Holding the government to account over Foot and Mouth
On Tuesday in the Chamber of the House of Commons I listened to the statement by the Secretary of State for DEFRA Hilary Benn MP on the recent Foot and Mouth outbreak.
I and many of my fellow MPs are determined to scrutinise the Government on this key issue, as so many of our farming constituents have endured yet more financial loss and frustration as a result of this outbreak.
Here in Shropshire this latest blow has come on top of a rampant increase in the cases of bovine tuberculosis across the constituency, with the Minister acknowledging that bTb cases have risen by more than 20% in Shropshire over the last 12 months and by nearly 400% in the previous six years, from 39 cases in 2000 to 149 cases in 2006.
When we first heard of the news of the outbreak in Surrey earlier this summer, many farmers in Shropshire telephoned me with their fears and worries, highlighting to me the extent of their individual losses caused by the restrictions imposed on the movement and selling of cattle and meat. Although I believe DEFRA were correct in imposing a ban on the movement of cattle, many individuals have lost thousands of pounds and, in certain cases, tens of thousands of pounds.
In our own county I am sure the figure must come to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds of lost revenue to our already suffering rural communities. In certain cases this latest outbreak has been the straw that has broken the camel’s back and farmers have decided to leave the industry - which is of course the fault of the Government, not only because of their mishandling of the current crisis, but because of 10 years of neglect of British agriculture.
Independent reports have clearly shown that the leak from the Pirbright laboratory came from drainage pipes which had not been properly maintained, so this is a disaster which has been caused by Government incompetence and which could have led to an even greater financial disaster if the outbreak had spread further. Indeed, as we cannot be sure that we are clear of further risk, there may yet be untold damage still to come from this one incident.
We should remember that in the last Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 the total cost to our country came to a staggering £8 billion. So far in 2007 we have got off lightly in comparison, but as the Secretary of State himself admitted, he cannot guarantee further outbreaks will not occur as a result of this leakage at Pirbright.
Throughout the entire debate, the Opposition put some very probing questions to the Government, but the Government either simply ignored, or the else tried to spin their way out of, without admitting any responsibility for this latest disaster to hit our farmers.
It made me especially angry to see the Prime Minister was sitting through the debate smiling and laughing, which was totally inappropriate to an issue is of such gravity. We remember in the summer the extraordinary media coverage he received when he cut short his Dorset holiday to take ‘personal charge’ of the crisis and yet when we get to the heart of the matter, namely compensation for our farmers, the Government has announced a paltry figure of £12 million.
At first glance, this may sound like a great deal of money, but when you think about the thousands of farmers affected around the country it does not scratch at the surface of the actual costs and damages incurred by farming businesses and the families that depend on them. I am currently trying to get estimates of the financial losses sustained by farmers in Shropshire, which I am expecting shortly, but I know that unless we fight for our farmers, they will receive only a fraction of what is owed to them.
I shall be writing to the Speaker to ask for a debate in the House of the Commons on compensation for farmers, so that we can publicly present to the Secretary of State the cases before us. I shall also be writing to the EU Agricultural Commissioner to ask her what assistance our farmers can receive from Europe. I will be urging my fellow MPs here in Parliament to do likewise.
I am also be waiting keenly for a response from the National Union of Farmers as to what action they intend to take over this matter. They, too, need to stand up to the Government and it may even be necessary for them to take this through the Courts. We must all work together to ensure that the Government is held to account over this disaster and their wholly inadequate response to it.