HC Deb 03 May 2001 vol 367 cc1003-22 1.42 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the foot and mouth outbreak.

This is the 10th time that I have updated the House on the outbreak. Once again, I should like to provide details of the latest position on the disease, to set out the measures the Government are taking and to give right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to raise points with me.

As of midday today, there had been 1,537 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in Great Britain. Since I spoke to the House last week, the average number of cases per day has fallen further, from 16 in the week ending 22 April, to 11 in the week ending 29 April. That continues the decline of the disease from the highest point of 43 cases per day in the week ending 1 April.

More than 2.4 million animals have now been slaughtered for disease control purposes. A further 630,000 animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. May I remind the House that in the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which lasted for more than seven months, only 434,000 animals were slaughtered in total? The current outbreak is, as I have said before, unprecedented in scale and in the speed at which it spread.

There is no longer any backlog of animals awaiting disposal, anywhere in Great Britain. The disposal backlog in Devon, to which I referred last week, will have been cleared by the end of today. There are small numbers of animals awaiting slaughter, but the position has improved greatly during the past few weeks. That achievement is the result of a concerted effort in the past few days and weeks, using all the disposal methods—rendering, burning, incinerating, landfill and burial—according to need and as appropriate in the local circumstances.

We have been able to lift restrictions in 10 different areas, where there have been no new cases for 30 days and where thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. Some 16,000 farms have now benefited from the lifting of the tighter movement restrictions associated with infected areas. That represents about 13 per cent. of the number of farms that were ever restricted.

We can therefore be optimistic about the future course of the disease, although the epidemiologists warn us that cases will continue to occur for some time yet. What is clear is that our policy was the right one: to bear down on the outbreak swiftly and prevent greater spread of the disease by rapid slaughtering, within 24 hours of the report of a new case, tracing dangerous contacts and tackling the disease on contiguous premises within 48 hours. This has been crucial to the control of the epidemic.

Last week I was able to announce to the House a broadening of the existing areas of discretion for local veterinary judgment in relation to culling on a neighbouring farm. That has provided some relief from automatic slaughter of cattle and has been generally welcomed by farmers, as has the move towards making special arrangements for rare breeds of sheep and hefted flocks.

On vaccination, it remains the position that the necessary support among farmers, consumers and the food industry for a vaccination programme in Cumbria and possibly Devon has not been forthcoming and I cannot see that situation changing now, given the decline in the number of daily confirmed cases. Contingency plans remain in place for the rapid introduction of a vaccination programme should the situation change.

I announced last week a number of ways in which we have re-established routes for healthy livestock to be sold into the food chain. I am pleased to say that we are now issuing instructions to veterinary staff so that they can issue licences which will allow healthy stock from premises within 3 km of an infected place to move after a period of time to slaughter and use in the human food chain. Farmers who wish to take advantage of this should contact their local animal health offices. Access to the livestock welfare disposal scheme remains open to anyone who can demonstrate a real welfare problem that cannot be addressed in any other way. My right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State will be meeting farming organisations tomorrow to review the operation of the scheme and its future.

The Government also want to do something to help with welfare problems on farms in infected areas which cannot move animals because of the local intensity of foot and mouth disease cases. I therefore propose to ask our veterinary staff to examine these problems on a case by case basis and to permit movements on farms provided that the fight against foot and mouth disease is not compromised. The most common problem which this change will address will be where animals are not able to cross public roads to fresh grazing. The change will be introduced by the middle of next week at the latest.

We continue to pay large sums in compensation and other payments to farmers resulting from the foot and mouth outbreak. We have already paid over £100 million pounds in compensation and the latest estimate is that this figure will eventually be over £600 million. The livestock welfare disposal scheme is expected to provide more than £200 million. This is all in addition to the £156 million being paid in agrimonetary compensation to livestock farmers and all the other funding that the Government are providing to support the rural economy and the tourism industry more generally. We are in discussion with the devolved Administrations and the farming unions about the longer term recovery plan.

The Government have also taken steps to safeguard farmers' entitlements to CAP payments. Following consultation with farming unions, the deadline for submitting IACS forms will remain 15 May. However, we have agreed with the European Commission that it will amend its rules on changes that may be made to IACS forms after 15 May. This flexibility will make it easier for farmers to adjust their claims to take account of individual circumstances. My Department has written to all IACS applicants to give them full details of the flexibilities we have secured and the procedures to follow. Farmers whose cattle or sheep have been culled and who are currently unsure of their future prospects should take steps to safeguard their entitlement to future subsidy, if and when they decide to restock their farms. This means that they should submit an IACS form in the normal way by 15 May. Where appropriate, they should also tick the boxes on the form for hill farming allowances and extensification premium.

When I reported to the House on 27 March, I drew attention to the need to enforce the rules on commercial and personal imports of meat and meat products into the United Kingdom. I should like now to inform the House of the steps that the Government have taken and are taking in this context.

The control of meat and meat product imports into this country involves the inspection of commercial imports at border inspection posts, effective controls on personal imports and action in shops and other food premises against sales of illegally imported food. The Government are taking action in all those contexts to build on our existing controls.

First, we have set up improved arrangements for the pooling of information in government about known or suspected illegal imports. That will help the authorities concerned—MAFF, port health authorities, local authorities and Customs and Excise—to target their activities on the areas of greatest risk.

Secondly, the Food Standards Agency has undertaken a programme of visits to ports and airports to examine the effectiveness of public health controls on imported food.

Thirdly, we shall be taking early steps to ensure that the restrictions on what may be brought into the United Kingdom from outside the European Union and the European Economic Area are made known to travellers by a publicity campaign involving the travel industry, airports, ports and Foreign and Commonwealth Office posts abroad.

Fourthly, the FSA has asked port health authorities and local authorities to ensure that, as part of their routine inspection of food premises and imported food, they check for illegal imports. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has laid before the House an amendment to the Products of Animal Origin (Import and Export) Regulations 1996 that will clarify local authorities' powers to seize suspected illegal imports. I understand that equivalent action is being taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Imports of meat and meat products into the United Kingdom, as into other member states of the European Union, take place within the framework of European law. As I promised the House on 27 March, I have asked the European Commission to give urgent attention to ensuring that the law on personal imports into the EU is clear and robust. Commissioner Byrne indicated at last week's meeting of the Agriculture Council that the Commission attaches great importance to ensuring that there is a high level of protection from disease at the Community's borders. I understand that the Commission's current thinking is that the main scope for tightening the EU's policy on imports lies in ensuring that the current rules are properly policed and in identifying and closing any loopholes.

I referred last week to the banning of pigswill and undertook to make a further announcement. I can inform the House that we are today making an order that will ban the feeding to livestock swill of catering waste that contains or has been in contact with meat. The ban is extended to include poultry and fish waste. The order will come into force on 24 May, after a three week phase-in period that is designed to ensure that animals can safely be weaned off waste food and on to an alternative diet.

The order has been made after consultation with the industry and other interested parties. The possible banning of all catering waste was considered in the consultation, but was subsequently deemed unnecessary, although the feeding of all types of catering waste from premises where meat or meat products are handled or prepared will be banned.

As I said, we can be cautiously optimistic that the worst is over, but we know that there will be sporadic outbreaks for some time and that we cannot afford to let our guard drop for a moment. All the resources that are required to overcome the disease will remain in place where they are needed, for as long as they are needed. We are determined to see this operation through to a successful conclusion. It is in all our interests to ensure that the job is done properly, so that farming and the whole of the countryside can get back to normal as soon as possible.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call the Opposition spokesman, may I say that it is my desire to call every hon. Member who wishes to speak on the statement? However, I need the co-operation of the House and I expect questions to be as brief as possible.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, which was supplied to me in advance. I want to begin by repeating the tribute that Conservative Members have paid previously to everyone in the front line of the crisis—the Army, the vets and the many others who have been working extremely hard to get on top of the disease.

I warmly welcome the improved position that the Minister described. It is very good news that the measures that have been taken—it has to be said that some of them were taken belatedly—are now working. Nevertheless, he should know that the crisis is far from over in many parts of Britain. What he describes as a small number of animals awaiting slaughter was, last night, 107,000—more than three times the number that was awaiting slaughter on the day that I first called for the Army to be deployed in an operational role to bring the crisis under control.

In Cumbria, the situation is still so serious that the Army has just been forced to establish a new crisis management centre in the south of the county. In Somerset this week, the disease has struck in a new part of the county for the first time. In Scotland, the disease is still spreading from west to east in the border country. In the Welsh valleys new areas have suffered infection.

On top of that, there is growing criticism from farmers and vets, in places as far apart as Devon and Essex, that the Government may have changed the way in which cases are counted. In Essex, for example, antibodies were found in sheep at Great Wigborough, but the Ministry decided not to include that as an infected case. If foot and mouth was present in those animals, as local farmers and vets believe, why does the Ministry refuse to classify it as a confirmed case?

Will the Minister explain what changes have been made to the basis on which the daily total of new cases is now calculated? Does he agree that, if cases of infection are not recorded as such, there is a danger that an area may wrongly be assumed to be free of the disease and that that may lead to restrictions being lifted prematurely, and the risk of a flare up of the disease at a later date? Was it not one of the lessons of the 1967 outbreak that the foot was taken off the pedal prematurely?

When the Prime Minister abandoned his plan five weeks ago for an election today, I set out the four tests on which judgment about whether the crisis had been resolved should be based. Good progress has been made towards satisfying two of those tests—the report-to-slaughter time down to 24 hours for infected cases, and the fall in the daily total of new cases. But the other two tests have not been met. The geographical spread of the disease has not yet been reversed, and many farmers with healthy animals are still not allowed to move them, for very good reasons.

How many farmers are subject to movement restrictions on healthy animals and how long does the Minister expect those restrictions to remain? Does he agree that farming cannot return to normal until all those restrictions are lifted, and the crisis cannot therefore be said to be fully resolved until all four of my tests have been met?

In the context of the welfare disposal scheme, I welcome the steps that the Minister has announced this afternoon. How long will it be before farmers with healthy animals within 3 km of an infected place are allowed to move those animals to slaughter for the human food chain? Will the Minister confirm that help will continue to be given to farmers whose premises now require disinfection?

It is now clear that the disease reached its present horrific scale because of the Government's failure to take the prompt action suggested by the Conservative party and recommended by the report to the Northumberland inquiry and the report of western command after the 1967 outbreak. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary says that this crisis is less serious than the one in 1967.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

It has been dealt with faster.

Mr. Yeo

The Minister has just said that, in 1967, fewer than 500,000 animals were slaughtered. In this crisis already 2.5 million animals have been compulsorily slaughtered and the movement restrictions on healthy animals, which have been imposed directly because of the crisis, have led to farmers asking for another 1.5 million animals to be voluntarily slaughtered. We are talking about a loss of livestock eight times that of 1967. That scale of crisis is the result of Government inaction.

Will the Minister confirm that, when the inquiry into the handling of the crisis is set up, independent experts will be asked to assess by how much the spread of the disease could have been reduced, how many animals might have been saved and how many businesses might have survived if the Army had been given the full operational role that we called for on 11 March, and if the policy of slaughter on suspicion had been introduced more promptly to cut the report-to-slaughter time to less than 24 hours at an earlier date?

On compensation, is the Minister aware of the anxiety about the retrospective cut that he announced last week in payments to farmers whose animals had been accepted for the welfare disposal scheme before 27 April? Will he reverse the decision and eliminate the element of retrospection? Will he speed up compensation payments generally? His statement suggests that approximately £500 million is currently owed to farmers whose animals have been slaughtered. Why has he not acted to help farmers whose cattle have passed the age of 30 months and cannot be sold because of movement restrictions? They have suffered an unrecoverable loss directly because of the epidemic.

I welcome the steps that the Minister announced for dealing with import controls. Is he now ready to introduce long overdue measures to stop meat entering Britain from countries where foot and mouth disease is endemic and to block the importing of other sub-standard meat, which may endanger human or animal health? Will he assure hon. Members that swift action will be taken if the Food Standards Agency decides that controls at ports and airports are too weak? Does he realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) raised the problem of personal imports through Heathrow, and that the Ministry was asked to take action in May last year? Nothing was done. Only last Sunday 444 kg of fish and meat in 43 bags were discovered on one flight from Ghana. I recently visited the port of Dover, where no controls are exercised on food imports.

Livestock farmers are not the only people who have suffered through foot and mouth disease. Thousands of businesses in tourism and other rural activities such as equestrianism have been devastated. Why has nothing further been heard from the Government's taskforce? Why has the Conservative proposal of offering interest-free loans to affected businesses not been accepted? That proposal was suggested in the House more than six weeks ago and has widespread support even among Labour Members.

If today's statement is the last to Parliament on the subject before Dissolution, will the Minister confirm that full details of the progress of the disease will be available to all candidates on a constituency basis throughout the election campaign?

The 10 weeks of the foot and mouth disease crisis have exposed muddle, incompetence and delay at every level of Government. Farmers, other businesses and taxpayers will pay a high price for ministerial negligence, especially in the early stages of the epidemic. At each stage, the Prime Minister has acted with his eye on the headlines and not on the problems. First, he played down the crisis. He was afraid that admitting that we were facing a national emergency would wreck his precious election timetable. Now he claims that we are on the home straight, but millions of hard-working men and women whose livelihoods have been put at risk by Government dither are nowhere near it. They face an uncertain and, in many cases, bleak future. They will have listened in vain today for any genuine encouragement and assurance that the Labour Government care enough about the rural communities that they have done so much to damage in the past four years to take the necessary action to ensure their survival.

Mr. Brown

Let me repeat that it is a mistake to milk a serious disease outbreak for party political purposes. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I encourage those on the Opposition Benches to give the Minister a hearing.

Mr. Brown

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Having asked the questions, it would be as well if the Opposition allowed me to answer them rather than behaving like overgrown public school boys.

I shall answer the questions in reverse order. I shall continue to put all the information that I can into the public domain. That has been my policy throughout the outbreak. We will make public and act on any advice that we receive from the FSA.

There has been no retrospective cut in rates under the welfare disposal scheme. It is essential to all those who care about the livestock industry, however, that our introduction of the welfare scheme does not create a false market. In the long term, that would be ruinous for the industry and suck in imports.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) questioned our prompt action—this, incidentally, from a party that took 11 years to get the proper public protection measures into place to deal with BSE—and referred to when the Army were called in. The advice of the 1967 outbreak report was followed. Ministerial correspondence was exchanged in government, and the Army was called in before the first call for its deployment by the parliamentary Opposition.

The House will know that the Agriculture Select Committee has already begun an inquiry into the outbreak, and I have appeared before it twice, so far. There is also bound to be a Public Accounts Committee inquiry. I pledge that whatever inquiries are held, I will co-operate fully, as will my departmental officials, and we will give evidence willingly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the comparative scale of the 1967 outbreak. In spite of the much larger scale of this outbreak, we have brought it under control and are moving towards a conclusion more promptly than in 1967.

I answered the question about the 3 km zones in my opening statement. The hon. Gentleman also asked how many farms are still subject to movement restrictions. The answer is some 160,000, as Great Britain is still a control zone.

On the question of the compilation of statistics, where infected premises are confirmed as such, they are reported as such. There are no exemptions. If blood tests turn out negative, however, we cannot report such a case as a positive case.

The hon. Gentleman said that the outbreak was far from over. Yes, there will be cases for a while yet, and it is right that we remain vigilant, do not drop our guard and bear down on those cases.

Finally, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the fact that the position has improved and for his support for the public servants—both civilian and military—who are working so hard to bring this terrible disease outbreak to a firm conclusion.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

May I be the first to congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his steadfastness through this difficult time, but on his good humour, which is often needed in these difficult circumstances? Will he look at how he can begin to shrink the ring around infected premises—those farms that are subject to form D restrictions—as quickly as possible because that is where the biggest problems are arising in the recovery period?

Will my right hon. Friend make sure that payments are made expeditiously? People who have been waiting for a good number of weeks need to know not only how they will restock, but how they will afford to do that and other things on their holding. Will he conduct an investigation into the state veterinary service—which was cut to ribbons by the Conservatives—to see how we can rebuild it?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the size of the state veterinary service is one of the issues that we will want to consider in the aftermath of this terrible disease outbreak. On prompt payment, I have already asked officials what can be done to make sure that we are making prompt payments in these terrible circumstances.

As for shrinking the 3 km infected zones, where that is possible I have asked that it be done, but it has to be consistent with disease control. We are trying to find ways of enabling livestock from premises under form D restrictions to get to the market. As I said in my opening statement, I hope that that is under way by the middle of next week.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the prior notice that he gave me of his statement? I welcome it and the general tenor of the improving situation that it described. However, I express caution; any suggestion that the crisis is over will be seen as a joke in the affected areas. If the epidemic is abating in livestock, there will still be many business casualties in the coming months. Given the new case in Wiveliscombe in Somerset, can the right hon. Gentleman scotch any rumours by stating categorically that no feral deer have tested positive for foot and mouth disease?

May I welcome the flexibility now exercised in the contiguous cull? Will the Minister pay particular attention to valuable pedigree herds that may be caught up in an infected area? On the welfare schemes, how is it that in Devon, where there is already a great deal of concern about the changes in compensation rates, the first newsletter issued by MAFF in the county gave the old, incorrect rates to farmers?

Has the Minister given further consideration to re-establishing the over-30-months scheme? We are approaching spring calving and a lot of cows would normally be moved on at that stage. A backlog will build up unless a suitable measure is put in place in the relatively near future. I welcome the relaxation on form D restricted areas. Does he agree that the best course of action for farmers caught in such areas is to enable them to move non-infected animals for sale?

On import controls, is not it extraordinary that the elementary advice in the statement—that the FSA has asked port health authorities and local authorities to check for illegal imports—should have been given at this stage in the crisis? Perhaps that explains why my hon. Friends and I have been refused permission by Customs and Excise to talk to the authorities at ports.

On pigswill orders, can the Minister confirm that what he has said today means that whey will be excluded from the restriction and, therefore, that the cheese-making industry will not be affected? I had expressed concern about that.

Lastly, will the Minister join the Minister for the Environment in saying that there should be an independent public inquiry on the handling of the foot and mouth disease outbreak? The Minister should have nothing to fear from some aspects of that inquiry, but clearly there is scope for improvement. We need a clear commitment to allowing someone to consider the evidence of the past few months.

Mr. Brown

Of course, we shall consider all the issues arising from the disease outbreak. On whey, my understanding is the same as that of the hon. Gentleman. On enforcement, it is perfectly reasonable for the FSA to highlight those issues with the appropriate regulatory authorities. On the over-30-months scheme, I want to return it to normal working. On the welfare schemes, I understand the point that he makes, but ensuring that we are not setting rates that create a false market is essential for the reasons that I set out earlier.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about pedigree herds, the crucial issue is biosecurity on the farm. If farmers want their animals to be given due consideration when their farm is contiguous to an infected premise, the correct way to achieve that is to pay scrupulous attention to biosecurity. Clearly, the owners of pedigree herds are already well aware of that.

On feral deer, I am still not aware of any case of the disease having been found, although I have discussed what the Government would do in such circumstances, because we would not automatically seek to cull it out. I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about acting with caution and not saying that the outbreak is over. There is still much to be done, and that includes disease control measures.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

A number of farmers in Pendle have been in touch with me to express concern about the 20-day standstill period. I appreciate that the Government are consulting on that, but can the Minister tell the House anything about the issue? Is he minded to make a policy change?

Mr. Brown

The consultation period is not over yet, and a number of matters of detail have emerged already. Although the principle of a 20-day standstill for sheep and cattle has been welcomed, people want the Government further to consider a number of caveats, so I have extended the consultation period. The Government have not reached a firm conclusion.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Will the Minister confirm that there will be a full judicial inquiry, on which the Government so enthusiastically insisted for BSE, into the foot and mouth outbreak? If not, surely the Government will be accused of being interested in the problems of previous Governments, but not in their own.

Mr. Brown

I have nothing to add to what I have already said to the House.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the measures that he has announced today and inform him that, unfortunately, the 18th outbreak in Monmouthshire occurred just last week. It has affected seven contiguous farms.

The main concern of the farmers with whom I have been dealing this week are delays in compensation and the reduction in the rates of the welfare disposal scheme. It is particularly unfair on those farmers to experience unreasonable delays in dealing with their applications. Will my right hon. Friend consider the operation of the Intervention Board, which is a rather confusing institution for any of us to deal with? I hope that designated officers can deal with regions or sub-regions of the country at least, so that we can speak to someone in person.

Mr. Brown

The purpose of the welfare scheme is to deal with genuine welfare problems whereby animals cannot be managed where they are or cannot be moved under licence, which is the preferred option. My hon. Friend asks about making payments as expeditiously as we can. I have asked officials to see what more can be done.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The very measured tones in which the right hon. Gentleman has talked about the problem today represent a marked contrast with the reported comments of the Prime Minister, who is said effectively to have remarked that the crisis is over. The case in Wiveliscombe has been referred to, and MAFF has already identified 15 dangerous contacts.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, if the measured tones that he uses are replaced by those of the Prime Minister, the public will be given the impression that the crisis is over and will drop their guard? There are already reports in the west country of farmers moving their stock around without having received the appropriate licences, and if the Prime Minister's tone is adopted, we may yet reap the whirlwind.

Mr. Brown

The Prime Minister has not said that the outbreak is over. It is not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying very firmly to all involved in the livestock industry, but to farmers in particular, that they must not move their livestock without a licence. Unauthorised movement of livestock is the surest way to keep the disease outbreak going.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I thank the Minister for all the hard work that he and his staff have put in. He has visited my constituency twice.

There has been a severe problem in Cumbria, but over the 10 weeks a lot of local labour has been employed in the cull. Many of those people lost their jobs because of foot and mouth. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that local people will be the last to lose their jobs as the handling of the epidemic winds down? A senior official of the Lake district national park has said that it is unlikely that access to the fells will be possible this year. Did that official get his information from MAFF and does my right hon. Friend believe that that is the case? If it is, the tourism industry in Cumbria will have severe problems.

Mr. Brown

That is not my understanding of the situation, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend gets a written statement on access to the fells. In Carlisle we have tried to employ those who have been displaced from their normal work because of the outbreak on disease control measures. Although I cannot give him the specific assurance for which he asks, I can say that we will do what we can to try to maintain the local employment base where that is possible.

Let me take the opportunity to express my admiration for the community that my hon. Friend represents, and the neighbouring communities, which have been resilient throughout this most terrible outbreak.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I wish to put to the Minister a question that was not asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow Minister of Agriculture, who has greatly enhanced his reputation over the past 11 weeks by his sensible handling of the problem for the Opposition.

The Government, understanding that the outbreak was a national emergency, rightly introduced the funding of hardship relief.

That is proceeding, but one understood when it was introduced that the expense was to be met by the national Exchequer. We now find that the areas that have been hit are being called on to meet between 5 and 25 per cent. of the cost of the hardship relief. The local authorities that have had no problems have no extra expense, whereas a quite small district council in East Devon that has had cases of foot and mouth, and where hardship relief is being provided, is faced with an extra bill of £123,000. That is something that it never expected. Surely that cost should be met by the total Exchequer. May I urge the Minister to take this matter to the Treasury and to the Prime Minister—the Minister will not decide this himself—because it stinks of Treasury control, and is not a proper and sensible relief?

Mr. Brown

There is no contributory element to the agriculture schemes for which I am responsible. I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who is responsible for the scheme to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

The policy of culling animals on contiguous premises has been successful in bringing this disease under control, but in the forest of Dean 26 premises have been served with A notices as part of the contiguous cull as a result of dangerous contact with free-roaming sheep from the statutory forest. People have objected to that on the basis that the animals can either be counted in penny numbers or are pets. Will my right hon. Friend respond to the request from me and others for a serological study in relation to the A notices, so that we can move on to the flexibility involving testing before culling that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned? Secondly, may I press the Minister to put pressure on Forest Enterprise to lift the restrictions on some areas of the statutory forest, when we have resolved the issue of the 26 outstanding A notices, so that we can rebuild the tourism that has been so badly damaged in my area?

Mr. Brown

I will be discussing that issue with Forest Enterprise, and I have asked for veterinary advice about the unique circumstances in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

Is the Minister aware not only of the effects of an approach to businesses in the agricultural, tourist and retail sectors that has effectively been a sticking plaster on a haemorrhage, but of the real damage that is taking place for many businesses in rural areas affected by foot and mouth, not least the Clacher pipeline business in my constituency and many others like it? Do the Government have a policy for compensation and assistance, rather than a series of measures put together in a somewhat ad hoc way?

Mr. Brown

I have said this before, but let me repeat it. It would be quite wrong to imply that the Government can somehow buy out all the consequential losses resulting from foot and mouth disease. That is true of agriculture and of the other rural businesses that have been so terribly affected by this disease outbreak. By far the best thing that I can do for everyone employed in the rural community is to bear down on the disease and eliminate it, and that is what I am setting out to do.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

May I raise two questions with the Minister that have been raised with me by farmers in the restricted zone on the Warwickshire-Worcestershire border? The last outbreak was nearly six weeks ago and we are now going through the process of inspections that we hope will result in the lifting of the zone restrictions. Part of that process involves the blood testing of sheep in the zone, and those blood tests all have to be analysed at the Pirbright laboratory. Is the Minister confident that there are enough resources available at Pirbright to do those tests without causing unnecessary delay?

Secondly, on the movement of healthy stock in a restricted zone for slaughter for human consumption, I understand that such stock has to be moved to an abattoir in the zone. That restriction makes it almost impossible for many people to get their animals to slaughter. Would it be possible to allow the animals to be moved to abattoirs slightly outside the restricted zone, if adequate safeguards were in place in the form of a veterinary inspection before the animals left the farm?

Mr. Brown

It may be possible for us to adopt such a scheme in future, but it is not at the moment. Although it is possible, under strictly controlled conditions, to move animals in an infected zone, we do not want to move animals from an infected zone to one that is currently clear, for obvious disease control reasons. I am not saying that it will not be possible to free up the movement restrictions as we continue to bear down on the disease, and I can see the desirability of the right hon. Gentleman's case from a trade point of view.

On the question of resources for testing at Pirbright, we have enhanced the available resources and I am confident that they are enough to carry out the serology tests that we need.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Minister announced that there are proposals to allow healthy stock within 3 km of an infected place to move to slaughter "after a period of time". Will he help the House and my constituents by telling us what he anticipates that period of time to be? Secondly, it was dreadfully unfair to reduce the payments under the welfare cull. That is especially true for farmers under D notices, and I detect grave misgivings in all parts of the House about that.

Finally, will the Minister tell us when Dartmoor will be reopened to the public? The tourist trade on Dartmoor remains at a standstill and it is critical that it should be reopened as soon as it is safe to do so.

Mr. Brown

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. I want to get Dartmoor opened up as soon as possible. However, that must be consistent with disease control. On the D class restrictions for people in the 3 km zones, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are continuing difficulties with movement restrictions, although I hope that what I have announced today will help. My noble Friend Baroness Hayman, the Minister of State, is meeting farmers' representatives tomorrow to discuss the welfare scheme, and I have had some discussions with farmers' leaders on how to help those categories of animals that are compromised for market reasons rather than welfare reasons.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about the period of time, that will be a matter of clinical and veterinary judgment. That judgment will vary from place to place depending on circumstances, but a veterinary judgment will say whether the animal in question is disease-free.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

The Minister will know that this crisis will not end on the first day that there are no new cases to announce. That is true for farmers, and also for the hundreds of thousands of other businesses that have no cash or customers and face the prospect of their summer being shot to pieces as well. Will the Minister draw the attention of the Government to the need to persuade more British visitors to come to the countryside, through advertising campaigns? In Yorkshire, £80 out of every £100 spent on tourism comes from British visitors, and the quickest way to get economic life back into the countryside is to get Britons back into visiting their own country.

Mr. Brown

I agree with both the right hon. Gentleman's points. Yes, we need to promote domestic tourism, and my right hon. Friend is setting out to do just that. The disease is not over yet, and it requires continued vigilance not only from public servants, Ministers and Members of Parliament representing their constituents, but from the farming industry as well. Any unlicensed movement of animals carried out by people who believe that we are on the home straight could cause a resurgence of the disease outbreak. We must all remain vigilant and committed to bearing down on and eliminating the disease.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May I say that nowhere will there be more people praying that the Minister is right to be even cautiously optimistic than in Cumbria? Unfortunately, however, in south Cumbria things are not getting any better; they are still getting worse. In fact, there have been more outbreaks of the disease in my constituency in the past fortnight than in the whole of the period up until then. We have now lost at least half the irreplaceable rare breed sheep on the upland fells that play such a vital role in the ecology and look of the Lake district. Lake district tourist businesses in my constituency report that business is quieter and losses are greater now than they were before Easter.

May I press the Minister to consider taking two steps that need to be taken, as a matter of urgency? First, will he make it Government policy to ensure that rare sheep breeds such as Herdwick and rough fell are not wiped out? Will he declare today that no sheep belonging to those breeds will be wiped out unless there is specific blood-test evidence that they have the disease, and that measures will be introduced to ensure that a major ecological disaster does not take place in the coming weeks, when the last of those animals could be wiped out without MAFF's even knowing that that is what it is doing?

Secondly, will the Minister please convey a clear message to the Treasury and the rural taskforce that Cumbria is bleeding to death? Its Labour-controlled county council estimated this week that losses already amounted to £500 million in that county alone, and were escalating steadily. Businesses in my constituency and beyond need more help, and need it desperately.

Mr. Brown

I am considering what I can do, in the context of my ministerial responsibilities, to help the areas with highest infectivity—Cumbria and Devon specifically, but not exclusively. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's other remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State.

What the hon. Gentleman says about special breeds is entirely right: we need to devise a strategy that gives them the best possible chance of survival. I believe that we have done that in discussions with breed societies and representatives of local farmers. I am advised—and I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows this—that a management rather than an automatic-culling strategy has the best prospect of achieving what we both want to achieve.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I could raise many issues relating to the mishandling of the disease in my constituency, but I would not do so in a spirit of political partisanship, because I was sent here by my constituents to scrutinise the Executive. I shall, in fact, raise just one issue on which the Minister seemed to be prepared to move further. I refer to the form D restrictions.

A farmer in my constituency, Mr. Jeremy Boaz of Willow Bough farm in Grafton Flyford, stands to lose thousands of pounds because he is still under a form D restriction. If he has disposed of his animals under the livestock welfare disposal scheme, he will receive not £50 to £60 per sheep or lamb, but about £28.80. Moreover, he will receive nothing for animals that are slaughtered simply because he cannot afford to feed them. Meanwhile, the farm that caused the outbreak that led to the restriction is, quite rightly, receiving full compensation for its animals. Can such injustice be justified?

Mr. Brown

I hope that by the middle of next week the hon. Gentleman's constituent will be able to move his animals commercially, and receive a proper price for them in the marketplace.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The Minister has spent some of his time providing some gentle reassurance that the Government have the issue of illegal food imports in hand. Is he aware of the sheer scale of the problem at airports such as Heathrow, where dozens of flights end every day? The vast majority will not be checked for such illegal food imports. The episode of last Sunday night, which I witnessed—444 kg of food was seized—resulted from a random check carried out by Customs and Excise. It is unlikely to be repeated frequently, if at all, and nothing of the kind had happened for many weeks before that.

The Minister mentioned port health authorities, but they have no statutory powers to search passenger luggage for imports of commercial scale. Responsibility rests entirely with Customs and Excise, whose priorities at present relate to class A drugs and tobacco. Customs and Excise currently has no recourse to sniffer dogs, or to any of the resources or logistics that are necessary for the carrying out of checks on food imports.

Will the Minister confirm that he has been aware of the current state of affairs at least since 30 May last year, when he was written to directly about this very problem by those involved in the detection of such imports at Heathrow airport?

Mr. Brown

Yes, but as the hon. Gentleman says, enforcement of the law is a matter for Customs and Excise. Strategy powers reside with Customs and Excise, and any representations made to me, as a Minister, would be sent to Customs and Excise as well because of its powers to enforce the law.

I think that we should take a robust line on illegal imports. We have upped the checking and testing regime, which involves agencies throughout public service, including local authority trading standards officers. If more needs to be done, more will be done. I consider it unacceptable for the whole country to be put through the pain and turmoil that we have been put through over the past two months because of an illegal import of the disease. We must take firm action to ensure that that cannot happen again.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Minister visit Northumberland, which seems to have been forgotten, although we are seeing new cases nearly every day? Will he heed the anger of people in the Widdrington area, who have witnessed the burial of more than 100,000 carcases and the burning of 3,500, but are told that—although we are supposedly on the home straight—their burial site is to be kept open for another month? Will the Minister pay particular regard to the need to protect the Chillingham wild cattle, and to the impact of all this on tourism businesses? He could even make his trip enjoyable by fitting in a visit to one of the many attractions in Northumberland that are still open.

Mr. Brown

I am aware of the attractions. Given my constituency, Northumberland is high on the list of areas that I am unlikely to overlook. Even were I to do so, it should be borne in mind that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who represents Gateshead, is a frequent visitor.

Of course we will make arrangements to deal with special breeds, including Chillingham cattle. What I cannot do is give all hon. Members the special assurances that they would like about particular disposal sites or disposal routes. I know of the concern that these issues occasion locally—although people feel that the policy may be right in principle, no one is enthusiastic about having a disposal site as a neighbour—but I cannot assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will manage to intervene, and change decisions made by those who are responsible for these matters regionally.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Minister, with whom I have worked closely, will know that the two suspected cases in my constituency, at Adlington and North Rode, have proved negative. Unfortunately, however, D form notices and movement restrictions are still in place. I am receiving an increasing number of representations from the Macclesfield branch of the National Farmers Union, and from individual farmers: they want movement restrictions to be lifted immediately.

A number of farmers are what I would describe as examples of economic tragedy in the current crisis. For instance, Mr. J. L. Mellor of High Lee farm, Sutton, has store cattle that are long overdue for sale. He can no longer afford to feed them. Mr. P. J. Simcock of Brink farm, Pott Shrigley, has 300 hundred horned sheep that are available for slaughter immediately. Abattoirs are ready to accept them, but they cannot be sent to the abattoirs. They are clean beasts.

Farmers can no longer afford to feed their animals. Will the Minister examine such cases very carefully, and then tell me—and the Macclesfield NFU—that the D forms and movement restrictions will be lifted in my constituency, as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Brown

I will do what I can to help the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

For every three suspicious cases reported, only one turns out to be a case of foot and mouth disease. When cases are reported, however, it takes longer to prove that the animals are clear than it takes to confirm the disease. If it is possible to lift the 3 km movement restrictions, consistent with disease control, I will ask the regional veterinary authorities to consider the matter carefully, and to treat the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Minister was uncharacteristically sharp in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton). She asked whether there could be a full-scale public inquiry into the matter. Many would want to contribute; many lessons need to be learned. Will the Minister, in the spirit of openness, take this opportunity to explain why the Government do not want a full-scale public inquiry, if that is the case? Many are calling for such an inquiry.

May I re-emphasise the point about the welfare scheme? My constituent Lyn Horrocks received approval for the slaughter of pigs under the scheme, but there was a delay, and she may now receive a lower price for her animals. Does the Minister consider that equitable?

Mr. Brown

If we are talking about the same case as the right hon. Gentleman asked me about at the Select Committee hearing, I do not know whether he has been able yet to drop me a note to explain why the animals cannot be moved or managed where they are. If he could drop me such a note, I promise that I will look at the particular constituency case.

I will co-operate with whatever inquiries are set up. Throughout the disease outbreak, I have put all the advice to me into the public domain and tried to explain my decisions as the disease has taken the course that it has. Where circumstances have changed, and therefore public policy has had to be adapted, I have explained that candidly in front of the House, the Select Committee and, where appropriate, at press conferences, too.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

Can the Minister explain why the MAFF website states that there have been no confirmed cases of foot and mouth in Essex for over three weeks when, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) said, very recently, 1,600 sheep and 112 pigs were slaughtered after antibodies were found in the blood of animals at a farm near Colchester? Does the Minister understand farmers' fears that they may not be being given all the facts? Can he take this opportunity to state exactly what he believes the position to be in Essex?

Mr. Brown

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he has a factual answer to the individual case, but the most likely explanation is that the animals tested negative and were taken out as dangerous contacts. [Interruption.] The presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the disease is present. If the animals tested negative for the disease, they would not be included as a positive case. That seems to be the most likely explanation, but I shall arrange for a formal reply to be sent to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). However, there is no question of the Government excluding positive cases from the total statistics.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The right hon. Gentleman has tried to be helpful throughout this terrible outbreak. In view of the fact that those who are suffering may shortly be deprived of parliamentary representation for a few weeks, will he set aside a day next week when he and his officials can see Members of Parliament who have particularly difficult cases, rather like the surgeries that we hold in our constituencies?

Mr. Brown

I always try to be as helpful as I can and will continue to be so while I am the Minister.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Recently, I had a discussion with the Minister about the lack of communication between his officials and those in the devolved Administration in Cardiff. A week last Wednesday, I saw the officials in Cardiff, who sanctioned the movement of sheep within enclosed common land in several parts of my constituency on welfare grounds and because it was risk free. All they needed was the rubber stamp of the chief vet of MAFF. I was assured that those animals could be moved on Monday this week. That has still not happened. May I ask the Minister to intervene personally in the matter? It is an animal welfare problem of quite large proportions.

Mr. Brown

Veterinary authority in these matters is devolved: not only is there regional discretion, but operations on the ground are the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly, not the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The veterinary advice comes from the same final source: the chief vet is the chief vet for Great Britain, not just for England. I will ask him to examine the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I say gently that day-to-day operational responsibility lies with the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary for Agriculture and Rural Development in Wales.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

The Minister will recall that he answered a question from me last week about vaccine strategy for zoos. I am grateful to the civil servants in his office, who have listened to my representations since he answered that question. He knows how important that is for Whipsnade zoo in my constituency. Is the vaccine strategy document for zoos now in the public domain? If not, when will it be? When it is, please will he ensure that Whipsnade zoo rapidly has a copy of it?

Mr. Brown

I shall send a copy of the document to Whipsnade zoo and to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy in the Library.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Minister has reiterated his commitment to MAFF being as open as possible about the progress of the disease. My understanding is that MAFF has been publishing the total number of outbreak cases on a constituency-by-constituency basis, but so far it has not been publishing the lists of the locations of those outbreaks, although it could easily do so because, obviously, it has those at its fingertips in order to arrive at the totals. Does he accept that it is important that that information should be published, particularly if there is a general election campaign going on, when hon. Members will not be able to question the Minister directly on the progress of the disease?

Mr. Brown

My understanding is that I continue to hold ministerial responsibilities regardless of whether a general election is called. I shall continue to treat all hon. Members who are standing for re-election with courtesy and do what I can to help with individual constituency cases.

I shall continue to publish constituency information. I had some reservations about putting the individual addresses of farmers that might be affected into the public domain. My preference was to give the parish where the outbreak had occurred, rather than the individual holding, but I found in the early days of the outbreak that the identities of the farms were appearing in all the newspapers. They were well known locally. I will examine what it is reasonable and fair to publish. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give an absolute commitment, because I have reservations which relate solely to protecting the privacy of farmers, who are going through difficult enough circumstances with the disease outbreak without putting their names into the public domain, with all the consequences of that.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Minister will recall that I raised the case of my constituent, Mr. Tom Fudge of Neighbrook farm, Aston Magna near Moreton-in-Marsh. On that occasion, the Minister replied: The hon. Gentleman's point about the rates that the Government pay when we purchase animals for destruction is a fair one … I have urged the big retailers and others in the trade to behave responsibly and fairly throughout the supply chain. I have received a sympathetic and supportive response.—[Official Report, 15 March 2001; Vol. 365. c. 1226.] That same constituent telephoned me this morning. He said that he was feeding 1,400 sheep out of his savings. He has not been able to sell any owing to restrictions and is being offered £30 a lamb, when a couple of weeks ago the price was £45. He says that the foot and mouth crisis is going from bad to worse and asks what the Minister can do to help farmers such as him throughout the country.

Mr. Brown

One thing I cannot do is to organise the welfare disposal scheme in such a way that it acts as a substitute market. Seventy per cent. of the sheep sector is operating, admittedly under licence—under constrained circumstances—in a market-oriented way. If the hon. Gentleman drops me a note setting out the circumstances of his individual constituent, I will see what can be done to help. I am afraid that that is the best offer that I can make.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

Will the Minister put out more information to all farmers—not only those with access to the internet—about the restrictions that will apply over the next few months as they try to rebuild their businesses? I welcome the news letter that has been sent to all livestock farmers, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, it contains out-of-date figures for the welfare scheme. Does the Minister understand the frustration of farmers who submitted claims under the welfare scheme some weeks ago, but who are now told by the Intervention Board that the paperwork cannot be found? What exactly is the logic of paying farmers who have kept the animals on their farms for more and more weeks, with all the costs that that incurs, a lower figure than farmers who submitted claims a long time ago and had less costs to cover?

Mr. Brown

The answer is that I must not set up an alternative market. We are trying to enable farmers to get their livestock moving through the food chain, rather than being purchased by the state. If the rates that the state is paying compromise the rates that the market would pay, clearly, the market will be supplied by imports and the farmer will be farming a welfare scheme, rather than running a livestock business. That is the answer to the question. It is in the longer term interest of the British livestock industry to get it operating as normally possible as we bear down on the disease outbreak.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Minister quite rightly said that livestock should not be moved without a licence. However, is he aware of the bureaucratic delays, hurdles and obstacles placed in the way of farmers applying locally for such a licence? Will he personally take an interest in the matter and intervene to speed up the granting of licences while we remain in the throes of this dreadful disease? Will he also consider the human rights provisions of which the Government are such a fervent supporter and explain to local farmers in the Vale of York why they will receive a lower compensation rate under the welfare disposal scheme than will those who applied before 17 April?

Mr. Brown

I have answered the welfare question on a number of occasions. The danger is that we will create a false market and that people will farm the scheme rather than the market. I think that it is right to try to get animals moving through the supply chain, and I am putting considerable effort into trying to reinforce the strict licensing schemes that we already have in place.

Tomorrow, my noble Friend Baroness Hayman will meet representatives of the farming community to discuss farms that are under form D restrictions and consider what more can be done to help them. They will also be discussing what more can be done more generally to get the market working normally and the time scale for the welfare scheme—which is, after all, supposed to be a scheme of last resort, after moving the animals in the marketplace or managing them locally has failed as a strategy. It is not, and it cannot be, an alternative market.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am glad to have the last word on this subject. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there continue to be muddle, confusion and sheer incompetence in the Administration, as evidenced in the case of my constituent, Mr. Huntbatch of Hope farm, Minsterly? Last week, he was told that it would be a month before he could move his animals. This week, on Monday, he was told that it would be two months before he could move any of his animals. On Tuesday, he moved animals to an abattoir.

Mr. Brown

Actually it is I who get the last word, and I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. However, if there is anything that I can do to help his constituent, of course I shall.