§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak.
As I did on eight occasions before the Easter break, and have done once already this week in a session with the Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I wish to update the House on the latest position on the disease, set out the measures that the Government are taking and give hon. Members the opportunity to raise points with me. I also wish to inform the House about the outcome of the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg this week and of my bilateral discussions there with the Dutch Agriculture Minister.
As of 11 am today, there had been 1,481 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease. For ease of reference, the House will wish to know that I am putting details of the number of cases in each constituency in the Library today. They will be updated daily. I am also making available to individual Members full details of the cases in their own constituencies, to supplement the early warning system that has been in place for some weeks.
More than 2 million animals have now been slaughtered for disease control purposes. Around three quarters are sheep, 20 per cent. are cattle and 5 per cent. are pigs. A further 475,000 animals have been slaughtered under the welfare slaughter scheme.
The latest figures show that 152,000 animals await slaughter and 218,000 carcases await disposal in Great Britain. The backlog of data not entered on the database that holds those figures has been greatly reduced. None the less, the figures still tend to overstate the position. There is a disposal backlog in Devon of around 85,000 animals and we are addressing that as a top priority. There are no significant disposal backlogs in other areas of the country.
We continue to work closely with the Department of Health on the public health issues surrounding the various disposal routes. There are no completely risk-free options. Updated and consolidated guidelines were published on Tuesday. The method of disposal in each case is the safest and most effective in the circumstances. The House will be aware that the numbers of confirmed cases continue to fall, week on week. From the highest point of 43 cases a day, on average, in the week ending 1 April, the average number of cases has fallen to 16 in the week to 22 April.
We have been able to lift restrictions in nine different areas where there have been no new cases for 30 days and thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. As a result, the tighter movement restrictions associated with infected areas have been lifted from some 5,000 sq km—1.25, million acres—of the country, affecting about 12,500 farms.
These figures show that we are continuing to bear down on the outbreak. We can be cautiously optimistic about the future course of the epidemic. The scientific advice was that the single most important action we should take against the spread of the disease was to reduce the time between report and slaughter to 24 hours. That has been our policy and it has been shown to be the right one.
The Government's policies for slaughter on infected premises within 24 hours, and on contiguous premises within 48 hours, have been crucial to the control of 457 the epidemic. Following formal advice from the chief scientific adviser and the chief veterinary officer, I can today announce for England a broadening of the existing areas of discretion for local veterinary judgment in the light of the developing disease situation. The devolved Administrations will be making their own statements.
The joint advice from the chief scientist and the chief vet follows detailed consultation with the veterinary profession and with the expert scientific group advising the Government on the course of the disease. This development is not, as some have reported, a relaxation; its purpose is to improve the achievement of the policy by refining the instructions given to staff in the field.
The key points are as follows: we will continue to kill all animals that are dangerous contacts, which will include animals on a significant number of neighbouring farms and beyond; on other contiguous premises, susceptible animals will be killed. Cattle may, however, be spared if there is adequate biosecurity. This will be a matter for local veterinary judgment, taking account of all the circumstances. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has already published guidance—agreed with the veterinary profession—on the biosecurity measures that farmers can take to help protect their animals from infection. When cattle are not culled, they will be subject to regular veterinary patrols.
These refinements can be expected to provide some relief from automatic slaughter of cattle. They will not lead to a change in the policy of culling of pigs and sheep on contiguous premises. Pigs pose a high disease risk and can spread the virus. Sheep can carry the disease without showing symptoms, thereby causing further undetected spread.
Following consultation with interested parties, we shall be providing for the special circumstances of rare breeds of sheep, and of moorland and hefted flocks, based on tight biosecurity coupled with serological testing. Guidance on this will be issued to staff on the ground very shortly. These are complex matters of scientific and veterinary judgment. The new arrangements have to be right, to ensure that they meet real needs and contribute to, rather than hinder, disease control.
I would also like to update the House on the position regarding vaccination. The Government have given serious consideration to a cattle vaccination strategy in north Cumbria and possibly Devon, given the particular issues in those regions and, especially, the intensity of infection in certain areas and the forthcoming turnout of cattle from indoor housing to outdoor grazing. The Government accept the case for vaccinating cattle in those areas, but only if the vaccination programme is supported by a substantial majority of the farming community, by veterinarians, by the wider food industry and—I believe this to be crucial—by consumers.
As I told the Agriculture Committee on Monday, that level of support is simply not there, and the signs are that it will not now be achieved. Without that support, a vaccination programme would be very difficult to implement on the ground. We continue our discussions with all those who would be affected, but the case for a vaccination programme becomes less compelling as the number of daily confirmed cases and the weight of infection in the hotspot areas continues to fall.
I turn now to the livestock welfare disposal scheme. In the first week of April, 53,000 animals were slaughtered under the scheme, rising to 143,000 in the second week 458 of April and more than 150,000 last week. Opening the scheme generated a great many applications, at one stage apparently totalling close to 2 million animals. All applications have now been checked. This process has removed many of the duplicated applications—one particular producer put in 14 separate applications for the same animals. There are now applications covering some 1.3 million animals. Well over half a million of those animals have now been dealt with—either slaughtered and disposed of or withdrawn voluntarily, or because there was no welfare case to answer. By the end of today the backlog in Great Britain will stand at less than three quarters of a million animals, and we are on course to have completely removed the backlog by mid-May.
The welfare disposal scheme has been established to deal with severe welfare problems arising from the FMD movement restrictions that cannot be dealt with by other means. I am glad that we have been able to extend progressively the options available to farmers to deal with welfare issues, and to re-establish routes for their perfectly healthy livestock to be sold into the food chain.
As of Monday of this week farmers within infected areas, but outside the 3 km protection zones surrounding infected premises, have been able to enter healthy livestock into the food chain. As a result of those changes, the vast majority of farmers have practicable alternatives to the welfare disposal scheme. I am confident that the rate of withdrawals from the welfare scheme backlog will accelerate as a result.
In the re-establishment of routes into the food chain across Great Britain as whole, it is imperative for the payment rates for the livestock welfare disposal scheme not to act as a disincentive to farmers by providing more attractive financial options than the market itself. In order to ensure that, I am announcing today that payment rates for categories of livestock normally slaughtered for meat or meat products have been revised. All animals collected for slaughter or slaughtered on-farm from Monday 30 April will receive the new payment rates.
The rates for cull and draft ewes, new season lamb, clean cattle, and pigs are being revised to a level that represents about 70 per cent. of current market prices. For hoggets and cull sows, a higher rate of 80 per cent. is being established. Arrangements have been put in hand to ensure that all who have animals killed under the scheme are aware of the financial returns they will receive before they formally hand over their animals. I still intend the scheme to be reviewed on 22 May; meanwhile, I shall discuss with the industry the separate market-related issues in respect of light lambs and cull sows that would normally have gone for export. It would be misleading to expect an early resumption of export markets, but taxpayers cannot be expected to buy out the problem.
In my statement on 27 March, I outlined a number of actions flowing from our initial assessment of the origins and spread of the disease. The consultation on the proposed ban on pigswill closed on 10 April. We received about 150 responses, nearly all of which favoured a ban. A number of detailed issues were raised; we are considering them as a matter of urgency, and I expect to make an announcement next week. We have also received a good many comments on our proposed 20-day standstill period, after movements on farms, for sheep, goats and cattle. Again, most representations are in favour, but a number of highly technical issues have emerged. 459 Because of the considerable interest that has been expressed, I have decided—in response to an explicit request from the National Farmers Union—to extend the consultation period for a further month from the initial deadline of 11 May. Cross-departmental examination of the controls on commercial and personal imports of meat and meat products is well under way, and I shall have more to say about the matter in the near future.
At this week's meeting of the Agriculture Council, I reported in full to EU colleagues the progress that we have made to combat FMD, and acknowledged the help given us by the Commission and other member states. As before, there was strong support for our efforts and those of my Dutch colleague, and for our determination to eradicate FMD. At my instigation and that of Laurens Brinkhorst, the EU will convene a conference later in the year to examine all aspects of our experience of this disease—in particular, that of the UK and the Netherlands—to help shape policy for the future, including vaccination policy.
Combating foot and mouth disease remains the Government's top priority, but as the disease is brought under control questions arise from farmers and others in the rural economy about options for the future. We therefore intend to work in partnership with farmers and others to identify ways of assisting the recovery of the farming sector. We shall focus in particular on farmers directly affected by FMD who face choices about their futures, and on the regions of the United Kingdom that have been hit hardest by FMD—especially, of course, Cumbria and Devon. As a first stage, the Government will concentrate on the need to provide high-quality, targeted business and agronomic advice to individual farmers, and will explore ways of improving marketing in the livestock sector, to the benefit of the whole food chain. The Government also intend to help livestock farmers to decide the optimum basis on which restocking should take place, taking into account the desirability of rebuilding flocks and herds that are high quality, disease-free, extensively reared and farmed in environmentally sustainable ways. As a further component of our recovery strategy, we shall work with the industry to develop insurance options against both animal disease and the economic consequences that disease brings, and we will share our thinking on that with our partners in the European Union.
Work to help farmers emerge from the crisis has begun, and will form part of the Government's long-term strategy for helping UK farming to restructure in sustainable, market-orientated and environmentally responsible ways; at the same time, it will take forward our policy for bringing about common agricultural policy reform.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I am grateful to the Minister for making his lengthy statement available to me a little while before he made it in the House. I warmly welcome the improving picture that he has been able to paint of the state of the crisis and the spread of foot and mouth disease. I would like to take this opportunity to express again our warm appreciation of the work of all those service personnel, vets and others whose efforts on the ground, in the front line of tackling the crisis, have helped to reduce the spread of foot and mouth disease. 460 I shall start with the improvement in the figures, because that is crucial in assessing the progress that has been made and also, perhaps, in judging the merits of the other policy changes that the Minister has announced. The Minister will recall that before the Easter recess I asked twice for his assurance that daily figures for slaughter and disposal would continue to be published throughout the recess. In fact, the daily publication of the figures ceased and was resumed only after a substantial public outcry.
It is important now to know whether the basis on which the daily figures for slaughter and disposal are calculated has been changed. For example, let us consider the problem of carcase disposal in Devon. The NFU advised on Tuesday that the sudden fall in the number of carcases awaiting disposal in Devon was not because more carcases had actually been disposed of but because the Ministry changed the definition of disposal. Now, apparently, the Minster counts a carcase as disposed of once it has been moved to a disposal site. Few people who live or work within the sight or smell of such disposal sites would agree with that definition.
If the improvement that the Minister claims is partly achieved by redefining disposal, it casts doubt on some of his other claims too. If one set of figures is manipulated, are others any more trustworthy? The fact that the Minister prevented me from talking to vets in the Ministry's regional office in Exeter last week does not inspire confidence that the Government are being entirely open. Will the Minister therefore tell the House exactly what changes have been made to the way in which those figures are calculated? Since his Ministry now—rightly—makes use of independent epidemiologists, will he allow an independent statistician to audit the figures that have been published since the outbreak started?
The Minister announced a change of policy today and he will understand that many people, including farmers, will be surprised by the suddenness of a change, which, despite his description of it, most people will see as a relaxation. A few days ago, the Government wanted to start vaccinating, which suggests that they believed that existing policies to control foot and mouth disease were inadequate. Now the Minister proposes to relax those same policies. When was the new formal advice from the chief scientist and the chief veterinary officer, to which the Minister referred, given to him? Will the Minister publish that advice today? Since this change of policy was announced by No. 10 Downing street just in time for the 10 o'clock news last night, can the Minister tell us when the decision was actually made?
No one wants a single healthy animal to be killed if that animal can be saved, but the surest way to minimise the incidence of animals being slaughtered is to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease. It is important that no risks should be run; policy must not be relaxed until it is safe to do so. Ending slaughter on contiguous farms now raises the question of why that policy has been maintained for so long. Have thousands of healthy animals been sacrificed in vain? We support any steps that save healthy animals from slaughter, provided those steps do not risk the further spread of the disease.
As culling on contiguous farms will apparently continue for sheep and pigs, can the Minister say whether the legal basis of such culls is clear? Will he confirm that his Ministry withdrew a court application to cull uninfected animals on contiguous farms in Anglesey recently? If cattle are not to be automatically culled on 461 contiguous farms, will tests be carried out promptly and regularly on those cattle instead? If such tests are not carried out on farms adjacent to infected premises, is there not a risk that foot and mouth disease could start to spread?
Have the Government ruled out the use of vaccination entirely? Does the Minister accept that the three tests that I have repeatedly set out, including yesterday in the House, are the right ones to assess whether vaccination should be used?
On the welfare disposal scheme, how long are farmers having to wait while their animals suffer before slaughter under this scheme occurs? The Minister will be aware of the public concern about the distress that some animals experience. If the backlog under the scheme is not cleared until the middle of May, is it true that some animals may by then have been waiting for six weeks?
As this crisis starts to pass its peak, does the Minister agree that attention must be paid to the origin of the outbreak? Is he aware that 15 parliamentary questions that I asked about this in March remain unanswered four weeks later? Will he undertake to answer all parliamentary questions that have been tabled by right hon. and hon. Members before any Dissolution of Parliament? Will he also assure us that, in the event of a Dissolution, the information that he promised today about the constituency spread of new cases will continue to be available to parliamentary candidates on a constituency basis throughout an election campaign?
Is the Minister aware that the Government's handling of foot and mouth disease is giving rise to more and more concern? Stories of muddle, delay and incompetence are still commonplace—telephones are not answered, faxes are ignored and contradictory advice and instructions are given. In many places, there is still a sense that no one is in charge. For example, can the Minister tell us who is in charge in Devon this morning?
The same muddle exists at a national level. Who is making the policy now—the Minister, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence? Last week, the chief scientist said that vaccination should be introduced to support the slaughter policy. The Minister agreed but the president of the National Farmers Union said no, so the policy was dropped. This week, the Minister and his advisers said that the cull of animals on contiguous farms was necessary to curb the spread of the disease. Then No. 10 spin doctors saw newspaper pictures of Phoenix, and the policy was changed.
When this crisis is finally resolved—and I repeated yesterday the four criteria by which that should be judged—there will have to be a full inquiry. Does the Minister agree that one key aspect of that inquiry will be to establish whether the spread of foot and mouth disease would have been very much less if the Government had learned the lessons of the 1967 outbreak and if they had acted on the timely advice that I and other Conservative Members have offered, on the record, at every stage during the past nine weeks?
This crisis has crippled our livestock industry, disfigured our environment and wrecked our tourist trade. It is costing families, businesses and taxpayers billions of pounds. It is a crisis that need not and should not have reached its present level. It is the Government's incompetence that allowed it to do so.
§ Mr. Brown
As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for his help and support. His 462 statement about the public officials dealing with the disease outbreak is genuinely welcome. He is right to thank officials working in a civilian capacity for different Government Departments, and the service personnel and the professional veterinary personnel in the private and public sectors who are helping to bear down on the disease. The whole House should thank those hard-working public servants who are all working for the common purpose of bringing this terrible outbreak of disease to an end, and to help the country get beyond it. I am therefore grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks in that regard.
I am less grateful for what the hon. Gentleman had to say about muddle and delay, and for his stories about telephones not being answered, and so on. In my experience, one only hears part of the story when such reports are put into the public domain. I do not think it sensible for anyone holding a responsible position in public life to go around attacking those who are trying to bring to an end this outbreak of disease as quickly as possible. Hard-working public servants are entitled to our support, not our condemnation. I am willing to meet individual Members of Parliament who want to raise particular issues with me. I have done my best to do so, as have other Ministers in the Department.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the figures for slaughterings and disposals. It is true that those figures were removed from the Department's website for a few days, but that was to ensure that they were accurate and consistent. The full set of figures was returned to the website on Good Friday, and the figures have continued to be updated ever since. We did not respond to pressure from anyone in that regard: our aim was simply to make sure that the information being provided was accurate.
I freely say to the hon. Gentleman that he is right to identify a problem in Devon. In my statement, I told the House that there is a difficulty with the backlog of carcase disposal in that county, but I strongly dispute that we are trying to deal with it by putting into the public domain figures that are not correct. We are trying to deal with the problem by clearing the backlog.
The hon. Gentleman alleges that I have prevented him from talking to vets. I do not know how I could do that. I can stop him going into Government buildings around the country to talk to civil servants who are trying to control the disease for the benefit of the country—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I instructed the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton to calm down. She must calm herself.
§ Mr. Brown
The rules have not been made especially for the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I am taking the same line with all hon. Members. Of course I will agree to requests by hon. Members with regard to visits to Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food premises for purposes that relate to their constituencies. It is right to 463 continue with that policy, but I am not going to facilitate wholesale visits to Ministry premises all around the country in the middle of a disease outbreak.
I turn now to vaccination. The crucial issue in determining vaccination policy is consumer acceptance of such a policy. It is the consideration of consumer acceptance that drives the views of retailers, processors and farmers. I welcome the fact that other Ministers in the European Union have taken a similar view. The question of vaccination needs to be discussed in a rational and scientifically based manner once the outbreak has been brought to a conclusion.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk asked how we are prioritising our work under the welfare scheme, and talked about the backlog. We have asked the RSPCA to help us prioritise cases so that we get to the most needy ones first. The hon. Gentleman asked about scientific advice to me. It is based on the advice of the chief scientist and chief vet. The change in emphasis on the contiguous cull results from a conference that the chief vet held last Friday, where he consulted private sector and public sector veterinarians across the regions and in particular from affected regions. It is not surprising that a disease outbreak that has moved rapidly should require rapid responses in policy to deal with it. This is the response that, after consideration, the chief vet and chief scientist are recommending to me. I am more than willing to put their formal advice and the guidance given to veterinarians locally in the public domain.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would continue to update the information on constituency cases. Yes, I will place it on an updated basis in the House of Commons Library and will endeavour to place it elsewhere, so that all those with an interest can have continuing access to it, whether or not Parliament is sitting.
This is a serious disease outbreak. It is now moving towards its conclusion, but we will have to respond to further incidents. There will be outbreaks. It is not possible to say where they will occur or how many there will be, but advice to me is that there will be further outbreaks. We have to be ready to stamp on them where they occur and cull them out quickly. We will be able to achieve that far more easily if we have public backing for our policies, in particular the backing of the livestock industry, farmers and the broader rural community. Frankly, if the House can show some unity of purpose, it will reflect better on all of us in the days to come.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
My right hon. Friend has said that the vaccination of cattle is not feasible in present conditions. What about the vaccination of Herdwick sheep and other special sheep breeds as an addition or alternative to his policy of tight biosecurity and serum testing? Could we not have both policies introduced?
§ Mr. Brown
This is an important issue and we have given it substantial consideration and examination. The professional advice to me from the chief vet and others who advise him is that vaccinating sheep is not an option. The advice from John Thorley is that the National Sheep Association is opposed to vaccination, and there is a range 464 of reasons for that. Even for rare sheep breeds and special sheep breeds it would not be right to try to cull out the disease in hefted sheep as an automatic response. For that reason the proposal that I have explained to the House today is to manage them where they are and to test them in the autumn when they are brought down from the areas where they are extensively farmed.
§ Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)
I thank the Minister for his statement and his usual courtesy in providing an early copy. This is welcome news and, indeed, a common sense approach to the situation. I should like to raise a number of points.
It is still disappointing that there is no news whatever about compensation for the over-30-months scheme. That has become quite an issue. Do I take it that the Government are not intending to give compensation for that particular problem? Surely it must be one of the easiest schemes to implement.
Will the Minister look at the situation concerning pedigree animals, particularly in respect of welfare disposal? Clearly, pedigree animals are not valued highly enough if entered into the welfare disposal scheme, although they suffer the same welfare problems as other animals, their value notwithstanding.
What assessment has the Minister made in respect of the percentage of infected animals that have been part of the contiguous cull? Bearing in mind the substantial number of animals that have been killed, it would be useful to know what he believes the actual number of infected animals to have been.
Will the Minister confirm that, today, there are still some new cases that are not in the existing infected zones—in areas that are somewhat remote from them? That is, of course, worrying.
Finally, on the pigswill consultations, I am sure that the Minister has received representations from those who will be substantially affected as regards whey feeding. There will be a major effect on cheese making—an important industry in many parts of the affected rural areas.
§ Mr. Brown
The hon. Gentleman is right; I have received representations about whey feeding and the proposed pigswill ban. I am looking closely at that and other issues related to the brewing industry, as part of a broader consideration—although, clearly, it is a discrete issue.
On new cases, I have already referred to the fact that we could expect sporadic outbreaks in different parts of the country. I understand that they occur for three main reasons: the movement of vehicles; the movement of people; and the movement of animals. I have placed advertisements in the farming press about biosecurity. In all my meetings with farmers, I emphasise the importance of biosecurity, farm by farm. The hon. Gentleman is right: if we are to defeat the disease, we must all work together and focus on the measures that are necessary—farm by farm—to prevent the disease from getting on to a farm and spreading from it.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the percentage of infected animals in the contiguous cull policy. The purpose of the policy is to get to the animals as quickly as possible so that the number of infected animals is relatively low. We know that if we do not get there quickly, the number of animals infected will rise 465 remorselessly and will then spread the disease. I know that it is hard, because individual farmers—although they understand the general reason for the policy—always argue that their particular animals, especially the high-value animals, should be given a chance. That is a perfectly understandable and human response. However, it is my painful duty to have to assert the broader public interest; it is in the interest of the rural community, the livestock industry and individual farmers that we cull the disease out and return to normality as quickly as we possibly can.
I note the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about pedigree animals. However, I have to beware of creating an alternative market for livestock through the welfare schemes. I will consider his representations—they are fair. As I said in my statement, I want to look at the other two sectors—lightweight sheep and sows—where the market is compromised, at least in part, by the export ban. The circumstances are specific and I want to discuss them further with the leadership of the farmers' unions and others with a particular interest. However, there is no easy solution. The worst thing I could do, through trying to be helpful, would be to create a false market that would, in turn, merely suck in imports and, frankly, do medium and long-term damage to the livestock industry.
I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has been a doughty campaigner on behalf of people with over-30-months animals. I am keeping the issue under review. It is not fair to say that a conclusion has been reached, but I know that he understands the difficulties as well as the obvious merits of the case that he presents.
§ Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I thank him for his tireless hard work during the past few weeks. Does he agree that there is a need for better contingency planning and for an increase in contingency funding for his Department? Specifically, will the independent review, which is referred to on page 25 of the MAFF departmental plan, where there is an overview of the business planning process, incorporate the lessons that should be learned from the foot and mouth outbreak? The question is not if, but when, we shall be faced with a third outbreak, but of a different disease—whether it be BSE, foot and mouth or swine fever.
§ Mr. Brown
My hon. Friend is right. The Department will need to reflect on its contingency planning arrangements, not just within the Department but across Government, in the light of this unusual, indeed unique, disease outbreak—at least the pattern that it has taken is unique. There are other things that Government can do to prevent such an occurrence happening again, and I have discussed them in my statement: the re-examination of our rules on personal food imports, on commercial food imports, on pigswill, and on the issue of the standover of animals that have been moved for commercial purposes. All this is being looked at very hard at the moment, and I hope to have something to say to the House on some of it shortly.
§ Sir David Madel (South-West Beth ordshire)
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I asked him, in a written question on 9 April, whether he would release vaccine to zoos that may need it to vaccinate endangered species that are susceptible to foot and mouth disease. 466 He also knows that Whipsnade zoo is in my constituency. Apart from the welfare of the animals there, it is an extremely important part of the local economy. Can the right hon. Gentleman now say whether vaccine can be released to Whipsnade zoo, so that it may have the option to vaccinate if it considers it necessary?
§ Mr. Brown
There is a vaccine strategy for zoos; I am sorry if I have not let the hon. Gentleman have a copy of it. I will ensure that he has a copy; in fact, I will send him two, so that he can give one to his zoo. The circumstances in which vaccination of animals could be permitted by Government are clearly set out, and there has been discussion with organisations representing those who operate zoological premises.
§ Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
One thing that has characterised the last two or three months has been the movement in scientific opinion, which has confused many of my constituents and, I believe, other people in the country. Members in the House and in the country recognise, against the background of that moving scientific opinion, the determined and measured way in which these issues have been addressed by my right hon. Friend, but may I raise with him the issue of information to Members of Parliament?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that decisions taken be communicated accurately? Does he have a fast-track system for dealing with questions? Most of the questions that Members are currently asking are real questions, which have been raised by constituents who have real problems, and we need real answers. Does my right hon. Friend have a fast-track system for dealing with those; if he does, could he have a faster-track system for dealing with them?
§ Mr. Brown
There is a fast-track system for Members of Parliament; there is an established helpline for Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend asks whether we could have an even faster track, presumably for Members for Newcastle, and of course I am very sympathetic to that—so if he has a word with me afterwards, I will sort out his problem, whatever it is.
§ Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)
Will the Minister clarify the advice given as to the effects of pyres on grazing land? As he is aware, this week restrictions were lifted from my constituency; but farmers are concerned about the advice which, as far as we understand it, sought to minimise the risks. There was a suggestion that any particulates and other noxious substances would quickly dissipate in a matter of months, but stock is now being moved in my constituency and farmers really want to know whether they should be putting their stock out to grass. What advice will be available, given that one of the first pyres was lit in my constituency at a time when there was quite a lot of wind and the smoke spread throughout my constituency and changed direction? What advice will be given to those on farms close to the pyre and close to the fallout of the pyre? Should stock be put out to graze, and if so, when?
§ Mr. Brown
The prospect of the foot and mouth disease virus being spread by the fires is very remote indeed, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there 467 is a need for human health advice. The chief medical officer has just revised and updated his advice, and that is in the public domain. There is a need for advice from the Environment Agency, dealing with any environmental contamination, and above all there is a need for advice to farmers on restocking protocols. If the hon. Gentleman cares to contact my office after this exchange, I will ensure that he is given clear-cut advice to pass on to his constituents.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
In a similar vein, I should like to ask what environmental study of the pyres and landfill sites will take place to ensure that the people who live in the surrounding areas feel safe. The long-term monitoring of landfill sites, as well as pyre sites, is very important. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will take on board the importance of the Intervention Board and the fact that the farming community still has difficulties—everything seems to be going ahead, but when it comes to the final signature on the letter, things do not happen as speedily as the farmers expect. What encouragement, help and assistance can be given to the Intervention Board to ease the pain that farmers are suffering at the moment?
Finally, I believe that the Chamber was at its best when both sides worked together to try to eradicate the diseases, instead of which we are degenerating into scoring cheap political points, which does no parliamentarian any good whatever. I hope that the true credit will go to those involved in fighting the disease—those in MAFF and the armed forces, and obviously those working for the NFU who are not getting the thanks that they deserve.
§ Mr. Brown
The public service has received help and support from NFU officials, who have worked alongside those at our regional centres, liaising with the farming community and performing an invaluable role in this difficult situation. The Intervention Board has been given extra resources to deal with the schemes that it is administering on the Government's behalf throughout Great Britain, but the right way to deal with the animals constrained by the movement restrictions is to bear down on the disease and to find a market-oriented approach, rather than looking to emergency state schemes. Environmental monitoring will continue, and we shall bear in mind the long-term effects of the disposal routes, not just the short-term ones.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
The Minister has said that the backlog in Devon is now 85,000 animals—a considerable reduction and a considerable improvement. Today, and every day, many thousands of carcases are being moved to rendering plants and, probably, to landfill sites. Fortunately, there has been a significant diminution in Devon of confirmed cases in the past week. The Minister has announced a change in the contiguous cull policy. Taking all those factors together, will there be an end to the pyres and to the necessity for the huge burial grounds?
§ Mr. Brown
I know that it is painful, but the policy of culling out the disease must continue until we have removed the disease. There is no medicine that I can give to the animals, nor other intervention that I can take, that will get rid of the disease. Unless we stop the disease, 468 it will spread remorselessly, so we cannot relax our guard. As I said in my opening statement, I acknowledge that we have had a problem with disposal routes in Devon.
As the hon. Gentleman knows—he has raised the issue with me—there is no universally accepted disposal route. I understand what he says about the resistance to the pyres. They disfigure the landscape and people worry about the consequences, so I assure him that we will try to find disposal routes that are acceptable to local people, but I cannot confidently say that I am certain that we will be able to do so in all circumstances, because arguments can be made against, as well as for, each disposal route. I am afraid that that is the best I can do for the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the calm, rational centre of the storm that has been swirling around him—unlike the cynical opportunism that we have seen from the Tory party?
Has my right hon. Friend made an assessment of the excessive movements of cattle, which he has mentioned? The House has been told of a farmer who was shocked to discover that a flock of sheep that he had bought had been on 11 different holdings in the past two months. In some parts of the country, it is claimed that 10 per cent. of sheep disappear. Some of them die, but we believe that some are counted several times to increase subsidies.
Can we ensure that we identify the reason for the spread of the disease, which has been far greater than in the past in this or any other country? The main reason has been the illegal movements of sheep and other animals around the country to increase subsidies.
§ Mr. Brown
My hon. Friend is right to this extent: we have all been surprised at the number of sheep movements that result from the patterns of trade. There is a range of reasons for that, but they have implications for disease control. That is why I am consulting about a standstill period before sheep that have been traded can be moved again.
The implications for the current support regimes of the European Union—particularly the headage-based ones—have not been lost on anyone. I am clear in my own mind that, in future, we shall move away from headage-based schemes—for hill farmers specifically and, more generally, under the sheep premium regime—when the Commission puts its reform proposals forward. We shall move much more closely towards schemes that support farmers' incomes through a series of agreed criteria and away from supporting just the volume of livestock. That is the future of public support for the industry, and the Government need to discuss it carefully with those interested in the industry.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
Does the Minister accept that he would better create unity in the House and confidence in his policies if he allowed my hon. Friend the shadow Minister access, on behalf of the Conservative party to vets, officials and others? The Minister's attitude on that has frankly been reprehensible.
Does the Minister also accept that the policy that he has presented is hardly a joined-up one? The changes that he has announced today, the vacillation on vaccination 469 and the Phoenix factor suggest that we have had the needless slaughter of many animals over the past six weeks.
§ Mr. Brown
I am sorry to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on both points. I cannot deny the Opposition spokesman access to vets and I am not seeking to do so. My responsibility is for the work of the Ministry and of public officials. I want them to focus their full-time attention on eradicating the disease. As I have said very carefully, a special rule has not been devised for the Opposition spokesman; we are applying it equally and consistently to Members on both sides of the House.
On the hon. Gentleman's second point, the pattern of the disease has changed as it has spread, as we have borne down on it and as the number of cases has declined. Throughout, I have followed the scientific and veterinary advice available to Government and—to be candid about it—I have done more than that. I have put the advice into the public domain and, more than that, I have done what in my understanding no other Minister has done before. I have arranged presentations for hon. Members—I understand that the hon. Gentleman in attended one of them—to explain the epidemiology and to explain the case for vaccination. We have allowed the issues to be set out, so that we all could consider them. As I have said on a number of occasions—I repeat it now—whenever I make a decision based on scientific advice, I am willing to share that advice and to explain very carefully why I have arrived at the decision that I have. That is precisely what I have done today.
§ Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, not least because it will take the pressure off the livestock disposal welfare scheme.
However, I wish to raise a livestock welfare issue of which my right hon. Friend's officials are aware. It does not seem able to be solved. My constituent, Mr. James Rotherham, runs a trout farm and, because anglers cannot get to the riverside, there is no demand for his trout to be put into rivers and lakes. Even if there were such demand, he would not be able to reach the rivers and lakes because of the travel restrictions. That means that thousands of trout on his farm are getting bigger and bigger in a very confined space. They are not suitable a for selling to the retail trade and the fact that he cannot get rid of them means that a welfare issue has arisen because of the travel restrictions on the land around the area where he stocks the fish. Will my right hon. Friend consider this issue as a matter of urgency because the problem is getting desperate?
§ Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)
The changes in the welfare scheme are sensible, but they leave farmers with cattle that have gone beyond the 30 months seriously adrift. The Minister must urgently address that problem. Is he aware that when the Government's chief scientific adviser met the Select Committee on Agriculture yesterday, he made no reference to a possible change of policy on contiguous culling? Indeed, he emphasised that 470 the risk of infection from a farm with foot and mouth disease to a surrounding farm was 17 per cent. Can the right hon. Gentleman give an absolute assurance that the change in policy follows science not sentiment, and that pictures in the newspapers of cuddly animals—however heart-rending—have not influenced that decision?
§ Mr. Brown
I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. Veterinary consideration of how to handle the difficult issue of cattle in the contiguous cull was considered by the chief vet at his conference last Friday. He has received many representations specifically on that topic from the vets who have to do the difficult and distressing job of carrying out the policy in the regions. I know that the right hon. Gentleman understands that, in addition to policy issues, there is a range of practical difficulties to consider. However, the policy was under review well before any individual incident was reported in the papers. We would be wrong as policy makers to extrapolate public policy from individual cases that always involve very young animals such as Lucky the lamb and Phoenix the calf. I understand that they may serve as symbols, but there are special circumstances in both cases.
On the right hon. Gentleman's other concern, I understand that to be the case. However, we must not relax the policy because that will allow the disease to spread remorselessly. I take comfort from the fact that we are getting to it quickly enough for the number of animals that are showing signs of the disease to be relatively small. The crucial consideration is that things will not stay that way if we do not act firmly now.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
This is a welcome statement in difficult circumstances. In Chinese mythology, Phoenix ushers in a new age, and these provisions might at least mean that we are at a new stage. How will the change in policy affect the number of slaughtered animals that are being put into landfill sites? As livestock is now going into the food chain, will we be able to lessen the amount of carcases that go into landfill sites and therefore reduce the 111 sites that are in England at the moment?
§ Mr. Brown
As the number of infected premises steadily declines, the number of dangerous contacts and contiguous culls are also remorselessly declining, which means that fewer animals will have to be disposed of by the differing routes. We are considering the most appropriate route for each set of circumstances, but we are going to have to use them all for the foreseeable future. There is no perfect solution. Arguments can be made against each route, but there are even more powerful arguments against doing nothing.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)
I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that when a veterinary surgeon discovers symptoms that he or she believes to be indicative of foot and mouth disease, the procedure is that the Ministry is notified and the case is either confirmed or, on the basis of the evidence, which may be insufficient, rejected. If it is rejected, I understand that the Ministry might, quite properly, authorise a precautionary cull. If that takes place, is it correct that a post-mortem examination and blood tests are carried out in every case 471 and that where foot and mouth is subsequently confirmed, those cases are added into the outbreak figures? If that is so, at what stage are they included?
§ Mr. Brown
I promise to let the hon. Gentleman have a detailed written answer to that because I want to be certain that my response is correct. The principle that he enunciates is right. Veterinarians are allowed to exercise clinical judgment on the site and do not have to check in with the veterinary headquarters in Page street if the situation is clear. However, it is right to remind the House that for every three cases that are reported to us as suspected foot and mouth, two turn out to be false alarms.
§ Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)
I very much welcome the decision to allow farmers outside the 3 km protection zone to get their animals into the food chain. That will certainly help many of my farmers and butchers that source locally. Given the fact that the impact of foot and mouth goes far wider than the farming and agricultural communities, why is the compensation that is being allocated through Advantage West Midlands based on the percentage of the population involved in agriculture? That excludes Staffordshire, which is one of the worst affected areas outside the main hot spots.
§ Mr. Brown
I will have to ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to respond to my hon. Friend's second concern. The formula is a matter for him. We decided to use regional development agencies as deliverers of support because of the idea that local people would best know local circumstances and be able to respond more easily to local demands. I welcome what my hon. Friend says about getting the supply chain moving. That is crucial for the medium and long-term future of the British livestock industry.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
Is the Minister aware that tests on David and Caroline Gilder's animals at Bozard farm, Woolstone, near Tewkesbury, have proved negative and hundreds of animals have been unnecessarily slaughtered? Hundreds more on surrounding farms have also been unnecessarily slaughtered, and I shall table written questions on a similar situation on a farm near Whitby in Yorkshire. In cases of genuine misdiagnosis, it is reasonable that the Government pay compensation not only for the animals slaughtered, but for all consequential losses. Will he seriously consider that?
§ Mr. Brown
I cannot announce an alteration to the compensation arrangements. However, I will consider the individual case of the hon. Gentleman's constituents if he refers it to me. I am not certain of all the circumstances involved and it would be unwise to go further, other than to make the general point that it is incredibly hard for the farming community—in particular, individual farmers—to have their animals taken, especially under the contiguous cull policy. Of the animals that seem healthy, some might be healthy, some might be incubating the disease and many will almost certainly be dangerous contacts. The policy is for the general good, but the individual farmer always hopes that it will not be applied to him and wants us to wait and see. The hard truth is that 472 we cannot wait and see. We must act for the general good, not for the specific good. The animals might not have the disease, but if we do nothing they will get it.
§ Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and inform him, with some relief, that we have not had an additional outbreak in Monmouthshire for more than two weeks. However, the 17 cases in my constituency have had a devastating effect. Does he agree that among the lessons to be learned are those relating to the long-term transportation of livestock, the practices of some livestock dealers and the need for sub-regional abattoirs? When he meets his colleagues in the European Council, will he assure them that some farmers will not want to get back into farming? They need an early retirement package and progress must be made on that.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
The Minister will be aware that although we have not had an outbreak in my constituency, we have been badly affected by the restrictions on animal movements. He announced that from Monday 23 April, some restricted livestock has been allowed to enter the food chain. Is he aware that as of Thursday last week, no information had been provided to trading standards, so no movements can be made? Can he assure that House that that hurdle has been passed and the system is working smoothly?
The Minister also announced changes to the welfare disposal system. Is he aware of the severe consternation that the system is causing to pig producers in the Vale of York, especially since he gave a commitment that the original payments would run for eight weeks from 23 March? The cut in payments to £37, or probably less, for clean animals will cause grief to those producers.
§ Mr. Brown
I understand the second point that the hon. Lady makes, which is of course fair. However, I have to weigh up the danger of continuing with rates that I am advised risk creating an artificial market that is more attractive than the actual operation of the supply chain. If we did that, we would remorselessly suck imports into the food chain and perhaps permanently displace British products, which would not be in the interests of the livestock industry. In addition, the state, rather than the consumer, would be the purchaser of a great deal of livestock—much more livestock than we should purchase. That was a hard decision, but I believe it to be right. I gave an assurance that the scheme would continue to run; I gave no assurance about adjustments of the rates. Although the situation is tough, we would do far more harm than good by trying to keep the rates artificially high.
I understand the other point that the hon. Lady made, and perhaps she will allow me to write to her about it.
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that contrary to what the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) keeps saying, if the current downward trend continues, this outbreak will have been 473 contained far more successfully than that of 1967, which is remarkable given the present outbreak's much wider geographical spread?
How much truth is there in the reports that my local rendering plant in Exeter has been working at only 60 per cent, of capacity? Given the terrible problems that we have had with carcase disposal, surely that is totally unacceptable.
§ Mr. Brown
I do not think that the situation is exactly as my hon. Friend describes it, although I am aware of the reports. I have asked that the situation be examined, and if the plant is able to handle more work, which of course we have, we will send it to them. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the comparison of the current outbreak with that of 1967.
There will be a time to reflect when we have exterminated foot and mouth disease in this country. People will want to consider the way in which the two outbreaks were handled, but the 1967 outbreak had many different features and there was a point at which there were 90 new infected premises a day. We have not even got beyond half that rate.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The Minister may know that half of my constituency was declared an infected area because there was a suspected case over the border in Powys. That was six weeks ago. The case proved to be negative, but the infected area status still applies to half of my constituency. I understand that there will be movement on that within 24 hours. Will the Minister assure me that there will be better liaison between his officials and those of the devolved Administration in Cardiff? Will he assure me also that Intervention Board officials will have a better working relationship with officials of the devolved Administration, because these matters are very important?
§ Mr. Brown
The Intervention Board is of course shared between myself, acting as the Minister for England rather more than for the UK, and the Ministers in Wales and in Scotland, so it serves Wales just as it serves England and Scotland. The working relationships at ministerial and official levels between my Department and the devolved authorities have been very good, or at least that is my perception. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to consider a specific issue of communication or another matter, I will willingly do so, but I have to say that the implementation of the policy is wholly devolved and is a matter for my colleague the Secretary for Rural Affairs in the Welsh Assembly, not for me.