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Lord Whitty: My Lords, with regard to the first part of what my noble friend said, I recognise that there is a significant degree of frustration in parts of the countryside. However, I hope that her remarks about people taking the law into their own hands--there were murmurs of what I took to be approval for those remarks--do not reflect the view of the House. Everyone wants to achieve as rapid a solution to these problems as possible. That means the slaughtering of the animals as rapidly as possible. That has taken place. In some cases there was then a delay in the disposal of the carcasses. The authorities are now virtually on top of that problem in the vast bulk of the countryside. As was reported yesterday, in Cumbria there is a delay of only one day in the disposal of carcasses. There is a continuing problem in Devon because of the lack of appropriate sites in terms of the water table level. The biggest problem remains in Devon. However, both in terms of the speed with which animals are slaughtered and the speed with which they are disposed of, we have got over the worst of the problem in the bulk of the country.
My noble friend asked about relief. We believe that the best way of providing relief is to avoid the immediate pressures on those businesses. The Rural Task Force is looking at ways in which we can provide more sustained support for rural businesses as we come out of the crisis. That will include consideration of direct help in particular circumstances, both via agencies such as the RDAs and other bodies. But there is no way in which the Government can guarantee that they will restore or even make a significant contribution to the income that is lost across the range of rural industries as a result of the crisis. That is not the Government's role. The Government's role must be to try to sustain in the best way possible a revival of the rural economy once the crisis is over. However, in order for us to reach that point, our main attention has
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, the Yorkshire Dales are now in the grip of this terrible situation. Healthy animals on farms adjoining infected farms are being destroyed. Those infected farms are not set out on the Internet. Does the Minister agree that the problem of this terrible slaughter is far greater than many people realise? Throughout the country there is a growing revulsion at the killings and it is affecting tourism. What can be done about that?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, there may be revulsion at the killings, but it is our strong advice and view that without the culling process we will not stop the disease affecting yet more areas of the country. It is already clear that the spread of the disease has been rapidly slowed down as a result of the culling process. I appreciate that there have been particular problems and that there has been a negative reaction on the part of some of the public. But not to have engaged in this process would have been the height of irresponsibility.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that many other people will share the view expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that the complacent reiteration of the phrase "return to normality" is deeply depressing? Does the noble Lord really think that it is any good for the rural economy to return to the status quo immediately before the outbreak of the disease? Does he not also recognise that many people will have been deeply puzzled by his statement, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, that only some parts of the rural economy are suffering from the ill-effects on agriculture? Does he not recognise that without agriculture there will be no rural economy as tourists will not visit countryside that is desolate because the farms just cannot operate?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I accept only in part what the noble Viscount has said. Clearly, there is a major role for agriculture in sustaining the attractiveness of rural areas in general. However, only a minority--a very small minority--of employment in rural areas is provided by agriculture and only a relatively small proportion of GDP is provided by agriculture. In addition to that, the supply industries and many others have a relationship with the health and prosperity of agriculture and they have indeed suffered. In many parts of the country that was palpable as a problem prior to foot and mouth striking and making the situation much worse. But there were also areas where there was great hope for the rural economy, both in terms of its tourist attractions and in terms of the way in which farming and other traditional industries were diversifying across the rural scene and providing jobs and new prosperity for our rural areas. That has to be recognised. The enhancement of that as well as the revival of agriculture will be an important part of bringing the rural economy back to normality. When I use that phrase I am not saying that normality is
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the statements made by the Chief Scientific Officer and by Ministers that we are almost over the hump? That is far from true. The situation in the countryside is absolutely desperate, as was implied earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Sheep are being slaughtered in enormous numbers. There is not a sheep alive within 50 miles of me. They have all been slaughtered. That was the right policy but it was started far too late. If it had not been for the Army, God knows where we would now be. It is high time that the Government stopped tinkering with this matter and really began to understand the kind of money that is required. My local authority reckons that it has already spent £90 million on trying to help. Will the Government provide such sums to local authorities in Cumbria, Devon and the Midlands and to Dumfries and Galloway through the Scottish Executive? I do not think that the Government have any idea of what the situation is like in the countryside at the present time.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I think that the Government are well aware not only of the devastation caused by this disease, but also of the significant expenditure of resources being made by public authorities, as well as the impact on the private sector. Clearly, the Government will need to look at the position of those local authorities which have been most susceptible to the pressures referred to by the noble Lord. I believe that the response of the Government has not been too slow, as the noble Lord has suggested, but that decisive action has been taken at appropriate points and that the spread of the disease has been slowed down very effectively and, it is hoped, will now be stopped. In achieving that, not only have we had the support of the majority of farmers, but also the close involvement of public authorities, expert advisers and, indeed, the important contribution made by the Armed Forces in delivering the programme.
We recognise that we need to keep farmers and rural communities with us and that the effort to explain why these steps have to be taken, and thus involve people in the process, has formed an important part of our policy. For that reason, it is important that we do not exaggerate the degree of frustration with or level of attack on government authorities that has taken place. By and large, a level of understanding has been demonstrated, along with a high degree of co-operation between public authorities and local communities.
Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, although one would not expect Thatcherite principles of market economy to be applied to agriculture which has always been a special case, is it not remarkable nevertheless that many of the voices so raised around the House
Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, perhaps I may put the question. I do not need to go through the entire list of industries in this country which have suffered great problems of closure and loss of income. I would say that, over the years, this has not generally been the position as regards agriculture, given the £3.5 billion a year coming from the CAP, and the £1.5 billion from import levies, along with many other forms of support that might be called "market externalities". When this crisis is over, a review of the future of agriculture and the countryside should be conducted.
Does my noble friend agree that we should recognise that the Government, in their Statement today and in other Statements, are maintaining a high degree of market intervention? Does he further agree that frustration has been expressed in part over the culling policy, but that that policy is now proving successful--The Times publishes a chart each day showing the reduction in the number of new cases in relation to the epidemiological forecast?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I certainly agree with the last point made by my noble friend. I have made the same point twice in the course of my remarks; namely, that the spread of the disease has now been restricted. Provided that that continues, we can look forward to the time when this disease will have been beaten.
As regards my noble friend's earlier points, it is true that the agricultural sector has received substantial support over the years and that other industries which have been faced with structural change and other pressures--including rural industries such as coal mining--regrettably did not receive the same degree of support. Nevertheless we all recognise that agriculture is a special case. It is important to understand that farmers are being compensated not for their loss of income but for their loss of assets in relation to the beasts that have had to be culled. That distinction must be drawn between agriculture and the rest of industry.
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