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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Can she tell us what are the current arrangements for moving pregnant ewes that are likely to lamb in a few weeks' time in non-infected areas? This morning, one of our local sheep farmers told me that he did not know. He said that changes were taking place so fast that it was hard to keep up to date. I promised to try to obtain elucidation for him as to the distance that ewes which are about to lamb can be moved in non-infected areas.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the issues relating to pregnant ewes are most serious. At present, in the region of half-a-million animals are away from their home farms. I believe that a variety of measures must be made available to people in those circumstances. If the holdings are very local--that is, within a distance of five kilometres--they can access the licensing arrangements for short movements in non-infected areas. I believe that many of the applications made over the weekend--this scheme was put in place only at the weekend--will relate to those cases.

Advice has been circulated by the farming organisations, ourselves and the RSPCA about how people can deal with lambing in non-ideal circumstances when movement is not possible and where, for example, no lambing sheds and no personnel are available. Advice is given as to how those services can be brought to the animals. We are considering a further distance movement scheme. However, under that scheme the undoubted welfare benefits to animals of being taken home to lamb must be weighed against the potential disease risks of mixing live animals during movement. The assessment of those risks is a veterinary one.

There is a also a risk management issue. As soon as many long-distance movements of live animals are licensed, the potential exists for other movements to take place. Although certain schemes would not cover people travelling from infected to clean areas--for

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obvious reasons, there would still be a residual problem--we are working out a scheme that could help in some of those circumstances. However, in the introduction of such a scheme a balance must be maintained between the risk of disease spread and the need to alleviate welfare considerations compounded by the difficulty of transporting ewes very late in pregnancy. That is itself a welfare issue.

The noble Lord rightly interrupted me when I was talking about communications. It is not easy to communicate some of the details relating to this problem to everyone who is potentially affected. However, we believe that good communications are vital in gaining the support of farmers and the public in tackling the outbreak. It is clear that the disease has already had a devastating impact and that there is some way to go before we can say safely that it is on course for eradication.

We must keep our disease control policy under constant review, taking account of the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer as the situation develops. I should warn the House that every day the CVO is asked for a prediction about the number of cases and when that number will peak. Each day at the press conference he refuses to give a prediction, and I shall not second-guess him at the Dispatch Box today.

However, I can assure the House that the Government will remain flexible in their response and will not hesitate to take whatever further measures may be needed. The range of potential options would include slaughtering more animals in particular areas if that would speed up eradication of the disease. Those options are being considered carefully. They will be assessed and introduced if we believe that it is necessary to do so.

Finally, the Government have made clear that they intend to carry out a thorough review of the measures in place in order to reduce future disease risk once this outbreak has been dealt with. In particular, we shall need to consider how the current outbreak began and what can be learned from it; the current enforcement and control measures in place; and the implications for disease control of increased world travel and globalisation of trade.

My right honourable friend the Minister has promised that those reviews will be thorough and that they will be published. I am sure that the House will agree that we must all do everything we can to minimise the risk of a recurrence of this or any other exotic disease so that we can benefit farming in particular and the wider countryside in general.

I believe that it would be most helpful if I were now to stop talking and allow the many Members of the House who, I know, have long memories going back to 1967--some, sadly, also have experience of the current outbreak--to contribute to the debate and to raise the issues that they wish to put forward. I shall try to deal with them when I reply to the debate this evening.

As I said, I am only too aware that other parts of the rural economy, such as the haulage industry, the abattoir industry and tourism, are deeply affected, as

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are many farmers who have diversified into areas such as equestrian activities, bed and breakfast, farm shops or whatever.

Earlier this year, we set out in a White Paper a broad range of commitments and initiatives in relation to rural areas. Those included health and social services, access to education, rural crime, social exclusion and affordable housing, protecting landscapes and biodiversity, public transport, and rural policy-making at national and local level. We said in that document and I repeat today that the landscape that we all love and the countryside that we value is largely the product of centuries of farming. We need to do everything we can to ensure that once the crisis is over we shall again be able to enjoy the countryside. We must ensure that it will again be able to live and thrive and be a place of hope, not of despair. For the moment, the best way in which to do that is to continue to take the most effective steps we can to eradicate the current outbreak of the disease.

Lord Renton: My Lords, before the noble Baroness concludes, may I make an apology to her? In yesterday's debate on hunting I suggested that a Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be on the Government Front Bench. I should have realised that she would have been very busy preparing for today's debate.

Moved, That this House takes note of the current situation in the countryside, in particular in relation to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.--(Baroness Hayman.)

4.31 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing us up to date on the dire situation of foot and mouth disease. She rightly discussed the distress, isolation and anxiety felt by many farmers all over the country. Some of them found it difficult in the early days to get the right information to help them to take the right decisions at the right time. The ministry has made great efforts. I thank the Minister for bringing us up to date--199 cases is a terrible number.

I want to pick up on various items raised by the Minister before turning to my prepared speech in which I shall deal with the situation in the countryside and end up discussing foot and mouth disease. If my approach seems to be back to front, I hope that the Minister will bear with me.

Last Thursday, when I raised the Private Notice Question in the House, I asked whether the Government were satisfied that they had enough support, especially with regard to vets and the Army. The numbers then were different: 104 compared with 199 today. I am extremely glad to hear that the Government are calling in some extra resources. There is a need for speed when coping with the logistics of the outbreak.

Secondly, we are obviously grateful for the agrimoney that has been "pulled down"; there is an attempt to try to pull it down early so that some farmers will get it early. I should add that that money

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was due to farmers. Even in this dire situation, we should point out that farmers should have had that money in view of the lower rate of the euro against the pound. Even so, we are grateful.

Thirdly, we totally agree with the Government that we must contain and eradicate the disease; that is our number one aim.

Fourthly, I am very glad to hear about the establishment of the rural task force. I shall discuss that later. It will examine the wider application and interests of the rural countryside and the possibility of giving help to hotels and pubs. It may also open up certain areas of the countryside that are not affected.

I am also grateful that the Government will assess and continue to assess the situation on a daily basis. I am sure that all noble Lords follow the information that is available on an hourly basis--it is obviously very close to our hearts. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry for raising the question of in-lamb ewes, which we raised last week. A dreadful decision may be taken--some of them may be destroyed on site because it may be considered safer to do that than to bring them back to lamb. Those are hard decisions to take and we acknowledge the Government's difficulty.

I want to move on to my main speech, in which, as I said, I shall deal with the wider countryside before returning to the crucial issue of foot and mouth disease. I hope that the Minister will forgive me for approaching the matter in reverse. When my noble friend winds up, his approach will, in the first instance, be that adopted by the Minister.

During the past two-and-a-half years, apart from the work establishing the Food Standards Agency and the introduction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, we have had frequent debates and questions on agriculture, horticulture, rural affairs and the environment. It is some two years since the Prime Minister said that there was no crisis in the countryside. Your Lordships know better. We have emphasised the fundamental problems involving employment, costs, the provision of rural services and the inequalities of global competition.

Warnings about the consequences of the downward pressure on farm incomes, the continuing closures of small and medium-sized abattoirs, the gold-plating of EU directives and the costs of regulation have come home to roost. Today, since the Prime Minister denied the problems, more than 42,000 people--I stress that number--have left the industry, 614 sub-post offices have closed and rural charities are inundated with calls for help. Moreover, the delayed rural White Paper made only token reference to agriculture.

The swine fever outbreak last year was a blow to our pig farmers. At the start of my speech I should have declared an interest--we have a family farm. I apologise for not doing so earlier. Many pig farmers are already struggling to compete against cheaper foreign imports. Then, on top of everything else, came the devastating blow of foot and mouth disease. The source of the swine fever infection has not been

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established and it is too early to identify the cause of the foot and mouth outbreak. However, in both cases the source must be found. I hope the Minister will ensure that the inquiry that she mentioned will have that as its number one aim. In addition to the internal review to which she referred, I hope that those matters will also be examined by a totally independent body.

The FSA under the Department of Health has the job of protecting our food supply. Equally, the European agency and the Commission should be policing our food production to ensure that regulations are adhered to. Two German abattoirs have had their export licences revoked but suspicion is rife about the inspection regimes in other countries. We must not accept lower standards in our imported foods and we should instigate more routine and regular checks on all food that comes into this country, including personal food imported by the travelling public. Existing regulations must be enforced.

The picture in rural areas is that agriculture, which at prevailing prices accounts for a mere 2 per cent of GDP, is responsible for the upkeep of 80 per cent of our non-built landscape. It suffered the loss of 20,000 full-time jobs in 1999 and more than 22,000 last year.

In 2001, the fall in numbers is likely to be even higher. The swine fever outbreak, government measures to slim down the pig industry and the foot and mouth outbreak combine to bankrupt many farmers or to persuade them to retire and their children to look elsewhere for work.

Prices are falling and more people are leaving the industry than are joining it. These are worrying times. The steady drop in total earnings from agriculture affects all rural areas. As the average disposable income of those who live and work out of town falls, pubs, village shops and sub-post offices close and the provision of policing, medical and social services becomes more centred in our towns and cities.

The effect on the landscape is mainly confined to the increasingly unkempt woodlands and coppices. However, the next batch of EU regulations and interference is almost with us. Among the proposals on the table is one to restrict tractor drivers to sitting on tractors or combine harvesters for as little as two hours a day. It is to be known as the physical agents directive and relates to the health risk of the whole body vibration. It really is a nightmare. It will affect farmers, foresters, hedgers, agricultural contractors, local council workmen, highway authorities, building and construction workers and quarrymen. It will have an impact on our towns and cities, but by far the greatest damage will be done in our countryside.

Our rural industries are also threatened from within. The Government have delayed the introduction of a pesticide tax but have not yet abandoned the idea. The climate change levy, the IPPC charges and the water-compensating benefits will affect all those who have to suffer them. They are all additional costs.

To make matters worse, many of our charities that exist to protect the environment face the challenge of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The provisions of that Act are being interpreted to

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mean that donor companies will have to obtain shareholder approval for all donations of over £5,000 to any charity that carries on activities which could possibly be regarded as intended to influence voters. I suspect that that could affect the RSPB, the National Wildfowl Trust, the Game Conservancy Trust, the National Trust, and many other organisations that also have a political campaigning side.

Rural communities are also likely to suffer from the ending of the landfill tax credit scheme which since 1996 has enabled the spending of a total of £356 million on repairing church roofs and village halls, buying wildlife sites and establishing or restoring parks. The most recent Budget Statement signals its cessation.

The British landscape owes much of its charm to constant grazing by cattle and sheep. However, it is also home to pigs, poultry, horses and a wide variety of wildlife. Animal welfare is an important issue. Unfortunately, it is a much disputed issue. The UK Government want to introduce measures such as battery cage regulation amendments in advance of the European deadline. Some European countries have indicated that they will not meet that deadline and will therefore gain a competitive advantage.

The UK farmer wants his animals to be well fed, healthy and content. However, if his holding is small, or if he is a tenant, his earnings will be insufficient to pay for major improvements. There is enormous pressure on those people. Average farm incomes have fallen by 75 per cent to just over £4,500 per annum.

The Rural Stress Network, which was founded in 1996 and now supports more than 30 regional and local initiatives, works closely with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, the farm crisis network and the Samaritans. It administers the rural stress action plan, which is funded and chaired by MAFF and has a grant of £500,000. It has recently reported a dramatic increase in the number of calls from distressed people. The RABI wrote to me about the matter. I quote from its response, particularly with regard to the foot and mouth outbreak:

    "Since the end of February, RABI has received a tenfold increase in calls to its helpline as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. A second telephone line for the helpline has had to be put in, and urgent calls are now being taken outside office hours, in the evenings and at weekends.

    The main problem facing many livestock farmers is the restriction on movement and sale of livestock."

The Minister has referred to that point.

    "This has delayed planned income for farmers who were already hard-pressed financially following three bad years. They are having difficulty meeting household expenses, as well as other unexpected costs such as feed bills for animals that they cannot take to market.

    Normally, RABI only assists with household expenditure but, in these exceptional circumstances, the Trustees have extended RABI's financial support to cover other essential expenditure incurred as a result of the outbreak".

Perhaps I may quote some figures to illustrate the extent to which a call has been made on its money. In 1996 it paid out £5,000; in 1997, £7,000; in 1998, £118,000; in 1999, £190,000; in 2000, £207,000; and in the first two months of this year it has already made

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grants amounting to £57,000. I should stress that those payments were made not to retired farming families, in line with previous practice, but to working families.

As the Minister will be aware, farmers' costs are also rising. Fertiliser costs have risen by 50 per cent; the cost of animal medicines has risen by more than the rate of inflation; charges associated with BSE controls are still rising; and farmers have to face higher transport costs to market or abattoir as their numbers fall. In my opinion, government policy is to blame for many of those rising costs. In that regard, we are grateful that our debate the other night with regard to Meat Hygiene Service charges may have been taken on board.

Some abattoirs have survived and are now dealing with special permissions relative to foot and mouth disease restrictions. However, I have to tell the Minister that I am aware of several that are accepting animals for slaughter but quoting ridiculous prices on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. I am sure that the Minister has probably received similar representations. Perhaps the Minister will inform us what steps are being taken to prevent profiteering by some perhaps less scrupulous operators. That said, I should like to ask the Minister whether the Government will consider absorbing the extra inspection charges necessitated by this abnormal working pattern at this particular time.

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