HC Deb 08 March 2001 vol 364 cc417-31
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

If he will make a statement on the latest developments in the foot and mouth epidemic. [152671]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

At 12 o'clock this morning, there were 104 confirmed cases in the United Kingdom—103 in Great Britain and still just one in Northern Ireland, with a number of cases under investigation. The pattern is consistent with Heddon-on-the-Wall as the oldest known outbreak, with the subsequent spread mainly through the movement of animals, especially sheep. About 90,000 animals have been identified for slaughter, of which 61,000 have been killed. Plans are in hand to render some of the carcases as an alternative to burning on farm.

The Meat Hygiene Service has approved more than 260 abattoirs for the licence to slaughter scheme. Of those, 168 were operating yesterday. The Meat and Livestock Commission estimated yesterday that British pork production was back to 50 per cent. of normal, with beef at 40 per cent. and lamb at 30 per cent.

To relieve emerging animal welfare problems, officials are urgently working on arrangements to allow licensed local movement of animals within farms in unaffected areas, but only where that will not increase disease risk. We hope to have proposals prepared shortly.

The European Union Standing Veterinary Committee met on 6 March. The ban on UK exports of animals and products has been extended to Tuesday 27 March, but from 9 March the UK will be able to export unpasteurised cheeses to some countries. The SVC also imposed a ban on all livestock markets and assembly points in the EU for two weeks and a ban on animal movements except to slaughter or from farm to farm, authorised by the competent authority. All vehicles leaving the UK will have to pass over a disinfectant bath.

The Commission remains supportive of the action taken by the UK to contain and eliminate the disease.

Mr. Atkinson

On behalf of the farmers in my constituency, I thank the state veterinary service for its work in helping to contain the outbreak. It began in my constituency and has, of course, hit it very hard. The question of how it started is under investigation and I believe that ultimately there will be prosecutions.

Is the Minister aware that allegations are being made that the amount of illegally imported meat into the country is far greater than was first supposed? It is not simply a matter of people bringing in a few steaks from a holiday abroad. It appears that there is now a regular supply of illegal meat—especially beef and goatmeat—which goes to unscrupulous suppliers in the catering trade. It may well be that that was the cause of the outbreak that struck Heddon-on-the-wall.

Mr. Brown

Of course, I cannot comment on individual cases, particularly if they may come before the courts, although I can confirm that it is still the Government's view that the first outbreak was at the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall, and that that is the primary source of everything that has happened since.

The Ministry is taking a hard look at the importation of meat for personal me in our review of all the possible causes of the current outbreak. We were already considering the issue in the context of the classical swine fever outbreak. I confirm the commitment that I gave to the House earlier that the views that the Ministry forms on all the slightly longer-term issues will be put into the public domain. There will be full consultation with all those interested. I intend personally to listen to a wide range of views, not just the mainstream ones.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland)

On behalf of Cumbrian farmers in the Lake district and on the fells, may I thank my right hon. Friend and his officials at national and local level for the work that they have done to contain this terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease? Will he consider specifically the position of hill farmers, as lambing is approaching? They often have large flocks of breeding ewes on unfenced fell land, with unfenced roads across it. There are particular difficulties for those farmers. Will he consider urgently and sympathetically how his officials may be able to bring such farmers more help in the dilemma that they face?

Mr. Brown

I thank my right hon. Friend for the praise that he has given to the state veterinary service. I am sure that his remarks are endorsed by the whole House. The Ministry has the question of continuing support for hill farmers under review anyway. An industry working group is considering how we can make the common agricultural policy support work better to support the incomes of hard-pressed hill farmers.

I am treating the question of lambing and the movement of sheep from their winter grazing quarters back to their home farm as a matter of urgency. It is an incredibly complex problem, as I think I may have said last week, but I hope to have something more to say in a matter of days.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

We are grateful to the Minister for answering this question.

The Opposition continue to support fully the measures already taken to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease. I endorse the appreciation of vets both inside and outside the state veterinary service, and everyone else who is working hard in the front line of this struggle. The next few days are clearly, crucial in determining whether the outbreak is coming under control. I welcome the decision announced yesterday to postpone the Cheltenham festival and the announcement that no risks will be taken, even if the situation is improving, with the handling of the crisis.

It is just over two weeks since the crisis began. People will be disappointed that the Minister is still not able to say anything more about compensation. Will the Government now accept in principle that compensation should be paid to those farmers suffering unrecoverable losses directly as a result of foot and mouth disease? If compensation remains limited to those farmers whose livestock is slaughtered, many others will simply be driven out of business for all time.

Does the Minister agree that the need to find out how the disease came to Britain is extremely urgent, not least to reassure those who are afraid that it may return, after all the agony of overcoming it this time? The Minister will be aware of the difficulties of farmers who cannot move their ewes that are about to start lambing and of dairy farmers who need to carry out milking. Licensing movement within farms will obviously help considerably, but it will not entirely overcome those difficulties. I hope that the licences will be available soon.

Will the European Union ban on livestock markets prevent the use of markets in Britain as collection centres—an avenue that was going to be important for a number of smaller farmers? Is the Minister aware of reports in some areas about continuing difficulties in obtaining disinfectant and concern about the prices paid to farmers sending their animals for slaughter under licence? Will he consider absorbing the inspection charges payable by slaughterhouses while they are operating under licence? Has he requested help from other Government Departments to ensure timely burning of carcases? Does he agree that all those practical, micro-issues will remain highly important to farmers and others in the industry even after the outbreak is brought under control?

Mr. Brown

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his tone and his words of support for the state veterinary service and others who are helping to contain the disease outbreak. He is right about the micromanagement of some of the issues involved. The disease has now emerged in several different parts of the United. Kingdom, largely as a result of animal movements, especially in the sheep sector, through livestock markets.

To take the hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order, I am able to call on other Government Departments for help if we need it; the issue is kept under daily review. Charges are now a matter for the Meat Hygiene Service and the Secretary of State for Health, not me, so I cannot announce some new relief or extra payment today.

As for prices in the supply chain, the hon. Gentleman will have heard me yesterday when I urged everybody in the supply chain to treat each other fairly when trade is not carried out in normal circumstances because of the necessary licensing arrangements. The issue is complex, but if people realise that the supply chain must endure—that it cannot be short term, but that relationships have to be bedded in over time—they will see the wisdom of behaving fairly and working together to get through the current disease outbreak.

I have asked officials to check the availability of disinfectant. My understanding is that, although there is no shortage of disinfectant, there is a distribution problem. There is no problem with the manufactured product, but the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that demand has, of course, increased substantially.

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question about whether the European Union temporary ban on markets will affect our proposals to use markets as collection centres. We are exploring that issue with the Commission, but the main difficulty with my desire to establish collection centres, if that can be done without compromising disease control, is the far greater number of outbreaks of the disease with which we now have to contend.

Although the movement of animals can be licensed under special conditions, I, as the Minister responsible, have to be risk averse throughout. We are proceeding with our proposals on collection centres, but there might be some delay in our establishing them. For the avoidance of any doubt, let me emphasise that we need to be risk averse in everything that we do.

The hon. Gentleman asks about lambing, dairy herds and localised licensing. We have been able to get under way a localised licensing scheme within farms, but he is right to say that that does not solve all the problems. A substantial issue remains involving breeding sheep that are in winter quarters and would normally return some distance to their home farm where they might mix with other sheep that are potentially infected during lambing. The Government are carefully considering the best course of action. I explained the problem when I last addressed the House on the subject and it remains intractable, but to do nothing is not an answer.

The current difficulties give rise to serious animal welfare consequences as well as to consequences for the trade. After our meeting tomorrow with the trade to discuss different ways in which to proceed and once we have a proposal—I think that it will only be a matter of days—I shall ensure that the House is informed.

I have no new announcement to make about compensation. The outbreak of foot and mouth disease informed the Government's decision to draw down agrimonetary compensation for the livestock sector, but I accept that such compensation is not compensation for foot and mouth disease. I do not want to engage in political argument now, so I should be grateful if the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) wrote to me to set out precisely his views on what should be paid in terms of consequential loss and how widely the Government should provide coverage in that respect. Of course, consequential loss could, in these circumstances, be very wide indeed. Are we talking about the cancellation of rural visits and the loss to the betting industry as a result of the cancellation of race meetings? I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would oblige by setting out his exact request.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the next few days will be crucial. Of course, the fact that there have been many outbreaks is unwelcome; it makes the job of the state veterinary service harder. However, the good news is that each and every one of those cases has been, or is being, traced back to the original outbreak. It appears that the Government's timely imposition of movement controls throughout Great Britain has worked, and that we have been able to contain the disease to what was already incubating in the national herd and the national flock. That is how it seems today, but the situation may change. I promise to keep right hon. and hon. Members informed.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

My right hon. Friend will not want to prejudge the findings of the inquiry into the initial cause of the outbreak. However, will he address the issue of feeding swill to pigs? Most pig farmers do not feed swill to their pigs, and it may not always be possible to ensure that it is properly treated. At the appropriate time, will the Minister consider ending the feeding of swill to pigs?

Mr. Brown

The small proportion of the pig industry that still uses swill—about 1.5 per cent. of the total United Kingdom pig sector—is allowed to do so under licensed conditions. Of course, heat treatment of swill is crucial in making sure that foot and mouth disease does not spread in the sector and more widely. Clearly, we will look at the question of swill feed very thoroughly once we come to review the disease outbreak.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

The Minister and the Ministry were rightly congratulated on the speed and decisiveness of their original decision. To some extent, we seem to be learning a little more as we go along. For instance, the strategic distribution of disinfectant and even disinfectant baths at ports for all vehicles have now been introduced, although they were not in place last week. When did the Ministry last formally review foot and mouth emergency procedures and when were they updated? How often does the Ministry review the exclusion zones so that farms caught within the restrictions but which may be able to come out of them can do so as soon as possible and move their animals? Is the Minister perfectly satisfied that burning animals, as opposed to burial, represents the best means of not spreading of the disease?

Mr. Brown

The alternative to burning that we are considering is rendering. In other words, animals would be killed on the farm, taken away in sealed vehicles and rendered in the normal way.

I do not think that burial on the farm is the right way forward; issues involving watercourses make that a less desirable way of proceeding. Frankly, each method has things to be said against it, as well as for it. I am certain that burning does not spread the virus, which is the question most often put to me. The hon. Gentleman said that we are learning more as we go along. That is a fair point: we do not know where the disease will emerge or how far it had spread before we put the movement restrictions in place.

I promise to examine the hon. Gentleman's point about emergency procedures. Clearly, we shall want to take stock of all that, partly in the light of the classical swine fever outbreak and partly, of course, in the light of the foot and mouth outbreak as well.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about animal welfare, but I stress the urgency with which he must deal with the issue of ewes in lamb. I have local farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Bailey of Rushton Spencer, who need to move their ewes up to 15 miles back to the farm, and who are extremely concerned about the effect on the ewes' condition if they are not returned to the farm.

I take this opportunity to pass on the personal thanks of Clive Langford Mycock, the chair of the NFU in Staffordshire, who believes that my right hon. Friend has done everything possible to deal with the crisis, and that everyone should back my right hon. Friend 100 per cent. in the work that he is doing.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful for the support of the local chairman of the NFU. I had an opportunity yesterday to discuss all these issues in some detail with the president of the NFU, Mr. Ben Gill. Perhaps the most intractable problem, although by no means the only one that we face, involves the ewes that are in winter quarters and that are breeding animals, due to give birth shortly. The question is whether they should be moved back to their home farm and, if so, in what conditions, and what animals they would be mixing with if they moved back. It is possible that they would move the disease through their own movement, or catch the disease when they arrive. That has to be thought about very carefully.

I want to do the right thing, not least because of the obvious animal welfare implications, which are clear to all hon. Members. I intend to make an announcement about the matter shortly. Because of the intractable nature of the problem, I cannot make a statement to the House today.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

On the subject of sheep, I draw attention to the case of Mr. B. Robinson, who farms at Shipton Oliffe and has sheep lambing now on the top of Cleeve hill, which is unfenced. He cannot move the sheep off that hill, he cannot get to them to supervise the lambing and he feels that there is a welfare issue involved. Will the Minister urgently look into the problem of sheep?

All farmers support movement restrictions. Nobody wants to spread the disease. Will the Minister also look into the question of holding race meetings? He will be aware of the reports about Mr. Richard Mathews, who farms next to Lingfield race course. All race meetings were banned in 1967. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that aspect as well?

Mr. Brown

On the hon. Gentleman's first question, he will have heard what I said about lambing. Yes, it is a serious issue. Yes, we are focusing on it firmly, and I shall shortly have something to say. The hon. Gentleman's description of his constituent's problem shows how varied the specific problems are, and underpins the point made by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who speaks for the Opposition, that the micromanagement of the situation is at the heart of finding workable solutions that are risk averse.

On the question about race meetings, I am guided by the professional advice of the state veterinary service, which has advised me that on veterinary grounds there is no reason at present for the Ministry to insist on the cancellation of race meetings, so I am leaving the decision, perfectly properly, to the racing authorities.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks in his statement and earlier today, and what he is doing on welfare grounds.

I have been approached by two of my dairy farmers, Mr. Andrew Cozens of Alkerton farm in Eastington, and Mr. John Shipp of Kingshill farm, near Berkeley. They have explained to me in graphic detail how difficult it is to drive the cows off and then to allow them to calve, when the farmer cannot move even short distances to carry that through. I look forward to my right hon. Friend's proposals.

I also make a plea on behalf of the trading standards department of Gloucestershire county council and environmental health officers. When the crisis is over, will my right hon. Friend, together with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, examine the way we organise those departments, which are under incredible stress because they are the missing link in the operation that is under way?

Mr. Brown

There are issues that arise out of the Phillips report relating to the competences of national and local government. I express my thanks to the trading standards officers employed by local authorities, who have responded wholeheartedly and well to the current difficult situation, and are working well with officials in the Ministry of Agriculture. The issues, are intractable. We have a partial solution, allowing carefully regulated localised movements of animals, which I hope will be of help to my hon. Friend's constituents, but there is a further problem with animals—mostly, but not solely, sheep—that need to move longer distances. As I told the House, I hope to have something more to say about that soon.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

I have just faxed the right hon. Gentleman details of two cases and I should be grateful if I could re-emphasise them. First, Mr. Cragg of Allington has 85 ewes in lamb and needs to move them as soon as they have lambed to a field about half a mile away. Secondly, Mr. and Mrs. Markham of Billinghay are in the business of producing weaners. They do not have fattening facilities, and usually they move the weaners to a fattening unit. There are now 350 weaners on their farm and they are increasing in number day by day, or, at least, week by week, and there is a serious welfare problem. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore consider possibilities for limited movement so as to enable Mr. and Mrs. Markham to send their weaners to a fattening unit?

Mr. Brown

Both of the cases that the right hon. and learned Gentleman perfectly properly raises are typical of the problems that we are now trying to address. It is always dangerous to pronounce on individual cases without knowing the full facts, but, with regard to the first case that he raised, I believe that localised movement under strict licensing conditions, on which we are working, will help his constituent, and I certainly hope that that is the case.

On the second case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises, I am familiar with the layered nature of the modern pig industry and the need for movement within holdings. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, pigs are incredibly vulnerable to foot and mouth disease. They are probably the most vulnerable farm species. We do not have much of it in the pig herd at the moment—say I, touching wood, as everyone will notice—and that is a good thing as pigs pump out the virus more readily than other farmed livestock. The right hon. and learned Gentleman quotes an individual constituency case. I have the question of principle under close review, but I must act, first, on a precautionary basis and, secondly, on professional veterinary advice.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I echo the thanks of many hon. Members for the work that my right hon. Friend and his Department have done so far. I want to raise a couple of issues which could be discussed at tomorrow's meeting. First, Pembrokeshire county council has a number of problems with strays that are being collected by farmers who then do not know what to do with them. Unfortunately, if they cannot identify the owner, despite being healthy the animals are being put down.

Secondly, I welcome, as do the farmers, my right hon. Friend's proposal for localised licensed movement, which will address a range of problems. However, tack sheep, which exist in large numbers in my constituency and have come considerable distances—in some cases more than 100 miles—are now starting to lamb. Could a crash training course be delivered by the Department and through the National Assembly, so that farmers with tack sheep can handle lambing?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is on to a strong point. There is no way of stopping animals lambing, so if they cannot move, they will have to be lambed with specialist assistance in their location, and that has a knock-on effect for the dairy industry, where a farmer running a dairy business may well have been planning to use facilities on the farm for the purposes of his dairy business. This is not a simple question, but we are considering my hon. Friend's suggestion as well as licensed movement.

I will ensure that advice to farmers on dealing with stray animals is placed on the Internet and in the advice sheets that we are sending out, if that has not already been done. However, a stray animal that is taken into a specific herd has, whether voluntarily or not, joined that herd.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

All of us understand the Minister's difficulties in balancing disease control and the animal welfare problems that have been raised time and again this morning. I know that he is aware of the gross problems of ewes that cannot be moved, which can die of septicaemia where they stand, and which might have to abort their lambs or be shot. Of course, the lambs too can die where they lie.

I do not think that we can coax the right hon. Gentleman to say any more about the possibility of a localised licensing scheme, but will he accept that it is a matter of extreme urgency? I recognise that it is also a matter of micromanagement and I understand the problems in making exceptions, but I believe that the more locally a decision is taken, the more effective it will be. I wish him godspeed with the decisions that he is going to take, and I hope that he can make a very early announcement.

Mr. Brown

I thank the right hon. Lady for those words of encouragement. I think that we will be able to proceed with a localised licensing scheme to deal with very localised movements. We will do so as soon as such an arrangement is consistent with disease control advice. That is only a matter of days away. However, my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger) referred to the more intractable problem of animals that are effectively in winter grazing quarters and would, in the normal flow of the industry, move back to their home farms for lambing. I keep the animal welfare consequences closely under review, as well as the disease control issues. However, it is a fact that the disease can be a killer to newborn lambs. That is another point that I have to keep at the forefront of my mind.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

When the time is appropriate, will my right hon. Friend pick up on a suggestion recently canvassed at the British-Irish interparliamentary body, where it was proposed that there should be a single veterinary regime for the island of Ireland? I should like to ask another question on behalf both of myself and of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer). Will he ensure that his Department considers sheep, cattle and horses on the Thames marshes, whose ownership, control and welfare are obscure, to say the least? Those animals could pose an additional problem in combating the spread of the disease.

Mr. Brown

Of course, the Department is keeping under review the position of wild animals, including boar, deer and Dartmoor ponies, as well as that of animals that are grazed on common land. Our current view is that those animals will have to form part of a common herd, except where it is subdivided. The disease is not infectious to horses, but sheep and cattle are at risk. As for the veterinary regime, co-operation between the different veterinary authorities within the European Union works at a professional level. The respect in which our veterinary authorities are held has helped us to convey our point of view to the rest of the European Union.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

The Minister will know that 15 of these appalling cases have arisen in my constituency. I must tell him that this morning's reports from the Carlisle and Longtown area are very disturbing. They suggest that the situation in that area is verging on becoming out of control. We have waited five days for some carcases to be burned and sometimes seven days for tests to come through. Everyone praises MAFF's staff on the ground—there is no criticism of them at all—but people in the area are pleading with the Minister to rush in more resources urgently so that the testing can be done more quickly. There are reports that the killing has stopped today because there are so many carcases to destroy. I see that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours) is agreeing with me. Please can we have more resources to help with the emergency? If necessary, for example, specialist units from the Army engineers could be used to help with the pyres.

Mr. Brown

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is a logistical problem not only to kill the animals, but then to destroy their carcases. I do not need any extra resources to do that; it is just a matter of managing the problem. I express my full sympathy to him and to his constituents, as it has now emerged that Longtown market was at the centre of the spread of the outbreak. Unfortunately, a large number of contacts were traceable back to that market, and thence to the Heddon-on-the-Wall farm. The comfort that I can offer is that the chief vet has been told that he must draw upon whatever veterinary resources are needed. There is no other constraint within Government: we are giving priority to control of the disease.

Secondly, all the cases that have emerged so far, excluding the most recent cases on which work is currently being done, are traceable to the original outbreak. The movement controls that we introduced last Friday seem to have prevented the further spread of the disease. However, it had already spread far more widely than anyone could have forecast or wanted.

Ms Rosie Winteton (Doncaster, Central)

I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about urging those in the supply chain to treat each other fairly. He will be aware of reports of shoppers paying higher prices for meat without any benefit to farmers or those who work in the industry. Will he assure us that everything is being done and will continue to be done to ensure that consumers are not raying unjustifiably high prices?

Mr. Brown

That is quite a complex question, because the supply chain has been substantially disrupted. I can only repeat my appeal to all the players in the supply chain to treat everybody fairly. That includes the industry's customers.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

I appreciate the Ministry's efforts to deal with the terrible disease. The single case of foot and mouth in Northern Ireland was due to an illegal trade in sheep that were bought in Carlisle, imported to Northern Ireland and transferred to the Republic of Ireland.

It has come to light that, under EU regulations, it is not possible to stop the transport of sheep at the ports; they can be checked only at the point of arrival. That means that sheep cannot be checked at the ports. If they are diverted, they cannot be checked at the frontier. There appears to be a loophole in EU legislation. When the Minister has an opportunity, perhaps he will discuss that serious matter with the European Commission so that the loophole can be closed.

Mr. Brown

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right; I shall check the law and write to him. It is my understanding that I have all the powers necessary to prevent the movement of animals and thereby the spread of the disease in Great Britain. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Northern Ireland has a separate veterinary regime. It is not for me to interpret the law, but I believe that the veterinary authorities there have all the powers that they need to restrict the movements of animals. There is no importation of live animals for movement into Great Britain; just as the domestic herd and flock cannot move, neither can any imported animal. I imagine that the position is the same in Northern Ireland under the strict licensing arrangements that pertain there.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

I, too, wish to thank my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for the way in which they have handled the terrible epidemic and for the Ministry's detailed consultation with the National Assembly for Wales. We greatly appreciate that.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that foot and mouth disease has wide-ranging consequences beyond the livestock industry? Crops and horticulture, and the tourism and outdoor pursuits industries are also affected. They are essential to the economy in my constituency.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he and his colleagues will seriously consider that threat to jobs and incomes in my constituency?

Mr. Brown

The consequences of the disease control measures for other parts of the United Kingdom economy are under careful review not only by the Ministry, but by other interested Departments. Our strategy to contain and eliminate the disease is right, but the longer the measures continue, the more they will affect people who earn their living from activities that are unrelated to the livestock sector but conducted adjacent to it.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Although I have received today representations from farmers who believe that there should be no livestock movement because of the danger of spreading the disease, I have also received powerful representations from sheep farmers about ewes. The Minister rightly dealt with that in earlier answers. I want to push him on several specific matters.

On licensed local movements to a farm, what constitutes "farm"? Will the definition apply, for example, to ownership or to adjacent fields? If the farm is divided by a highway, will crossing it be acceptable? That affects one farmer in my constituency. Also, what constitutes "localised"? Another sheep farmer in my constituency has ewes waiting to lamb five or six miles from his farm, and he has to make a round journey to inspect them, see to their welfare and feed them. That risks spreading disease. What constitutes "localised" and what constitutes a "farm"?

Mr. Brown

The localised movement scheme will have to be a matter for local judgment, but it will operate within guidelines issued by the Ministry. The question of ownership is not of paramount importance. What is of paramount importance is the movement of animals, whether they would normally mix together, whether they are disease-free, and what the risk of spreading the disease is. Those are, ultimately, matters for local decision under what will be a permissive licensing arrangement for restricted, localised movement.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and I have been discussing with Ministers almost daily the developing problems in Cumbria. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when we are going to be given the model roll-out programme for de-restriction that will apply once the last case of foot and mouth disease has been notified? That is what people all over the country want.

Secondly, I refer my right hon. Friend to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) and support his suggestion that there is a major problem in Cumbria of not being able to dispose of carcases. In the light of that, will traditional forms of disposal now be reconsidered by the Ministry to get over this crisis?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right to point out the representations made to me and other Ministers by Members of Parliament representing Cumbria. There are serious issues to be addressed, both on carcase disposal and on what my hon. Friend rightly says might be quite a long tail to the control of the disease. The antibodies—in sheep, in particular—may well be present long after the virus has been eliminated, and we shall need to protect the national flock, and the national cattle and pig herds, from an outbreak occurring after we think it is over. Serious consideration has been given to those important issues. The management of the period when we think that the disease is over will be of enormous importance, and there are huge lessons for us all to learn from what happened in 1967.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

The plight of farmers in my constituency, as elsewhere, is very urgent. Mr. Robert Watkins of Kentchurch, for example, has 2,000 ewes in holdings. They are now lambing at the rate of 100 a day. The animal welfare concerns, the feed costs and the risk of smothering are vast, yet a mile down the road he has some 400 acres that he could use for them.

Further to the points raised by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), I want to press the Minister on the use of the Army. I was told earlier this week by members of the Royal Logistic Corps and the Royal Engineers that they were surprised that they had not yet been asked to intervene and assist. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Defence about getting the Army involved? That could certainly speed up the disposal of these creatures.

Mr. Brown

There is proper communication across Government as to the use of the uniformed services and, indeed, any other resources of Government that we need to call on to control the disease. However, in all of this, I am professionally advised and would not want to assert a political judgment of my own over the professional advice that I am given.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the localised scheme that we hope to be able to bring in very soon will address the problem of his constituents. I hope that it will, although I cannot give a definitive answer because I do not know their circumstances, and that will be a matter for local judgment. However, there is still the rather more intractable problem of the animals that are miles away from their normal location in winter.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a factor in the outbreak has been the considerable distance over which much livestock is being transported for slaughter? Is there not a case for more local abattoirs? He knows that the farmers fresh initiative has recently opened a new abattoir in Kenilworth. Does not that provide a model of co-operative working? When he meets the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, Carwyn Jones, will he discuss the need for more investment in agriculture infrastructure in south-east Wales, especially in Monmouthshire, which can serve the whole of south-east Wales and beyond?

Mr. Brown

The Agriculture Minister for Wales and I discussed abattoir provision when we last met and it is one of the issues that we keep under review, not least because there are compelling and perfectly justifiable reasons to support low-throughput abattoirs. The Government have tried to do that by underpinning the costs of veterinary inspections with public funds. Indeed, the money is being transferred from my Department's budget to that of the Department of Health precisely for that purpose. However, it is not the abattoirs or the trading practices of retailers that are at the heart of the foot and mouth outbreak.

The two issues that ought to be of concern to us all in reflecting on the matter are how the outbreak happened in the first place—inquiries on that continue, but we know the point of origin, or at least the farm where the disease first appeared—and how it spread so quickly. The issues involved in the spread are clearly livestock markets, sheep and the movement of sheep.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

Farmers in Warwickshire will be pleased to hear that the Minister is considering closely the possibility of introducing a local movements scheme. I first wrote to him about that matter at the end of last week and it is becoming increasingly urgent by the day. He is right that there are serious animal welfare considerations—lamb losses will be very high—but I hope that he will take another issue into account as well.

Farmers whose sheep are a mile or two, or even less than that, from their farms have to make several road journeys each day to look after them, feed them and perhaps take care of the lambs. That involves a risk of spreading infection. Perhaps undertaking one journey to bring sheep back to the farm would be less of a risk. I realise that the Minister has to protect against any possibility of the disease spreading, but I hope that he will take those factors into account in making his decision.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman makes a shrewd point. On each journey, it is necessary to disinfect the vehicles being used and to do so thoroughly. It might be better, even for disease control measures, to have a localised movement scheme; and the case that he advances is one reason why we are closely considering such a scheme.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Minister say with confidence that his Department has learned all the crisis management lessons of BSE, as set out in the Phillips report, and of classical swine fever? We all appreciate the work being done in his Department, from top to bottom, and the difficulty of co-ordinating the activities of its various parts with those of other agencies. However, may I draw his attention to the case in Cornwall of an abattoir that was given a special licence to slaughter —40,000 worth of cows on Monday, only to have that licence withdrawn within 24 hours? No information was given as to what would happen to the meat, and total confusion resulted.

We understand that co-ordination, though extremely important, is hard to achieve in a crisis. We also understand the Minister's difficulties in that respect. However, can he give an absolute assurance that all the lessons about the co-ordination of all activities that were not learned during the BSE crisis have now been learned?

Mr. Brown

I am making sure that the way in which I handle the situation as a Minister is informed by the Phillips report. When reporting on the Government's response to Phillips, I promised the House that the lessons would be learned by the Government and that, specifically where they applied to Ministers, they would be learned by me. I am therefore considering questions of transparency, putting the scientific advice in the public domain and listening to dissenting voices. I am encouraging the Department to do the same.

Again, I place on record my wholehearted support and the wholehearted support of the Government for the officials who have to tackle this difficult and complex situation, not just at veterinary level, but at administrative level and between national Government and local government. I am sorry that I cannot comment on the specific constituency case that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I echo the remarks made from both sides of the House by Members representing Cumbria and thank the Minister and his team for all the efforts they are making in the county. In the past hour, I have spoken to Gordon Capstick, the chairman of Cumbria's NFU and one of my constituents. He spoke yesterday to Mr. Andrew Hayward, the MAFF vet in the area, who is seriously concerned about the lack of manpower resources. As the Minister may know, he is responsible for an area that comprises both Cumbria and Tyne and Wear. He is dealing with 32 confirmed cases of the disease, which is very nearly one third of the entire national outbreak. He has 34 premises to investigate, and 30 dangerous contacts to inspect, yet there are only 11 full-time professionals on his team.

It is clear that Cumbria and the north-east are especially badly affected. Given the overall resources available in the UK, will the Minister see whether he can concentrate some additional manpower resources in the area?

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) mentioned the specific issue of livestock destruction. In at least one case, the undestroyed carcases of sheep remain close to a field by a road six days after the animals were put down.

Mr. Brown

I understand how distressing such circumstances are to farmers, and to members of the public who come across them. I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of the chief vet. The extent of the role of the Longtown market in the spread of the disease before the movement restrictions were put in place has become clear only recently. If it is necessary to divert extra resources to Cumbria, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the only constraint on those resources will be veterinary advice.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Beef farmers in exclusion zones cannot move or sell their cattle, which are increasingly becoming over age. The farmers are having to spend more on inputs, and are getting into a pretty desperate financial plight. The Minister rather sought to tease my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), who speaks for the Opposition on these matters, on the question of compensation. However, will he give the House an undertaking that, if the NFU and the Country Landowners Association come forward with suggestions for further financial aid for farmers in difficulties as a result of foot and mouth, he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give them serious consideration? The question of financial aid and compensation will not disappear, and it cannot be batted away by saying that it is impossible to work out where the boundaries should drawn. More and more farmers are going to be in a severe financial plight as a consequence of foot and mouth.

Mr. Brown

The request that I made to the Opposition spokesman was meant seriously. Of course, an assessment of all consequential losses as they applied to farmers could be made, but would one then move further down the supply chain and talk about the loses already incurred by those who operate markets that are closed? Would one include people employed at abattoirs, where business has been disrupted and which are only in part getting back to working normally? Would one go on to look at the impact on the tourist industry? There has been loss of trade in small towns that are not receiving the visitors that they expect, and the Forestry Commission has had to close its visitor attractions.

The issue could run very wide. It is a serious question: what do the Opposition believe that the Government should do? However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed the matter with the president of the National Farmers Union, and I have a clear view of his organisation's priorities.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on. I am sure that the Minister will be coming back to report to the House, and I will remember which hon. Members were not called today.