HC Deb 23 April 2001 vol 367 cc5-7
4. Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton)

If he will make a statement on the role of the armed forces in tackling the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. [156930]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

May I, first, take this opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces, to the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the state veterinary service and other Government Departments and to the many volunteers who are working so hard to combat this disease?

The armed forces have responded speedily and effectively to various requests from MAFF for assistance. Their mission is to provide logistical and organisational support, and thereby contribute to the eradication of the disease and to the return to normality in the countryside. Military personnel have supplemented MAFF regional staff in the co-ordination and best use of contractor teams and other Government assets involved in disposing of carcases. They have also provided direct support to MAFF at other stages of the reporting, identification, culling and disposal chain and in the disinfection of premises.

Mr. Olner

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I also pay tribute to the armed forces for the work that they have been seen to have done on the ground. Given that the current outbreak is far tougher to deal with than the one that took place in 1967—that is due in part to the vastly increased number of sheep movements across the country—are there any further roles that the armed forces can play, particularly in the vexed question of the disposal of carcases?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, in particular for his observations on the comparison between the current outbreak and that in 1967. We estimate that as many as 2 million movements of sheep might have been made before this outbreak was detected, which has presented considerable difficulties in tracking down the disease and in dealing with it. I am also grateful for his comments on the role of the armed forces, which continue to provide support to MAFF. Indeed, I anticipate that a further deployment of logistic troops will be made to Devon to deal with the backlog of carcases in that county.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The Secretary of State may be aware that a case of foot and mouth confirmed yesterday arose because the infection was carried on a person's clothing. Will he give an assurance that every step is taken to ensure that no infection is carried by the clothing of members of the armed forces who deal with foot and mouth infected animals?

Mr. Hoon

Certainly the armed forces that are involved in combating the disease ensure that their organisation, behaviour and individual activities do not contribute to the spread of foot and mouth. Indeed, we severely restricted training by the armed forces to ensure that they did not use land that might cause them to spread the disease.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about extra armed service personnel coming to Devon to add to the excellent work that they are doing from the Ministry's offices in Exeter. However, is he aware that their job is being severely hampered by the desperate shortage of disposal sites in our county—[Interruption.] Yes, Devon sunshine. Had hon. Members come to Devon, they would have the same tan.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are more disposal sites? What discussions has he had with other Departments and, crucially, the Environment Agency about finding more sites to deal with the desperate backlog of carcase disposal?

Mr. Hoon

Extra logistical support is being deployed to Devon and part of its effort is urgently to address the problem of disposal sites. Work is under way on a mass burial site at Ashmore, but completion is some days away. It is crucial that we clear the backlog of carcases in Devon.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Secretary of State in congratulating the armed forces on their fantastic work? The way in which they have dealt with the problem since they were called in, and the focus that they have given to the disposal and to the need to speed up the processes, is something on which they should be congratulated.

An issue arises directly from the fact that the armed forces have been so successful. Last week on, I think, 19 April, we discovered from The Guardian and other papers that Brigadier Malcolm Wood, who is responsible in Whitehall for co-ordinating the role of the armed forces, said: I don't think any of us doubt that we should have been called in earlier". When I was looking over the 1968 recommendations, the previous report made the situation crystal clear. It said: but military assistance … should be accepted as early in the outbreak as possible … the earlier the military can be called in, the better. Perhaps the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to tell us why it took nearly a month from the original outbreak for the armed forces to be deployed.

Mr. Hoon

I have studied carefully the account of the 1967 outbreak and have told the House that the circumstances then were different, not least because of the considerable number of animal movements across the country before this outbreak was detected. The hon. Gentleman is not right to suggest that it took a month before members of the armed forces were involved in dealing with the outbreak. They advised and assisted early on. He continues to pursue his argument because he confuses the presence of the armed forces behind the scenes, in which they gave advice on logistics, with their public participation, which became necessary when the scale of the outbreak became known. Since then, members of the armed forces have been involved in extensive work to combat the disease, which they will continue to carry out.

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