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Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab):
A number of colleagues have already referred to this happening at the worst time
possible for the farming industry and for the impact that it has certainly had on the sheep sales of hill farmers in Wales. However, the solution is clearly to get trade back to normality as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friends statement did not refer to the possibility of resuming live exports, particularly of sheep and calves, which are a mainstay of the dairy industry. Although it is welcome that a compensation package is in place in England, Wales and Scotland and that meat exports will resume from Friday onwards, can he tell the House any more about what pressure can be brought to bear on the European Union, so that we return to normality with live exports?
Hilary Benn: The resumption of live exports is some way away yet; that will depend on the passage of time following the confirmation of the last casecurrently, the eighth infected premises. Exports to the rest of the world will follow later, because of international animal health organisation rules. Product exports are worth about £40 million and live exports about £2 million, so the single most important thing that we can do is support the resumption of product exports. That is what the Commission has agreed to do for large parts of the country from this coming Friday. As I said earlier, I hope that the area from which such exports can come will increase with time.
The losses suffered by the livestock industry absolutely dwarf the compensation scheme that the Secretary of State has announced today. Lack of marketing opportunities, increased costs and a dramatic fall in the price of breeding stock and stock for slaughter have caused those losses. Will the Secretary of State commission an independent review on the losses that have been suffered by the agricultural industry, so that the Government can be in a position to offer a realistic compensation scheme when those losses are known?
Hilary Benn: I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with our current best assessment of what we think those economic losses are. I undertake to put a copy of that letter in the Library. Clearly, the situation will change over time; as product exports resume, losses that might otherwise be incurred may not be.
As I have learned during the past couple of months, farmers face really difficult decisions in deciding whether to sell now or not; they are wondering where the market will be in a weeks or a months time. In truth, we do not yet know what the full economic impact will be; nor do we know how much it might be possible to recover some of that because of the changes in movement, markets and product export that are about to come upon us. That is why we do not yet know the full answer to the fair question that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
The bluetongue virus is a worry for sheep farmers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware. Does he believe that a hard winter could eradicate the virus in the UK, or that it would lie dormant, only to reappear early next spring? If the latter were true, the pressure would be about where it would appear next. That is the first part.
Secondly, I should say that the issue is about money that farmers need, and my right hon. Friend is right about that. However, we ought to push supermarkets and the middlemen to pay fair prices and ensure that farmers can survive, rather than be squeezed, as they have been in the past 15 years. Please, let us put pressure on the supermarkets and the middlemenfair farm-gate prices are the future for farming.
Hilary Benn: My hon. Friend makes a good point. At the beginning of this outbreak, I spoke to the heads of all the main supermarkets to make that pointFarmers are having a difficult time; anything and everything that you can do to assist would be much appreciated. That is why money for promotion and to help with exports is part of the package that I announced today; those are practical steps that we can take to try to get the market operating again.
On the bluetongue virus and the winter, I cannot predict how cold or otherwise the winter will be, but as the weather gets cooler there will undoubtedly be less midge activity. The evidence from Europe last year was that the midges with the virus did overwinter and came back with a bit of a vengeance at the start of this year. So winter may provide a temporary respite, but if the experience of northern Europe is anything to go by, the virus will be back next year. That is why the development of a vaccine is so important.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his visit to Skipton market in my constituency and for the package of measures he has announced today. If he wished to do a little extra, he might look at the veterinary fees that auction marts have to pay when they are in session. He will know that upland farmers make a significant part of their livelihood from sales to the lowland. In Skipton next week, the most crucial sales of the yearsales of stock for breeding and fattening to the lowlandbegin. Many farmers do not have a great deal of choice about whether they sell, because there is no grass or keep left. But they do not know whether there are going to be any buyers, because many of the buyers are in the bluetongue zones in the south of England and they do not know whether they can afford to buy.
The Secretary of State might wish that somebody else would take the decision, or that there was another means of taking the decision, about the extension, maintenance and life of the bluetongue protection zone, but if the sales are to be economically effective, it is crucial that people know where they stand. Please will he recognise the urgency of taking the decision about the bluetongue zone? The fortunes of foot and mouth disease-struck farmers depend a great deal on that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for joining me at Skipton market last Thursday, where he made the very good point that the
market is not just crucial to the livelihood of his constituents, but is an important part of their social networks. I saw that for myself. He is absolutely right. As I travelled down to Newmarket, I encountered exactly the point that he has raised.
I want to be frank with the House about the dilemma that we face as far as the bluetongue zones are concerned. By putting the zones in place in the way that we have, we are trying to restrict the movement of bluetongue to other parts of the country. But the price of that is that the farmers I met in Newmarket said, Well, Im not sure that we are going to go to the sales in Skipton and elsewhere next week because, while we can buy the animals and bring them into the bluetongue zone, were not sure that we can ever get them out again because of the restrictions that youve put in place.
The dilemma for the industry, and for uslet us be frank about itis that we are balancing trying to minimise the likelihood that bluetongue will spread to other parts of the country, which would be the consequence of widening the zone to allow greater movement and trade, and a passage to abattoirs, against trying to minimise the economic impact for both the hill farmers whom the right hon. Gentleman represents and the farmers in East Anglia who would be buying. The right place to have that conversation is with the industry. In the end, yes, we will have to take a decision, but it is a real dilemma. Those conversations are taking place now and it is important that, as Members, we all contribute to them, because it is a tough choice to make.
Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): On foot and mouth, the Secretary of State mentioned the contamination of the drains and the spread of the disease by vehicles. Can he confirm that his investigations have either ruled out, or are at least looking at, the possibility of the disease spreading through watercourses from the spoil that was excavated from the drains on the Pirbright site? I ask because I have had letters on the subject. Clearly, there was a second outbreak, further on, and I understand that it is possible that if spoil had got into the watercourse, it could have contributed to the latest outbreaks.
Hilary Benn: The Health and Safety Executive went over the Pirbright site with a pretty fine toothcomb and, as the hon. Lady can read in the report that it produced and which I published on 7 September, the HSEs best assessment is that the route of transmission was the one that it describes. I am not awarebut I will go back and check the report againthat anybody thinks that movement of the virus directly from watercourses to other parts of Surrey could possibly be the route. However, the reason I said earlier that one cannot be 100 per cent. sure is because that is what the two reports said. The explanation is the most likely one, but we cannot be 100 per cent. sure. Professor Spratt reinforced the point that we are also learning about the extent to which the virus can survive out in the open, depending on the climatic conditions.
One of the lessons that we will have to learn from thisnot just in the UK, but in other countries in Europerelates to protection and surveillance zones. Since this is not the first timeif I remember rightly, there was a case some years back of a virus escaping from a laboratory in the Netherlandsare there lessons that we need to learn about the nature of the controls that we put in place in case there is an outbreak from such a source? I undertake to go away and reflect on the points that the hon. Lady has raised.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Given that the bluetongue virus has been at large on the continent for several years, is there not an extensive body of research and best practice that we can draw down from our continental partners, so that we can learn more quickly how to either eradicate the midge, or create a proper vaccine? Surely we do not have to reinvent the wheel on our own.
Hilary Benn: No, we do not. The hon. Gentleman makes a really good point. I discussed that precise issue with the deputy chief veterinary officer earlier this afternoon. We had a control plan in place, because we and the industry anticipated that at some point the wind would be in the wrong direction, and that the virus was likely to come across the channel or the North sea, and that appears to have transpired. The countries in northern Europe that have been badly affected are learning how to live with the problem, and are considering what variations one can make within the controls that Europe lays down. In answer to an earlier question, I set out one of the dilemmas that we face. We will indeed draw on the experience of other countries, because they had the virus first, and I am sure that we have a lot to learn from them.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD):
Bearing in mind the impact that the devastating market conditions are having on Northumbrian farmers, who struggled to rebuild their businesses after the 2001 outbreak, is it really enough to advise Departments that it might be a good time to buy a bit more meat?
Ought not the Government to consider the purchase of meat, particularly lamb, for cold storage on a systematic scale?
Hilary Benn: I know that there have been such schemes in the past. The right hon. Gentleman will, in fairness, recognise that the question of what the Government can do to buy, what supermarkets can do to purchase, what meat individuals choose to buy, and the issue of financial compensation and so on is part of a contribution, although it is not enough, and it is not the only thing that we are doing. Instead of putting the meat into storage purchased by the Government, I would much rather that it went into the supply chain, with us having got economic activity back up and running. That is what we, with Europe, are concentrating on trying to do.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Bluetongue has the capacity totally to devastate the livestock industry, not just in East Anglia but throughout the country. Has the Secretary of State looked into a possible compensation scheme for farmers who are affected, and for those who could well be affected in future?
Hilary Benn: No, I have not. I accept entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the nature of the threat, having looked at the death rates among sheep affected by bluetongue in northern Europe, but it is not the only disease that has to be dealt with by the farming industry and those who keep livestock. It is fundamentally a severe economic problem for the industry. The industry feared that it would arrive, and obviously we will have to see how things unfold. Of course, the best route for preventing the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes is to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible, and to make sure that it is used to protect livestock.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your advice on what opportunities exist for the Home Secretary, whom I have contacted, to correct the impression that she gave at her partys conference in Bournemouththe impression that she does not hold our Territorial Army, on which her Government are heavily reliant, in the high esteem that is surely its due.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not quite clear what he is referring to, but it is up to the Members concerned to respond to any remarks made outside the House.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On Wednesday, the House will discuss the European treaty, and at 2.30 pm the Foreign Secretary will come before the Foreign Affairs Committee as a witness on the proposed treaty. In the Vote Office, a copy of the draft European treaty, which emerged last week after the meeting of a group of legal experts, is not available. It was dispatched to the Foreign Office on 5 October. The Foreign Office has been able to produce the draft declarations, but the protocols are not available, and nor is the latest draft of the treaty. It is unacceptable and sloppy that it is not available today. I wonder whether you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, could use your good offices to put a rocket under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so that it gets some of its Johnnies over here quickly with some copies.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not sure that the matter will be dealt with in quite the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests, but I am grateful to him for bringing it to the attention of the House. Clearly, all the proper papers should be available at the appropriate time for Members to look at, and I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will have taken note of his point of order.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that I have an outbreak of bluetongue in my constituency and that I unfortunately failed to catch your eye following the statement, is there some way in which I can bring extra pressure to bear so that I might raise the matter on the Adjournment of the House?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not called at the time of the statement, but he will appreciate that it went on for nearly an hour and that lots of hon. Members have an interest in these matters. He is an experienced Member of the House and he will know that there are other ways of raising these issues. The point that he has made has been noted, and I am sure that he will find other ways of raising the question of bluetongue in his constituency.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con):
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I fully appreciate the time constraints that the House, and therefore you, are under this afternoon. Can you ask the Speaker to contact the DEFRA ministerial team directly, to see whether it might be possible to have a subsidiary statement later in the week? The bluetongue boundary goes straight through the middle of my constituency,
and I have constituents who are affected either way. It would be hugely important for the welfare of my constituents and indeed for the greater edification of the House if the Secretary of State for the relevant Department could be asked to come back here to discuss the matter further this week.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Sadly, I fear that these matters will continue for some time. The Secretary of State responsible for them has said that he will keep the House informed, and I am sure that that means that he will be coming back to the House on future occasions, on which the hon. and learned Gentleman will have the opportunity to put to him the serious problems in his constituency.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Further to the point of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Armys unofficial websites are buzzing with fury at the derogatory jibe made by the Home Secretary about the Territorial Army. There is a real problem with the structure of this place, in that when Ministers speak outside their briefs, they do not appear to be directly accountable to the House. By what mechanism can the Home Secretary be pressed on this matter? Six young Territorials have died on active service in the past two or three years, and a much larger number have been wounded. This remark has caused grave angst among people serving abroad and their families.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the concern [ Interruption. ] Order. I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. These are clearly important matters. Every Member of the House, whatever role they occupy, should be very careful about the language that they use, both inside and outside the House. At the end of the day, every right hon. and hon. Member is responsible for their own words, but they also eventually have to come back to the House to justify them.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will notice that on page 2828 of the Order of Business for today, there are a number of written ministerial statements. No. 14 concerns recruitment to medical training. The House will probably know that Sir John Tookes report was released at midday today. I understand why no copies are available; I am not sure that he has had a printed copy yet. However, given that this report into what might gently be called the chaos of what happened in the summer also includes, as appendix 9, the Douglas reviews final report, which was not provided to the House in July, would it be possible to invite the Secretary of State for Health to consider making a statement tomorrow, as well as a written statement today, when the Tooke report is available, so that hon. Members can question him on what happened under the previous Secretary of State? This is an important issue, but the report is not available today for us to read.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentlemans concern about this matter. Whether to make written or oral statements is entirely a matter for the Minister responsible, but I know that this is an important issue and no doubt those on the Front Bench will have heard the hon. Gentlemans point of order.
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