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6 Nov 2002 : Column 350—continued

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure that he will agree with me that it is one of the structural problems of the industry that we have a concentration of livestock and a concentration of kill within abattoirs purely at the behest of the large supermarkets and their demands on the industry. We have to address that at some stage.

Mr. Atkinson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has to do with the structure of the industry, but I am not sure whether we can change it. What the

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hon. Gentleman is saying is the equivalent of suggesting that we ought to scrap large car plants and that all motor cars should be built in small back-street garages as they were in past centuries. The meat processing business is hugely capital intensive, requiring people working 365 days a year in two shifts. That is the way it is. A meat-packing plant in the hon. Gentleman's part of the country will eventually have to source lamb from my constituency in the north of England. That is a feature of the industry. Whether or not it is desirable, it is not easy to change. The dealers are providing for modern economics.

The Minister was critical of the amendment and I do not believe it is a particularly good one, but it provides us with an opportunity to debate a serious matter that is affecting farmers in my constituency very badly. It gives us the opportunity of expressing our concerns, hopefully in a vote. The Minister said that a large proportion of the livestock industry can cope with these regulations, but many farmers cannot. We have heard tonight that upland farmers in particular will find it extremely difficult. Certainly in the north of England, in the Pennines, the livestock buying and selling year is contracted into September and October. It has a very tight span. Farmers who breed sheep and suckler cows need to move breeding replacements on to the farm and to sell lambs and ewes at the autumn sales. If animal movements are restricted, those farmers have to hold stock on their farms which means extra expense and if the weather is particularly bad—fortunately it was not too bad this autumn—it would cause welfare problems. These are enormous costs to farmers who are already struggling. At the risk of being slightly out of order, farmers are facing not only the economic problems caused by the 20-day rule but the economic problems caused by the slowness of the Rural Payments Agency to pay up and the muddle caused by so many mistakes at the British Cattle Movement Service in Workington which means that cattle which are going into the over-30-months scheme are now being disqualified because of administrative errors that are not their fault. Perhaps the Minister will look at that in due course.

As I said, we accept the need for a traceability scheme and that would be the final answer. We also accept the need for some form of movement restriction, but it has to be very much more relaxed than it is currently. Farmers have suffered this autumn; they do not want to suffer next autumn. It is absolutely imperative that whatever scheme the Minister introduces, it must be properly in place early in the year so that the spring movement of livestock from winter quarters to summer quarters can begin. In particular it must be up and working at the end of the next back-end season.

Other suggestions have been made which the Minister did not consider for long enough. The simple scheme produced by auctioneers whereby farmers have three dyes and dye sheep with one colour one week, the next colour the following week and another for the third week means that no animal can be sold or brought to market until it has reached the three-week period. That is an incredibly simple system which would have carried us over until a proper system was put in place.

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Let me reiterate that the real cost of this 20-day movement restriction falls on a particularly vulnerable group of farmers. While they all appreciate that some form of movement is needed, they need a more liberal regime, which will allow them at least to hang on to their lives and their work for a few more years.

Mr. Curry: Perhaps we can first get one or two historical facts in place. The movement of livestock is not some sort of modern aberration; it is at the absolute heart of the agricultural economy throughout Europe. Transhumance is one of the oldest practices of the human race. I refer the House to one of the great books—Ferdinand Braudel's XThe Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II". Although not particularly imaginative, Phillip II was an assiduous and meticulous monarch who ruled a very large empire. The culture of the Mediterranean world is based on the principle of transhumance, so let us get away from the idea that a bunch of wicked dealers have intruded on a pastoral scene characterised by William Cobbett, and brought it kicking and screaming into a bizarre modern world.

Let us also be clear that the consequences of the foot and mouth epidemic highlighted the importance of such movements, which are traditional, rather than bizarre movements designed to rig the system. When foot and mouth struck in my constituency, animals that had been sent to the lowlands to over-winter should have been coming back up to the hill. In fact, they could not be moved—they were caught in fields full of mud. In Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, where some farmers specialise in looking after animals over the winter, the resulting welfare conditions were serious. Of course, the sale of breeding stock off the hills forms part of the backbone of the uplands economy, and it is also one of the major sources of livestock for the lowlands. Those are traditional movements that are intrinsic to agriculture, and we have to find a way in which to accommodate them.

I should point out to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) that I realise that, in many ways, auction marts must appear to be some sort of Dickensian throwback—part of the world of XOne Man and His Dog", or a television series about vets. However, in the light of his concerns and comments, he should not underestimate the role of the auction mart in combating the social exclusion experienced by those who live remote lives. They do not often meet their fellow human beings, and they derive benefit from meeting in the fug of the fish and chip shop or the pie shop.

Paul Flynn: During the recess, I visited Llanrwst market, which is outside my constituency, and spoke to the farmers assembled there. The strongest argument that they made in favour of the continuation of the mart was that it was the day on which families came to Llanrwst for social reasons. One understands that entirely, but there must be some way to improve their social life and reduce their isolation other than by getting animals together in a traditional but very dangerous way.

Mr. Curry: The hon. Gentleman and I may not be very far apart. In practice, we will see a more integrated

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food chain, farmers contracting to retailers, and the pre-selection of animals, which go straight to the abattoirs. In fact, some auction marts are acting as intermediaries in order to organise that trade. So the role of the auction mart is changing.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Is it not true that, when we get to that stage, many of the Members who complained about dealers will be complaining that we do not have dealers any longer, and saying how much better things were in those days? One cannot ever get it right.

Mr. Curry: That is certainly true, and they will also complain that they have received planning application for the building of 93 desirable houses on the site of the auction mart, including a complement of social housing, which will doubtless occasion concern for other parts of the village. I speak from some experience, but I shall not go further down that route.

We should also admit that there were dreadful examples of negligence during the foot and mouth outbreak. In North Yorkshire, many farmers have several scattered holdings. Indeed, the Department found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that many farmers owned plots of land that were quite close together, but not contiguous. Some of those farmers moved stock from one farm to the other without any semblance of precaution. That was clearly criminal in spirit, if not in practice. The miracle of the foot and mouth outbreak was that the disease never reached the pig herds in Humberside. Had it done so, we would have got into vaccination to slaughter. The sheer volume of slaughter could have been coped with and brought under order only by the introduction of vaccination.

7.45 pm

I make those preliminary points because I want to ensure that the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, understands the issue. I know his brief, and I also know how difficult it is under the 20-day rule to operate normal farming practice on a mixed beef and sheep farm in the uplands. People have to move animals around—to market, to pasture—and the high hills will not sustain them throughout the year. There are also practical problems. The Minister has said that there has to be a form of cordon sanitaire around a holding, but one cannot establish an isolation unit with a 50 m boundary for 300 sheep on a hill farm. In practice, it is very difficult to deliver that and then service the sheep with the tup.

As I pointed out to the Minister, under the problematic anomalies of the 20-day rule, I could buy 300 sheep and put them in a field next to sheep owned by my neighbour. If we are lucky, there are dry-stone walls and the sheep will not mingle. However, it is just as likely that the sheep will be separated by a few strands of wire, so they will mingle and converse, as it were. My neighbour, who is not caught by any restriction, could immediately sell off sheep that had been in contact with restricted sheep. Equally, in some cases the rule has the perverse impact of promoting the use of dealers. Let us consider the example of a farmer in Cumbria or North Yorkshire, who used to be able to buy young calves in the autumn from various local farms in a 40 mile radius.

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All those farms are now caught by the same restrictions as he is, so the way to get round that is to buy the animals from a dealer who is shipping them from 250 miles away. In other words, the farmer is actually forced into an alternative pattern of procurement. According to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), that increases exposure to the transmission of illness.

In making my final point, I shall use the example, if I may, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). Farmer Gummer and I can both send our sheep to market, and the sheep can sit in adjacent pens in the auction mart. As we know, they are mere tubular structures, and communication can take place between pens. Let us say that I decide to buy Farmer Gummer's sheep, and I take them home. As long as I put them in an isolation unit, I will not be caught by the restriction. However, if I do not sell my sheep and I want to take them home, they will be caught by the 20-day rule—even though they have been in contact only with Farmer Gummer's sheep—and I will be unable to sell them on.

I appreciate that there are bound to be such anomalies; it is very difficult to establish schemes without them. However, in talking about trying to get the farming community to accept the necessity of restrictions, it is important to ensure that farmers cannot say, XHang on, has anybody who has devised the restrictions thought about how we practise in reality—how we live and get through the working day?" As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pointed out, the scheme in Scotland operates somewhat differently. I accept that those differences are in the detail, but the regime is slightly more liberal in respect of, for example, applications for licences. There is spot-checking, as opposed to the prior approvals that have to be obtained in England. In Scotland, any animal can be put into segregation without triggering the provision; in England, however, only breeding animals can qualify under that criterion.

As a result of devolution, practices are diverging. Premium payments are now different on the two sides of the border, because the British Government—on behalf of England and Wales—decided to retain an element of the payment for a general kitty. That decision was not taken in Scotland, however. I imagine that that rule could be modified for Scotland under the powers of devolution, so that it becomes more different from that which applies in England. The argument would then arise of level playing fields within these shores, rather than simply between these shores and elsewhere.

I agree that the Lords amendment is not particularly well thought out, but it has served its purpose by enabling us to bring to the Minister's attention the practical problems experienced by farmers who want to make the system work, who are not out to dodge the system, and who have been through a tremendously rough time.

In my constituency, the second worst category of farmer was those whose animals got foot and mouth disease; the worst category was those whose animals did not because they could not move their cattle or earn a living, and the sheep were sucking the stones dry on the hills. Those farmers are now entering a further period of severe restrictions.

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The Minister should spell out the programme and the scenarios that he hopes to be able to apply and acknowledge that he may want to retain some form of permanent restrictions, but ones that go with the grain of farming practices. He should show that he is seeking, as is inevitable across the field of such activities, to find the balance between the necessary precaution and enabling the industry that he is seeking to preserve to be able to continue to earn a living so that it can help to preserve itself.

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