HC Deb 09 April 2001 vol 366 cc705-29 3.30 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak. As I have done on seven previous occasions in past weeks, I wish to update the House, before the Easter recess, on the latest position on the disease, set out the measures that the Government are taking and give right hon. and hon. Members an opportunity to raise issues with me.

As of 7 pm yesterday, Sunday 8 April, there had been 1,134 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease. As of 2 pm today, I had been informed of a further 10 cases. As of 7 pm yesterday, the number of animals authorised for slaughter was 1,366,000, of which 888,000 had been slaughtered and 478,000 awaited slaughter. About 329,000 animals remained to be disposed of. That is out of a total United Kingdom cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million, and against a figure of 500,000 animals that would go for slaughter in a normal trading week.

It is still too early to predict the future course of the epidemic. Epidemiologists are constantly updating their data as the outbreak progresses, but they still cannot say with any certainty how long it will continue. Although there are some encouraging signs, this is an exceptionally serious outbreak with a long phase-out period and we cannot afford a moment's complacency.

There is considerable agreement among the four groups modelling the epidemic. In particular, all have concluded that the two key interventions in tackling the disease are, first, and the highest priority, to cull all animals susceptible to the disease—principally cattle, sheep and pigs—on infected farm holdings within 24 hours; and, secondly, to cull susceptible animals in neighbouring farms that share a boundary—the so-called contiguous cull—within 48 hours.

We appreciate that the latter is very difficult for farmers to accept, but it is vital for the overall success of our disease control policy that all potentially infected animals are culled. I urge farmers, in the strongest terms, to co-operate with us in seeing that through. Expert advice is that those premises will have been exposed to infection and need to be dealt with quickly.

I have written to all livestock farmers making three key points. I have set out advice from the chief veterinary officer on biosecurity on farm. I have urged co-operation with the necessary culling of animals on neighbouring premises to infected holdings. I have also appealed to farmers not to jeopardise their own disease status, and that of other farmers, by moving animals around without a licence. Some of the isolated cases that have appeared in recent days and weeks seem to be directly attributed to farm-to-farm transmission from infected areas to clean areas. That point was made very forcefully to me and the Prime Minister at our meeting this morning with the National Farmers Union, and we share its concerns.

Across the country, the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target is being met in almost 80 per cent. of cases. When cases are not completed within 24 hours, they are being dealt with shortly afterwards. The 48-hour target for contiguous premises is more difficult to meet because of the sheer weight of numbers, but progress is encouraging, with some areas achieving about 70 per cent. within deadline. It is particularly important that we hit that target in any new outbreaks away from the heavily infected areas to prevent further spread, and resources are being concentrated to that end.

In support of that strategy, we have committed more and more resources to ensuring that any possible blockages are removed. We have significantly increased the number of vets on the ground to 1,522, with more being recruited. We are employing more than 650 people as temporary animal health officers, to supplement the 200 regular officers in the state veterinary service. We have appointed 11 directors of operations in the most affected areas. The Army is deployed in all the key areas, with 1,842 troops committed to this outbreak, and I am grateful for the excellent support provided by the Army and the Ministry of Defence.

We have taken other practical steps to eliminate delay. We have introduced a generous standard tariff to speed up the valuation of animals, while at the same time safeguarding farmers' rights. We have reduced the turn-round times for vets visiting farms, wherever possible—for instance, by altering the reporting procedure for new cases.

We are very aware of the financial difficulties that many farmers are facing at this difficult time and we have addressed the problem in four ways. First, compensation for slaughtered animals is currently estimated to reach more than £247 million and is still rising. Secondly, we are paying £156 million in optional agrimonetary compensation to livestock farmers: payments begin this week. The package is worth about £2,750 to the average dairy farmer, £650 to sheep farmers, £650 to suckler cow premium claimants and £450 to beef special premium claimants.

Thirdly, we have introduced the livestock welfare disposal scheme as a last resort for livestock farmers whose animals face welfare difficulties as a result of foot and mouth disease related movement restrictions. The tariffs for animals slaughtered under the scheme are generous. The estimated value of this optional scheme depends, of course, on take-up, but it is likely to be in excess of £200 million.

Fourthly, we have ensured that, where animals slaughtered are the subject of a current subsidy claim, subsidy entitlement will be preserved as a result of the application of EU rules on force majeure. Overall, we have committed more than £500 million to farmers so far in the course of this outbreak.

Vaccination remains an option, but it is not an easy option. There are no easy options. Hon. Members are aware of the arguments for and against vaccination. We are prepared to vaccinate if necessary—we have obtained the approval of the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee for vaccination in the UK under certain circumstances—but it would be a major step to take, with significant consequences. We are constantly reviewing the position and will continue to do so.

Many farmers are currently keeping cattle indoors, which is helping to minimise the risk of the spread of infection. We hope that it may soon be possible to release some areas from restrictions, either completely or partially. There are two aspects. First, we will consider whether we can safely reduce the size of one or two areas that currently extend beyond a 10 km radius.

Secondly, once all the necessary veterinary inspections and blood testing have been completed we will consider lifting one or two infected areas completely where there have been no new cases for 30 days. I hope that it will be possible to start making progress on both those actions in the next week or two, but, again, disease control must remain the priority.

My ministerial colleagues in many other Departments and I are doing all that we can to promote the message that the countryside is not closed. More and more properties and visitor attractions are opening again and being publicised. We hope that over the Easter period visitors will return. We have provided updated advice to zoo owners and to royal parks, which will help them to make decisions on whether to reopen

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is today participating on my behalf in the Informal Council of European Union Agriculture Ministers in northern Sweden. She will update colleagues on the progress of the outbreak here. We are continuing to work very closely with our European Union colleagues, who remain supportive of the efforts that we are making to bring the outbreak to an end.

We will continue to channel all our efforts into ensuring that our targets of 24 hours from report to slaughter, and 48 hours to culling neighbouring farms, are met. With continued support from Members of Parliament, farming organisations and many others, together we can succeed in our aim of eradicating this disease

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am grateful to the Minister for making his statement available a few minutes before he made it to the House.

I shall begin by expressing again my warm appreciation of the efforts of all those who are working to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease. I pay tribute to the role of the Army and the work of vets, slaughtermen and many others engaged in that task. Despite their excellent work, the signs are that foot and mouth disease is not yet under control; I shall return to that in a moment. I am sure that the whole House will unite in expressing deep regret at the scale of the human and animal tragedy now occurring.

In many parts of Britain, farmers are witnessing the destruction of their life's work and the killing of animals that they spent nights and days bringing into the world, nurturing and rearing. Alongside that suffering is another rapidly growing problem: the animal welfare crisis affecting 1.5 million animals, whose owners cannot move them because of foot and mouth restrictions—[Interruption.] I am sure that people who are concerned with animal welfare will note with in Brest the murmuring of Labour Members. There are problems with ewes and lambs in muddy fields and pigs that are in desperately overcrowded conditions; there is real distress as farmers wait for the welfare disposal scheme to start to operate.

On the issue of animals awaiting slaughter under the welfare disposal scheme, will the Minister publish regular figures at least once a week so that the size of that part of the problem can be measured? How long does he expect it to take to cure the large backlog? May I assure him that if special measures or powers are needed for that purpose, we will give our full support to any steps that are likely to be effective?

On the question of compensation, is he aware that I have sent him a letter setting out the categories of farmers who merit additional compensation? In his statement, he referred to agrimonetary compensation. Will he confirm that that was due to farmers because of the weakness of the euro and has no direct relationship with foot and mouth disease?

I do not think that anyone—with the possible exception of the Minister—would try to claim that the disease is under control. Does he agree that if that claim is to be credible, four tests must be met? First, is the 24-hour report-to-slaughter time being met consistently? Secondly, is the geographical spread of the disease being reversed? Thirdly, have the bulk of the movement restrictions on healthy animals been lifted? Fourthly, is the number of confirmed new cases falling steadily? When all four tests have been met I—and, I believe, most others—will agree that the foot and mouth crisis has been resolved. I hope and pray that that day is reached sooner rather than later.

At present, it is hard to judge progress on meeting the first test as the Minister seems to have ceased daily publication of the figures that we need to make that judgment. Until last Thursday, the Ministry published cumulative and daily totals for animals authorised for slaughter; for animals slaughtered; for carcases disposed of; for animals still awaiting slaughter; and for carcases awaiting disposal. Given the Government's readiness to publish figures that contain good news, the suspicion must be that, by failing to update figures daily, they may be concealing the fact that the position is getting worse, not better, especially as the Minister's own figures, which he has just quoted, suggest that the totals are the worst ever in the six and a half weeks since the outbreak was first discovered.

At least 67,000 animals awaiting slaughter last night had been on the waiting list for at least a week. According to the Minister's own targets, no infected animals and no dangerous contact animals should be alive for more than two days. Does he agree that, unless information is available, nobody can judge whether the 24-hour report-to-slaughter target for infected animals and the 48-hour target for dangerous contact animals is being met? Two and a half weeks ago, the chief scientific adviser said that it was essential to meet the first of those targets if the outbreak was to be controlled. Will the Minister confirm that each time he or the Prime Minister says that progress on those targets is being made, they do so on the basis of genuine figures? Will he therefore resume daily publication of those statistics in the five categories that I mentioned? Will he provide the additional breakdown of infected and dangerous contacts that he and I debated in the House last Thursday? Does he agree that as Parliament is starting a 12-day recess tomorrow, daily publication of those figures during the recess becomes absolutely essential?

Does the Minister recognise that there will be great concern at the fact that only 70 per cent. of dangerous contact animals are slaughtered within 48 hours, and only in certain areas? Many dangerous contact animals may contract the infection or be incubating it before they are slaughtered, and the risk of the disease spreading exists from dangerous contact animals, as well as from infected animals.

Turning to the steps that the Government are taking, does the Minister agree that there are frequent reports of delay at the operational level, and of muddle? Does he accept that it would help if an Army commander were put in charge of the slaughter and disposal operation in each region? In this context, will the right hon. Gentleman say from where the 11 directors of operations are drawn? Will he confirm that when the Prime Minister is absent, the meetings of the Government's own crisis management committee, known as Cobra, are chaired not by himself, but by the Secretary of State for Defence, who seems to be unrepresented in the House today, as is the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? Is not the fact that the Secretary of State for Defence chairs the Government's own crisis committee in London a sign that the same approach should be followed on the ground in the regions?

Will the Minister say how many slaughtermen are now being used and whether he is confident that there are enough? How many appeals have been launched by farmers? Does he agree that some appeals may be made because of confusion about what constitutes a contiguous farm? Given that, in some cases, there are reports that, even on a contiguous farm, delays of more than two weeks are occurring before slaughter takes place, some farmers may wonder whether there is any purpose in then slaughtering healthy animals. Surely the purpose of slaughtering animals on contiguous farms is served only if it is carried out quickly.

On vaccination, I understand the difficulty that the Minister has in reaching a decision; it is a finely balanced issue. However, does he realise that he faces this difficulty simply and solely because of the failure of the Government to enforce their previous policy in an effective and timely way? Vaccination is a last resort—an alternative that the Government must now consider because they were too slow in carrying out their own slaughter policy. Will he confirm that it is 10 days since Downing street was spinning that a decision on vaccination would be made in 48 hours?

Does the Minister agree that there are three key questions on vaccination? First, will it speed up eradication of foot and mouth disease? Secondly, will it reduce the number of animals that have to be slaughtered? Thirdly, will it bring forward the date on which Britain's status as a disease-free country is restored? If the answer to at least two of those questions is yes, the case for vaccination is very strong.

Does the Minister agree with those criteria? If he does not, what criteria is he using to decide? Will he publish the scientific advice on which his decision is based? Now that the disease has spread to new, previously uninfected areas—some of which are a long way from existing outbreaks—does he consider that there is a case for using vaccination to create a firebreak around at least one of those areas to help to establish the acceptability and effectiveness of vaccination? While the Government have been contemplating this policy, has a contingency plan been prepared so that stocks of vaccine are in the right place, and have suitably qualified people to administer it been identified?

Will the Government now admit that their own mishandling of the foot and mouth outbreak has contributed significantly to the present scale of the problem? Will the Government recognise that the disease would not have spread as widely as it has if they had taken more prompt and effective action? Will the Minister accept that if he had followed the timely suggestions made by the Conservative party, the situation today would be less serious than it is?

The Governments refusal to learn the lessons of the 1967 outbreak, their neglect of the report of the Northumberland inquiry and western command, their delay in calling in the Army and giving them a fuller operational role and their reluctance to consult epidemiologists about the likely spread and scale of the disease have led to the extent of the present problem.

Together, they amount to ministerial negligence, which has cost thousands of farmers their livelihoods, is day by day inflicting appalling animal suffering, is destroying a sizeable part of Britain's tourist trade and will cost industry and the taxpayer billions of pounds. Against that background, will the Minister share with us, as frankly as possible and as he has promised to do, his views on why the disease is not yet under control? Why do his own figures continue to show a worsening position? Does he recognise, even now, that a more urgent and large-scale response is needed if we are to gain control of this hideous crisis?

Mr. Brown

I set that the bipartisan effort to deal with foot and mouth continues.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the scale of the problem, although that must be obvious to everyone. I thank him, too, for his kind words for those fighting the disease in the field—the civilian and military officials who are bearing down on the terrible outbreak.

The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions, and I shall try to do justice to all of them. I do not think it right to try to turn this matter into a party political issue. The political climate is highly charged at present, but we are discussing a disease outbreak in livestock. The techniques for dealing with it are well understood, and we should be able to discuss the matter in terms of disease control rather than those of party politics.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman the factual answers to his points. There are two types of welfare scheme. There are three welfare livestock movement schemes, and about 90 per cent. of more than 48,000 applications submitted have been approved On average, movement licences are being processed and issued in less than three and a half days from the date of receipt.

On the livestock welfare disposal scheme—a more vexed matter—4,600 farmers have entered 1.6 million animals for that. That is an enormous number of animals, and, to date, only 48,000 have been slaughtered. The 22 abattoirs dedicated to the scheme have the capacity to slaughter around 280,000 sheep, 60,000 pigs and 25,000 cattle each week. Some 230,000 animals are scheduled to be slaughtered over the next few days, and the scheme is being got up and running.

The hon. Gentleman asked about statistics. I shall not repeat our exchange of last Thursday, but we are trying to put together a comparable series of figures. I do not think that he can charge me with publishing "good news figures": I gave the House the facts as frankly as I could in my statement. This terrible outbreak is not "good news". We are doing all that we can to bear down on it, and that should unite the House rather than being a cause of division.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the contiguous cull. He understands as well as I do why that raises difficult issues for individual farmers. He urged us to get on with it and to cull out dangerous contacts within the 48-hour time frame that we set ourselves. I took it from that that he supported our policy, but he went on to ask about vaccination. He was right to say that the arguments on that are not all one way. Am I to assume, however, that he was advocating a policy of vaccination? Was he urging that on us, or was he simply setting it out as an alternative?

The Government's policy is clear: as I said in my statement, we keep vaccination under review, but I shall not move to a vaccination policy without considering all the issues involved, including several difficult ones that we have discussed before. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman did not say whether the Conservative party takes the view that vaccinated animals should be culled out afterwards or should live on. Was he advocating a firebreak vaccination policy, or was he trying to dampen down the disease? Those questions must be answered before a strategy is embarked on, not afterwards.

The hon. Gentleman asked about stocks of vaccine and contingency arrangements. Yes, we have adequate stocks, as I have told the House on previous occasions; and, yes, contingency arrangements are in place, explicitly relating to the outbreak in Cumbria, where the disease is at its most intense. He asked about the number of slaughterers working: the figure for Great Britain is 457.

The hon. Gentleman referred to suggestions from the Conservative party that we should have acted sooner on a range of things. On 11 March, he first suggested that we should bring in the Army; but, in fact, Baroness Hayman had written to the Minister for the Armed Forces on 9 March, requesting a range of logistical support. On 15 March, the hon. Gentleman suggested that we commence on-farm burial; in fact, on farm burial was first used on 2 March. On 13 March, he suggested that veterinarians should be able to authorise immediate slaughter; in fact, that had been MAFF policy since 22 February—more than 95 per cent. of cases are confirmed on that basis.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to agrimonetary compensation and asked me to confirm that it is paid out on the basis of currency movements rather than compensation for foot and mouth disease. That is true, but it should be remembered that the previous Conservative Government did not pay out a per[...]ny of agrimonetary compensation. It was the foot and mouth disease outbreak in this country that informed our decision to draw down the agrimonetary compensation, in order to get aid swiftly to hard-pressed livestock farmers. Moreover, we have negotiated arrangements with the European Union for the payments to be made early.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My right hon. Friend will know that, on Friday, an outbreak was confirmed at Ashes farm in Ruswarp near Whitby. I congratulate all those who so swiftly tried to nip the problem in the bud effectively. Obviously, the tragedy is that contiguous damage has occurred to livestock, but, given the sense of partnership and the mood in our local community, the lack of bipartisan agreement in the House this afternoon would be found offensive. People in Whitby who have worked with me and people in the NFU office in Whitby who have worked so hard to help people get through the difficult decisions that have been needed will find that lack of agreement most offensive.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the farm is close to the North York Moors national park. The big fear in the minds of many farmers—many of my constituents— is the impact of the problem on hefted flocks. Will he assure my constituents and the House that there are contingency plans to try to prevent the spread of this terrible disease on to the moors, where it would cause far more damage than it has done so far?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the heroic efforts that are being made in the farming community, and in rural communities more broadly, to work with the Government and especially local officials to bring this disease outbreak to a conclusion. He is also right to draw attention to the particular issues and set of problems that confront us in dealing with the outbreak as it affects hefted flocks and moorlands. The issue is important in the area that my hon. Friend represents, on Hexham moor in Cumbria and indeed in the south-west as well. The Government are looking at what can be done to try to contain the disease in the very special circumstances of hefted flocks on moors without having to cull out all the animals on the moorlands.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

I, too, thank the Minister for providing us with a copy of his statement a few moments before the debate. I also associate the Liberal Democrats with the words of congratulation and thanks for all those who are working in the field in a demanding and often distressing job.

May I turn to a few practical issues on which, I am sure, many hon. Members have been approached by farmers in their constituencies? On 26 February, I first raised the issue of cattle going beyond the over-30-months limit. What compensation will be offered to those farmers? For those who cannot move their animals and who are now facing horrendous animal welfare problems, will the Minister increase resources to the Intervention Board? That seems to be one of the main problems in clearing the whole issue.

There is a significant backlog; farmers cannot get through; and applications for the animal welfare disposal scheme simply cannot be made.

Will right hon. Gentleman speed up the processing of movement licences for those in unaffected areas, where farmers have waited, sometimes for weeks, to get licences, despite having agreed the sale of their animals with others in unaffected areas? Will he also consider allowing farmers to reclaim the costs of vets' visits, which many of them are now finding very onerous? Those vets' visits are absolutely necessary because of the current FMD outbreak.

Finally, on a more local issue, will the Minister now undertake to instruct the Highways Agency to lay disinfectant matting on the Tamar bridge? He will know that that is a major issue in Cornwall, which is relatively free of the disease, but which is, of course, right next to Devon, which has a significant hot spot. Many farmers and many members of the public simply cannot understand why disinfectant matting cannot be laid on the bridge to provide at least some protection for the farms in south-east Cornwall.

Mr. Brown

I cannot give an instruction to the Highways Agency. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I cannot do so because the Highways Agency does not come under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—as, no doubt, most hon. Members will have spotted.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

It should.

Mr. Brown

I thank the hon. Gentleman for arguing for that extension of my Ministry's powers.

I am advised that the issue of disinfected mats is rather more symbolic than real—that is the professional advice to the Government collectively—nor can I give the hon. Gentleman any comfort on the recovery of the costs of private sector veterinary visits. On movement licences, which he perfectly properly mentions, the best way forward for those in the unaffected areas is to work towards relaxing the movement controls in the disease-free areas, so that movements from farm to slaughterhouse are more easily facilitated. That is the right policy approach, but I cannot yet make an announcement. As soon as veterinarians advise me that it is safe to do so, of course I will.

On the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the welfare disposal scheme, he is of course right. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the scheme has turned out to be very popular. About 1.6 million animals have been offered to the scheme, so extra resources are required to administer it, and extra resources are being moved in. We keep the scheme for over-30-month cattle under review, but I have nothing new to say about that today.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)

May I ask my right hon. Friend to ignore the lectures from the Conservative party, whose record on BSE and other animal health and welfare issues was so abysmal? It ill becomes Conservative Members to come to the House in that mood and with those attitudes in the current circumstances.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his officials for being so helpful in dealing with the animal welfare problems among breeding flocks on the western fells of the Lake district in my constituency. Is he aware, however, that agriculture and tourism are inextricably linked in the Lake district hills and dales, so the Cumbrian economy is grievously damaged by the unprecedented crisis in agriculture? Is it not time urgently to provide a package of measures specifically to help the Cumbrian economy to weather the storm? Is it not also time for the Government, or—dare I say it?—the Treasury to be flexible, imaginative and generous in these unprecedented circumstances?

Mr. Brown

I have as much sympathy as I am allowed to have with what my right hon. Friend has said. He is absolutely right to refer to the inextricable links between tourism and agriculture in Cumbria, and I am pleased that the Ministry has been helpful in dealing with one of a series of difficult issues on the fells in his constituency. He is also right to tell me to be very careful about where I take advice.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

What would the Minister say to my constituent, Mrs. Wilcox of Grove farm, Bletchingdon, which is the parish that is almost next door to Chesterton, where we had an outbreak of foot and mouth some weeks ago? Mrs. Wilcox has 1,000 outdoor sows, producing 500 piglets a week, and she now has 3,000 piglets in temporary straw huts that are flooded because of the exceptionally heavy rain that we have had in Oxfordshire. She requested a welfare cull weeks ago and, although I will not take the Minister through it, there has been a saga of her sending information to MAFF, her vet sending information to MAFF and MAFF saying that it has lost the paperwork and the vet's letters. She got in touch with MAFF on Friday, only to be told that the Ministry had lost all her papers.

Mrs. Wilcox was on the telephone to my office today, almost in tears. The accommodation for her thousands of piglets is bursting at the seams, so what will the Ministry do about such cases? She says that she, the NFU and the National Pig Association cannot get through to anyone on the telephone; but we must have a system so that farmers such as Mrs. Wilcox can have help with their crucial welfare culls.

Mr. Brown

I will ask my private office to take up the constituency case that the hon. Gentleman perfectly rightly raises. Clearly, I cannot give him a response to an individual case across the Dispatch Box, but I will have it examined. He will understand how difficult the foot and mouth outbreak is for the pig sector—fortunately it has not got a hold in areas where pig farming is predominant—and mere are two reasons for that. First, the disease is incredibly infectious in pigs and they multiply the virus very quickly. Secondly, as he knows, because of the stratified nature of the industry, movement restrictions can cause welfare problems very quickly. The hon. Gentleman has nevertheless asked me to deal with that issue, and I will get my private office to consider it.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the statement. May I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)? We need a financial package for Cumbria, which is in the thick of the outbreak and where there is severe financial hardship in some areas. We are getting on with the job in a bipartisan manner without the splits that have appeared here today.

I have two questions for my right hon. Friend. First, now that MAFF owns the lease on the Great Orton aerodrome, which is the mass burial ground for many animals, will he ensure that public health in that area will be looked after not only today and next week but in the many years to come? Secondly, the NFU would like to keep cattle in their sheds—and not turn them out to grass—for one, two or three weeks more. That will cost money; I understand that it is estimated that it would cost £2 million to keep them inside until the end of this month. Will my right hon. Friend consider ways of funding that?

Mr. Brown

On my hon. Friend's second point, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is considering a feedstuff strategy for the infected areas where we believe the disease will be borne down on best by keeping cattle housed for longer than they normally would be. He is considering how we can facilitate that.

On my hon. Friend's question about the aerodrome lease, the disposal site and the public health issues, I can give the assurance that he seeks. As I understand it, there are no public health risks, but it is right that we should not just reassure ourselves about that but explain the reasons to local people. We will ensure that the site continues to be monitored, and I will put such work in place.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Today and tomorrow in my constituency, 3,500 pigs and sheep will be killed. None of them is infected, but they are suffering from animal welfare problems and movement restrictions. Is it too late to provide more flexibility to local vets—they are in the best position to make judgments particularly about the movement of stock over short distances—instead of freezing everything until welfare becomes such a serious problem that it results in the death of many innocent animals?

Mr. Brown

I do not quarrel with the underlying thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question. I am trying to free up the movement restrictions so that we can facilitate the normal workings of the trade. I thick we all agree that that is the best way forward. However, I can do that only in a way that is compatible with the veterinary advice on disease control that is available to me. As soon as I can do what the hon. Gentleman asks, I assure him that I will.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I remind the Minister that some areas are not co-operating fully. On the west highland way, which passes through my constituency and attracts more than 1 million visitors every year, landowners are reverting to type and using the foot and mouth crisis to deny people access to it. Will he remind such individuals to put agriculture in perspective? It provides 0.8 per cent. of employment in the country and 1.8 per cent. of gross domestic product. Tourism is the jewel in our crown and we need full co-operation from the farming and agricultural communities.

Mr. Brown

Many matters are devolved and not my responsibility. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend makes a powerful point: tourism is an incredibly important industry in northern Scotland, where there is no foot and mouth disease.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Last Saturday, I attended a public meeting in my constituency on the Ministry's proposals for a burial site in the parish of Petrockstowe. My constituents will stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with farmers because they understand that hundreds of thousands of carcases cannot lie on adjoining farms for days and weeks on end. However, the problem is gaining access to the site. The choice, which is devastating the village, is to drive through its narrow lanes—or, alternatively, to use the main road via the clayworks. I believe that the owners of the clay company are using this dire crisis to blackmail the Government and my constituents in an endeavour to secure extortionate terms. Will the Minister immediately exercise emergency powers to ensure that the right of way will go through the clayworks to the burial site, not through the village or its narrow lanes, which are utterly unsuitable?

Mr. Brown

Because the hon. Gentleman asked me to, I have considered the problem. As I understand it, there are three possible routes of access: through the village, off the main road or through the clayworks. He is right to say that the private sector owns the clayworks and is denying the Government access. It is an intractable problem. I have every sympathy with him—

Mr. Burnett

Use emergency powers.

Mr. Brown

I do not have emergency powers to seize property owned by the private sector, as opposed to the Government. However, I shall do what I can to resolve the issue, to which I have given careful consideration.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

My right hon. Friend will know that last week the Peak district national park had its first suspected outbreak. That was investigated by vets almost a week ago and it has still not been confirmed. Nothing has been done on the contiguous farms. Clearly, when the rest of the Peak district economy is starting to bottom out and improve, it is important that we know as quickly as possible not only if the case is confirmed, but how the exceptionally isolated incident occurred.

Mr. Brown

We need to be careful collectively in dealing with predicted sporadic outbreaks. What we cannot predict is where they will occur. Initial testing shows that the holding in my hon. Friend's constituency is clear of the disease. However, it may be too early to give a final confirmation of that. Like everyone else, I hope that it is clear.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

On a serious problem that might affect arable areas, Stevadore and a grain merchant company have told me that the market in the export of grain has collapsed. There is no official embargo, but privately, people abroad have decided not to buy British grain. Will the Minister take the opportunity to make a firm statement that there is no possibility of grain being a vector of foot and mouth and that no one need be concerned about British grain? Will he do his utmost to ensure that our European partners make that clear on the continent? If the export of grain is collapsing, that could have devastating economic consequences in the eastern regions. Will he consider providing compensation for that?

Mr. Brown

I am familiar with one incident, which I hope is isolated, in which there was an argument about a grain shipment which was based on misapprehensions about foot and mouth disease. Grain is not a means of conveying the virus.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the case in south Lancashire, in my constituency. It is now almost seven weeks since it was identified, and poultry, pig, beef and sheep farming in the area faces severe welfare problems. What help can my right hon. Friend give? Can we lift the section D notices and allow the movement of animals as soon as possible, or can we ensure that the Intervention Board works more speedily? I know that it is in a period of crisis management because of the number of cases that it is dealing with, but something must be done to ease the plight of farmers in Chorley. I cannot stress enough the importance of that or of the scale of the tragedy that they face. It is not in the interests of the House that it should attempt to make political gain out of the farming crisis; that is wrong, and the House will not have credibility as long as it is allowed to happen.

Mr. Brown

I must say that I agree with all three points made by my hon. Friend. The credibility of the House is best served when we are seen to debate, in a politically non-partisan way—[Interruption]—the great issues that confront our country.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

What about BSE?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman shouts away, but he might just consider how I dealt with the Phillips report in the House. I took great care not to be party political, and I wonder whether it would have been the same if we had been in opposition and the Conservative party had been in government.

On the points made by my hon. Friend, I am allocating extra resources to the Intervention Board. He can assure his constituents that as soon as veterinary advice enables me to lift movement restrictions, even partially, I will do so.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The crisis has been going on for at least seven weeks, and the number of animals slaughtered in that time is dwarfed by the number on the welfare scheme, so it will take longer than seven weeks to put that scheme into effect. Will the Minister therefore consider allocating extra resources to get the scheme up and running, and indeed completed? Will he consider also clearing licences for animals that require them and that could go to slaughter in the zones that are not affected by the disease? That would help to ease the welfare problem.

Mr. Brown

At the moment, I cannot relax the licensing scheme even in the controlled areas, but as I have just told my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), as soon as it is possible to relax restrictions, which would have to be done on veterinary advice, I will of course do so. I am considering how practical it is to allow movement of livestock that are trapped in the infected areas to go to abattoirs in those areas and then on through the food chain. That may be possible. Of course, the priority must be to control the disease, and movement controls are vital to its extermination.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Cornwall county council, local MAFF officials and the National Farmers Union on today opening up sections of the Cornish coastal path? Does he agree that the news, along with the opening of the Eden project and the fact that many of our gardens and all our beaches are open, means that there is much to attract visitors to Cornwall this Easter?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate local officials, public sector employees, local government and the local NFU on working together for the benefit of Cornwall, and on giving the clear impression that agriculture and tourism go hand in hand and can work together.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

What advice has the Minister received from his officials or others about the nature of the outbreak compared with 1967? Why do they believe that the contiguous cull is necessary, especially where cattle are still being wintered in? The Minister will recall that in the 1967 outbreak the disease skipped farms and areas, and there was no rhyme nor reason to it. Secondly, will he confirm that until the House passes an order, the contiguous cull is voluntary and is illegal otherwise?

Mr. Brown

If animals are dangerous contacts and deemed so by the veterinary authorities, the cull is not voluntary; it is mandatory. If farmers are in the controlled zone but outside any other 3 km zone, and if they voluntarily give up their animals for a firebreak policy, as is happening in southern Cumbria, that is voluntary and not mandatory. However, the Government have the power to slaughter any animal that is deemed on veterinary advice a dangerous contact and at risk of carrying infectivity. It is not necessary for the clinical signs of the disease to be apparent, as a matter of veterinary judgment.

On the comparisons between the 1967 outbreak and the present one, I went into that issue in some detail in my previous address to the House. The two outbreaks are not directly comparable. There are various features now that are different from what happened then. The two most important are the fact that, in 1967, there was not the rapid movement of animals around the country that there is now—there was not the highway infrastructure. Also, as the hon. Lady well knows, the 1967 outbreak was predominantly in cattle and pigs and in the midland belt of England, including her constituency, whereas the outbreak now is predominantly in sheep and predominantly a phenomenon of the western part of Great Britain, with hot spots particularly in lowland Scotland, Cumbria and Devon.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

There are now 14 outbreaks of foot and mouth in Monmouthshire and the situation is extremely grave. I was speaking to farmers in the Chepstow area this morning, where it has been particularly serious. The 48-hour contiguous cull has far from been reached in that area, despite discussions that took place when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attended my constituency last Tuesday. We were assured by the Assembly Minister, Carwyn Jones, that there would be liaison officers in Monmouthshire in a day or two, but I am not aware that they have yet been appointed. I also point out to my right hon. Friend the concern of farmers in areas winch border England. There may be an outbreak, say, in Herefordshire, but there may be contiguous farms in Monmouthshire. Who is responsible for notifying those farmers?

Mr. Brown

The contiguous farm policy applies even across borders pertaining to the responsibilities of different Ministers. I had an opportunity to discuss some of the issues with the Agriculture Minister for Wales this morning, and with leaders of the farmers unions in Wales, as well. We are all working together for a common purpose, but I will draw my hon. Friend's specific remarks to the attention of the Welsh Agriculture Minister.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The Minister will understand that farmers whose animals have had foot and mouth infections and who want to stay in the business are putting aside the compensation payments that they have received to restock after the crisis is over. Given the limited entitlement to social security benefits for people who are in businesses that are making no money, can the Minister advise them of what they are meant to live on?

Mr. Brown

I have set out the support payments available to farmers in those circumstances, and I understand that the social security arrangements, where they obtain, have been carefully set out. The big decision for farmers who have received a compensation payment is whether to restock the farm holding or renew any tenancy arrangements that may have been interrupted, or whether to pause and think very carefully about what the future holds for them.

There is a serious discussion still to be had with the industry about the shape of support payments and in particular the future support arrangements for the sheep regime. The hon. Gentleman is familiar with some of the issues involved—the hill farm allowance, the sheep premium regime in the European Union, how far we are to make use of the second pillar of the rural development regulation, and how far we should advance our plans for genotyping the national flock to make it more scrapie resistant. These are all issues to be discussed with the industry, but our first priority must be to defeat the disease.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement about his plans for easing restrictions in some areas. Is he aware that the NFU in Northamptonshire is keen for restrictions to be eased locally, especially in view of the size of the area to which they apply and the length of time that has passed since the case that we had? Can he say a little more about the areas in which he is considering easing the restrictions, and about the timetabling of the decision, so that my farmers know roughly when they can expect some movement in that respect?

Mr. Brown

I cannot set a clearer timetable than the one I set out in my statement, because all these matters depend on veterinary advice. It is the areas where earlier outbreaks occurred—especially those in the east of the country—that seem to be early candidates for the lifting of movement restrictions and the return to more normal trade. I have under active consideration the question of whether it will be possible to do something further with the areas that have remained disease free throughout the outbreak, including East Anglia, the north of Scotland and west Wales. However, it would be dangerous to set a timetable for what is, after all, a biological phenomenon. I am advised that unexpected outbreaks are still likely to occur. By far the best thing we can do is to bear down quickly on such outbreaks and cull out the infected animals and contiguous premises.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Minister now respond to the requests that I made some two or three weeks ago and consider vaccination at least in respect of rare and pedigree breeds in this country? Such breeds are priceless and can never be revived. Will he also look favourably on a request that was made by a number of farmers regarding the 30 mile exclusion zone that extends from Hawes? The affected area is much wider than the recommended 10 km zone.

Mr. Brown

I asked representatives of the National Sheep Association this morning whether they believed that vaccination would play any part in a rare breed survival strategy. Their answer was an emphatic no. It is not that I have not thought about the issue or that I do not have it under consideration—I can assure the hon. Lady that I do. However, there are very strong arguments against the use of vaccination even in trying to protect rare breeds. The people who care for the industry most and who know it best are firmly opposed to the use of a vaccination strategy, but we are considering other things that we can do to protect rare breeds, including the preservation of genetic material.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

Although it is gratifying that the number of new cases seems to be falling daily, the evidence of the past few days, which shows that the spread of the disease extends well beyond the areas where most of it has been found before, is extremely worrying. For example, a case recently arose in south Wales, in Nelson, near Caerphilly. Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether the investigations of the National Assembly for Wales, MAFF or the Scottish Parliament have produced any ideas about whether such outbreaks are caused by airborne factors, careless movement of vehicles on farm-related business, or unauthorised movements? Also, what is being done to try to get up to speed on culling in contiguous areas?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right that more needs to be done to ensure that the culling out of contiguous premises is achieved within our target range of 48 hours. As to the cause of sporadic outbreaks, more work still needs to be done, but it seems that they are caused by farm-to-farm transmission.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us who attended the presentation that he kindly arranged last week came away feeling that there will be no future for hefted sheep or moorland animals unless he accepts a policy of vaccination very soon? Does he accept that many farmers in my constituency and elsewhere feel that, despite all his good intentions, which are not in dispute, there is a lack of co-ordination and clarity, and no central direction? His answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) about disinfectant on the Tamar bridge illustrated that point. Who precisely is in charge? Who can take the decisions and lead the national fight against this national scourge?

Mr. Brown

On the Tamar bridge, the advice that is available to the Government suggests that the disinfected mats are of only marginal utility. Of course, the objection to them is that they might do more harm than good. On the broader question of hefted sheep on moorlands, and in Cumbria in particular, there are several strategies for saving them, including vaccination. I have not ruled the latter out, but there are several other approaches, including containment and testing of animals to see precisely where the disease is. Let me make it absolutely clear that I am not for the gratuitous culling of animals. It may be possible to deal with the problem just by containing it.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Farmers in Warwickshire to whom I spoke today are anxious for a speeding up of the slaughter rate under the welfare scheme. Can my right hon. Friend say more about the additional resources that he can provide for the purpose?

May I introduce a word of bipartisan encouragement? Mr. Philip Bushill-Matthews recently wrote in my local newspaper an article that begins by congratulating the Government on their handling of the foot and mouth outbreak. He is the Conservative MEP for the West Midlands.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful for that bipartisan support. As for speeding up the slaughter element of the welfare scheme, we are bringing onstream sufficient capacity to take out around a quarter of a million animals a week, and some 230,000 are lined up for slaughter in the next few days.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

May I urge the Minister to devote more resources to the clearance of carcases in Devon? Now that more progress is being made with the cull, carcases are literally piling up and typically not being moved for seven, eight or even nine days. What advice does the Minister suggest I give to constituents who are complaining about the effluent from carcases running into duck lakes or past their front doors, about carcases piled up on the school bus route and even about carcases between two caravan parks, which, obviously, are causing a serious odour problem?

Is the Minister aware that his officials in Exeter say that a lack of trucks to move the carcases is one of the problems? Can he do something about that? Farmers are threatening to turn up and deliver the carcases to the Ministry if the trucks do not collect them.

Mr. Brown

A lack of sealed trucks suitable for moving the animals to disposal sites is part of the problem, but at the heart of it has been the difficulty of finding a suitable disposal route, or series of disposal routes, in Devon. That has been an intractable problem throughout Great Britain while we have been dealing with the outbreak, but it has proved particularly difficult in Devon for a range of local reasons. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with all those reasons, and merely stating them will not, of course, solve the problem. As was demonstrated by the discussion that I just had with his hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), it is very difficult to find disposal routes in the west country that are acceptable to the Environment Agency and also to local people. However, we are doing our best and we believe that we now have suitable disposal sites.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Does it not beggar belief that there should be any unauthorised movements at all? Seven weeks into this contagion, there are still farmers out there moving livestock that can contaminate healthy beasts. Has the Minister made any estimate of the number of unauthorised movements? If we track down those irresponsible farmers, what sanctions can we use against them?

Mr. Brown

Those who break the law will be prosecuted, and prosecutions are pending. I cannot give an estimate of illegal activity, but let me say this: the overwhelming majority of farmers who have been hit by this terrible disease outbreak have behaved not just responsibly but wry bravely, in the most adverse circumstances. I pay tribute to the law-abiding majority, who are working hind in hand with the Government to bear down on the disease.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister accept that one way of fighting the disease is for the Opposition parties to do what they are there for—to hold the Government to account and ask questions? If they do not, government will be worse than it would be otherwise.

Does the Minister also accept that the debate on vaccination will not go away until he sets out clear criteria against which we can judge whether the circumstances have indeed arrived in which vaccination can be resorted to, or ought to be resorted to? At present, it is being floated almost as an abstract concept. Until we know how the Minister will reach such a conclusion and in what circumstances, he will become increasingly frustrated by our questions and we shall become increasingly frustrated by his answers.

Mr. Brown

I have no quarrel with the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. As for the second, more targeted part about vaccination, there is a range of ways in which a vaccination strategy might be used. They all have their difficulties as well as their claimed benefits. The matter has been much discussed in public; moreover, I arranged a presentation on the issues yesterday and was pleased to observe a good attendance on the part of Members on both sides of the House. I look forward to giving evidence on the question of vaccination to the Select Committee, when the Select Committee is ready to receive me.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

As a Hertfordshire Member, a county where the disease has not yet occurred, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware of the remarks of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) that to have a burial site in Hertfordshire would be "reckless"? Will my right hon. Friend take my assurance that I believe that the county should do everything that it can to play its role in helping to deal with a national crisis? Furthermore, will he assure me that there will be no limitation on movements and no other dangers involved in the policy, which I have broadly welcomed?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I under stand that it is the Opposition's policy to advocate the burial of carcases rather than on-site burning to dispose of them. I may be wrong, and perhaps there is a different policy for Hertfordshire.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Minister's policy of taking potentially risky carcases across safe areas to sites where a huge pyre will be built to burn them has been much criticised by experienced vets of 1967, and runs counter to the recommendations set out in the 1969 report. The situation has been made worse by the muddle in deciding who accepts that the site is right. Sites in my constituency have been approved by the Environment Agency, but have been the subject of massive disapproval from everyone else. Other sites have been approved by other agencies but blocked by the Environment Agency. Who decides? Is it MAFF, the Army or the Environment Agency? Will the right hon. Gentleman let me know? Some of my constituents, such as the Arrowsmiths, have had rotting carcases on their farms for six days.

Mr. Brown

I read in the newspapers over the weekend that the hon. Gentleman thought that foot and mouth had been caused by an escaped virus from Porton Down, or a stolen virus. If he really believed that, he would have asked me about it, rather than drawing my attention to quarrels about landfill and burial sites. There will always be such quarrels. Whether it is safe environmentally to use them is, of course, a matter for the professional views of those at the Environment Agency. It is not clever to drop a lot of dead animals in the water supply. We must take these environmental considerations into account. We must take into account also the views of local people, who may agree with burial or landfill as a general proposition, but become much more sceptical about it if it is to be done near where they live.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Is the Minister aware that his Department's guidance—urging the reopening of some public footpaths—is being ignored by a number of county councils, thereby delivering a further and entirely avoidable blow to the tourism industry in the run-up to Easter? Will he confirm that there has never been a case of foot and mouth being spread by a walker?

Mr. Brown

There are always uncertainties about the way in which foot and mouth disease is spread. It happens mostly by animal-to-animal contact or by farm-to-farm spread. Although I do not know of a case of a walker having spread foot and mouth disease, I cannot say definitively that it has never happened. However, all these issues must be dealt with in a sensitive and proportionate way. My advice remains the same: that those who enjoy the countryside should stay away from farmed livestock, but otherwise enjoy the countryside; the countryside is not closed.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does the Minister accept that it is not only in Banbury where there are problems with the welfare disposal scheme? In Leicestershire, farmers have been quoted three weeks to a month. There are piglets trying to eat other piglets. The situation is desperate. If the right hon. Gentleman is to solve the problem, he will have to introduce a massive increase in resources now—he might have to bring in the Army—otherwise, he will never cope with the problem.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the contiguous slaughter in Leicestershire is running at 120 hours and not 48? When, finally, will he answer my questions about homeopathic borax, which has been shown in previous outbreaks to go a long way towards preventing animals from getting foot and mouth disease? Why will he not at least set in motion a trial? I have raised the matter with him on several occasions. I have tabled written questions and I have raised the matter with the Prime Minister. When will we get an answer? When will chemists get some instructions?

Mr. Brown

On the hon. Gentleman's final point, I concede that he is due an apology from me. He has asked twice about the use of borax as an alternative therapy. That is a matter of professional judgment, but I have promised him a reply twice and he has not yet received one. He should have done so before now, and I shall ensure that he receives a reply.

On the welfare disposal scheme, I have explained the substantial demand and the need for extra resources to ensure that it carries out its functions. We are also prioritising work by trying to deal with the hardest cases first. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the stratified nature of the modern pig industry and the welfare problems that movement restrictions quickly create. I shall draw the constituency case that he raised to my officials' attention and ascertain whether I can get something done about it.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I think that my right hon. Friend understands that the tourism industry as well as agriculture is greatly affected in Devon as well as in Cumbria. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and others, I ask him to urge his colleagues to make available an appropriate package of assistance.

On a visit by the Paymaster General at the weekend, it became clear in discussions with Mr. David Beardsley, the secretary of the Federation of Small Businesses for Devon, that we need enough good-quality business advisers on the ground to assist people who are taking the difficult business decisions that hon. Members have mentioned to make sensible decisions and to know what is already available. That was more than the people to whom we spoke realised.

Mr. Brown

As my hon. Friend knows, I am passionately committed to business advice for those whose farm-based businesses are in transition. I secured moneys last year specifically for helping smaller farmers through the period of transition. The scheme is available to all farmers, and I have managed to carry the underspend on that budget into this financial year. Clearly, the special case that can be made for Cumbria and the west country means that they will be treated as priorities when resources are allocated.

Moreover, I promise to draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who is considering those issues more generally.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Today is the last opportunity for the Minister to come to the House before the recess. I want to call every hon. Member, but I need the assistance of those who wish to speak. Questions must be brief so that I can call every hon. Member.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Obviously, the sympathy and understanding of the tourism industry are crucial if we are to crack the problem of foot and mouth. What has happened to the taskforce? The Chief Secretary is present. Will we have a statement about the taskforce's proposals before the House rises? An announcement about the small firms loan guarantee scheme will not begin to tackle the scale of the problems. People believed that they faced a problem that would last three to six weeks. Those in the tourism sector realise that this year is almost a write-off for them. The question for some facilities is not whether the countryside is open for business but whether they will ever be open again.

Mr. Brown

The question goes slightly wider than my ministerial responsibilities, but I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, who chairs the taskforce. I understand that there will be no statement before the House rises; I accept that that is no comfort to the right hon. Gentleman and I shall try to provide a fuller reply that is.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in times of crisis, it is important for the Government to have a surplus, not a deficit? Do farmers who receive the compensation ever thank him for the fact that the Labour Government have a surplus in their budget, not a deficit like that lot opposite? Do they tell him that they will vote Labour this time, instead of voting for that lot who left them not only in the lurch but with BSE?

Mr. Brown

Those points are often made to me, but in private.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

The Minister understands that the recent outbreak is a devastating blow to livestock producers in south-east Scotland. The borders is one of the principal world centres for breeding sheep, especially Cheviots. Will the Minister re-examine the position whereby local vets have discretion about the 3 km cull? Everyone understands that, if there is a suspected case on a farm, slaughter is the only option in the infected place and on the contiguous farms. However, mass prosecution of a 3 km cull dictated by MAFF in London without proper reference to local vets could decimate the local economy and the sheep industry in south-east Scotland.

Mr. Brown

Administration of those matters is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is a matter for the Scottish Minister rather than me, although we all receive the same professional advice. I do not want to go further because there is local discretion and it is up to the Scottish Minister with responsibility for agriculture how that is exercised.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Where do we stand now in terms of collection centres? The Minister will know that, for the small producer, sending small loads to an abattoir is pretty uneconomic. A collection centre would be much more practical for that person.

Mr. Brown

The point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes is absolutely correct. As he will recall, at the beginning of the outbreak, I had hoped that it would be possible to set up collection centres specifically to help smaller farmers to assemble sufficient batches to go in commercially attractive groups into the abattoir and the food chain. So far, it has not been possible to do that, but, as soon as it is possible to bring such a system into play, I would like to do so.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Is the Minister aware that, last week, the leader of Kent county council, in an attempt to explore the possibility of reopening footpaths in Kent, asked the Minister for the Environment how an area might be moved from the "at risk" category to the "provisionally free" category? He was told to ask MAFF. The next day, he asked MAFF and he was told to ask the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Does that not epitomise the way in which the crisis has been mishandled by the Government?

Mr. Brown

I suspect that there is more to the story than that. In any event, I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I can travel the same journey together in steadily liberalising the regime in east Kent.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Has the Ministry any guidelines on the siting of cremation pyres? May I draw to the Minister's attention the problem that I have in my constituency? A cremation pyre is being built in Hood lane, near Longdon in Staffordshire, within 200 yards of a village. Does he accept that, whatever the reality of the toxicity of the smoke, people are very concerned about the smells and the dirt? There are a number of people with asthma, emphysema and other breathing problems. Is there any way that the pyre can be moved before it is ignited tomorrow morning?

Mr. Brown

I do not want to intervene in the local decision-making process. There are consultations and a range of different factors is taken into account, including the wishes of local people. These are not very popular neighbours, yet it is essential to dispose of the carcases. I am afraid that I can give the hon. Gentleman no more satisfaction than that.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

May I share with the Minister the increasing sense of despair among many farmers in my constituency? Silage is running out; access to summer pastures is denied; and there is a real problem with the Intervention Board. There was also a problem with licensing from restricted areas to non-restricted areas; I accept the Minister's figures on licensing without restricted areas. Will he set targets for the welfare-to-slaughter scheme, so that we can measure progress? Does he accept that the maintenance of my party's bipartisan approach in Wales depends on the Government and the Minister meeting their own targets? There is still a gap there. Will he do more to ensure that the welfare-to-slaughter scheme can work and that we get the slaughter within 24 hours?

Mr. Brown

I have candidly set out for the House both the targets across Great Britain and the rate at which they are currently being achieved, and said that extra resources are still being brought in to ensure that we get even closer to those targets than we are doing now. As the hon. Gentleman will know, administration of the fight against the disease in Wales is, of course, a devolved matter for the Welsh Assembly. However, I promise him that there is very close co-operation and co-ordination between my Ministry, which is dealing with the outbreak in England, the Welsh Assembly, which is dealing with it in Wales, and the devolved authorities in Scotland.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

My local NFU has approached me and, I imagine, most of my colleagues in Kent about the future of the Invicta abattoir at Lamberhurst. I am sure that, like many other abattoirs, the Invicta abattoir is currently suffering from a lack of trade. However, if it closes, it will not be available to assist with culls or any other action that is needed in the future. Can the Minister reassure me that such essential abattoirs will remain open during this period?

Mr. Brown

We have tried very hard, even before this disease outbreak, to support abattoirs, and there are various public policy reasons for our wanting to do so. I am not familiar with the particular circumstances of the Lamberhurst abattoir to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but if he would like to write to me about them, I shall certainly investigate and see what I can do.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

West Sussex has had the good fortune not to be infected, partly because of the care taken by farmers. Some 10 days ago, two landfill sites were designated in the Horsham district council area, but I am very pleased to say that, on Friday, I was advised that MAFF had reversed the decision. Nevertheless, that risk seemed to arise initially because of a complete lack of liaison between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions—which had designated the sites—the Environment Agency, county councils, district councils and MAFF. As was reconfirmed today in a letter from MAFF, those sites could have been used for animals slaughtered in contiguous culls. Is there adequate liaison on those matters between all those who are involved in them?

Mr. Brown

Yes, there is. The difficulty, of course, is the need to consult a great many people about a range of different options and to do that as rapidly as possible. An enormous amount of work is being undertaken, but the time constraints are very short. Although that might seem like confusion to the outsider, mostly it is not—it is a lot of people working very hard to very tight deadlines. The hon. Gentleman said that he is pleased that that option will not be taken in the area that he represents and I understand why he says that. However, may I gently say to him that burial is the option being advocated to me by Opposition Front Benchers?

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The Minister will know that the first and main conclusion of the western command report, which was issued after the 1967–68 outbreak, was that standing instructions should be provided for any further foot and mouth outbreak. Will he not only tell us whether any such standing instructions exist, but ensure that they are placed in the Library so that we know exactly whether they have been followed? Secondly—as DETR Ministers are not in the Chamber—will he, please, inform his colleagues that those who live in Stafford borough council area and Newcastle-under-Lyme cannot understand why, under current rules, they do not qualify for business rate relief? Will he, also take such action as comes generally within his purview to ensure that they ale put on the list?

Mr. Brown

I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's public expenditure bid to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. As for the 1967 outbreak, in my last address to the House, I set out some of the differences between what is happening to us now and what happened in 1967. The features of this outbreak are unique and there is no map to guide us through it. On the specific subject of burial, the use of burial on the small farms and for the small numbers of animals that pertained in 1967 is quite different from the type of circumstances pertaining now. We really do have to be sensitive to the dangers to the water supply and to the water table features.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

On bipartisanship, may I caution the Minister about relying too heavily on the words of the Conservative MEP Philip Bushill-Matthews, who was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt)? That article was written four weeks ago, when we were all a good deal less unhappy than we are now with the handling of the crisis. More substantially, the Minister will be aware that the disease seems to be growing very fast in Worcestershire and that that is a matter of considerable concern. That is probably one of the reasons why residents in the vicinity of the Throckmorton airfield site—which is being used as a mass burial site by his Department—are not objecting to the principle of burial on the site, despite the fact that there was absolutely no consultation with them before the announcement. However, could he, please, ensure that the 25 or so parliamentary questions that I have tabled on the site are answered rapidly? Could he also, either now or in writing later, give me an assurance that there will be no burning of animal carcases whatever at the site?

Mr. Brown

I shall do my best to ensure that the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary questions are answered both rapidly and accurately, although it is not always as easy as it might appear to achieve both those aims. I shall check with my officials, and if I can give him the assurance that he seeks, I shall write to him within the next day.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

May I urge the Minister to establish an MPs' hotline? As the recess begins tomorrow, it is essential that it should be operating and properly staffed. How many extra staff has he taken on in his office, as that has been one of the few routes by which MPs have been able to raise serious issues on behalf of constituents? The Intervention Board is clearly in crisis. Mr. John Barnett, of Mickley hall, in Broomhall near Nantwich in Cheshire, now has more than 1,000 pigs waiting to be accepted for the animal welfare slaughter scheme, even though he applied on 23 February. As of today, he has still received no response, despite many assurances in the meantime.

Mr. Brown

I have already explained the pressures that the scheme is under. A hotline has been established for Members of Parliament, and I shall give the hon. Gentleman the number when this exchange comes to an end. The strengthening of private offices has been undertaken in the Ministry. Two extra people in my office are dealing with incoming inquiries, of which there have been about 120 from Members of Parliament alone.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

What advice and assistance have been given to the National Trust and other owners of deer parks, such as Dunham Massey in my constituency, on the steps that have been taken to safeguard the deer on their properties? In particular, what consideration has been given to the possibility of vaccination to protect those animals?

Mr. Brown

I understand from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that advice has been issued on the management of deer. The most recent veterinary advice that I saw was that there was not a case for culling wild deer, on the ground that it would do more to spread the disease than to eliminate it. There are continuing discussions with those who have responsibility for managing substantial tracts of land on how to handle wildlife during this disease outbreak.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Wiltshire is one of the areas approaching, we hope and pray, clean status, the last outbreak having been something like a month ago. Will the Minister give careful consideration to raising the restrictions there, as well as in the areas in the east of England that he mentioned earlier? Will he also give some thought to three issues that have been raised with me that could put that status in jeopardy?

First, we accept the need to bury, and Wiltshire is prepared to play its part in taking carcases from elsewhere for burial—that is a reasonable thing for a county such as ours to do—but will the Minister give farmers and the tourism industry an absolute assurance that lorries travelling through the constituency are 100 per cent. disinfected and totally safe? I am sure that they are, but farmers seek reassurance on the point.

Secondly, those farmers who have been granted licences have to take their lorries into Gloucestershire in order to go to disinfection centres, because there are so few centres around. Will the Minister consider opening new disinfection centres in Army, RAF or local authority sites, so that lorries need not go into infected areas before returning to Wiltshire?

Thirdly, when it comes to lifting the restrictions, which we all hope will be soon, will the Minister consider doing that progressively, following the same pattern as the outbreak, so that abattoirs and other parts of the infrastructure are not suddenly heaped with a huge burden that they cannot handle?

Mr. Brown

All three points are good and fair. We are considering lifting the restrictions in the hon. Gentleman's area, but I cannot give him a timetable. We are also considering whether it can be done in phases, rather than in one single move. We are further considering whether it will be possible to establish new disinfection centres, for exactly the reasons that he outlined. He accurately described the regime that is supposed to apply to the movement of vehicles. The vehicles are inspected to ensure that they conform to the standards that we have set out. The disease spread risk is absolutely minimal.

I understand why people want reassurances, and the hon. Gentleman was right to ask for them. I am happy to give him the reassurances that I have just set out.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the House would want me to thank the Minister for making his statement and replying to every hon. Member who sought to question him.