Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, can the noble Earl define what he means by "the countryside"?

Earl Ferrers: No, my Lords. I shall not be quite as stupid as that. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, must know what the countryside is; he must know the difference between the countryside and the town. I shall not waste your Lordships' time on the question of a definition.

When agriculture is going through such a depression, it is surprising that the only contribution that the Government can make is to introduce a Bill to ban fox hunting, and thereby add yet more to the unemployment and the misery in the countryside. I shall say no more about that because we discussed such matters yesterday, and earlier today.

Foot and mouth disease will go, and things will get better. Normality in the countryside will return. There is a future in agriculture, although it may be difficult to see it now and it may not come as soon as we would wish. But when the population of the world is due to multiply fourfold in the lifetime of some of those who are alive today from 3,000 million in 1960 to 12,000 million in 2025, food will be required and agriculture and the countryside--they are bound up together--will prosper.

What can the Government do in the short and medium term? On the foot and mouth front, I hope that we can avoid shooting animals in front of other animals. I know that it is difficult to achieve that, but it is pretty fundamental in terms of animal welfare. I hope that we can dispose of carcasses quickly. There are those in Derbyshire who say that the smell of burning animals pollutes the air. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who questioned the wisdom of carrying carcasses across the country, even though they are in so-called "sealed containers". If the disease is so virulent as to close markets, why risk its spread by moving known, diseased animals even in supposedly air-tight containers? I was interested to hear the answer given by the noble Baroness in response. However, for all that, the old method of digging holes, placing quick lime in them and then burying the animals was fairly effective and very swift.

I hope that the Government will try to explain the following to farmers--indeed, perhaps the Minister will explain the situation to the House. When vast

13 Mar 2001 : Column 778

quantities of animals are slaughtered, this inevitably causes a shortage of meat for human consumption. Can the Minister explain why the price of meat in the retail shops increases by 40 per cent, while the price to the farmers decreases by 60 per cent?

The Government claim to be drawing down £150 million from the European Union. As my noble friend Lady Byford pointed out, that is money provided by the EU, not for foot and mouth disease but for currency fluctuations to which the Government are automatically entitled because of the strong pound. Indeed, they are entitled to much more. I believe that they are entitled to some £500 million. There was even a time a few years ago when they were entitled to £2,000 million, but they never took it. If the economy is doing as well as the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us, why do not the Government draw their full allocation and so relieve the difficulties being experienced by the industry? Over the past four years we have failed to draw that which was due to the United Kingdom; that is, not that which we might draw if we wished to do so, but that which was due to us because our currency stood high. As a result, our farmers suffer.

On other fronts, we ought to try to aim for "a level playing field"--an awful expression--for the United Kingdom. When milk was 16 pence a litre in this country, it was 24 pence a litre in Holland and 25 pence a litre in Ireland. There is no equality there. Imported food should be produced under the same animal welfare conditions as those that are imposed on British farmers. Thai chicken, Polish pork and Danish bacon all undercut the British product. Why? It is because our producers are obliged to incur higher costs over animal welfare than those of our competitors. The anomaly should be removed whereby imported food can be cut, processed, or even just packed in the UK, and thereafter labelled "British food", which it manifestly is not. This is wholly deceiving for housewives.

The Government should investigate the relationship between the price that is paid to the producer and the price that is paid by the consumer. Potatoes may be sold by the farmer for £150 a tonne, but potato crisps sell for £8,500 a tonne. Wheat may be sold by the farmer for £60 a tonne, yet the wheat content of a 50 pence loaf is about 3 pence. Of course, agriculture must compete in a competitive world, as do the supermarkets, but it must be a fair one. The idea that it is in the consumers' interests for supermarkets to buy the basic product as cheaply as possible is obviously nonsense. If agriculture were to go into permanent decline--there are those who say that we can buy our milk, beef and pork on the world market--what would be left here at home--a miserable, derelict, run-down countryside? Of course, there would be plenty of wildlife but of a different variety--bats, stoats and weasels. Gone would be the robin, the thrush and the songbirds. The dawn chorus would be a thing of the past.

A healthy countryside depends on a healthy agriculture. However, all is not doom and gloom for the future, though for the present it may seem like it.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 779

We shall get over this disease, but there are major issues which must be addressed and it is vital that the Government should address them.

8.51 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I declare my interest not as a farmer but as a trustee of a property with a pedigree herd of Aberdeen Angus and a pedigree flock of north country Cheviots.

I start by taking a brief look back at the countryside before this terrible disease was imported and at what I might have said then in a debate on the countryside. As the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said yesterday and today, I should have said that it was a place of total disenchantment. Probably over half a million people would have marched through London this weekend in the biggest civil rights demonstration this country has seen. In real terms incomes from farming are probably at their lowest level since the Second World War. In a large section of the industry people are not earning a living unless finance and mortgage charges are minimal, and yet the screw is tightening.

In addition to the figures relating to recent years mentioned by my noble friend Lady Byford, the number of those leaving farming between mid-2000 and 2005 has been revised upwards from a third to more like a half. At a recent high-level conference it was estimated that by 2005 only 25 per cent of those farming now would have a future. On the back of that the whole infrastructure supporting the countryside is crumbling. We have a Government who do not understand the countryside or the problems farmers face and will not claim the full agrimonetary funds to which they are entitled.

The rural White Paper was a short-term piece of window dressing that neither looked at the main issues nor their consequences. We are saddled with an unhelpful and difficult to reform CAP. The Dutch and Germans illegally export to us specified risk material and the French illegally ban the import of clean, certified British beef. Now we have foot and mouth which, far from being just a farmer's nightmare, is a disaster and a national countryside emergency. Not a single aspect of the countryside is unaffected. I refer to riding establishments, vermin control, fishing, tourism, farm workshops, stock shows--you name it, everything and everyone is suffering detrimentally. Most people, particularly the "townies", are just not aware how everyday life is being changed, nor of the utter despair and isolation--the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, mentioned that--which are prevalent in many parts of the country.

I congratulate the Government on adopting the right policy of trying to stamp out the disease by killing and burning affected animals. I do not believe that vaccination is the answer for this country. However, the implementation of their policy has not been to a standard that one would have hoped. Stock are not being killed for days after notification. If France can get that bit right, so should we. Neither is dead stock being disposed of quickly enough. Can noble Lords

13 Mar 2001 : Column 780

imagine not just the pain of seeing one's breeding stock slaughtered but the indignity of having to look at the dead and putrefying carcasses for days until they are burned and buried? That is cruelty to humans and an ignominious end to many years of hard work. The extra resources mentioned by the Minister are welcome but they are just a catch-up policy.

Let us look at the animal welfare problems. The disease has been spread much wider and more quickly because of the regulations on the transportation of livestock. These, and those that forced the closure of local abattoirs, combined with the pressure of the supermarkets to determine where stock can be slaughtered, have exacerbated our problems. Hundreds of thousands of sheep are in the wrong place for lambing and are suffering greatly. Although very limited livestock movement is now permitted, as predicted that has become a bureaucratic nightmare. Farmers are now being told that they will have to wait for days before their application forms can even be looked at when the stock, for their own sake, need to be moved now, today, and not at the end of the week.

Can the Minister tell me whether it is true that officials responsible for this matter are not working through the night to clear the backlog? Farmers work through every night at lambing time and businesses do so when that is necessary, so why cannot officials?

The licensing of stock going to abattoirs is also a mess and is unco-ordinated. Stock are taken there only to be turned away. The present system is similar to selling 300 tickets for an aeroplane that has only 250 seats. Surely there ought to be a more logical and ordered system with specific collection points so that controls can be implemented more efficiently and more effectively.

Despite the lead given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for which I admire her as she has done an excellent job, and the hard work of the veterinary profession and others, it is not surprising that the Government are being caught out by this tragedy. For them to say that they have the situation under control when they obviously do not just adds insult to injury.

There are further steps that the Government could, and should, take immediately. Will the Minister confirm that she will arrange for all farmers due to receive funds in the next few months for such items as ewe premium and HCAs to be sent the money immediately? They are all suffering a cash flow crisis. If they were to receive that money sooner rather than later it would help their cash flow problems. Will the Minister also agree to extend the closing date for Countryside Stewardship schemes beyond 31st May as at present FWAG and others cannot get to farms to assess claims?

I expect that many people do not understand the implications of having one's stock destroyed, so I hope that I may spell it out. It is not like a factory which can stop making widgets one day and quickly swap to another product the next. My noble friend Lady Byford said that a sheep farmer may take a year to return to production. I take the example of a beef farmer. If his stock are slaughtered today, he will get

13 Mar 2001 : Column 781

compensation for their value. It will be at least six months--that is the minimum period--before he is allowed to restock. Then he will have to buy new breeding stock but that will be a problem. First, the stock will have to be suitable for his area; if not, they might die of some other disease such as red water. The stock will undoubtedly cost more than the money he receives in compensation due to the shortage of stock which will arise after the outbreak.

Let us assume that the farmer buys young stock that require six months to reach maturity. Then there are the nine months of pregnancy, followed by up to 30 months before the next generation is sold. That farmer will be without a cash flow for over four years. It should not be forgotten that the adjacent farmer, who is not directly affected, will inevitably suffer a huge cash flow loss this year, as will everyone else working in the countryside. I refer to those who own holiday cottages, B&Bs, pubs and local village shops. Many of those will not be around next year.

It is perhaps a little unfair to debate the future when the countryside is in the middle of a crisis, but it has to be faced. Let us hope that the Prime Minister, who has now, rather belatedly, woken up to some of the problems and held a meeting with representatives today, does not lose interest in the subject when all this quietens down.

The task force mentioned by the Minister is not enough to tackle the future. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle: it does not have the necessary gravitas and will not have the right direction. I suggest that a Royal Commission with a strict timescale be appointed. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury mentioned some of the issues that such a Royal Commission could consider. I add a few more to his list. In a sophisticated economy with high costs, should we try to produce food at world prices instead of high quality, high price food? Do we want farmers to be farmers; or do we want them to be park keepers? They cannot be both at the same time. What scale of unit and what kind of infrastructure do we want them to have?

The restructuring of farms is now in sharp focus. That issue cannot be fudged. Should some of those affected by the foot and mouth disease be encouraged to go back into an industry which would probably squeeze them out in a few years' time? Is that not a waste of money and a hurtful and deceitful thing to do to people? Should our system of stock farming change to prevent the trading of animals in the way that has currently developed which has helped to spread this foot and mouth disease outbreak?

Is our intensive agriculture right? Are we manipulating nature too much, making matters more difficult for ourselves and making ourselves more prone to disease? As long as we import food from overseas, we shall get disease. The current strain of foot and mouth disease started in India in the 1990s and rapidly spread East and West; and there will be new strains to come. Swine fever is caused by a carelessly thrown away sandwich containing imported ham; and again there will be more to come.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 782

Although I am not a farmer my heart bleeds for them and those in the countryside who are at the receiving end of this disaster. Now is the time for the Government to show strong leadership and responsibility. That, sadly, has been lacking to date.

9.2 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: My Lords, this is designed to be a brief intervention on an issue which has both short and long-term significance and will inject, I am afraid, a further sombre note into today's debate.

I am not a countryman by background but I have a strong concern for the health of those who work in rural areas. The key issue of mental stress suffered by farmers, farm workers and their families is of major importance, and never more so than now. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, referred graphically to this earlier in the debate. Research in the 1990s found that over 500 farmers in England and Wales killed themselves between 1979 and 1990. The research found that 70 per cent of working farmers had experienced mental health problems.

A survey last year of British tenant farmers by the National Farmers Union suggested that one in 10 is being prescribed anti-depressants. Seventy per cent of those farmers said that their business concerns keep them awake at night. More than 70 farmers and farm workers in England and Wales committed suicide in 1998. That rose to 77 in 1999. Farmers are now twice as likely to commit suicide as an ordinary member of the public. This issue was rightly raised recently by Prince Charles, with his great concern for rural life. Only today The Times--my noble friend Lord Hooson and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, referred to the article--described how Devon police are taking away the shot guns of those they believe to be at risk.

Stress induced suicide is clearly a growing problem in rural areas. It is now the second most common form of death among farmers aged between 16 and 45 years. This is hardly surprising. As many noble Lords have pointed out, farm incomes have dropped by two thirds in the past few years. Indeed, it is clear that there is a strong link between the social disadvantage of low incomes and mental health problems. This is compounded by rural isolation, described so graphically by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury. This problem may well spread further afield, beyond the farming community, as local businesses, our tourist industry and hauliers are hit by the foot and mouth disease epidemic, as described by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Women married to farmers have a suicide rate more than 20 per cent higher than average. But rural suicides are, throughout the age range, predominantly male.

Suicide among young men recently has been the subject of investigation by the Men's Health Forum. It found that few health authorities have developed and implemented effective suicide strategies. Yet reducing the number of suicides is one of the key targets in the Government's Health White Paper and the National Plan. It is outlined in the National Service Framework for Mental Health. Health improvement plans were

13 Mar 2001 : Column 783

found by the Men's Health Forum to be somewhat formulaic on the subject, concentrating only on mental health services. That is clearly insufficient to tackle the issue. Much of what is said applies to all men, not just young men. There is a reluctance to use primary healthcare and obtain counselling. Greater risks are taken by men with their mental and physical health. Men have a greater inability to show vulnerability and ask for help.

With the current epidemic of foot and mouth disease, not to mention some of the earlier tribulations, many farmers are seeing their life's work being destroyed. The problem of suicide in the countryside will, I fear, become worse. As it is, the Rural Stress Information Network, referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, has reported a 400 per cent increase in distress calls since the first outbreak in February.

The various avenues open to preventing suicide in rural areas were well documented in a research publication, Suicide and Stress in Farmers, funded by the Department of Health and published in 1998. The steps suggested in that report included improving the knowledge and attitudes of farming communities to mental disorder; ensuring that GPs and others are aware of the way mental problems present themselves; provision of out of area practitioner services for farmers who do not wish to seek help locally; regular health checks; vigorous treatment of depression; follow up of farmers with mental problems at home; support of farmers with financial difficulties; co-ordination of rural stress initiatives; and removal of firearms from those suffering from depression.

Few health action zones cover rural areas. Therefore that instrument for implementing those proposals is not generally available. As a county, Dorset provides an excellent example of developing an effective suicide prevention strategy. The relevant agencies have been pulled together and a strategy has been developed. I welcome the setting up of the Rural Mental Health Services Group last October dedicated to tackling these issues; and in particular the personal involvement of Professor Louis Appleby, the National Director for Mental Health. I also welcome the development of one-stop primary care centres in rural areas. Rural health services are often very limited, with small cottage hospitals closed or closing and fewer local GP practices as GPs consolidate into larger practices.

A great deal is being done by professional and voluntary groupings, especially through organisations such as the Rural Stress Information Network, the Royal College of General Practitioners rural practices group, the Rural Health Institute, the Farmers Crisis Network and the Samaritans. The Government have not been inactive. They have taken some valuable steps, outlined in the rural White Paper, particularly in conjunction with Mind on the RuralMinds project, designed to provide training and education for those providing support in rural areas. They have also given

13 Mar 2001 : Column 784

a large grant to the Rural Stress Information Network and others as part of the rural stress action plan announced last October.

We need to ensure that all those measures are effective. The problems that I have outlined will only get worse as a result of the current crisis. I urge the Government to think and plan ahead and to redouble their efforts. Otherwise, there will be further avoidable tragedy in the countryside.

9.9 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for initiating the debate. I declare my interest as a landowner and retired farmer. I farmed for 35 years. As well as being an arable farmer, as one would expect in Norfolk, I also had cattle and sheep.

I remember the last two foot and mouth outbreaks, restrictions due to fowl pest and, unfortunately, recent restrictions in our county due to swine fever. However, I do not remember 1745, when, on 11th March, the London Gazette published the following Order in Council. I am trying to find your Lordships something else to listen to, so I shall quote it. It said:

    "Whereas a Contagious Distemper now rages in several Parts of this Kingdom amongst Oxen, Bulls, Cows, Calves, Steers and Heifers, which if not timely prevented, may end in the entire Destruction of such Cattle".

It went on to list what to do:

    "First, That all Cowkeepers, Farmers and Owners of any of the said several Sorts of Cattle, in any Place where the said Distemper has appeared, or shall hereafter appear, do, as soon as any of the said Cattle shall appear to have Signs or Marks of the said Distemper, immediately remove such Cattle to some place distant from the rest, and cause the same to be shot dead, or otherwise killed, with as little Effusion of Blood as may be, and the Bodies to be immediately buried with the Skin and Horns on, at least Four Feet in Depth above the Body and the Beast so buried, having first cut and slashed the hides ... so as to render the same of no use".

Thirdly, among other things, it suggests:

    "That they do cause the Houses or Buildings where any such infected Cattle shall have stood, to be cleaned from all Dung and Filth, and wet Gunpowder, Pitch, Tar or Brimstone to be fired or burnt in several Parts of such Buildings, at the same Time keeping in the Smoke as much as possible; and that the same be afterwards frequently washed with Vinegar and warm Water; and that no sound Cattle be put therein for Two Months at least".

I suggest that wet gunpowder might be an alternative to some form of disinfectant and I am sure that the brimstone was equally useful. I am positive that foot and mouth could not survive such treatment.

There are also letters from a tenant, Mr Bell, to my ancestor Horatio Walpole, who at that time was MP for Norwich. His comments ring true today as well:

    "The observations which naturally occur to my mind on the above restrictions are as follows:

    The farmers in Norfolk as to the above affair are to be divided into two sorts (viz) they that buy and they that sell turnips. They who have bought can't perform their contract neither can those Beasts which are half as near fatted be kept up but must shrink and dwindle to lean stock to the great detriment of the Owner. Which will make beef scarce and expensive dear.

    The farmer who has sold his turnips not having stock of his own must throw away his turnips and greatly endamage his next year's crop of corn. The buyer by this Order being prevented feeding them.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 785

    Besides on the coming of this order many a Grasder has his stock at four or five miles distance the feed done or near done and can't remove them home where he has plenty but must keep them where they are in starving condition and perhaps lose his own turnips to the great prejudice of his following crop".

It strikes me that not a lot has altered.

I quote those examples to show that the problem is not new. Indeed, to bring noble Lords more up to date, I expressed my concern some eight years ago in your Lordships' House to the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who is not here, about the unnecessary transport of sheep over long distances. I suggested that the transport of carcasses would be much more humane than the transport of live animals. Later, I questioned the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--I see that she is not in her seat; she was a moment ago--about keeping abattoirs local.

Norfolk is one of the few counties without confirmed cases in this outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I understand, and I hope that the Minister will not disillusion me, that only one farm is still undergoing tests. I believe that their result should be known soon. Also, sad to say, the lorry which was involved in taking pigs from Heddon to Cheals Foods was based in Norfolk.

For 20 years we have been involved in farm diversification. With the help of the Manpower Services Commission and with direct support from the local Ramblers' Association, we opened up 25 miles of footpaths. Some were on existing footpaths, some were new footpaths and some were discretionary. They link into the Norfolk Long-Distance Footpath system. We have a car park, toilets and so on, for which there is a small charge. We have a Caravan Club certified site, holiday cottages and children's nature activities. In other words, I believe that we did what the Ministry of Agriculture had been telling us to do for years in the way of diversifying. In 1989 we opened the park at Wolterton, where there had been virtually no public access. Many events take place at both venues, which are one-and-a-half miles apart.

On the Saturday after the first case of foot and mouth had been confirmed, we closed the park at Wolterton and the car park at Mannington and waited to see what others in Norfolk did. We were particularly worried about the grazing at Mannington, where we had many sheep belonging to a neighbour, and at Wolterton, where over 100 beef cows and their followers and organic sheep belonging to a tenant had been placed. In addition, over the past 20 years, the number of wild deer--red, roe and muntjac--in our area has increased significantly.

I am pleased to say that others seemed to follow us. The National Trust closed everything in East Anglia, including its holiday cottages. It is not allowing anyone on to any of its properties. The Forestry Commission closed Thetford Forest for the first time since it was planted over 80 years ago. I imagine that, again, that was done because of the considerable increase in the number of deer in that area.

I now want to tell the House what the county council has done. I do not believe that anyone has yet mentioned that county councils have played an

13 Mar 2001 : Column 786

absolutely pivotal role in this matter. When the first case of foot and mouth disease was announced, Norfolk County Council immediately activated its emergency planning procedures. Of course, it was used to doing that because it had just done so following an outbreak of swine fever. Therefore, it was perhaps a little more clued up than were some counties.

Strong political leadership, combined with a unified approach and good corporate partnership, was the key. Within six hours of the Foot and Mouth Disease (Amendment) (England) Order being made on 27th February, Norfolk County Council closed off all paths adjacent to D notice farms in the county. Within 24 hours, the council used the order to make a declaration of prohibited areas everywhere. In other words, no member of the public could enter any agricultural or forestry land in the county of Norfolk except on a public highway. That included the use of footpaths and bridleways. Therefore, they shut everything.

Closure signs, which carried the county council's logo and contact number, were available to farmers and landowners all over the county immediately. They were distributed electronically via the NFU and made available on the county council's website. They were e-mailed so as to reduce the need for extra journeys. All routine visits to farm and rural properties by council officers were stopped on 28th February. All council-owned countryside facilities, such as nature reserves and picnic areas, were closed on the same day.

Education, mobile library and social services provided by the council took all the action needed to respond to the situation. They issued guidance to everyone, including schools, parents, bus operators, county highway services and all other service contractors. The county also acted promptly on allegations of illegal movement of animals and, by 1st March, was investigating three incidents. Members of the public were encouraged to be vigilant with regard to animal movement.

I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, may be interested to know that the county has already issued 360 licences for the authorised movement of some 29,000 animals by 29th March. Extra resources have been put in place to speed up the issuing of those licences. Applicants get a special licence pack, information and reminders of the strict disinfecting procedures that must be followed.

The council has also been working on a day-to-day basis with a wide range of partners, including the NFU, MAFF and many others. On 2nd March, the council hosted a constructive meeting with the NFU, the CLA and the Ramblers' Association, at which there was agreement about the need for the council's actions and support for the council in taking them. There is a good information exchange network between the council and partner organisations which operates on a daily basis.

On public information, the council set up a public seven-days-a-week helpline to answer any questions about foot and mouth or to refer people to other agencies that might help. By 9th March, the helpline had taken more than 800 calls and a separate licensing

13 Mar 2001 : Column 787

helpline was set up on 5th March. The council had put out 17 news releases by 9th March covering all aspects of the situation and publicising the answers to the most frequently asked questions from the helpline. It has also issued specific advice for dog walkers and condemnation of instances in which closure notices had been torn down.

The council's website has a special link to foot and mouth, which is updated daily. The most frequently asked questions are amended and extended as necessary. I used that service this evening before speaking to find out what the situation is, but it still does not know about the last farm.

I am sure that all counties have done roughly the same but, frankly, I am proud of the efficiency of my old council and the speed with which it acted. I shall give just one example of local misery. My grazing tenant at Mannington has a problem with half of his sheep because they are on a neighbouring holding on sugar beet tops. At least, they were on sugar beet tops; they have eaten them. So far, he has not got permission to cross the road to our side of the road, where the sheep are going to lamb. It is perhaps ironic that an RSPCA officer came to look at the sheep because they had been reported as being on land where there was no food. That happened despite the fact that large quantities of straw and fodder-beet had been carted to them. The RSPCA officer was impressed by the effort that my tenant was making to keep his sheep under very difficult circumstances. That tenant has obtained from the website the necessary licence forms--all seven pages of them--to move his sheep. I hope that he got the forms in the post this evening and that he will be able to move the sheep.

Finally, what are we to learn? "Compensation to businesses other than farmers for consequential loss will no doubt be commented on by the Minister". That is what I wrote when I prepared my speech. Of course, she has answered most of the questions already.

The tourism industry, which is the most common form of diversification, will have serious problems. For example, the main north Norfolk tourism workshop, which was to have taken place on 30th March at Hockham, has been cancelled. Mind you, I think that that is the sensible thing to do. Also, we appear to have forgotten--no noble Lord has mentioned this so far--the fact that many charities and voluntary organisations are having great difficulty in operating, doing their jobs and raising money.

Secondly, we must look again at local production, at local slaughter and marketing of meat produce and at local distribution of, for example, organic food-in-box schemes. In other words, as the right reverend Prelate said, we must reduce food miles.

Finally, research must be stepped up so that this terrible situation, which affects everyone in this country, does not occur again with such disastrous consequences.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 788

9.24 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, although I welcome the opportunity to have this debate I need hardly say that, like other noble Lords, I regret very deeply indeed the tragic circumstances in which it is taking place.

I declare an interest as a landowner in north Yorkshire, where I have a number of tenant farmers who are sitting on the edge of their chairs waiting and praying that they will not be affected by this dreadful outbreak of foot and mouth disease. All I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with other noble Lords that we can only feel genuine despair for those individual farmers and their families who are undergoing such a debilitating and sole-destroying calamity. Surely, even those who hold the most jaundiced views about farmers and farming must now realise that we are witnessing an industry in total crisis, not to mention the associated human suffering.

In addition to those problems, the relentless demands on farmers continue--demands for cheaper food, higher animal welfare standards, a pristine environment, free and unrestricted access, and the continual whinging about the feather-bedding of farmers through subsidy. I am the first to say that, in my view, much of that subsidy is badly directed. However, I say to those who complain about support for farmers: what state would the farming industry and the countryside now be in, if it was not for support? We have a real crisis, but I can tell your Lordships that it would be much worse but for the support systems that are in place.

I should like to raise a further point, to which I may later return, concerning the question of red tape. It abounds all over every farmyard. Forms have become longer and deeper. The constant dialogue with which the farmers have to contend from the plethora of agencies now running the countryside is, quite frankly, driving them bonkers. Yet, despite that red tape, there remains a wonderful, stoical determination to carry on against all the odds, which I find extraordinary. Anyone who heard Clare Lambert being interviewed on the farming programme about her family's recent foot and mouth disaster in Wensleydale, which is very close to where I live, could not help but be moved--not just by the tragedy itself but by, as much as anything, her quiet determination to see the crisis through and to bravely battle on into what can only be described as a very uncertain future.

As other noble Lords have said, it is not only the farming industry that is suffering. The tourist industry, crucial to many rural areas, is on its knees. I quote from last Friday's edition of my local newspaper, the Darlington and Stockton Times:

    "An economic catastrophe is poised to strike the Yorkshire Dales and Moors as foot and mouth begins to rip the heart out of local businesses".

That is no exaggeration. The stark fact is that we could be about to witness one of the greatest economic and human tragedies ever to face rural Britain, and I do not believe that that is an exaggeration.

I feel a genuine sorrow for the Minister and for everyone in her department. This is an awful crisis, which she and her colleagues have to face. She will

13 Mar 2001 : Column 789

have to make some very difficult decisions in relation to where the balance of need lies. I do not think that anybody should underestimate that. I think the general view is that, by and large, the Government are doing what they can.

However, I was interested to hear on the recent farming programme the very severe criticisms made by the Irish Minister of Agriculture. Although I am not suggesting for one moment that he was right in what he said--and I do understand his considerable interest--I should be very interested to hear whether the Minister feels that any of his criticisms can in any way be substantiated. He clearly put forward some very strong suggestions, and I should be very interested to hear whether or not the Minister feels that they are helpful.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page