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3.19 pm

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to contribute to the debate. I will be brief, as I know that many other Members wish to speak. First, I am pleased that it appears highly unlikely at this stage that the foot and mouth virus has spread outside Surrey, although I accept that fragments of land in Berkshire are affected. However, the outbreak should never have occurred, and we need a full investigation into the biosecurity arrangements at Pirbright. Such a thing must never happen again.

I remember only too well the heartache suffered by farmers in my constituency during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. I remember farmers in tears, the smell of burning animals, and the impact on tourism and other related businesses. I am therefore grateful to the Secretary of State, because his swift and effective action to control the outbreak appears to have worked, and we seem to have contained the disease.

It has once again been a terrible year for British farmers, particularly hill farmers. Hill farmers in the Lune valley in my constituency have been hit very hard. Between 70 and 80 per cent. of a hill farmer’s income is generated at this time of year. It was the worst possible time in which to have movement restrictions in place, and the lamb market has collapsed. Prices are down from £1 a kilogram to 60p. Not surprisingly, hill farmers have been very distressed. It is welcome news that exports have resumed; that is important for farmers.

What else can the Government do? The aid package to hill farmers is certainly welcome, but the money must reach those farmers quickly; that is important given the cash-flow problems. The marketing and
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promotion of British meat and dairy produce is essential for our domestic and export markets. We produce the best meat and dairy products in the world. We comply with the highest standards of hygiene and animal welfare, and we need to tell people that. We need promotion of British meat. The drive for cheap food and the power of the supermarkets has been at the root of many farming and rural problems over the past decade. We must have fair farm-gate prices. Milk prices have improved, but small family farms are still disadvantaged, because prices are often volume-related.

James Birkett was Lancashire county chairman for the National Farmers Union over the past few years, but he recently stood down. He has written to me, and I will read his letter because it is very important:

that is, the single farm payment—

That is a simple request, and I have a lot of sympathy for Mr. Birkett’s argument. I should be grateful for a response from the Secretary of State, or from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) when he winds up the debate. Will they let us know whether the payments can be made quickly, particularly the straightforward single farm payments?

It is essential that the nation produces its own food, rather than rely on imports. Often, those imports are inferior. As I say, British farming complies with the highest standards on animal welfare and hygiene—indeed, on everything. We have lots of regulations. Farmers often feel that there is an unfair playing field, because they are competing with food from abroad that has not been produced to the same standard as food from this country, and I agree with them.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): Surely the Secretary of State should do something about the issue. Cannot he encourage his European partners to stop Brazilian beef imports from challenging British beef? British beef is produced to the best possible standards, and even Brazilian beef is not produced in a foot-and-mouth-free zone.

Geraldine Smith: Those issues should definitely be taken up. We owe our farmers a great deal for what they do, and for managing the countryside. I was out
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walking in the Lake district this summer, and I walked across beautiful fields. The countryside is preserved by farmers; we sometimes forget that, and we take them for granted. Of course, they also provide our food, and it is important that we produce our own food. The Government must therefore make every effort to help farmers through these difficult and distressing times. It is important that we must make sure that our farmers are not forgotten.

3.26 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): The outbreak of foot and mouth in the village of Normandy in my constituency of Woking was confirmed on Friday 3 August. Shortly afterwards, the focus of attention shifted to the village of Pirbright, thought to be the source of the outbreak. Pirbright, also in my constituency, is the home of the Institute for Animal Health and the company Merial, which share a site.

Our first thoughts today should be for those in the Woking area, and throughout Surrey and beyond, who have suffered the most, emotionally and financially—local farmers and smallholders who had livestock killed. They and their families went through stressful and tragic times. They and others who suffered as a result of movement restrictions and surveillance zones handled the situation with calm and patience, and we must all commend them on their fortitude.

Next I would like to express my thanks to some individuals. Mike Nevins—he is the mayor of Guildford—and Diana Lockyer-Nibbs of Normandy are both councillors from the Woking area. They reacted and behaved exactly as councillors should, providing support and guidance to people in Normandy, Pirbright and the surrounding areas in the difficult days following the outbreak. I also thank the Secretary of State and his Ministers for their help during those times. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for their helpful advice to, and contact with, so many people in the Woking area in the days after the dreadful outbreak.

The Institute for Animal Health is an internationally respected and admired organisation which has existed happily in the village of Pirbright for many years. Indeed, quite a number of local people work there. The institute has been noted throughout for the excellence of its work, the commitment of its staff and its huge emphasis on safety. Professor Martin Shirley, the director, leads an outstanding work force. It is vital that the Government remain committed to the Pirbright site and to the planned final phase of the site redevelopment which is to go ahead in the coming years. Will the Government please confirm that today? It is a crucially important site.

Merial, the company on the same site, is a world-leading innovation-driven animal health organisation providing a comprehensive range of products to enhance the health and well-being of a wide range of animals. It is a key player in worldwide biosecurity and the world leader in foot and mouth disease vaccine production. Merial has been producing
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at the Pirbright site for about 15 years and employs about 80 people there, mostly from the local area, in vaccine production. It provides emergency vaccine capability for 20 countries and international organisations and is a leading global company committed, like the institute, to the highest standards of product quality and safety. Like the institute, Merial has responded positively to the Spratt report recommendations and has put them into effect.

We may never know exactly how the outbreak occurred, but we can make a judgment today as to where much of the blame lies. If we were the jury considering a verdict, we would ask ourselves certain questions. In relation to the institute’s site at Pirbright, whose duty is it to license? The Government. Whose duty is it to regulate? The Government. Whose duty is it to inspect? The Government. Whose duty is it to provide the funding? The Government. Who, therefore, is the guilty party in this case? The Government.

The Government may have learned lessons from 2001. I congratulate them on reacting more quickly and efficiently this time, but one immediate problem in the Normandy area was the failure to close footpaths in the locality immediately. I called for this, as did the National Farmers Union, but I have to report, sadly, that people were able to walk across the protection zone as late as five days after confirmation of the first case.

There was a shortage of information, especially for local people and local farmers and smallholders. Not all of them are on e-mail. I had constituents ringing me about whether they could ride their horses in the protection zone, and few were updated. In a stressful situation, keeping people fully informed is essential in controlling the situation and their anxieties.

There are many in the Woking area who have not been informed very carefully about compensation, which is another important issue. Specifically, can the Minister write and tell me how many people in my constituency are to be compensated, when they will be compensated, the extent to which they will be compensated and the precise procedure for obtaining compensation? This is an area of great difficulty and complexity for a number of my constituents.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The question of compensation goes back to the last foot and mouth outbreak and we have had many problems with it in the past. For example, some of the farmers with farms on either side of the English-Welsh border still have resentments and problems from that time. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that such problems cannot be allowed to arise in the case in his constituency?

Mr. Malins: I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s deep interest in these matters and accept his point entirely. I hope we will get it right this time.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise that there are many people in my constituency, and no doubt in the constituencies of many of my hon. Friends and of Members in other parts of the House, who are not directly in farming but who are, for example, hauliers whose business has been totally destroyed, and that no compensation is currently forthcoming?

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Mr. Malins: My right hon. Friend is right. He refers to problems in his constituency, and there are other people—I shall not use the phrase “on the fringes” because in a sense they are directly connected—who suffer greatly and who are confused as to their position. The Government should look carefully at the whole issue of compensation and make it plain to everybody who wants to know who is entitled and how they will receive it.

The Government’s position is damaged by the Spratt report. Its main focus is on the old, poorly maintained and defective effluent system that is shared by the two facilities at Pirbright. There is reference to the poor state of the effluent pipes, indicating that adequate funding has not been available to ensure the highest standards of safety for the work on foot and mouth disease virus carried out “at this ageing facility”. The report goes on to state that there has been concern for several years that the effluent pipes were old and needed replacing, but after much discussion between the institute, Merial and DEFRA, money was not made available. That is the crucial point. I am driven to the conclusion that inadequate funding and possibly inadequate inspection are major causes of the problems that we have faced in Surrey. I have had many conversations with the local Pirbright parish council—an excellent organisation, which has been concerned for many years about the lack of funding.

Let me repeat the critical point that DEFRA is responsible for the inspection and licensing of both sites. The geographical set-up of the relevant pipe would have been approved by DEFRA years ago and should have been inspected by DEFRA. I am troubled by the possibility that the Government are trying to imply that this is a “nothing to do with me, Guv” issue, implying that in criminal terms their hands are clean. “Let us look at Pirbright and find out who is at fault there” seems to be the Government’s attitude. The true answer to “It’s not me, Guv” is, I am afraid, “It’s a fair cop”, but we are not going to get that acknowledgment from the Government.

We all want answers to some pretty direct and basic questions. First, do we know for certain what was the cause of the Normandy outbreak? Secondly, is DEFRA 100 per cent. satisfied with the quality and frequency of its inspections and its licensing procedure? Thirdly, are the Government 100 per cent. satisfied with the level of funding provided over the last 10 years? Fourthly, to what extent, if any, do the Government accept that lack of funding was a contributory factor? Next, what specifically did the institute ask for in respect of funding, what was given, what was refused and where have there been delays? Finally, what exactly has been done to improve the drainage system at Pirbright since the problems were first identified some three or four years ago? Those are specific questions requiring specific answers. The Government have a duty to tell the House their answers, just as they have an absolute duty to ensure that this sort of outbreak does not happen again in Normandy, in the rest of Surrey or in the rest of the country.

3.36 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I am pleased to contribute to this debate, particularly since I represent one of the foremost lamb-producing areas of the country. The Vale of Clwyd and the surrounding
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hills are renowned for the quality of produce and the very brand “Welsh lamb” is a byword for excellence. Farmers know their business; they know their animals; they know the land they work on. As the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) pointed out, it is they who are largely responsible for the landscape that we see today.

My constituents were devastated by the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 and it has taken a long time for their fortunes to improve. One can only imagine the devastation that the events of 3 August and what followed have wrought on them. It could not have come at a worse time. Most of the trade in Welsh lamb is conducted during August to December, which is the livestock farmer’s harvest period. The export trade this year and possibly for next has been destroyed, with the consequent glut causing lamb prices to collapse. Indeed, at Ruthin market two weeks ago, one of my constituents obtained, after costs, 36p a head for his ewes.

The devastating effect on the industry can scarcely be overstated. I believe that everyone recognises that the fault lies in incompetent supervision of the Pirbright facility. There can be no question but that any facility whose sole function is to contain a dangerous virus that allows that virus to escape into the environment must necessarily be viewed as negligent—or even worse. Perhaps, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) suggested, there is strict liability under the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher. The Secretary of State’s assertion that pure economic loss cannot be addressed could well be wrong.

The fact is that this Government, to their shame, regarded the outbreak of foot and mouth disease as a suitable vehicle for establishing themselves with a reputation for competence in the run-up to the election that they believed was fast approaching. [Interruption.] That is perfectly obvious, despite the pained expressions emanating from the Secretary of State. It is perfectly obvious that that was the Government’s modus operandi from the moment that the disease became apparent.

Hilary Benn indicated dissent.

Mr. Jones: The Prime Minister broke off his holiday, halfway through his scone, to hotfoot it back to London in order to take charge of the Cobra team. We subsequently witnessed the spectacle of the Secretary of State for Wales being quoted in The Western Mail as saying, remarkably enough, that the Government’s handling of the foot and mouth crisis had established for them a “reputation for competence”. If that constitutes a reputation for competence, heaven knows what would constitute a reputation for incompetence.

When the Prime Minister finally decided to chicken out of the election, he said that he could have gone to the country on the basis of the “reputation for competence” that the Government’s handling of the foot and mouth crisis had established for them. That was a cynical exercise all along. In fact, it is more than competence: it is a cynical manipulation of the processes in this country.

I want to press the Secretary of State on something that he mentioned earlier. In his statement to the House on 8 October he made it clear, as he has today, that the devolved Administrations would have financial
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responsibility for the support schemes in Wales and Scotland. We know that excised from his original speech were the following words:

The Secretary of State has told the House—and I am sure the House accepts it—that the words were not originally inserted with an eye to the election. What I should like to know, and what I am sure other Members would like to know, is why, in that case, they were excised. It is a simple question, and I think that the House is entitled to an answer to it.

Lembit Öpik: Furthermore, without such an explanation would it not be reasonable for the farmers of Wales and Scotland—including those in my constituency—to feel disrespected once again? It seems that a form of words offering a fairly small amount—even that small gesture—was removed by someone who did not think it important enough to inform the Welsh and Scottish farmers of the support that they could expect.

Mr. Jones: That is a fair point. I do feel that the Government have shown a certain lack of respect to farmers in Wales and Scotland.

It is clear from what the Secretary of State said earlier today, and on 8 October when he made his initial statement, that the Government intend to resist any claim for consequential economic loss. He will be aware that both NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales are taking legal advice on the prospects of recovery. Would it be too much for the Government to indicate that they will deal with those claims in a positive, proactive and co-operative manner and will not expect the farming industry to go to the wire in court—and particularly that, if they should indeed be liable according to the principle of Rylands v. Fletcher, they will meet whatever obligations they have to the industry to the full extent of their legal liability?

Finally, there is the question of accountability. What has happened over the past two months has been the most appalling episode for the British farming industry. It cannot be right for such a massive infliction of damage on the industry to go without a single individual being disciplined, and without a single resignation. Resignations must be called for. I hope that the Secretary of State will consider that aspect of the matter, and will ask those whom he considers responsible to resign.

This whole episode has highlighted a Government who are incapable of dealing with any emergency on any basis other than with an eye to publicity and the way in which they present themselves to the electorate. It is high time that they were straight in their dealings with the agricultural community. I can tell the Secretary of State that the British agricultural industry has sustained enormous damage, and that it will be a long time before it recovers and an even longer time before it forgets.

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