27 April 2001
Lax controls let in disease – Hague

The Leader of the Opposition talks exclusively to Jeremy Hunt, north-west England correspondent

TORY Party leader William Hague believes new sources of foot-and-mouth were probably imported into the UK because of lax government controls.

Ministers failed to introduce rigorous controls on meat imports, said Mr Hague in an exclusive interview with FARMERS WEEKLY magazine.

He is calling for immediate action to seize all imports of food into the UK from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic.

Mr Hague said it was “absolutely extraordinary” that the Government had not prioritised the root cause of the outbreak to protect UK farmers.

“Even as we sit here today, there is the possibility that foot-and-mouth disease is being imported into Britain.

“While efforts to eradicate the disease have incurred vast expense and brought severe heartbreak to our rural communities, the future of farming is constantly at risk from meat imports from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic.

“The UK must halt imports of food from these countries. We should not even allow food into the UK from areas within those countries that are considered to be free of foot-and-mouth.

“Food imports are arriving daily from countries like Argentina, Uruguay, Botswana and Namibia. UK regulations restrict imports of meat to areas of these countries that are free of foot-and-mouth disease but how do we know for certain that is the case. There is currently no means of checking-up on this.”

Mr Hague said he understood farmers fear about future disease outbreaks.

“As farmers try and look ahead to re-establishing their businesses they know the enemy out there has not gone away. It came into the UK somehow and we need to find out how and to prevent it striking again.”

He added: We are an island and we should capitalise on our strong position to utilise our geographical status to keep out foot-and-mouth disease.

Mr Hague said the government had failed to “cotton on” to the ongoing threat of future outbreaks of foot-and-mouth.

It had been keen to lecture farmers on changes in farm practices and increased animal movements which it claimed made it harder to control this outbreak.

But Mr Hague said big changes in world trade since the last major outbreak in 1967 had made the UK far more prone to foot-and-mouth in the future.

“We need tighter controls over a broad area to control food coming into the UK from abroad. It is unbelievable that a random sample of 14 jumbo jets produced six tonnes of imported food entering the UK completely unmonitored.

“We cannot have a situation where there is blood oozing from suitcases arriving at Heathrow airport. This must be clamped down on immediately.”

Under a Conservative Government the future of the Ministry of Agriculture and other associated government departments would be reviewed, said Mr Hague/

But he stressed there were even more important issues.

“The importance placed by the future Government on the agricultural industry must be a priority. If there is a silver lining to this tragedy it is that we can finally knock on the head the idea that farming is an insignificant little section of the economy.

“We have now seen how closely inter-related it is to the survival of so many other businesses. Britain needs a prosperous agriculture for the future and it needs a government that understands and respects its vital role in the economy.”

Mr Hague said there was a “strong case” for farmers to receive initial free advice to help them re-structure their businesses in the aftermath of foot-and-mouth.

He described the Governments opinion that the foot-and-mouth crisis was under control as premature.

“I have just met Yorkshire Dales farmers in Aysgarth where livestock on 17 farms – most in the midst of spring lambing – had been slaughtered.

“I have a pyre burning two miles from my home where stock from a further 21 farms have been slaughtered. That doesnt suggest to me that the disease is under control.”

Despite the impact of the armys resources Mr Hague was concerned that MAFF resources were still “over-stretched” by the huge scale of the outbreak.

He called for localised decision making to ease the burden of farmers who needed to move livestock.

“I am very concerned about animal welfare and have been on farms where there are dreadful cases of animals suffering because MAFF resources are overburdened.

“I would advocate more localised decision making where local vets in private practice could license movements,” said Mr Hague.

A national gene bank for all UK livestock breeds should have been established by the government to safeguard valuable bloodlines.

“The Government had allocated funding for scrapie testing within the national flock; now it should bring that funding forward and broaden it to help even more farmers particularly those in the Lake District who are at risk of losing their hefted flocks of fell sheep.

“I have recently met with members of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association who have been trying to work with MAFF on these issues but say there are getting no co-operation.”

Mr Hague said business rates in rural areas should be permanently reduced and an interest-free emergency loan system introduced to help those affected.

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Foot-and-mouth – confirmed outbreaks
Foot-and-mouth – FWi coverage