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Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, I believe that it is perfectly reasonable for a country which operates a slaughter and disease-free policy to ensure that it has effective protection at the frontier. I am not sure that that is wholly the case at the moment. The present outbreak which we are suffering suggests that we have imported the virus. Therefore, I do not believe that it is unreasonable to consider the issue.
I believe that the feeding of swill to pigs is a matter that certainly needs to be examined. I support the view put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, that we must decide now whether or not to continue with that practice. He believes that we should not, and perhaps there are good reasons for taking that stance. In any event, we need to ensure that the regulations are respected. It is highly probable that they were not respected in this case.
When the Minister replies, I expect that she will say something about compensation. Obviously the direct losses to farmers when animals are slaughtered will be compensated. However, regrettably the many other
However, if this outbreak continues at its present rate, I believe that it would be wise for the Government to consider the possibility of forming a genuine disaster fund. The governments of many countries which are, for example, hit by hurricanes immediately create disaster funds. When we have a contingency fund in the Budget, there is no reason why we should not consider that. I am not saying that we should do so today, but I believe that we need to exercise a little forward-thinking about what we shall do if the outbreak continues as it is at present.
Foot and mouth disease is the nation's immediate concern. However, I want to say a few words about the problems of the countryside which are rather wider and which have disturbed public opinion. Of course, the countryside is much wider than farming itself. A huge range of resources come into the countryside from outside farming. The proposals that have been put forward for improving the rural environment or the maintenance of local post offices, pubs and local medical services--not necessarily in that order--are, of course, all highly necessary.
However, the first and strong point that I want to make--I am concentrating on one point--is that a thriving agriculture is an essential condition for a thriving countryside. If farm incomes fall to rock bottom, the countervailing effect of other measures for the countryside is unlikely to be sufficient to retrieve the situation. Other noble Lords have made that point, about which I am utterly convinced. It is important not to restrict ourselves as we so often do in the United Kingdom to general expressions of dissatisfaction with the CAP. We should examine what has happened to UK agriculture during the past few years. Like so much of British industry, there has been a continuous fall in the labour force--it goes down all the time--productivity growth has been strong, the size of enterprises has increased and diversification into off-farm activities has been marked. That has been facilitated by the stability of prices and the acceptable level of farm incomes, despite variations from year to year, which the CAP provided until about 1996.
Let us look at the facts. A large fall in farming income began in 1996. Between 1996 and 1997--in just one year--total income from farming fell by 35 per cent. That was due to a significant change not in inputs but almost entirely to the output effect. On output, the fall in prices was 10 times as important as the change in volume. Why did we have that catastrophic event? In that year, slightly less than half of the fall was due to lower prices for products and slightly more than half was due to the rise in sterling. By the end of the 1990s, net farm income was less than £10,000 and the average concealed even lower prices for cattle and sheep farms, for example.
There are moments when I wonder whether we have understood the consequences for UK farmers of our own actions. As prices under the reformed agricultural policy have been progressively pushed down--further cuts are in prospect--the market intervention arrangements have progressively weakened, with some compensation for farmers through direct payments. I welcome some of those changes for other reasons; namely, because they are good for international trade. The fact is that we have done well for consumers by cutting prices--by £65 a year for a family of four, according to the Government's statement on the full results of the last changes in the CAP--but we have also been cutting farm incomes. That is what is happening and repercussing in the countryside.
I do not want to stop the world and get off but it is essential, when we are cutting prices and support and making other changes, to cushion farmers better against a catastrophic fall in income. In particular, that means making the maximum use of the various permissible grants, including those related to the adverse effect of the rate of sterling, which we have not always done in a timely manner. Apparently, £156 million is now coming forward for March and April, which I am glad to hear. However, we have not always drawn or used such money. I believe that we have been rather frightened of the fact that we think that the cost of agriculture is so high that it would be terrible if we put any more money into farming. That is a silly argument because, as we know, support for agriculture currently represents 1 per cent--I emphasise that figure--of total public expenditure in the European Union. That may be too high but it is not astronomical.
We need to take the maximum advantage and to give the maximum attention to farm incomes. If we do not do so, whatever else happens, we shall not have a thriving agricultural industry when we finally defeat foot and mouth disease.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, like all other noble Lords who have spoken, I welcome the opportunity for this debate. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness the Minister for her erudite and clear opening speech, to which we listened with great interest.
I have to declare an interest as a farmer--I farm in Essex. I was brought up with cattle but I count myself extremely fortunate today because I am not directly involved with them any more. However, my brother runs an exceptional dairy herd and is a past president of what noble Lords probably still know as the Holstein/Friesian Society, although it now boasts the name, Holstein UK and Ireland. It is worth noting that he gave evidence to the inquiry into the 1967 foot and mouth outbreak on behalf of the British cattle breeders, in which my noble friend Lord Plumb was directly involved.
At this hour of the night I do not intend to deal with the wider ramifications of the problems faced by the agriculture industry. For the sake of brevity, I intend to fairly narrowly focus on the origins on this particular outbreak of the disease.
One of the joys of serving in local government is the great diversity of matters for which local government has responsibility. One of the more esoteric matters with which I had to deal was the implementation of emergency plans for industrial complexes under the then Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards (CIMAH) Regulations, which have now evolved into the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations. The purpose of those regulations is to ensure that the emergency services always have in place plans to deal with any major industrial accident from the scale of Chernobyl downwards. Those plans are the responsibility of the major local authorities. They are constantly updated, checked and tested for effectiveness, and, if required, revised. From time to time they are even rehearsed.
Speaking now with all the benefit of that very cheap commodity, hindsight, it seems to me remarkable that such a plan does not appear to have been available to come into operation immediately a case of foot and mouth disease was identified. Although human life is not involved, the need for such a plan is clearly immediately parallel to that for industrial accidents. I hope I am wrong. I shall be very pleased to hear that such a plan did exist. If it did, it seems a pity--and again I speak with the benefit of hindsight--that it did not involve an immediate ban on the holding of markets and the movement of cattle from the first identification of the disease. It is always possible and easy to relax controls. It is much more difficult to do so if you do not have an automatic procedure for starting.
I have reviewed the report of the inquiry into the 1967-68 outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I did so because if we want to look forward, we also need to look back to some degree. That report is very instructive. I shall not bore the House with too much of it. However, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the report into the outbreak of this disease, and the reasons for it, has already been written. It can be read in three volumes in the Library. In a book entitled Reports, Commissioners 7, volume XXX 1968-69, we find under "Recommendations" on page 960:
In another volume from that time, this one entitled Accounts and Papers, Book 6, we find the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer on the origins of the 1967-68 foot and mouth disease epidemic. His conclusion is:
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on a number of points. I recognise that governments from both main political persuasions have been in power since that time. But was action taken along the lines of those recommendations to restrict imports of meat and offal? I understand that the report was generally accepted but confess that I have not yet had time to trace and check the detailed regulations and restrictions that would and should have been put in place in the light of those orders.
Having said that, have the recommended restrictions on meat and offal imports been rigorously maintained over the intervening 30 years? That is all the more important the way foot and mouth disease has developed throughout the world over the past 10 years. Finally, is the Minister satisfied that the control and licensing of swill processing has been properly undertaken along the lines proposed? What we have heard tonight suggests that that cannot be the case. I am bound to say therefore that I agree with my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior that swill should no longer be used.
In the light of all that I have said in relation to emergency planning, can the Minister say whether there was a genuine plan in place to deal with a possible future outbreak? If so, was it tested regularly and updated as the agricultural industry evolved? That is what will have to happen in the future if we are not to face a similar problem 20 or 30 years down the line, when many of us will not be around to deal with the consequences.
Of course I accept that a foot and mouth outbreak is very different from the possible industrial hazards that can arise. But the need for proper planning for this sort of situation is well known. Given what we know from the previous outbreak, and the conclusion that the earlier inquiry recommendations have almost certainly not been rigorously applied over the intervening years and amended to take account of the evolving pattern of the spread of foot and mouth disease, the agricultural industry will have some justification for feeling that it has been sacrificed on the altar of cheap food. As the impact of the restriction on movement and other activities spreads, we are beginning to observe the negative effects of the disease
I want to raise one other point which is now relevant. During the past 30 years the population of wild deer--in particular, roe deer, fallow deer and muntjac--across England has vastly increased. What steps are being taken to investigate whether those wild populations are infected with the disease? Those wild deer move freely across the country and I doubt whether there is an area which does not carry a surprising stock of them.
I want to pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, about vaccination. I am sorry that he is not in his seat. One of the purposes of the 1967-68 inquiry was to investigate the possibility of vaccination. Those countries where vaccination is regularly used are those countries in which foot and mouth disease is endemic. The two go together. Those countries which are free from foot and mouth disease have a slaughter policy.
It would be ironical if now, when Europe is at last taking up the slaughter policy, this country were to appear to be going the other way. That is not to say that there might not be a scientific development in future, but at present we should be clear--and I am pleased that the Government have made it clear--that the slaughter policy is the only tenable policy. We must live with that, uncomfortable though it is at the present time.
Lord Cavendish of Furness: My Lords, no one listening to the debate could fail to be struck by the sense of genuine sadness which has pervaded the proceedings. In taking part, I must declare an interest as chairman of a number of family companies concerned with land ownership, forestry, farming, construction, mineral extraction, tourism and national hunt racing. I have a personal stake in these companies whose assets for the most part are in Cumbria.
In the interests of brevity and avoiding repetition, I shall take the advice of my noble friend Lord Onslow and excise much of what I had intended to say. However, some things do bear repetition and one is to congratulate the Government on their handling of the crisis in the main. I extend my congratulations to the noble Baroness the Minister. Her sympathetic handling in these difficult times has won her respect both in your Lordships' House and in the wider community.
In terms of human suffering, it is beyond my imagination what farmers and their families are enduring. And at one removed, there are countless others affected by the outbreak. That came forcefully home earlier today in a moving and compelling speech by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. He is my near neighbour and my heart goes out to him. I can only guess at the feelings of rage, sorrow and despair experienced by country people overtaken by such disaster.
Earlier today, I spoke to the director of Farming Online, to which I subscribe. His feedback from the website confirmed what has been repeated so often today; that the agony of farmers is much compounded by the delay between slaughter and disposal. The Minister has already assured us that everything is being done to speed up that process and as in everything else I believe her. However, I stress the importance of this point to the debate.
I want to pick up two other aspects of today's debate. My noble friend Lord Vinson, who cannot take part today, mentioned to me a practical idea which was touched on by my noble friend Lady Byford. It concerns the relief of those who have paid or who are expecting to pay redundancy. A small farmer with perhaps two labourers will anticipate that he needs to pay redundancy just at the moment when his cash flow is weakest. In circumstances that I cannot quite remember, there was a scheme under which the Government offered to pay the first two redundancies of any business. In the case of a small farmer that was highly significant because it relieved him of a great deal of anxiety, whereas for a large industrial concern it would be neither here nor there. I am sad to say that I believe it was a Conservative government which withdrew the scheme. Will the Minister consider reinstating that simple measure which could have a big impact?
With a very heavy heart, I endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury about racing. I realise the huge investment that rides on racing, but, living on the edge of the Lake District, I am also conscious that in the main there is a huge amount of understanding on the part of people, not all of whom are country dwellers, who are asked not to walk all over the countryside. My message to racing would be: stop. In this moment of crisis it is hard for people to understand that some individuals are allowed to roam at will while others are not.
I turn to local authority matters on which I do not believe the debate has touched very much. The sheer scale of the task faced by local government in this crisis is not widely appreciated. The impact on locally managed services alone is enormous: the curtailment of all mobile services--libraries, meals-on-wheels and the like--and the education service and social service provision. The public services in Cumbria employ 17,000 staff and the movement of all of them requires additional management in these difficult times. In addition, there is the hugely complex management of rights of way.
Today I spoke to the chief executive of an authority who reminded me of its duty, through the trading standards department, to license the movement of animals. I had no idea that that was a county council function. That strikes me as an awesome task. As always, it is carried out against the background of tight financial restraints. Cumbria County Council must also consider the closure of minor roads as another weapon against the spread of this infection, but as of this morning it was unclear as to its legal position or the extent of its powers.
Therefore, I should like to put some questions to the noble Baroness, and I am sorry that I have been unable to provide her with notice. Does the Minister acknowledge the hugely increased burden of work that is borne by local authorities? Does she appreciate that large numbers of local authority officers work round the clock in these difficult times to contain and manage the disease and its consequences? Can the Minister tell the House what support, financial or otherwise, local authorities receive from the Government towards the issuing of licences for the movement of animals? Finally, will the noble Baroness clarify the powers of local authorities in respect of their ability to close minor roads where necessary? If it is found that local authorities lack the necessary powers, can we have an assurance that the Minister will ensure that they get them?
I am perhaps prejudiced in favour of local government, having served as a Cumbria county councillor. I have always opposed the weakening of local government and the war of attrition that it has had to endure under successive administrations. I was therefore very gratified to learn from the chief executive of Cumbria that even in these bleak times the authority looked to a time when the cost had been counted and the rebuilding would begin.
In Cumbria, as elsewhere, not only farmers suffer; many others will feel the effect. As has been said a great number of times, in particular by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose, the tourism industry is already weakened by, among other things, fuel duties and a very strong pound. My noble friend Lord Biffen is right when he says that the scars of this disaster are likely to endure. However, I welcome the announcement that the Government are also looking to the future. A task force is to be set up. I slightly share the misgivings of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, as to who will be on it and whether it will really be the kind of vehicle that makes sense. We sometimes have the impression that the Prime Minister is selective as to whom he listens.
One should take account of another sad trend; namely, the leaching of wisdom from Parliament. There are fewer and fewer Members of another place who have ever had any experience of what one might call "productive work". That is not made up for by the 70 odd special advisers with an average age of 30 something who also have done nothing. So a little humility on the part of Government, and the need to connect with people who really do understand the issues is extremely important.
What is the starting point? The right starting point is to put this question: what is the strategic purpose of farming in the context of food production? My noble friend Lord Renton, much of whose speech I missed, touched on that matter. It would perhaps be impossible to draw meaningful comparisons between now and when Britain last needed home-grown food in order to survive; but that does not entirely invalidate the question.
It is difficult, but not impossible, to visualise a Britain blockaded through, say, terrorism, quarantine or even through trade tension. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what, in her department's view, should be the role of British agriculture? Is there a strategic view? Is there a concept of self-sufficiency in times of emergency? Would a strategic view take account of other areas of vulnerability--for example, that of energy? There could well come a time in the next generation where the suppliers of energy are in the hands of hitherto unexplored capricious regimes.
If there is a coherent strategy, it has passed me by. It is certainly not understood by those who derive their livelihood from the countryside. As has been pointed out, the Government's Rural White Paper remains--I think disgracefully--undebated.
The present agony and heartbreak will give way to enduring bitterness unless the language and the actions of the Minister's colleagues are changed, and changed radically. Labour's attitude to the countryside has been one of unambiguous hostility; some of it malevolent; and some of it through failure to understand. It is hostility that, in a strange way of spreading like an infection, has gone to other institutions. I would single out the BBC. It has not been at all helpful so far as concerns country issues.
In the interests of farming, the countryside and the British people, the Minister must persuade her colleagues to draw a line under that interlude of hostility. So fragile will be the fabric of agricultural and rural life that she must cause a new era of understanding to be opened. When she does she will have done the nation a great service and earned its gratitude.
The Earl of Arran: My Lords, on two issues in particular, namely those of rural services and rural crime and policing, there exists some most alarming statistics. First, in 1997 the Rural Development Commission's survey found the following: 42 per cent of parishes had no permanent shop; 43 per cent had no post office; 49 per cent had no school; 75 per cent had no daily bus service; 29 per cent had no pub; 83 per cent had no GP; and 92 per cent had no police station.
Secondly, an autumn 1999 survey for the television programme "Countryfile" found that 55 per cent of farms had been burgled; 45 per cent had suffered vandalism; 20 per cent had suffered arson; and 10 per cent of farmers had suffered physical abuse.
These two profoundly worrying sets of statistics are against a background of income that, as your Lordships have so frequently mentioned, has plunged from £6 billion in 1985 to £1.8 billion in 2000; 51,000 farmers and farm workers have left the industry in the past two years. We have the average net farm annual income down to £5,200 per farm. We are in the fifth year running in which farm incomes have fallen. There are many more sets of equally depressing statistics which I shall not give your Lordships this evening, but I could, such as rural housing and rural education, not to mention BSE and the appalling weather conditions.
I can assure the House that I know of the fear and terror that exist on farms at the moment, for I live in Devon, where we have three herds of dairy cows, 10 tenant farmers with mixed herds and where my wife is the farmer. All day we are glued to the media for the news on the latest outbreak, for we are only a few miles away from Hatherleigh; and it is gradually closing in on us. The tension is truly awful. We wait and we fear the worst. It is almost unbearable. As Noel Edmunds, who lives next door to Hatherleigh, said on "Countryfile" last Sunday,
With great respect, it is very difficult for those of your Lordships who do not live in the country fully to appreciate the real severity of the crisis. I also want to say that I am sad and disappointed that there are not more noble Lords in the Chamber to discuss such an impending disaster. Yesterday, as we all know, we had a significant attendance for the debate on hunting. Of course, we cannot resume hunting until this terrible disease is wiped out.
I can tell your Lordships that, from the West Country's point of view, the only person who appears to have been surprised by the speed and scale of the disease is the chief vet himself, for there was little reason why the spread of this disease should have been otherwise. Meantime, I do wish that the Minister of Agriculture would not persist in saying that the disease is under control, a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I dread to think what he might have said when the "Titanic" was going down, for the tentacles of the disease are already beginning to work their way into the very fabric of our society.
Under these worsening conditions, and now on the verge of a state of emergency, I ask the Minister to tell your Lordships if and at what point the Government intend to bring in the Army or the TA to assist. The transport of these slaughtered animals needs an efficient and highly co-ordinated operation to take them to their specialist rendering plants. Certainly, both the Army and the TA have the experience and ability to bring this about--much more so, I believe, than the ministry, which seems to be finding it impossible to cope. Secondly, I should like to ask the Minister why it is taking so long to slaughter condemned animals and how many days are elapsing between condemnation and slaughter. For undoubtedly such delays can only be adding to the spread of the disease.
Against an estimated potential loss of £2 billion to the rural economy, the Government must acknowledge the severity and scale of this crisis, along with the number of people and livelihoods involved. These are people who may not see recovery lying in any possible direction. Furthermore, without compensation for their indirect costs, which they are encountering through the export ban and the difficulties surrounding the movement of livestock, it is beyond doubt that they will be driven out of business. The burden of their lives is fast becoming intolerable.
All the ministry seems able to say is that the situation is "under review". I can certainly tell the Government that what is also under constant review is the way in which the Government handle this situation on a daily basis. Speaking on 26th February, the Prime Minister said that the Government will look at all the consequential losses. We call on the Government to do very much more than simply to look at this. Instead, they should bring to bear a sense of urgency and statesmanship to one of the worst rural crises since the Second World War.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, like so many other speakers, I shall start by declaring an interest as a farmer. Furthermore, like the brother of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, I am a past president of the Holstein Friesian Society, although I am not as distinguished a breeder as my noble friend's brother. I should also declare that I am a director of a clearing bank. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and my noble friend Lord Inglewood both pointed out that the banks can make a significant contribution at this time of crisis. I accept that entirely and I shall certainly report to my colleagues the tenor of the remarks that have been made. Indeed, I believe that the banks do recognise their responsibilities and I am sure that they understand the part they have to play over the coming months, however terrible those times may be.
I fear that this crisis has drawn, predictably and totally unjustifiably, criticism of British agriculture from some sections of the media. British agriculture is not universally popular. It attracts a large amount of criticism--quite unfairly, in my opinion. One often reads accounts couched in pejorative terms such as "intensive" or "drenched in chemicals" and the like. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, cited three papers which, she felt, added insult to injury at this time by being less than fair. There has been criticism of the slaughter policy, saying that it is justified only for economic reasons. As the right reverend Prelate the
Criticism has also been levelled at production systems, which appear to be accident prone. As regards the term, "intensive agriculture", the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, pointed out that, even if that form of agriculture was somehow undesirable, we do not by any means farm intensively in comparison with other production units. However, over recent months, intensive agriculture seems to have been blamed for flooding, food scares, animal welfare problems and food quality. I believe that intensive agriculture could be viewed in rather different terms; one could say that intensive farming represents efficiency, conserving of resources and the reduction of waste.
If noble Lords think that I am being slightly paranoid about this, I remind them of the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle. He graciously acknowledged that intensive agriculture had absolutely nothing to do with the foot and mouth outbreak; he wished nevertheless to ensure that the government task force looked at it. If ever blame was being laid before a subject has been examined dispassionately and carefully, this is it.
Of course, intensive agriculture or, for that matter, extensive agriculture must be reviewed by the task force. We shall welcome the opportunity to review carefully what has gone right and what has gone wrong in British agriculture. However, we should move away from the mindset that assumes that those people who are trying to meet the challenge, however unsuccessfully, of competing against a harsh and cruel economic climate by achieving economies of scale, are somehow in the wrong. Even small farmers attempt to achieve economies of scale through intensive practices; they need to do so. Why should it be assumed that there is something repugnant and antisocial about their activities?
The questions we have to ask are these. Which agricultural system causes the most problems in terms of pollution? Which agricultural system causes leakages to soil, air and water? Which agricultural system is more likely to enhance habitats and deliver access and other benefits to the community? It may be intensive agriculture; it may be extensive agriculture. I believe that we will find it to be a mix of both. So, please, let us now start again and get away from these mind-sets which are based on a thorough misunderstanding of the contribution that agriculture has made to the economy over the past 40 years.
Any other sector of industry which had produced such great improvements in productivity and delivered so much--including such high quality food--would be greatly welcomed by the community. I find it quite bewildering that there are sections of the media--I admit it is not universal in the media--which, even in this time of crisis, remain hostile to British agriculture.
As to dealing in sheep and moving sheep around from market to market and amassing enough quantity so that the large multiple buyers ultimately have the group of sheep that they require to handle at one time, again, if anything, that seems a problem caused by production systems which do not match the buyer's requirement.
I hope that we can start afresh by looking at the contributions that British agriculture and, indeed--looking a little wider--world agriculture have made towards solving the world's problems over the past 40 years. During that time, the population of the world has increased by 90 per cent and food per capita around the world has grown by 25 per cent. This is because of the implementation of modern science and technology, breeding systems and so on. In the same time, food prices have fallen by 40 per cent.
However, there are still 1 billion people around the world who are undernourished or malnourished. So let us not be complacent having recognised the contribution that agriculture has made, particularly in the developed world, particularly in countries such as ours where we have an unrivalled choice of high-quality food.
Furthermore, if we look only at the United Kingdom, let us recognise also that we have introduced, and should be proud of it--I am certainly proud of it--higher animal welfare standards than other EU member states and other countries around the world. This may have put us at a slight economic disadvantage but I am not sure that it has. I think that we can and should--although it has not happened yet--be able to persuade the consumer that if we have these higher standards, our food is worth buying.
That of course brings me back to a point made by other noble Lords. Again, it may be some crumb of comfort from this desperate crisis. If we can, through a review such as is suggested with the task force, we should persuade people to recognise the strength and independence that we get from secure, high-quality food from British agriculture when compared to the food that we get from some sources around the world. We appear at the moment to be running great risks by importing such food.
We can go further than that and develop a sense of regional pride. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, suggested that he was going to brand food from the South Downs as something from his national park. I began almost to welcome the idea that I was going to be thrust into his national park, thinking that I would perhaps get a premium for my apples at last. Nevertheless, if we can develop a sense of pride in our food--which we deserve--we would be selling more of our food. I recognise that we, as farmers, are probably more culpable than anyone else in this regard.
A cheap food policy is a part of the World Trade Organisation's commitment, and our commitment, to freer trade around the world--which is a much wider subject than the one we are discussing tonight--but we can and should be prepared to pay more for produce from our own country if we think that it delivers something that food from other countries cannot. British agriculture can deliver much more than our consumers realise.
Lord Elton: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the Minister for the courtesy that she has shown to the House by attending virtually the whole of this debate and for deploying so much authoritative knowledge of her subject, thereby vastly increasing the burdens that she will have to carry tomorrow in terms of all the work that has accumulated during today. We are in her debt.
I do not know what any of your Lordships' incomes were five years ago, but I wonder how you would feel if, this year, your income was 69 per cent less than it is now. That is what had happened to farmers before the outbreak of foot and mouth. I wonder how your Lordships would feel if you were working in a family business and the return, having fallen for five years in succession, was now £5,200 per family. That had happened to agriculture before foot and mouth struck. Or how about being in an industry that lost 1,000 jobs every month for the past 18 months? That is what had happened to pig farmers before foot and mouth struck. I wonder how your Lordships would feel if, like them, you were working in an industry that was losing £4 million a week. That had happened to agriculture before foot and mouth struck. I wonder how you would feel if you were working in an industry in which the production costs were 2p per unit more than you were receiving. That is what had happened to the milk industry before foot and mouth struck. There is a background to this debate of anger which may have been obscured by the curtain of fear and grief that has been brought down by the outbreak of foot and mouth.
My noble friend Lord Arran mentioned certain figures in relation to parochial affairs. Perhaps I may add to those. Many noble Lords will not be aware of a figure that was brought to my notice by the Countryside Alliance. According to the rural group of Labour MPs, inner London authorities spend £1,326 per head of population, compared to the £787 per head that is spent in shire counties. All that adds up to a burden of resentment which we should have been able to judge next Sunday had not the curtain of foot and mouth fallen over the country.
I have no land now. The only interest I have to declare is my past. For eight years I was a shepherd of my own sheep, a flock of about 112 Border-Leicester ewes on which I put Suffolk tups. Being rather an indifferent shepherd, I quickly found that I should change to Clun ewes, which have a lower lambing average but are better mothers, and the result was slightly better.
I lived in a small rural community of the size of that described by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, a community of 400 souls. We were not graced with foxhounds or stables, but we had two pubs, a post office, a school and a bus service. The debate related to whether the street should be lit, and whether we could not manage to have old people's homes in our village rather than shipping them out to Rugby, where they could be visited only once a week.
That is my background. Therefore I have a deep sympathy with people in the country in relation to what is going on now. Perhaps I may draw to the Minister's attention a case that was brought to my notice recently. I understand that in the area around Hungerford there is one owner of sheep who has eight holdings on separate sites. On at least two of them the sheep that he grazes were diagnosed last Wednesday as having foot and mouth disease. They were not shot until this morning. I had this news from a Mr Alan Holland, a neighbour of two of those parcels of land inhabited by infected sheep: on one he has his herd of dairy followers and on the other his herd of breeding sows. The sows were tested on Saturday morning and declared clear. They were seen again this morning and were, I understand, again declared clear. However, I was happily at my desk 20 minutes ago when the telephone rang. Mr Holland told me that an hour-and-a-half ago his son had taken a call from the ministry through which he was told that 7,500 pigs will be slaughtered, starting at 9.30 tomorrow morning, as a precautionary measure.
The words "precautionary measure" lead me to ask the Minister to satisfy herself that I have the story right, and that that is what will happen. This will be devastation for that man. As the noble Countess demonstrated earlier, stockmen, herd and flock owners actually have an affinity with their animals. It is not like growing potatoes. It is not like running a machine. You have a relationship with them. It is devastation when you lose them. You are bereaved. We are looking at not merely bankruptcy but also real grief, and people in real shock.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Plumb that we must have a cordon sanitaire around this country in future of the sort that exists in the United States. I also agree with my noble friend Lord Arran that it is high time that the resources of the military were brought in, so that the manpower and the machine power can be used. I believe that my noble friend Lord Caithness recommended that we should revert to burying in quicklime. Indeed, with a military bulldozer and a lorry load of quicklime you can dispose of carcasses very quickly.
It is possible that the danger of the spread of the disease from carcasses is less than it is from exhalation of viruses, but it has not been proved that it does not exist. The spectacle of carrion crows and rats feasting themselves on these mouldering heaps and then going abroad in the country is not one that will bring comfort to anyone. But, again, we have to remember that those rotting carcasses were, in a sense, the friends of the people who have now got to sit and look at them--
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and one other noble Lord, who pointed out that every government have a contingency fund that is used to ensure that the books balance, even if things go wrong. Well, things have gone wrong in a big way. That is why we have a contingency fund. Like my noble friend Lord Peel, I agree that it should be existing farmers who are helped to survive rather than introducing new people with new capital into the countryside. This needs thought. But, first, the Benefits Agency must surely be brought in to assist people who have lost their income for anything up to four years, as one of my noble friends pointed out earlier. We are talking about a major problem that must be addressed with compassion and with speed.
But what are we inviting these people to survive into? The debate is about the countryside; it is not only about foot and mouth. Not unnaturally, most noble Lords have spoken only about the horrors of the immediate crisis. But surely what we ask them to survive into is a landscape and a community that actually works economically. We have not, as yet, found out how to do that, as I hope the figures that I outlined at the beginning of my too-long speech brought home to your Lordships.
It seems to me that not enough is understood about the dynamics of the relationship between market towns and their hinterland of villages. But one thing is very clear: a market town will not survive as anything but a dormitory if it does not have its own industry within it. Here I have to ask the noble Baroness, who is in the regrettable position of being in this House and not another place and, therefore, will have to answer for the whole of the Government, not just her department, to turn her attention to PPG 3 (policy and planning guidance note No. 3), which deals with housing and the effects of housing policy on country towns. Although all the aspirations stated on the front of the policy assert that its aim should be to achieve a viable economic community, the rewards for releasing industrial land for housing are so much greater than selling it on to another industrial user that industrial land is diminishing in market towns and employment is therefore diminishing. The result of that is "dormification" of market towns. The policy has not been in place long but that pattern is beginning to emerge and needs to be urgently addressed.
Finally, I welcome the right reverend Prelate's undertaking to mention to the most reverend Primate the possibility of a national day of prayer. All the churches need to pray on this matter. I believe that most of them are doing so and I hope that that practice is spreading into the towns as the crisis emerges. In the past 24 hours I have been asked independently by two people not connected with each other to ask for that. I believe in the power of prayer and I hope that it will instil in us a sense of the reverence which is due to the country and the animals that we have in our trust and which, sadly, we seem at the moment to have betrayed.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, like many others, I am grateful to the Minister for this welcome and timely debate. I speak as someone who was brought up in East Lothian and grew up with a farming community and as a boy spent every Saturday morning on the local farm. I am married to someone who was brought up in rural vicarages in the right reverend Prelate's diocese, although under one of his predecessors.
I want to make three points at this late stage of the debate. First, I refer to the atmosphere of fear that the outbreak of this disease has produced in the countryside. It is palpable to the point of being tragic. It affects the whole of the community in prospect just as much as in actuality. In the Portsmouth diocese we had two of the earliest scares, one on the Isle of Wight, with the memory of the previous outbreak there very much alive, and the other in the Meon valley on the mainland. Both cases were given the all clear, but none the less, as outbreaks are increasingly confirmed elsewhere, the fear that grips farmers, their families and their workers is on the verge of becoming overwhelming. In south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we watch all our borders, county, district and other, steadfastly. Most of us are near enough the sea to watch wind direction--that matter was discussed earlier--rightly or wrongly, with great zeal. We do both with something akin to terror, wondering whether the disease will affect our stock next.
Secondly, a number of people have asked me to raise the disputed question of vaccination. I do so in some trepidation after hearing the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, speak with his considerable academic experience. However, I was emboldened by what the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, said earlier. Much has been said in the debate about the rightness of the slaughter and destruction of so many animals in recent weeks. That was described movingly by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, as a funeral pyre. I concur with that. Nevertheless, I believe that there is a case for suggesting that much further work needs to be carried out to develop vaccine for this terrible disease. I know that opinions differ as to the viability of what we have at the moment, although I understand that there are developments in the USA in this area. I speak here very much as a layman but laymen ask questions of me and sometimes they change my mind. It is a disputed area that needs to be looked at. Noble Lords are hopeful that we can look with optimism to the future.
But assuming we respond effectively to the present outbreak we cannot be sure that another will not arise. Dare we look forward to the day when a cheap and easily available vaccine becomes part of farm life?
Thirdly, I speak of a strategic rather than a reactive future. Here I think of what the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said earlier. I am beginning to wonder how much more some of our farmers are prepared to take. To preach at a harvest festival in a small rural community where two farmers either face bankruptcy or are bankrupt is a chilling experience I shall never
The farming community is becoming increasingly gripped by an economic dread that its whole livelihood is on the verge of disaster. I believe that we begin to realise the extent to which our economic well-being is tied up with theirs only when we ourselves feel at risk. And the fragmented character of our society can lull those of us who are not farmers into a second best solution which is infinitely worse; namely to ignore what is on our doorstep, tacitly collude with those who might economically exploit recent events and hope that the problem will somehow go away.
In conclusion, I want to place on record--perhaps I may speak also for my colleagues on these Benches who have been present during the debate--how moving it has been for us to listen to the debate and for the searching honesty and reflectiveness of so much that has been said. I should also like to thank the Minister not only for initiating this debate but also for the compassion and effectiveness with which she has handled her part in this national emergency. I hope, too, that much of the information which has surfaced, and will surface in the concluding part of the debate, will become widely known in our local communities and beyond.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, as the last of a long line of speakers, I thank the Minister for what she is doing and for what she has said today. I commiserate with the noble Baroness: she has not had her noble colleagues behind her in the debate. I hope that those honourable exceptions who have remained will talk to their friends and encourage them back when we again have a debate on the countryside.
I believe that the Government would genuinely like to get out of their difficulty over the Hunting Bill and to embrace the countryside more wholeheartedly. It is now an election issue and, assuming that the election is not put off, I strongly urge the Minister to persuade her colleagues to drop the Hunting Bill and concentrate on the real problems facing farmers. It would in itself be an enormous relief for farmers and rural businesses to know that they were the genuine focus of attention in the coming election. It is a particular irony that both the hunts and the shoots, while of course affected by the foot and mouth disease, are involved in the current campaign to prevent it spreading as they are in every rural crisis.
I sense that the Government are well aware of that but they still have to explain it to their Back-Benchers. Agricultural Ministers are in a difficult position because they have been much closer to the problem than their colleagues, as the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, pointed out. For this they have won a lot of respect from the farming community which should at least offset the snide comments they sometimes receive from newspaper columns and cartoons.
Perhaps I may talk for a moment about West Dorset where I live. There are fears about the future not only of farmers but of the entire local economy which is in limbo and has left people in a state of disbelief. The abattoir in Bridport has now reopened and farmers can obtain licences to move certain categories of livestock. That has brought temporary relief, but suspected cases of foot and mouth in neighbouring counties are only a few miles away. That risk demands the strictest precautions. Even our farmers are staying on the farm and keeping their children out of school.
In several debates in the past few years we have spoken about the need for farm diversification, particularly the need for small farmers to move into other activities. The Government could do more in that direction, but we can talk about that another day.
One possibility for diversification is tourism, which is one of the major employers in the South West. In a sense, all farmers contribute to tourism and the enjoyment of the countryside. According to West Dorset District Council--which, like all local councils, has been very active and helpful during the crisis--there are 5,000 jobs in tourism and related activities in West Dorset alone, representing a total spend of £120 million per annum, or one fifth of all employment. As the Minister well understands, all those jobs are in peril because of foot and mouth.
I declare an interest, because my wife and I have had to close our small tourist attraction until further notice. All those of us who depend partly on visitors are concerned about the approach of Easter and what it may bring. Those involved with smaller historic houses and attractions are particularly worried, because there is already a shortfall of income to cover routine maintenance. Some properties are literally wondering whether they can afford to repair the roof, let alone make improvements to attract tourists.
Tourists used to be regarded as unnecessary extras or travellers known only to glossy magazines, but not any more. The smaller, family-size businesses are suffering in our part of Dorset. Group tours booked into hotels, inns and small attractions months ahead are being cancelled and farmers who have holiday lets, caravans or farm shops are losing money.
Anyone who depends on or even lives close to farmland is directly affected. Hauliers whose lorries are specially equipped to transport animals are staying off the road or adapting vehicles to other products as far as they can. The situation has eased a little with the Government's latest announcement of a temporary
Many others are indirectly affected, especially the village shops, retailers, home-based caterers and stores that supply tourist attractions. As the Minister said, it would be almost impossible to measure the compensation that might be due. It is early days, but South West Tourism is talking about support for tourist promotion rather than compensation. We have heard the same from the North of England. The figure of £200,000 to cover the whole region, allocated through South West Tourism and the local authorities, seems too modest if it is regarded as compensation, but it would help to relaunch the tourist season once the peak of the crisis has passed. We must all pray that that will be soon.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will confirm that if farmers can prove that they have lost alternative income such as that from farm-based tourism, which the Government have encouraged them to earn, they will have a right to some compensation. The Minister knows better than any of us that average farm income is at its lowest for years, even though it seemed to be turning a corner. In fact, it is negative income, because small farmers who are close to retirement without any alternatives in sight are living off their hump, off their relations or off nothing at all.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I have no personal interest to declare in this debate. In fact, for most of my life I have lived in cities and towns. However, for some nine months now I have lived in Northumberland and have become very much closer to the realities of life, particularly at present. I believe that I understand only too well the fear that people are experiencing during this outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I also know of the disintegration and destruction that such an outbreak can wreak in an area.
As is so often the case, there is a wealth of knowledge and expertise in this House. It has been demonstrated once again in this debate. We on these Benches are very grateful to the Minister and join with others in praising the role that she has played, and, indeed, is playing, in the crisis which we are all facing in this foot and mouth epidemic. As others have done, I also praise her patience and sensitivity and the meticulousness with which she has answered the personal inquiries of many noble Lords or their inquiries on behalf of people whom they know personally.
There has been a consensus in relation to some issues. There has been approval, first, of the speed with which the Government took action, and, secondly, of the strategy that they have adopted in an attempt to eradicate foot and mouth disease. We have heard
Many noble Lords highlighted the importance of communication at such a time as this and drew attention to some of the problems which they see concerning the accuracy of the information that is available. I refer in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton.
The noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, and, more recently, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned the role of local councils. That is something of which I also have experience. County councils have been responsible for dealing with licences to move animals. I know full well that the situation in the part of the world in which I now live has been rather strange. On the Scottish side of the Border, people were able to obtain a fax to give them permission to move their animals but, to begin with, Northumberland County Council was not happy about that. I should be interested to know from the Minister whether instructions have been issued to county councils about how to deal with that matter.
My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer highlighted several issues, many of which other noble Lords agreed with and, indeed, expanded upon in the debate. I believe that one important matter to which she drew attention was that this is a national issue. It is not only a matter which relates to the countryside; it affects us all. She highlighted the fact--indeed, other noble Lords took up the issue, too--that we have developed a system of shipping animals around the country and chasing large subsidies in the process. We now have an infrastructure of abattoirs and a retail system which add to the need to move animals around. Many noble Lords raised the issue of movement of animals. The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Hereford and the Bishop of Salisbury in particular took up those themes, as did my noble friend Lord Hooson and the noble Lord, Lord Biffen. They emphasised the importance of stewardship and sustainability when dealing with the countryside.
Another area that we on these Benches care about in particular, and which my noble friend highlighted, was the importance of using the regions and regional development agencies to deal with some of the problems. Not only county councils and local councils but parish councils have an important role to play in these matters. My noble friend drew attention to the importance of recovery plans in considering how to deal with the crisis. She also raised an issue which I shall mention again--it was also referred to by other noble Lords--that is, whether the Government can use their contingency fund if we are dealing with a crisis.
The rural White Paper was discussed by many noble Lords this evening. I hope that the Minister will respond to the question of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer about whether the Government
We on these Benches are concerned about two other matters in this context; namely the environmental costs if we do not take care of our countryside and the need to consider farming in a way that involves taking care of the environment. In that regard I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, who is now a near neighbour of mine in Northumberland. Another of my great interests is energy efficiency. The noble Lord raised a good point when he asked about biodiesel and the help that could be given to farmers. He was absolutely right; people in Europe are further ahead in that regard. I hope that the Minister will respond to that. When we talk about the effects on the environment we are really talking about the sustainability of our planet. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, highlighted that in his speech.
It is very late, so I shall discuss only briefly two other matters that I wanted to raise. The first has been mentioned by many noble Lords; namely, poverty in rural areas. While I was getting a cup of coffee, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Elton, read out a couple of figures on rural poverty that I was going to give; I shall not repeat them. Weekly household incomes are significantly lower in rural England than in cities--there is a difference of about £40. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer discussed the fact that some parts of the country are particularly badly hit. The average weekly wage in Cornwall is £292, that in Northumberland is £309 and that in Shropshire it is £317; the average in towns is £405 and that in the rest of rural England is £365. If one adds to that the fact that incomes are falling, which many noble Lords have discussed tonight, and that costs are rising, which has also been mentioned this evening, one will appreciate that we had a problem with rural poverty before we got into this crisis.
Noble Lords made several suggestions about how we could help people with their finances. Several noble Lords mentioned banks, some of which are I know trying to be helpful. I hope that the Government will encourage them to be even more helpful. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, discussed entrepreneurs. I shall discuss tourism in a moment--many of those involved in that industry are entrepreneurs. The Government can help small businesses in particular in that context. In our alternative Budget, we Liberal Democrats have always been particularly aware of that and have wanted to give extra help.
Several noble Lords discussed benefits. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who is currently not in his place, rather imaginatively suggested linking benefits with the jobseeker's allowance. Other noble Lords discussed the Chancellor's contingency fund. There is a feeling on all Benches that we should consider ways in which to supplement people's incomes. In many parts of England, people who lose their job would be eligible for some unemployment benefit. We need to be imaginative and not bound by what has happened previously.
Finally, I want to say a little about tourism. As I said, many of those involved in tourism are entrepreneurs. We should do all that we can to help them. As noble Lords have explained, when people do not visit an area it is not simply the hotels and pubs that suffer; it is also the shops and other services that are used by those living in the countryside. This evening we have heard graphic descriptions of empty shops in country towns. I know that tourism is growing in Northumberland. As someone who has lived in the South East all my life, I can say that it is very pleasant to go out without encountering a permanent traffic jam, which is the experience of most people who have lived in the southern and south-eastern corner of this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, and others spoke about tourism in Cumbria. From an e-mail that I received from somebody living there, I am aware of the farm tourism initiative and an injection of direct funding for developing such tourism projects in the area, with the aid of local training and support and quite a lot of money from Europe. The organisers of that initiative have built up quite a fund of information and expertise. However, the fund will finish in June. Other noble Lords have spoken about asking the Government to be flexible when considering various funds and ways of claiming money to help. That is another example that I hope the Minister will consider.
This has been a long debate about very real problems experienced by individuals, many of whom feel isolated and desperate--some even suicidal. My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones made a valuable contribution in some depth to the debate, and I hope that the Government will respond to his points.
I hope that the Government will be able to draw on today's debate to inform and guide their efforts to deal not only with the crisis of the foot and mouth outbreak but also with the longer term measures that we need to take if we are to have a sustainable countryside that is understood by everyone in Britain--not just by those who live in the country. I hope that the support the Minister has had from all sides of the House will enable her to take those measures forward in any future initiatives.
Lord Glentoran: My Lords, this has been a very long and wide-ranging debate. Perhaps today the House has been close to its best. We have debated a crisis of some scale, showing great compassion to those who are suffering. Many noble Lords have paid tribute to all those who are working to gain control of the situation. I, too, would like to pay tribute to the Minister for all that she is doing, for all that she has done and for the way in which she has conducted this debate. I also pay tribute to Jim Scudamore and to the whole team for everything that they are currently doing to bring this crisis to a speedy end.
The countryside has been in crisis for some time. This outbreak of foot and mouth disease has seriously exacerbated the problems. My noble friend Lady Byford opened by giving examples of the financial
Today's debate has centred much more on the present crisis, not only in relation to the disease of the animals but also in relation to the enormous human hardship and suffering, the extent of which has been brought home to me as a result of the debate. Some of the experiences of noble Lords about which we heard tonight really brought the problems home. I hope that those reading Hansard tomorrow learn something from the debate. Many small businesses linked to tourism, commerce and farming are not directly involved with livestock, but they too are suffering from the effects of this disease.
The purpose of today's debate, and what I hope the Government are attempting to do, is to repair the neglect of the past by positive action plans for the present and the future. We heard many useful contributions tonight, which, it is hoped, will be helpful. But I should like to raise again a few of the issues mentioned.
Perhaps the biggest human problem throughout the country is cash flow. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the question of how our farmers are to live month after month with no income. It has been said that those who lost the whole of their herds may not be in receipt of an income for perhaps four years.
We heard much tonight about communication, about which I have had personal experience. We refer not so much to communication on the national front, but to communication in the local areas so that people know what they are doing. There is no doubt that the Government have totally lost the confidence of the rural communities--as the march would have emphasised--and the agriculture and food industries. They must win that confidence back. They must get their communications right and come forward with positive ideas as to what their intentions are. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, spoke of "biofuels". There must be other imaginative ways of helping the farming industry.
Many noble Lords spoke of the problem of abattoirs--the reduction from 2,000 to 400, and from locally-produced, locally-slaughtered and locally-marketed food of first quality to a market where livestock is motored all over the country and can go to three or four abattoirs before finally being killed. That cannot be right.
Resources were mentioned. Many noble Lords spoke of involving the military. The Minister told us she was already using the vets and had other parts of the services standing by. That is to be welcomed. One of the criticisms that came across in the debate, and came across to me before coming into the debate, is that although the Government moved quickly once the outbreak became apparent, three or four days were lost through inactivity. However, the scale of the problem increased significantly. We heard about carcasses lying around for a long time and delays in slaughtering. The point was made several times that those matters must be speeded up; that bureaucracy must not be allowed to get in the way. If the Countryside Agency has to be involved, let us involve it. The Prime Minister spoke about a task force. Perhaps that is not the right body; I believe that we want considerably more. At least one noble Lord suggested a Royal Commission. Whatever the body, we need to speed things up. We need clear statements and understandings of where we are going.
The noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Soulsby, made a strong point about swill. Noble Lords strongly believe that actions should be taken to prevent swill ever again being used as a feed. It is thought to have been a root cause of this and the 1967 epidemic.
Finally, the noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Elton, and others discussed the contingency fund. I have no knowledge of it but I imagine that there is one. It is not the business of Members on this side of the House to decide where the money should come from. It is our business to press the Government to provide money for compensation in order to help cash flow and to maintain the industry.
Members on all sides of the House believe that it is in the interests of the nation to maintain its own food supply. The thought of losing our livestock industry and being dependent on imports--and other countries might suffer the same crisis--is awful. It does not bear thinking about. Anything that the noble Baroness and her Government want to do in order to ensure the continuance--or resurgence, if that is what it has to be--and health and welfare of our livestock industry will be welcomed from this side of the House.
Given the levels of anxiety expressed about many specific issues relating to the current handling of the disease and its outbreak, the best thing I can do is to respond definitively to as many issues as possible. I shall undertake to take forward many of the constructive suggestions which have come from all sides of the House. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand that in so doing--and not responding in kind to some of the criticisms about the Government's policy on agriculture--the House should not take silence as assent to some of the analysis I have heard from the Benches opposite; or to the proposition that only after this crisis did the Government become interested in agricultural policy or devote any resources to it; or that we were starting from nowhere in terms of the reshaping of agricultural policy. The Strategy for Agriculture was launched in 1999. It was built on by the Action Plan for Farming. As my noble friend Lord Brennan reminded us, the Rural White Paper, far from negating the importance of farming, stated how central it was to the rural economy. Tonight we have heard many expositions of the effect on the much wider rural economy of this particular blow to farming.
I promise the House that we shall undertake those issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Biffen, referred, in terms of long-term inquiries into some of the fundamental issues relating to disease control. My right honourable friend has made it absolutely clear that in so doing we shall listen to dissenting voices. Perhaps that reassures the right reverend Prelate. While at the moment there is unanimity about the inappropriateness of vaccination policy, for example, one of the lessons from the Phillips report is that we must keep challenging conventional wisdom as things change, whether it is the structure of the industry or scientific advance. While the position is quite clear at the moment, that does not mean that one's mind should be closed for all time or one does not take account of developments. Therefore, there will be a long hard look at the lessons to be learnt from the outbreak.
I make clear to noble Lords that that is different from the task force which was announced today by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. That task force is very immediate. Its first meeting is tomorrow and will be chaired by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment. It will bring together Ministers from other departments, but also, I hope, some of the people who were at Downing Street today, to look very closely at the impact on the rural economy here and now, and, for example, whether, as the noble Baroness suggested, measures in the rural White Paper can be brought forward. It may also look at some of the issues of regionalisation to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, referred.
Earlier I was asked to react with candour. What we have tried to do is to make public the veterinary risk assessment of various activities, whether it is the opening up of footpaths or horse-racing, and give clear advice on risk management in situations where it is necessary. The greatest risk is the movement of live animals which are susceptible to the disease. That is why we have difficulty in balancing assistance to those who need to move live animals with the risks of the disease.
I say to the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Salisbury--I understand why he is unable to be in his place tonight--that perhaps the most useful thing we can do is build on what we already have, whether it be big issues like reform of the CAP or the market towns initiative in the rural White Paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred, rather than start again on a new White Paper. I have spent more than 30 years in politics. When the right reverend Prelate said he believed that a surge of confidence would sweep the countryside if we announced another White Paper I was not convinced that that would be a universal response. I know exactly where he was coming from. We need to take policies forward, but whether we need to start again, or build on what we have, to cover the areas is a different issue.
It is important that we do not rush to judgment. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, mentioned their analysis of some of the glibber comments made about, for example, the role of intensive farming in the outbreak of the disease. We need some cool analysis rather than rushing to judgment on a great number of these issues. For the same reason, I hope noble Lords will understand if I do not comment further on ongoing investigations as to the original source of the outbreak. Therefore, it is important that we do not rush to judgments, particularly glib ones.
There is always the temptation to take an issue, which is important for one reason, and use a set of circumstances to justify it for another reason. We need a rigorous analysis of the role of rural abattoirs. There were a large number of small abattoirs in 1967 when we had a very bad outbreak of foot and mouth disease. There were specialist trades that involved movement of animals. Even when animals travel a long way to abattoirs, when they end up dead and not mixing with other animals going on to other farms, they are not an enormous disease risk.
We should pay tribute to the vigilant official veterinary surgeon of the Meat Hygiene Service at an abattoir in Essex who had never seen a case of foot and mouth disease in his life, but who diagnosed that first case. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, said that in a blink
The reason we have seen such a great emergence of the disease over the past three weeks is that it was incubating before anyone knew we had a single case in the country. It was being spread by movements of sheep, many of which, because of the nature of the disease in them, were not diagnosed when they first showed symptoms. There was widespread dispersal of disease throughout the national flock into large areas of the country before we even knew that there was a single case anywhere. As a result, we are still seeing the consequences, not only in those cases that were infected before the movement controls came in, but because the disease was not easily diagnosed. So we are seeing second and third wave disease in those flocks, and we are seeing cattle which have caught the disease from sheep on the same farm. That means that one is not dealing with one simple incubation period but a series of incubation periods.
We have had the controls in place. We do not have, so far as we know, more than one focus of disease. The disease would certainly be far worse if those movement controls had not been in place. But the nature of this particular outbreak, combined with the structure particularly of the sheep industry--something that has been mentioned many times--and the way in which markets work, has meant that a great deal of disease was disseminated before anyone had diagnosed a single case.
Having said that, perhaps I may update the House as to the outcome of the standing veterinary committee meeting in Brussels today as specific questions were asked about the import of meat from France after the case was confirmed today. I can tell the House that restrictions have now been imposed on all movements in and out of the departement of Mayenne where the case was found with respect to both the rest of France and to other member states. That covers the same livestock and products as involved in the movement restrictions imposed on the UK and is broadly equivalent to the restrictions imposed on Essex following confirmation of the first case in the United Kingdom. So there is an even-handed approach by the Commission. I should also tell the House that imports of meat from Argentina to the EU have been banned until 15th April pending clarification of the situation there in the light of a significant outbreak.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, asked whether we have a proper contingency plan. I have to tell him that we have a national contingency plan. That is required by the Commission. It has to be submitted to the Commission and regularly updated. It has to be there in every other member state. Each animal health office has to have a local contingency plan. Some of those--I think the one in Carlisle but I am not 100 per cent sure--were tested out and reviewed earlier this year. It is not the case that there was not a
I was asked about manpower, resources and the use of the Army. We have had discussions with the Armed Forces about the help that they might now give. It is likely to be logistical help; that is, in helping to dispose of carcasses and possibly in farm killing. I should like to make clear, because there has been some speculation, that it is not about killing wildlife. I was asked about the role of wild deer. The risk assessments are very clear on wildlife. One runs the risk of doing far more harm than good by the dispersal of wildlife which is not grossly infective. At the moment, there are no plans to cull wildlife of any kind.
There has not been any reluctance to call in the Armed Forces. It has been quite clear from the beginning that we could have support from any other part of government. But the point was made by some noble Lords that licensed slaughtermen should be used to undertake this distressing work, which has to be done in a humane way. The training of Army marksmen is not exactly directed in normal circumstances to this kind of work. If we can have enough licensed slaughtermen to do it, I still believe that that is the best way forward. Obviously, we have to look at the scale of disease. I am very conscious of the points that have been made today about distress in particular and the potential disease risk in terms of the delays that have on occasion taken place.
I would not pretend to the House that everything has been done in every case as quickly as any of us, particularly the Chief Veterinary Officer, would have wished. He has set himself a target of slaughter within 24 hours and disposal within another 24 hours. I hope that, in the main, that target is being met. In some cases it is not being met because of resource difficulties. But we are bringing in as much help as we can. Some of that resource in terms simply of digging trenches and building pyres can be accessed from the private sector and contractors just as speedily as--and perhaps even more speedily than--it could be accessed from the Army. We have to look at the whole range of possibilities and then decide what is the most effective under the circumstances.
I said to noble Lords that we shall and we do bury when necessary. I understand that quicklime is no longer used because it preserves the carcasses. Decomposition kills the virus due to the acidity produced during rigor mortis. The thinking in this area therefore is that we do not want to preserve the carcasses with quicklime.
Noble Lords have referred to the rendering plant that is being used. That plant is presently working for 24 hours a day. It is being supplied by a fleet of lorries that have been tested to ensure that they are leakproof. We are looking at the possibility of opening another rendering plant. However, as with the issue of burial, we have to be careful that we do not create more environmental problems, or problems of a different kind, by the methods of disposal. That is the reason why we are looking carefully at the proposal.
Perhaps I may respond to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the noble Lords, Lord Luke and Lord Monro. At present, most cases are being confirmed on clinical grounds alone, without the need to take cultures or wait for lab results. The longest waits for lab results concern negative outcomes. Sometimes it can take longer to secure a negative result than people might hope, but that does not represent a delay in terms of diagnosis.
On valuation, it is normal practice to value live animals. Every effort is being made to ensure that animals are valued and slaughtered as quickly as possible. On occasion, valuation has taken place at the same time as slaughter. However, perhaps I may take this issue away and discuss it at one of our regular Friday meetings held with representatives from the whole industry. I believe that different views will be held on valuation. Perhaps we shall be able to devise mechanisms to ensure that valuation does not hamper or delay slaughter.
The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked me about the potential slaughter of 7,500 pigs on a neighbouring farm. I shall certainly look into the details of that case, but I must say to him that this area is one where heroic measures need to be taken. Where foot and mouth disease is confirmed, it is the policy to take as a dangerous contact any contiguous pig herd. That is because of the greater hazard of disease transmission posed by pigs, which ranges over and above that posed by cattle and sheep, and for windborne spread.
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