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9.1 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If I may paraphrase the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who spoke well, it appears he thinks that we should scrap the right to roam, cull the badgers and plant GM crops everywhere.

Mr. Morley: A good manifesto speech.

Mr. Martlew: Indeed. On the right to roam, I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman use the word “socialist”, which we do not hear often enough in the
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Chamber. In fact, many people roam through his constituency along Hadrian’s wall, past my house, through the city and right on to Bowness. There is a value in people walking the countryside, and some of the rural pubs will be pleased with the Hadrian’s wall path and the right to roam.

I want to come on to what is basically a constituency speech. The motion and the amendment talk about foot and mouth disease, and in 2001 my constituency was the epicentre of the disease in the north of the country. I had the first Adjournment debate about foot and mouth disease in this Chamber when it did not seem to be a major problem. However, it turned out to be one; indeed, it was horrendous. When I found out that there had been another outbreak in the south of England, I felt so sorry for the individuals involved.

However, it turned out that we had learned the lessons from 2001. The outbreak then was difficult, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said. In 2001, we did not know that foot and mouth was around. The farmer concerned from Heddon-on-the-Wall had some terrible practices, but never reported the disease and in the end was prosecuted. That was the source of the outbreak in 2001. We argue about meat coming in from foreign countries, but if everybody had done what they should have done and if the biodiversity had been there, we would not have suffered the 2001 outbreak.

Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman says that if everybody had done what they should have done, we would not have experienced that outbreak. Does that include the DEFRA official who licensed the premises in Heddon-on-the-Wall, which should never have been licensed?

Mr. Martlew: I do not know, but if that is the case, they should perhaps take the blame. The real answer, however, is that the pigswill should have been boiled, but that did not happen and that was the source, although we did not hear much criticism of the farming community or that individual from the Opposition then. However, we have learned the lessons of 2001. That is good and I am glad that the outbreak has been contained, because we do not want to go through that again. The big danger with foot and mouth is that in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time when we have forgotten the lessons, it might happen again. I hope that at any such time we bring in vaccinations at a very early stage.

Another issue is the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment. My constituents work in a very large RPA area office in the centre of Carlisle and when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary came up, he was candid in saying that things had gone wrong, but that there was no blame to be laid on the work force. I am sorry that the Opposition seem to be blaming DEFRA civil servants. In the Rural Payments Agency in my constituency, they work two or three shifts. These are civil servants on shift work—something that I never thought I would see. They work very hard and very conscientiously, doing their best in very difficult circumstances. I hope that the Opposition spokesman who replies will acknowledge that. If we are to blame civil servants, let us blame those up near the top rather than individuals further down.

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Flooding is another issue in our amendment. In 2005, my constituency suffered from the worst floods in an urban area of Britain for 50 years. It may have been worse since, but those were very serious floods. Unlike those we saw this year, they happened in the dead of winter in early January. We not only had floods; we had no electricity for many days. This was the first occasion for many years on which individuals drowned in floods in inland UK. Two old ladies drowned in their own homes in Warwick road in my constituency. It just so happens—it is a coincidence—that the Environment Agency announced today that the £12 million flood defences built in that area are now watertight. People living there will be able to sleep comfortably this winter. Unfortunately, in the part of the city where I live, the flood defences have not yet started, so I will not be able to sleep comfortably for another two years.

I would like to pay tribute at this stage to my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe. That serious flooding happened on 5 January and my right hon. Friend arrived on the morning of 6 January, when it was still raining. He gave me a commitment on that occasion—in front of the cameras, which I felt was a rather brave thing to do—that money would be made available for flood defences in Carlisle. The £30-odd million that was needed for flood defences in the city has been made available. When they are completed, Carlisle will be the best defended city in England. I really want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that.

I would also like to pay a special tribute to the Environment Agency, which has done a magnificent job on the flood defences. I pay particular tribute to the lady who led the defences work, Kim Nicholson, who was there when the going was rough and made sure that the plans were delivered on time, but who tragically died this summer. It is the greatest tribute to her that her team has continued and that the flood defences are completed on budget and before time. That will be a fitting memorial for her.

Let me return to the point I raised earlier with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about the funding of this country’s flood defences. I appreciate that the Government have gone along with increases from £600 million to £650 million and then £800 million, but I can tell the Secretary of State that that will not be enough. If we reflect on what happened this summer, it is clear that we will not be able to raise enough money through general taxation to pay for all the flood defences that we will need in the future. I do not believe that it is possible. Those who live in a flood plain who pay high insurance premiums and do not sleep easy at night should perhaps be asked to pay an extra contribution in future. I am not sure what the best mechanism is for achieving that. It may be through insurance premiums, but I am sure that people would like to pay more towards flood defences and less to the insurance companies. I think it was the hon. Member for Cheltenham who spoke of the inability to obtain insurance at all for some properties, the reduction in value of properties on flood plains and sky-high premiums. I suspect that if we could provide flood defences for those communities, they would be prepared to make a small contribution. The Secretary of State should consider that point.

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Another aspect of floods is the aftermath. My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe, who has seen many more skips than I have, will know that once the floods have happened the skips arrive, and are themselves flooded with rubbish that goes to landfill. In Carlisle we probably contributed to eight years of landfill in a fortnight. Where was the recycling process? I can accept what happened in Carlisle because that was the first of a series of events, but I cannot accept as the years go by that all the goods that are taken out of houses and put in skips should go to landfill. It is partly to do with the way in which the insurance companies work: it is old for new. If you have an old suite, you put it in the skip. It was amazing to see how much more was recycled by those who were not insured than by those of us who were well insured.

During the 2005 floods my car was flooded, but it was running. I ran it for a fortnight. Then the insurance people came along, and said that it was a write-off and would be crushed. My neighbour had a brand-new Porsche—

Mr. Paice: You must live in a posh area!

Mr. Martlew: It is not posh, actually, but that is another story, for which I do not have time. Anyway, the Porsche was taken away and crushed as well. The Government must take the lead on recycling in the event of flooding, especially if it is to happen year after year.

I do not believe that the lessons of Carlisle were learned. I think we should have protected the water treatment establishments and the electricity sub-stations. Fortunately not many of those went out, but the whole country should be sent the message that water treatment and sewage plants and electricity sub-stations must be protected. Nevertheless, I think that the Government are doing a good job overall, and I will support them tonight.

9.12 pm

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): There are undoubtedly many challenges for DEFRA’s animal health officials, who have been rightly praised today. They include the demand for successful contingency plans to bring the recent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease—once the virus had escaped from Pirbright—then bluetongue disease and now avian influenza under control. Those challenges, coupled with the increasing incidence of TB—about which we have also heard today—have stretched the successful work of DEFRA’s animal health officials, so this would be a good time to ensure that they have all the resources that they require.

In August, September and October, outbreaks of foot and mouth and bluetongue disease meant that the agreed local delivery plan for Devon had to be adjusted, and contingency plans were invoked. DEFRA indicated that it expected any additional costs incurred to be kept within the overall Devon framework budget. Then it admitted that it had not done its sums. The cost agreed by local authorities and the regional divisional veterinary managers for animal disease control work amounted to £9.7 million for 2007-08, but DEFRA had allocated £8.5 million, and is seeking to claw back £1.2 million in the current financial year.

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I was amazed to discover that Devon county council was notified of the situation, not by DEFRA but by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, on 17 September. It was not until 2 November than DEFRA formally instructed Devon to make cuts in this year’s budget. Can the Secretary of State tell us why it took his Department so long to learn that it had oversubscribed its funds, and why it left it until so late to inform local authorities of the required cost savings? What discussions has he had on this, particularly in respect of the south-west, with his colleague, the Minister for the South West?

Devon has now to make £68,000 of savings by March. That represents 12 per cent. of its framework budget, but because it has to make the savings in this financial year it actually means that there will be a 48 per cent. cut in animal disease-control work. As there is merely four months to find £68,000, the only option for Devon county council is to fire five out of eight animal health officials or to pay for them itself. Those officials are in the front line against infectious diseases. If they are fired, I am sure that the Secretary of State would agree that Devon will, in the words of a local official, have

and, as that official continued,

The 2006 agricultural and horticultural survey shows that Devon has more cattle than any other local authority in England, the second largest number of sheep and the fifth and sixth largest numbers of pigs and poultry respectively. Farms in Devon employ 23,000 people, which is more than any other local authority, and Devon covers the largest geographical area of any local authority—approximately 1.6 million acres. The Secretary of State has given commitments in respect of “rural-proofing” so that policies take account of rural circumstances and needs. Is he therefore satisfied with his cuts, which would lead to one official per 550,000 acres, one official per 190,000 cattle, one official per 490,000 sheep and one official per 1,700,000 chickens? I think I am right in saying that the south-west produces twice as much food as Scotland and three times as much as Wales—that is a staggering set of statistics, and it leads to staggering thoughts. Given the importance of agriculture in Devon, will he enter into discussions on its funding requirements as a matter of urgency? How can the Secretary of State satisfy himself that these cuts would not impinge upon future disease prevention, containment and control? The House will remember—we have heard from the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew)—the heart-breaking scenes, such as across my county of Devon, of the last outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001, and Members will be aware of the vital importance of managing future outbreaks effectively.

By 2010, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must achieve a

We have seen what happens—such as in the top-down cuts on courier services in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which have had devastating consequences—and I urge the Secretary of State to speak to all local authorities to ensure they have the right number of animal health officials so that we can
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react quickly to any potential outbreak of foot and mouth, bluetongue, avian influenza or TB.

I was concerned in reading the Secretary of State’s speech at the Farming for the Future conference on 19 November that he said there should be a major shift of the cost and responsibility for animal health from Government to the industry, and he repeated that point this afternoon. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers took this opportunity to enlighten us on the framework for

I note the Government have received a submission from representatives of the UK livestock sector which urged them to

That is not surprising given that foot and mouth in 2001 has been estimated to have cost the economy £5 billion. The irony seems to have been lost on the Secretary of State given that he believes that the

is “unsustainable” yet the latest outbreak of foot and mouth was not caused by the industry but originated in a Government laboratory—which, I hope Ministers will agree, is unsustainable—and there was a second incident at Pirbright, which is shameful.

I know the industry would be happy to become more involved in policy and operational decisions. However, such decisions must not be driven by any political desire to offload from DEFRA a basic responsibility of Government just because it is difficult to manage and because DEFRA is under budgetary pressure. Given that beef, sheep and pig producers have been saddled with enormous additional costs—at least £100 million—as a result of the outbreak of foot and mouth this year, as well as steep increases in feed, energy and regulatory costs, does the Secretary of State agree that this is perhaps the worst time to increase further the burden on farmers? I am pleased that the Secretary of State will have time to consider those and other points when he goes to Bali with many of his officials shortly, but I hope that the officials he leaves behind will deal with an issue closer to home, and which relates closely to Devon: animal health and welfare.

I want briefly to discuss poultry welfare and labelling, and the continuing failure of DEFRA and its officials to deal with those issues. Is the Secretary of State aware of growing consumer concern about broiler chicken welfare? The supermarkets’ heavy discounting has squeezed farmers’ margins to the point where they are unable to make welfare improvements. Sadly, it is increasingly common for some producers to rear flocks of 40,000 birds, each living in an area smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.

Does the Secretary of State agree that consumer demand can stop that treatment, and that a requirement for improved labelling on poultry meat would enable consumers to make an informed choice about the chicken that they buy? If he does agree, or if he is tempted to do so, I hope that he will support the chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has recently moved his River Cottage business into my constituency, and conducted his “Chicken Out!” campaign in Axminster. That campaign is trying to change consumer habits by informing consumers of
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animal welfare. I hope that the Ministers and DEFRA officials will study the findings of that project, which will potentially have a huge impact on producers and consumers alike.

9.20 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I must tell the Secretary of State that it would be a gross underestimate of reality to describe DEFRA’s reputation in my constituency as poor. I ask him to accept that that is not because of any deep-rooted prejudice or unfairness. It is because of the daily experience of thousands of my constituents who pursue rural activities such as farming, not only at the hands of DEFRA officials, but as part of a culture that seems to have been born with DEFRA but has not yet successfully been altered.

That is not to say that many civil servants in DEFRA are not dedicated, able and committed. I am a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I have the privilege of listening to some of them give evidence. The sincere eagerness and urgency with which they regard the need to resolve many of the problems that affect my constituents and with which they are faced is quite apparent.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The hon. and learned Gentleman is making excellent points about the good staff at DEFRA. Does he agree that there are issues to address about the extremely increased use of temporary staff in some of the agencies involved with DEFRA? Such an approach is undermining the performance of staff who have been there for much longer.

Mr. Cox: I agree with that, but I shall not be distracted from my main point. There is a problem—the Secretary of State may say that it is a problem with perception—about how DEFRA is felt to act and operate in rural areas such as mine. I suspect that other hon. Members’ constituents have told them of similar experiences. I have asked myself why that should be.

The Secretary of State made a brave defence of those who work under him, and its warmth was a credit to him—one would have expected that. The fact remains that whether it is because of how DEFRA was conceived or because of some institutional failure of leadership, DEFRA is regarded as a standing joke in the communities that I represent—often the joke is a grim and sardonic one, but it is a joke none the less. There is a complete want of trust and a constant feeling that DEFRA is not standing by the side of those rural communities. They feel that it is standing on their shoulders and driving them down. I ask the Secretary of State to accept that it is not impossible to understand why that should be. Brave though his defence of his Department was, the fact is that it has made a pathetic litany of error and incompetence, almost since the moment that it was brought into being.

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