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6 Nov 2002 : Column 347—continued

Mr. Simon Thomas : I, too, could give examples from my constituency illustrating the problem of the 20-day rule, but there is a further confusion in Wales. It has been announced today that there will be a review in February, but the hon. Gentleman's colleague, Mike German, announced that it would take place in Wales in January. Does that suggest that Mr. German does not have a grip on the situation, or that he needs more time to fill in his credit card slips?

Mr. Williams: I do not accept either suggestion, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for leading me to my next point.

Farmers are fed up because it is going to take so long to complete the risk assessment and the cost-benefit analysis. We are told that the preliminary results will be produced in November, and that there may be some relaxation and modification of the restriction in February. It appears that the full results will not be known until June. Many vets have suggested to me that the process could be accelerated. Does the Minister

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think there is any way of putting the results in the public domain more quickly, allowing us to conduct a thorough study?

I took a number of farmers on a delegation to meet Lord Whitty, but I also took the head of animal movements from Powys county council's trading standards department. He told Lord Whitty that any restriction of movements must be one with which farmers could comply, otherwise the whole arrangement would be brought into disrepute. We have been told that a number of people have directly abused the system. Many farmers have told me, almost in confessional mode, that they believe they have broken the regulations, but because those regulations are so complex they do not understand what is required of them. I ask the Minister to speed up the process and produce clear guidelines allowing farmers to continue their business.

Paul Flynn: What unites us is a desire to avoid the dreadful human and animal suffering that took place during the foot and mouth epidemic, but the Government must stand firm. The recommendation of the best scientists, of the Royal Society and the Anderson report, was not for a 20-day but for a 28-day standstill, because that represents the incubation period of the disease. The Government have already been conciliatory. They have made a compromise in that instance, and in a number of others.

Let us look at the risks. No one dreamt up the threat of blue tongue virus; it is spread by vectors, but it is a deadly disease that could destroy a third of our livestock, as it has elsewhere.

Mr. Roger Williams: I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on blue tongue disease, but has it not been absent from Wales since 1997, when Wales last had a Conservative Member of Parliament?

Paul Flynn: The disease is certainly alien to our shores. Conservative Members are similarly alien to Wales, and long may that last. But we are now being warned that because of climatic and other changes, blue tongue virus is a serious threat. There are other diseases too, such as vesicular stomatitis, which is similar to foot and mouth, and there is the possibility of vesicular swine fever. The threat is real, and is not being exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the farming industry should know that we are looking at the reality of the spread of foot and mouth. I know that the Opposition parties are wedded to the idea that it was all the Government's fault, but they should look at the map showing movements all over the country before the disease was detected. We can see the spread from the far north to Devon, and from the east to Wales. That is why we had a problem that was not experienced in Uruguay, in the Netherlands, in Ireland or in France. In fact, the outbreak in Ireland was caused by the illegal import of an animal to Northern Ireland.

It cannot be ignored that all sorts of people—people in the farming industry, for instance, and civil servants—turned a blind eye to illegal movements by those wishing to increase the number of claims for subsidies.

Mr. Simon Thomas: What the hon. Gentleman is describing constitutes fraud. If it was fraud, it should be investigated by the police. The 20-day rule does not help when people are behaving illegally.

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Will the hon. Gentleman at least accept that the disease was able to spread so quickly because it had been introduced into the country in the first place? Will he accept that our primary responsibility must be to prevent it from coming in, and to adopt bio-preventive measures to ensure that the spread is contained if it does ever come in?

Paul Flynn: It was fraud, but both Governments turned a blind eye on the pretext that it had happened elsewhere in Europe and they could see no reason why there should not be a multiplication of subsidies here. As for stopping the disease at source, I am afraid that that is another myth. It came here because one farmer did not pre-heat the swill he was using; if he had followed proper advice, he would not have used the swill anyway.

It is also absurd to think that we can build a wall around the country and keep out any contraband. Despite the heroic efforts of Customs and Excise, billions of cigarettes and thousands of gallons of alcohol are smuggled in, as well as a huge amount of illegal drugs. There is no way of ensuring that the country can remain free of illegal or bad meat.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I spent several hours with Customs and Excise in Dover yesterday. In fact, it has reduced illegal tobacco imports from #1.7 billion to #400 million worth in the last few months. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman has identified a contrast that no one else is seriously identifying. The Minister tried to do the same. I do not think that any Member on either side of the House has suggested an open-door policy enabling anyone to bring in anything at any time, or a hermetically sealed country. We are certainly not suggesting either. We are saying that a higher profile can change the mindset of most of the people who are engaging in such action, many of whom are doing so innocently. That can be seen in Australia and the United States.

7.30 pm

Paul Flynn: That was an extremely helpful intervention as it makes the point that whatever we do we cannot stop imports coming in and bringing diseases into the country. So what should we do? The farming industry is reluctant to do anything as it is set in its ways. Farmers want to do their job in the same way as their parents and grandparents, but they must understand that this rule must stay. There is an easy, simple, cheaper alternative that has already been used. That is to use the methods that were used during the foot-and-mouth epidemic whereby animals were sold directly or through simple technology such as video links and the internet. That method avoids the expense of taking animals to market and the journeys and the animals can pass from farm to farm or to the slaughterhouse or where ever else they are going without contact with other animals. That is what we should all be encouraging.

Mr. Wiggin: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that even with the 20-day rule, disease can be transmitted through illegal acts, so that although the more rules the Government make, the more likely it is in theory that disease will be prevented, what really happens is that law-abiding farmers go out of business, and farmers who break the law continue to spread disease.

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The weakness in the 20-day rule, which has value directly after an outbreak, is that it will put law-abiding farmers and livestock markets out of business and affect the infrastructure on which all farmers depend to earn a living. Does the hon. Gentleman not see that even if the Government insist on it, the bad guys will continue to break the law?

Paul Flynn: I am following the best advice of the two bodies that I mentioned. No one made any suggestion that they were wrong in suggesting this essential deterrent.

I represent farmers and there were three outbreaks of foot and mouth in my constituency, but my constituents are overwhelmingly industrial workers who work mainly in the steel and aluminium industry. They have suffered terribly in the past two years and more than half their jobs have disappeared. All those families contributed #5 per week last year to pay for foot and mouth, in addition to the #10 per week they pay the farming industry in subsidies. If another disease comes along, is it reasonable that taxpayers—including the steel and aluminium workers in my constituency—should pick up the bill? If the farming industry is not prepared to take these sensible, modest precautions, why on earth should taxpayers pick up the bill for the next epidemic?

Mr. Peter Atkinson : I am not sure whether or not it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who has clearly missed his vocation. He should have been a 19th-century non-conformist Welsh preacher predicting Armageddon—[Hon. Members: XHe is."] Perhaps he is. He reminds me of a character from a Dylan Thomas poem. I think it was Organ Morgan, but hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong. I should stress to the hon. Gentleman that Opposition Members are not against having some form of movement restriction—we are simply opposed to the particular restriction.

Let me begin by doing a Conservative thing and defending the dealers. We have had a lot of mud slung at the dealers in the course of the debate so far. Dealers are perfectly respectable people; they are simply using the market. The way that the livestock market has developed in the United Kingdom has encouraged the intervention of dealers. The reason is that we have a very large number of centralised meatpacking firms or abattoirs that require large numbers of animals on a regular basis. They get them from dealers who collect them from different parts of the country. Dealers make a turn on the price while fulfilling the needs of the abattoirs for a regular supply of animals. For better or worse, that is where we are with the market.

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