mouth.

It should be borne in mind that in Devon, 32 per cent. of our population earn less than the EU average. Devon county council has estimated that over a 12-month period, job losses have reached nearly 8,000, of which slightly more than 1,500 are in agriculture. Nearly 3,000 are in ancillary industries, and some 3,332 jobs were lost in tourism.

I am anxious to highlight some real problems in Devon and in my constituency, but nevertheless, I shall point to some positive signs. The people of Devon will never lie supine in despair in the face of any catastrophe. They have the courage, foresight, imagination and energy to recover. I intend to stress the steps that we are taking to recover towards the end of my speech.

The Minister will know that on a number of occasions I have raised the problems of Ash moor, which is in my constituency. It is in the parish of Petrockstowe. At the height of the foot and mouth crisis, there was real confusion in Devon. We kept being told that some half a million carcases had not been disposed of, and that was the justification for constructing and purchasing Ash moor. As it happens, that was a gross overestimate of the number of carcases that had not been disposed of. In any event, Ash moor was just about the most unsuitable site for a carcase burial site that one could find. Carcase burial is about the worst method of disposing of animal carcases. Far from being impervious, the land below the site at Ash moor is

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extremely porous. There was no environmental assessment and no microbiological study. Worst of all, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), told me in reply to a parliamentary question that the water table is between 1.3 m and 3.5 m below ground level. The burrows are more than 20 m deep, so if the site were ever brought into use and however many pumps were available, one flash flood would cause thousands of gallons of pernicious effluent to flood the valley and poison the water supplies of many thousands of people.

In response to the same series of questions, the Under-Secretary told me that the cost of the work at Ash moor at the beginning of November this year was around £5.6 million. However, he qualified that figure because it is subject to confirmation following negotiations that are taking place with, I believe, the main contractor. That figure also excludes the cost of purchase of the site. I estimate that the cost of the site—a white elephant—is currently in the region of £10 million. In addition, the weekly cost of monitoring and keeping the site is £20,000 a week, or more than £1 million a year just for upkeep. The Minister informed me that if Ash moor were ever brought into use further costs would be more than £1.5 million and that odour control, long-term maintenance, monitoring and testing would cost, in addition, approximately £400,000. Ash moor has been and continues to be a vast waste of public money. I hope that the Minister for Rural Affairs will confirm today that the site will be dismantled and restored to its former use as a peaceful wildlife habitat.

I have never understood why during the foot and mouth crisis the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not liaise with local authorities and other local bodies. If it had done so, it would never have made plans for four or five huge pyres within half a mile of Holsworthy hospital. The weather in Devon is far from predictable. Fortunately, after a series of negotiations and demonstrations, we had to suffer only one smaller pyre at Holsworthy, but it is time for Arscott farm to be restored to its former use as a farm.

The events at Ash moor and Holsworthy demonstrate two reasons why we need a public inquiry into what happened during the foot and mouth crisis. West Devon borough council, with the full support of the three political groups represented on the council, wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs requesting a full statutory inquiry into the causes, course and handling of the outbreak with the purpose of promoting understanding and an improved response to any further recurrence.

I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to address some additional points. First, as he knows, due to movement restrictions during foot and mouth, many cattle went over the 30-month limit. I know that he has been tackled about that before. Farmers whose cattle went over the limit suffered a direct economic loss as a result of foot and mouth. Will the Minister reconsider his Department's decision not to pay compensation in those circumstances?

Secondly, there is currently a 20-day cooling-off period for stock movements. We all appreciate that this is important to the prevention of disease, but can the

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Minister tell us what is proposed for the future? If, following a significant movement, other animals from the same farm cannot be moved for 20 days, that will cause real problems in the agricultural industry. For example, I have bred suckler cattle and if a calf dies, it is imperative to get another one to replace it right away. I hope that the Minister will consider a 20-day cooling-off period only so far as the moved animals are concerned, provided that they are isolated and that proper biosecurity rules are adhered to. It should not be necessary to prevent movements of other animals on the farm for that period.

Thirdly, the European Court of Justice has recently ruled that the French ban on British beef is unlawful. The French have unilaterally decided to disregard that ruling. Will the Minister please tell the House what action the Government propose to ensure that the French abide by the rule of law and do not flagrantly flout it? As the Minister knows, exports add a vital base to prices. Are the Government satisfied with the adequacy of our import controls? We still receive numerous consignments of beef with spinal cord.

Fourthly, speculation in the press has been that the Government are proposing that every British farm should be linked to the Minister's Department by computer and that farmers will have to report regularly to Whitehall on what is happening where on their farms. We do not want the state to run the agricultural sector; we want the industry to be freed up as much as possible. I hope that the Minister will concede that it would be unfair to penalise farmers who cannot, or cannot afford, to go online.

Fifthly, during a debate in the Chamber on 4 December the Minister stated that the Inland Revenue and Customs had given an undertaking to continue to be sympathetic about the repayment of deferred tax and value added tax. I hope that the Government are speaking to the clearing banks on the matter and that they are providing similar forbearance.

Sixthly, the south-west regional development agency worked well during the crisis. As the Minister knows, Lord Haskins recommended an immediate increase in the business recovery fund by some £40 million. The Government's response has been £24 million but I hope that that will be reconsidered and increased. Both West Devon borough council and Torridge district council have made applications under the Bellwin rules. They have incurred substantial extra cost for giving rate relief, so I hope that the Minister will be sympathetic to their requests.

If there is one thing that the Devon tourist industry requires, it is further worthwhile marketing campaigns. I highlight the fact that per capita spend on tourism is £4.03 in Wales, £3.77 in Scotland and only 26p in England. That puts the south-west at a severe disadvantage. The regions of Britain should be treated the same and although I appreciate that tourism is not the Minister's responsibility, I hope that he will make my point to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

At various taskforce meetings during the crisis, I raised the inadequacy of the loan guarantee scheme, which is extremely expensive. The cost of funds is about 4 or 5 per cent. above base rate and the scheme is

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cumbersome and bureaucratic. I wonder whether there was there any take-up of the loan guarantee scheme during the foot and mouth crisis?

I am endeavouring to get financial support for the Council for Voluntary Services in Okehampton and Tavistock. The voluntary sector is vital in the west country and a mainstay of our rural communities, providing, among other things, child care and some social services. Mrs. Carmel Fanconi and Okehampton's CVS initiated, organised and ran the advice and assistance centre at Hatherleigh during the foot and mouth crisis. Lack of assistance for those services is just one area of concern highlighted by Devon county council in its admirable recovery plan. The council has welcomed the Minister's interest in the initiatives proposed in that plan. Innovative and positive actions have been suggested, and we look forward to seeing him in the west country in January because we know of his commitment to "Taste of the West" and other west country initiatives. The headline in The Western Morning News on 29 November 2001 stated: "Be wise, eat well and we'll prosper". Our regional newspaper launched this campaign and it is designed to achieve a huge increase in the purchase and consumption of local food and produce.

On the positive side, as I said to the Minister earlier in the debate, the people of Devon will overcome this crisis and we are working hard to do so. We do not ask for special favours; all we ask is to be treated like any other region of the United Kingdom.

1.45 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) on securing the debate, on the content of his contribution and on the manner in which it was delivered. It will be challenging to cover all the points, but if I fail to address them all I undertake to write to him. May I also say how pleased I am to see you here, Mr. Winterton? I am sure that the behaviour of both Government and Opposition Members will be impeccable.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the problems and opportunities, and the determination of people in Devon that should recover their economy and their communities. That reflects my experience of meeting people in Devon and I join him in thanking the groups to which he referred. Those groups have helped and assisted me by putting forward points in both correspondence and meetings that I have held in Devon.

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's reference to "Taste of the West". It provides a model for other regions of how to achieve a clear regional identity and branding while encompassing within that branding local identity and information about quality. I join him in congratulating the newspaper on highlighting the need for people to pay attention to the impact of their purchasing decisions on the local economy.

I met all the party leaders when I was in Devon in the summer and also received representations from the Devon taskforce when it made its presentation, which was excellent, to the rural taskforce. As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, I shall be meeting its representatives in the new year.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that Departments have given an undertaking to extend the sympathy with which they are dealing with the

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deferment of tax and other payments. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I met the clearing banks through their association, and I have met one or two separately as well. We have discussed the problems in rural areas with them and they gave an undertaking to do all that they can to deal sympathetically with customers and to acknowledge the difficulties that many farmers, particularly those who were not directly affected by foot and mouth but who nevertheless lost income, and people in the tourist industry face. In short, we raised with the banks the impact of foot and mouth on both farming and non-farming industries.

Rate relief has been raised by several hon. Members. The definition of those local authorities that can receive help is clear, but my colleagues at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions have indicated that if other local authorities produce evidence, it will be considered. Relief is available to individuals and compensation is available to local authorities and we have sought to target the measures on those areas that were most directly affected.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to use the Ash moor site for the disposal of animal carcases. At the height of the foot and mouth outbreak, the preferred methods of disposal—rendering and incineration—could not keep pace with demand. That was also true in Devon. Before June, when I was a Back Bencher, the question of carcase disposal on a site in my constituency arose, so I am familiar with such problems and I understand local concerns. However, our judgment must be based on the progress of the disease and it is now—thank goodness—well over 60 days since a new case has arisen. We must stand prepared for the possibility of a further outbreak, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my officials plan to meet Devon council officials shortly to discuss possible future uses of the Ash moor site in the light of the cost and benefit to the environment and the community. I am happy to expand on this issue, but I recognise that time is short and I am willing to give way if necessary. Work ceased on the site in May in response to the local state of the disease and the need for disposal. In effect, the site has been mothballed.

The hon. Gentleman asked several questions about 30-month limit and 20-day movement issues. One understands the wish of farmers and all those involved in the rural economy to return to normal as quickly as possible, but Ministers must strike a difficult balance between doing so and ensuring that we act only in accordance with the veterinary risk assessment. We must do nothing that might exacerbate the problems, should there be a further outbreak. None the less, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my colleagues who are dealing directly with those issues are mindful of the wish of everyone to loosen requirements as soon as it is safe to do so.

On the French ban on importing British beef, we welcome the recent judgment and hope that France will comply with it by lifting the ban as soon as possible. It is probably unwise to say more than that at present, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are as keen as he is to see matters progress. It was interesting to hear restaurateurs and others in Paris who were interviewed on the day of the judgment say that they are looking forward to consuming British beef.

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On the adequacy of our import controls, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking afresh at the way in which they are implemented. Commercial imports and imports for personal use are both important issues and we are keeping them under review, although I should point out that some of the scare stories are not justified by the evidence.

On computer links, the Department certainly wishes to deal with more business electronically and to make it easier for farmers to do likewise. Using modern methods to avoid paperwork could make a significant difference, and would be very much in the interests of farmers. Many farmers are computer users, so they would not find it at all strange to use such methods. We want to develop that opportunity, but there is no question of each farmer being filmed by a camera as they do their daily work, in the fashion of "Big Brother". In that regard this issue has been reported with a certain amount of journalistic licence.

I certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of encouraging farmers to act entrepreneurially and to develop a business without being unnecessarily constrained. Of course, some constraints and regulations are necessary in respect of public protection, food quality, traceability and so forth. However, we certainly do not seek the kind of "Big Brother" controls that have been mentioned.

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's emphasis on the importance of the voluntary sector. That is partly why we put a lot of money into match funding for voluntary organisations such as the rural stress action group, which deal with strain and pressure. Those organisations play an important role. The support that they receive, which was increased during the foot and mouth outbreak, comes jointly from my Department and from the Department of Health. Of course, supporting the voluntary sector locally is primarily a matter for local authorities, but I share the hon. Gentleman's view about its importance in reconstructing local communities. In the new Department, we are considering how to increase the ways in which we work with the voluntary sector in rural areas towards that end.

The most important objective for the rural economy is to return it to normal. The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the need for further efforts to promote tourism, which was one of the prime recommendations of the rural taskforce. I hope that he has seen the document that was published last week, "England's rural future", which responds to the taskforce report and to the report by Lord Haskins and sets out the progress that has been made in the past year on the implementation of the rural White Paper.

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One of the document's most important recommendations concerned the business of encouraging people to return as visitors to the countryside. The taskforce is meeting again tomorrow to discuss that issue with several additional representatives, whose presence will ensure that we widen the discussion about how to promote tourism and visits to rural areas in the coming year. We want to talk to the right people to build up an inclusive campaign in the new year, or as soon as we can be confident that the countryside is open—a situation that we want to accelerate towards as quickly as it is safe to do so. Tomorrow's meeting will include representatives from Devon, and the discussion will form part of the debate in the forthcoming meeting with Devon representatives in the new year.

Tourism is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I have been working closely with him and with several other Ministers to pave the way towards helping the recovery of the tourism industry. The grant in aid was the equivalent of £3.77 per head of population for Scottish tourism, £4.03 per head for Welsh tourism and 20p per head for English tourism. There are many more heads of population in England than in Scotland or Wales.

In the past 30 years, trying to promote tourism in Wales, especially in my own attractive constituency, the capital city of Cardiff, has been an uphill job. That is reflected by the fourth report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which was published in October. The hon. Gentleman would find that interesting reading. In their response, the Government say

They say that

That is what we should measure. Incoming visitor expectations per head of population in England are higher, at £227 per head, than in Scotland, where the figure is £154, or in Wales, where it is £91.

We need to help tourism to rural areas of England to recover and to grow and I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is at the forefront of my mind. We have introduced a package of measures to help business. The loan guarantee scheme to which he referred is only one of several such schemes. In recognition of the wider impact of foot and mouth disease, we made £74 million available for the business recovery fund—

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