HC Deb 22 July 2002 vol 389 cc669-88 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

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

Following last week's publication by the Royal Society of its independent examination of how we might prevent and combat future animal disease epidemics in the United Kingdom—chaired by Sir Brian Follett—today we publish the independent report of Dr. lain Anderson, in which he identifies the lessons he believes can be learned from the most recent of those: last year's outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Government are grateful to Dr. Anderson for the huge amount of work and effort that he has put in and to all the 800 to 900 individuals and organisations who gave him evidence.

Foot and mouth disease is a devastating and highly infectious animal disease, which is feared and loathed across the world because of its impact and virulence. In Britain alone, the experiences of the 1967 outbreak are a remembered nightmare in many rural communities, but what hit us in February 2001 was, as Dr. Anderson notes, due to a rare set of circumstances ⌦ one of the worst epidemics of FMD the modem world has ever seen. Numbers alone cannot capture the sense of what unfolded. The great epidemic of 2001 left an indelible mark on communities, businesses and people from all walks of life. The Government are determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. That is why we so quickly set up an inquiry process with three strands—each of them independent. That decision means that within six months of the United Kingdom regaining disease-free status, we already have the scientific review, the policy commission report charting the way forward for the industry and, now, the report of lessons that we need to learn.

Dr. Anderson's report, which concentrates primarily on the early part of the outbreak, is a sombre and thoughtful document—measured in its tone and content, though unquestionably grave in its import. What is crucial to future policy is that he makes a large number of strong recommendations, most, if not all, of which I believe we will be able to accept. Indeed, many of them suggest actions that the Government—while trying not to prejudge his report—have begun to address.

Separately, in his comments and observations, Dr. Anderson draws on the views and evidence put before him, about which there is certainly scope for different interpretation, even for disagreement. However, he asks in his introduction whether, as a first step, DEFRA can simply ⌦ admit that Government made mistakes during its handling of the crisis and that all involved are determined to learn from these mistakes"— I can and I do. The House will know that I have always acknowledged that, in the desperate circumstances faced not only by the farming community, but by my Department and its officials, as well as by our departmental and ministerial predecessors, mistakes were bound to have been made.

Dr. Anderson shows complete understanding and sympathy for the terrible experiences of those in the field, but he also shows recognition of the dilemma of the centre, especially where there were clear or substantial deficiencies in management information. He suggests that, for the first few weeks, the Government did not realise the seriousness of the measures that would be needed to control the outbreak. I accept—though it is with hindsight—that that is so, but he also shows how often the action taken was entirely consistent with the information and advice then available. But if we are to learn the lessons from those dreadful months, what we need most to consider is whether—while, as I say, there are bound to have been mistakes—there were structural defects.

Dr. Anderson does identify what he regards as mistakes of strategy. I think that it is right to say that many, if not all of those, the Government already acknowledge. Where there may be room for disagreement is, again, on how much of that was evident only, or at least primarily, with hindsight. On the issue of an immediate national ban on animal movements, Dr. Anderson himself says in the report: Even today the SVS"— the state veterinary service— believes it would not have had the justification or the support immediately to introduce widespread restrictions". Throughout the report the reader returns again and again to what was known and to what was without precedent and consequently unanticipated. For example, the report says: The disease could have been present at Burnside Farm for weeks, but it went unreported, despite the requirement of farmers to report suspected cases of notifiable diseases. We now know, in fact, that there was virus present on at least 57 farms in 16 counties on the day the first case was confirmed, 20 February.

As to the unknown origin of the first case, both inquiries stress the importance of effective import controls to prevent exotic infectious diseases from entering the country. We have set in hand a wide-ranging programme of action against the risks posed by what must have been illegal imports of meat and animal products, but as both reports acknowledge, it will never be possible to reduce that risk to zero. So the necessary measures must be in place to limit the risk that, if disease enters the country, it will reach livestock and subsequently spread.

Both reports also highlight the importance of contingency planning. Dr. Anderson examines the pre-existing contingency plan, which was followed, but demonstrates that, though it met the international standards then expected—the European Commission judged the UK's readiness for disease outbreak as among the best in Europe—we can see, with hindsight, its deficiencies. But that is an admission that I make with hindsight. The European Commission is on record as having said recently: It cannot be reasonably expected from any Member State to design a contingency plan for the event of an epidemic causing more outbreaks within months than the 10 year's estimate for the whole Community". On all those issues the analysis in the report is detailed. It shows that, in Dr. Anderson's own words—words echoed, among others, by Commissioner Byrne—the outbreak in Britain in 2001 was of a kind unanticipated in any country in the world.

Dr. Anderson makes some trenchant criticisms to which I shall return, but he also deals comprehensively with the myriad conspiracy theories in circulation then and since. He does not just dismiss them; he investigates and dispels them. One in particular, the charge that the handling of the crisis was driven by concern over the timing of the election, lie explicitly rejects, saying: We have explicitly examined Government papers arid questioned Ministers and officials, but have found no evidence to support such a suggestion. While awaiting the reports, we have already published a draft interim contingency plan and invited stakeholders and operational partners to comment. We will now review it comprehensively in the light of the inquiries' recommendations for regular updating, involvement of stakeholders and rehearsals, all of which the Government accept.

Dr. Anderson calls for a mechanism to assess potential domestic civil threats and for steps to improve our capacity to handle an emergency of national proportions. We have set up the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, reporting to a Cabinet Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which is intended to do just that through horizon scanning, an assessment capability and work with Departments facing disruptive challenges on how to prevent or manage crises. Dr. Anderson also identifies the need to establish "trigger points", where issues move to a new phase of crisis handling. Again, we agree.

Both reports make important recommendations about how the Government should improve their ability to respond effectively in the event of a disease outbreak. Again, I can say that we support the thrust of those recommendations, especially where they relate to the need for high-quality management information systems.

The Army is praised, rightly, for the role it played in helping to deal with the enormous logistical challenge—one that it has identified as being of larger dimensions logistically than the Gulf war. The Army did indeed do a remarkable job. I believe that had we had better information systems in place, it would have been called into action earlier—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"]—but, as Dr. Anderson demonstrates, not in the context, as so often claimed, of the Northumberland report, but when at a much later stage disposal options were failing to keep pace with slaughter.

In addition, knowing what we now know, we would on any future occasion work on the presumption that a national ban on livestock movements would apply when the first FMD case was confirmed. However, because of the early, silent spread of disease in last year's outbreak, it is important not to assume that it would ever have been easy to check. Dr. Anderson himself says that even a perfectly implemented cull of infected premises within 24 hours of discovery would not, on its own, have controlled that epidemic until the disease itself had reduced the density of susceptible farms to such an extent that the epidemic ended naturally. We do not intend, in the future, to permit local authorities to impose a widespread closure of footpaths. That, too, is a judgment made with the benefit of hindsight, and the House will know that it is a contested judgment. Some local authorities clung to a blanket ban long after the Government had encouraged its lifting.

Both inquiries have called for a strategic approach to animal health and disease control policies, and endorsed the call in the report of the Policy Commission on Food and Farming, chaired by Sir Don Curry, for a comprehensive animal health strategy. My Department will in the near future open discussions with industry and other interests on the content and coverage of such a strategy. It would need to deal with the protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control, surveillance, animal identification, animal welfare and emergency preparedness.

Another key issue that has drawn much comment is the contentious issue of vaccination, on which both inquiries made recommendations. We can immediately accept two specific recommendations: that, as in 2001, we should ensure that the option of vaccination forms part of any future strategy for the control of FMD; and that any emergency vaccination policy should in future be not "vaccinate to kill" but, ideally, "vaccinate to live". That, however, does not require action from the Government alone; it requires acceptance of meat and meat products from vaccinated animals entering the food chain normally.

The inquiry reports rightly address most of their recommendations to the Government, but they both also recognise that the farming industry shares responsibility for minimising disease risks. Dr. Anderson concludes that the Government can do only so much to prevent a recurrence of disease; the farming industry has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity.

That reminder is particularly pertinent after last month's FMD scare in the midlands. It is not enough for any Government to have the right approach or proper rules to mitigate disease risk; everybody in the industry must follow those rules and they must be properly enforced. In that recent episode, existing pig identification rules were not followed. Had the tests confirmed disease, the effort to track down the source of the infection would have been severely hampered. The episode strengthens our resolve to continue to work with the livestock industry to establish better livestock identification.

Both this episode and the report lend weight to the call by Sir Don Curry's commission for farm assurance schemes, owned and operated by the industry itself, rewarding good farm management practice in biosecurity and other areas. The Government endorse that principle, too.

However, although we shall give full consideration to all the lessons in the reports, there are two areas where we can and will move forward more quickly. The emphasis in the reports on the roles that might be played by emergency vaccination and by pre-emptive culling underlines the importance of the passage of the Animal Health Bill, which my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be taking to a delayed Committee stage next week. The Bill contains powers that could be vital to the timely interventions for which the inquiries call.

Secondly, the Government need to take an early decision on the animal movement rules to apply from the late summer and, in particular, on the 20-day standstill. We shall consult quickly with industry stakeholders in the next week or two, in the light of what the two reports say, on interim rules to apply from late August.

Dr. Anderson's is a serious report into an outbreak of foot and mouth disease that was devastating for many parts of our country. I want once more to quote Dr. Anderson: Even had everything been done perfectly by all those concerned to tackle the disease, the country would have had a major epidemic with massive consequences ⌦ many farmers, local people and government officials made heroic efforts to fight the disease and limit its effects. Through their efforts it was finally overcome and eradicated after 221 days, one day less than the epidemic of 1967–68. The inquiry report makes many criticisms and addresses many concerns. It accepts, however, that all those involved did their level best to deal with a crisis of unprecedented importance. It makes criticisms that are accepted. It makes recommendations on which we will act. Above all, it fulfils its remit—it gives us the basis on which to learn lessons, and learn lessons we will.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

First, may I thank the Secretary of State for giving me access to the Anderson Committee's report this morning and for the 30-minute sight of her statement?

Members on both sides of the House will agree that at this time we need to have in our thoughts and sympathies those thousands of people whose livelihoods were either threatened or completely ruined by the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease last year. Although the report makes some trenchant criticisms of the Government, to which I shall allude in a little while, it is also right for the Opposition to make clear our appreciation of the work done by those many officials and veterinary surgeons, both in the right hon. Lady's Department and outside, working in the field and in London, who gave their all, often under impossible pressures and with inadequate support, to try to bring this dreadful epidemic under control.

The right hon. Lady drew attention to a number of the recommendations for the future in both the Anderson report and the Royal Society's report. We welcome the fact that she, like us, has been persuaded by the Royal Society's report of the need to incorporate emergency vaccination as part of a future strategy for containing further outbreaks of the disease.

Although I welcome, too, the Secretary of State's emphasis on the need to strengthen controls of illegal meat imports, can she confirm that 10 months after the end of the epidemic and three months after the publication of her Department's action plan, there have been only three spot checks on aircraft at our ports and that her Department is still wrangling with Customs and Excise over who exactly is in charge of those import controls? Is not it a disgrace that the Department should show such a lack of urgency in the wake of the devastation last year?

I hope that the Government will, as early as possible in the autumn, make time for a full parliamentary debate on the reports and that they will also make time for parliamentary scrutiny and debate of the contingency plan that they are drafting—as recommended in the Royal Society and Anderson reports. Will the Secretary of State use her best offices with her colleagues to ensure that those opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny are given to us?

The report amounts to a shocking catalogue of incompetence and confusion. Although the Secretary of State sprinkled her statement with the word "hindsight", is it not clear from any reading of Dr. Anderson's report today that many grievous mistakes were made, which ought to have been avoided on the basis of the evidence that the Government had available to them at that time?

Is it not the case that Dr. Anderson concluded about contingency planning that, although contingency plans were in place, maintaining and updating these plans was not a priority at national level."? Why was it not a priority? Why did the Government ignore the Drummond report of 1999, which identified serious shortcomings in their contingency plans? Why were the concerns expressed by the chief veterinary officer in 2000 about the inadequacies in contingency planning never followed up?

Why did the Government ignore the warnings of the European Union's foot and mouth disease conference committee and of their own scientists in 2000 that a virulent new strain of the virus was spreading through Asia, the middle east and into Europe? Why was no effective action taken in the wake of the outbreaks of classical swine fever in the Netherlands in 1997 and in this country in 2000?

Will the Secretary of State explain why there should be such a contrast between the inaction shown on this side of the channel and the reaction of the Dutch Government, who reviewed their contingency plans in the wake of classical swine fever, tested their contingency plan, agreed it with stakeholders and had it approved by that country's Parliament?

Why were Ministers, right up until and even during the proceedings of the Anderson inquiry, refusing to admit to the failure of their contingency planning? Has the Secretary of State seen the passage in the Anderson report where Dr. Anderson states that Government Ministers told the inquiry that comprehensive contingency plans were in place.? We did not find this to be so."? Does the right hon. Lady agree—even with hindsight—with Dr. Anderson's conclusion that the Government's plans were limited in scope, out of date ⌦ and not integrated into a national programme of rehearsal and testing"? The right hon. Lady spoke of hindsight, too, in her discussion of the reasons why the Government did not at an earlier date, during the critical first three days, impose a ban on livestock movements. Can she explain why the Dutch Government acted with greater alacrity than ours, and imposed a ban two days earlier than she and her colleagues chose to do? Can she confirm that Dr. Anderson's conclusion about the importance of hindsight in that decision was somewhat at odds with her own, as just given in her statement? Dr. Anderson stated: Considering what is known about the infectious nature of this disease, we conclude that earlier movement restrictions would have been justified, and should have been ready to be put in place more quickly than they were. The Secretary of State spoke about how her Department's response was handicapped by serious failures in management information, but might it not be considered, at least to some degree, the responsibility of Ministers to ensure that management information and systems were adequate? Does she agree with Dr. Anderson's conclusion on page 6 of his report that no one in command understood in sufficient detail what was happening on the ground and that, for the first two months of the outbreak, there was a serious deficiency in the reliability and completeness of the information available to those in charge of the disease"? Why should that be so when we know, not least from the public sessions of the Anderson inquiry, that again and again farmers and others living at the sharp end of the epidemic were shouting from the rooftops about the failure of the Government's systems on slaughter and the disposal of livestock?

Does the right hon. Lady agree that knowledge of the Government's failures to implement their declared policies effectively was a key factor in undermining public confidence in the Government's policy to stamp out the disease? How much confidence can we now have that she and her colleagues can put things right when the Select Committee reported only last week that her Department had no strategy on information technology and that key financial data are either omitted from its annual report or given in an inaccurate form?

The present Administration make much of their philosophy of joined-up government. Does not that slogan seem somewhat ironic when contrasted with Dr. Anderson's description? He said: A sense of panic appeared, communications became erratic and orderly processes started to break down. Decision making became haphazard and messy". The situation was serious enough, even early on, for a ban on all livestock movements to be introduced and for the countryside to be closed down, so why did it take Ministers 31 days before activating the Cabinet Office Briefing Room system, or COBR, to co-ordinate Government actions—31 days during which, in Dr. Anderson's words, a serious veterinary problem became a national disaster and there was an apparent vacuum in central advice and expertise on crisis management"? Why, even after COBR was set up, was strategic decision taking involving the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture taking place outside COBR?

Does not all that add weight to the widespread suspicion that the Government were allowing concerns about the election date and their election plans to take precedence over effective measures to control and stamp out the disease? Nowhere was that more obvious than in the Government's delay in calling in the Army. It was hardly as if there was a shortage of people asking for that course of action. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) called for that action, their proposal was rubbished by the same Ministers who say that, with hindsight, they ought to have called in the Army earlier. Does the Secretary of State endorse the comments of her permanent secretary to the Public Accounts Committee on 3 July that the delay in calling in the Army was due to difficult), in getting approval from senior Ministers? Does not that verdict from her most senior civil servant suggest once again that we are right to say that concerns about presentation and electoral prospects counted for most with Ministers?

The Government's response to the epidemic is best summed up in a statement given not by the right hon. Lady but by the Prime Minister himself to Dr. Anderson on 22 January this year. When asked about the failures of Government policy, the Prime Minister responded: The Government had no reason to think about Foot and Mouth Disease before it broke out". Does not that single sentence encapsulate the special blend of negligence, incompetence and complacency that has characterised the Government's handling of foot and mouth disease? It is not just farmers but the entire rural economy and all taxpayers who have paid a heavy price for that neglect and incompetence. Does the Secretary of State agree that it will take more than promises? It will take action and results to restore the trust of people in the countryside in Ministers, a trust that has been wholly destroyed by the grievous failure of her policies and those of her colleagues.

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked me so many questions that I am not entirely sure that I can reply to every single one—[Interruption.] Let us not get into a master class on how to be in opposition. He asked me first about the issue of spot checks. I do not recall his precise wording, but I think that he was referring to personal imports and checks at airports. I am not sure that his figures were correct, but even if they were, they were not, if I may say so, particularly relevant.

The hon. Gentleman will find when he has a chance to study the report at more length—I fully appreciate that neither he nor other hon. Members will have had the opportunity to do so—that Dr. Anderson makes plain that it is widely believed that, in so far as an illegal import might have been the source of the original material that caused the disease to enter this country, that is most unlikely because of the chance of its coming into contact with animals. The source is much more likely to have been some commercial import. Of course, very thorough and very many more checks are carried out on commercial imports—[Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members squawking about what they think; I suggest that they look at the report. Dr. Anderson makes it very plain that there are thorough checks, and details the nature of those checks and what they uncover.

Secondly, it is total nonsense to talk about us wrangling with Customs and Excise. We are in fact in close communication with the range of other officials who have the responsibilities in the field. We are awaiting the outcome of the risk assessment on the handling of imports, and we anticipate that when it comes in it will give us some recommendations on how we can even more improve our contacts.

The hon. Gentleman then talked about reviewing the contingency plans. He quoted rather selectively—inevitably, I suppose. He said, quite correctly, that Dr. Anderson stated that he and his team did not find comprehensive contingency plans in place. However, Dr. Anderson went on to point out that the contingency plans that were in place had been prepared and accepted by the European Commission and approved by the Standing Veterinary Committee. Opposition Members have frequently alleged that there were no contingency plans. That is nonsense; there were contingency plans. They were not adequate to deal with the outbreak that hit us, but then nobody thought that they would have been.

The hon. Gentleman talked about why concerns expressed by the chief veterinary officer were not followed up. If the hon. Gentleman has been following that issue in the report, he must know that those concerns were shared internally in the veterinary service but not communicated to Ministers or the permanent secretary. I do not say that as any criticism. Although the issue was of concern, there were a range of other concerns and priorities on the mind of the state veterinary service at that time. I think not least of the outbreak that we had just had of classical swine fever, which tied up 80 per cent. of the resources of the veterinary service only a matter of weeks before the immediate crisis hit us.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we did not impose a ban on day one. I have explained that, had we done so, it might have made some difference to the degree to which the disease spread—although no one could quantify that. I deliberately shared with the House Dr. Anderson's specific wording in identifying—the facts very clearly show—that there is no question whatever but that the disease had spread so far before the first case was spotted, never mind confirmed, that such a ban would have made no difference in the end to the fact that Britain was bound to face a dramatic and terrible outbreak.

The hon. Gentleman asked about responsibility for management information. Of course Ministers accept—it is why I said this in my response to the report—responsibility for management information. We also accept that there is a need for much improved IT and services in the Department. I bid for that in the recent comprehensive spending round, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that it was not something that anybody found when they took over the Department in 1997. So let us have a little less lecturing about the state of the Government machine from those who were in charge of it for 20 years. Indeed, with regard to the scientific outcome, Sir Brian Follett talks in his report about the problems that have been caused and suggests that significantly increased funding of research is needed to restore some of the cuts of the past 20 years.

The hon. Gentleman made three particular points to which I should now like to turn. First, on the Army, there is one thing that Opposition Members may not have had the chance to take on board and which I would like to make plain to them: Dr. Anderson considers with care the suggestions so often repeated, not least in this House, that anybody who looked at the Northumberland report would have known that the Army had to he brought in straight away. That is not true; what the Northumberland report says—indeed, I have pointed this out to Opposition Members before—is that when the capacity of civilian labour to dig the holes and make other preparations is exhausted, it will be time to call in the Army. The Army made it plain—I think that there were some colourful quotes from Brigadier Alex Birtwhistle—that one can get from the Yellow Pages people who can do such things. What the Army of today can provide is the logistical support and expertise in providing such support on the ground, especially to deal with carcases.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman made a remark—again, I accept that he cannot know that he has, to some extent, given the House a quotation that does not apply in the way in which he sought to use it—about the wording that Dr. Anderson used with regard to a sense of panic breaking out. Those are Dr. Anderson's words. I was slightly surprised to hear that, because that was not my impression and it has not been confirmed to me by any of the observations that I have heard, from people at a range of levels in dealing with the crisis, related to the centre. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) will contain himself, I can say that I have asked Dr. Anderson what he means, and he has told me that, on the ground, he encountered junior officials, people in the control centres and so on—[Interruption.] I am not blaming anybody; hon. Members should contain themselves. I am simply explaining what Dr. Anderson meant—so he tells me and hon. Members are free to ask him—in making the comment that the hon. Gentleman quoted. I can understand his making the assumption that Dr. Anderson wanted it to apply to the centre, but that is not what Dr. Anderson is saying. He is saying that on the ground, as the scale and scope of the disease became apparent, there were considerable difficulties and indeed problems.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman drew attention to what he believed was the key issue: the electoral impact and the reason for the decisions that the Government made. I should like to refer the House to what Dr. Anderson explicitly says on page 102 of his report, in paragraph 11.2: Many submissions ⌦ suggested that government ⌦ were heavily influenced by electoral considerations. Again, I quote: We have examined government papers and questioned Ministers and officials but have found no evidence to support such a suggestion. Indeed"— [Interruption.] I have not finished the quote: Indeed, officials at all levels and in many locations are adamant that they were never exposed to any pressures other than the need to control the disease in the best possible way.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Lessons must be learned and this time they must be learned well, not because of the scandalous waste of public money or even the unnecessary culling of so many perfectly healthy animals, but because of the human misery that we all saw throughout the country. Farmers committed suicide, families were broken up, small businesses were lost and people suffered the emotional trauma of seeing their life's work destroyed before their very eyes.

It has to be said that the crisis had its genesis not very recently, but in the 1980s, when complacency set in. The state veterinary service was run down, MAFF offices were closed and valuable research projects were cancelled. But many mistakes were made last year and, although the Secretary of State cherry-picked some of the quotations in her statement, the overall thrust of the report is one of considerable criticism of many of the shortcomings that it exposes. It will require considered reading by those inside and outside the House to ensure that this time the lessons are truly learned. Will the Secretary of State ensure that this time those lessons are not eroded by the passage of time and that no complacency sets in?

Will the right hon. Lady ensure that contingency plans are robust and that resources are made available, not only now, but next year and in the coming years? Will she ensure that those plans are properly rehearsed and constantly updated to reflect changes in risk, because it is clear that risk factors changed enormously and that the plans failed to keep up to date? Will she make those final contingency plans available to Parliament and ask Dr. Anderson to provide an overview so that we may have the benefit of his experience and expertise? None of us wishes ever again to experience a crisis on the scale of last year, nor to see in our constituencies the human misery that was experienced by so many people, and for which so many are still paying the cost.

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will not have had time to go through the report. I understand and sympathise with the concern that leads him to talk about the unnecessary culling of so many healthy animals, but he will find when he looks at the report with more care that Dr. Anderson does not find that masses of unnecessary culling was carried out. As regards the contiguous cull—which he says was highly controversial—he identifies the reasons for that being carried out and considers whether the Government may need to have greater powers during another outbreak in different circumstances. One of the points that he makes is that one must never expect precisely the same circumstances to be repeated. He discusses the possibility that on another occasion a pre-emptive cull could halt the disease in its tracks. I understand why the hon. Gentleman makes his point, but it is important that hon. Members do not get the impression that Dr. Anderson says that there was masses of unnecessary killing. He identifies mistakes and says that one can argue about what might have happened in the way of culling if we had had at an earlier stage the information to tackle the disease in the way that was ultimately required. He certainly does not suggest that it could all have been all right and that there was an easy solution—for example, that we could just have vaccinated and did not need to kill.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is important for us to publish contingency plans—although they are not secret; they are on our website—and to encourage people, especially in the industry, to study them, take them on board, and carry out more trial and rehearsal. That is a point that Dr. Anderson makes in general, not only about this particular episode. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion about inviting Dr. Anderson to comment on the plans, and I will bear that in mind.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the report is critical—coming from Cumbria, I cannot see how it could be anything else—the Government got it right by setting up three separate inquiries, as less than 12 months since the outbreak finished, we have the results? Does she also agree that the Anderson report is not a whitewash, as Opposition Members said that it would be?

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is entirely right. No doubt a great deal will be said today about how we should have listened to Opposition Members. If we had done so and waited to set up a public inquiry, experts with much more experience than I say that it would just about be setting up its secretariat. We should recognise not only the merits of having those three reports, each of which is demonstrably independent, but the importance of allowing each of them to concentrate on a specific sphere of the matters that needed to be considered. If we had set up one inquiry to examine all the issues, whatever its terms or structure, we would never have got so quickly the information that we need to enable us to make the improvements that have to follow.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I welcome the Secretary of State's frank admission that some mistakes were made in the handling of this crisis? She also said, however, that better information systems would have been necessary to know that the Army was required at an earlier stage. May I ask her to concede that many of us in the House called repeatedly for the deployment of the Army, using only the time-honoured information systems of listening to our constituents and walking round with our eyes open during the administrative chaos that had descended on our constituencies? Looking to the future, will she lay the contingency plans not only on the website but before Parliament, and arrange for us to have a full debate on them, so that those of us who witnessed an economic catastrophe in our constituencies last year can influence those plans in public with a full debate?

The Secretary of State rightly undertook to look at the 20-day movement restriction. To ensure that it is rigorous but practical, will she consider aligning the rules in England more closely with those now prevailing in Scotland, so that they can be safely and efficiently applied before the beginning of the upland livestock sales, which are crucial to the economies of places such as Wensleydale and Swaledale in my constituency?

Margaret Beckett

I shall begin where the right hon. Gentleman ended, with the 20-day rule. We shall look with very great care at that issue, and we are already consulting with the industry on it. I am conscious of the difficulties that movement restrictions are causing to the industry, but both the reports give grave warnings about the implications of handling that issue. The right hon. Gentleman says that we heard much in the House about the Army—I sat through much of it, at the side of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown)—but what we heard was the Conservatives telling us to do as the Northumberland report said and call in the Army. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that that is not what the Northumberland report said, and that, when the Army felt able to come in and was ready and able to contribute, it was to play a very different role, in a very different context, from the one that it had played in the past.

As for saying that we should listen to what is said by right hon. and hon. Members, of course we do. We paid great attention not least to the right hon. Gentleman when he warned farmers on 5 June 2001, not in the House, for obvious reasons, but through the pages of the Daily Mail, that Ministers are already putting in place plans for a mass cull on Friday, as soon as the election is over. We have heard a great deal about the criticisms and warnings uttered by Opposition Members, and all I can say to them is that, bearing in mind the millions of animals that they claimed were going to be slaughtered the day after the general election, a little modesty on their part might be in order.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the recommendations in the report, in particular on contingency planning. Does she agree that having an effective memorandum of understanding between the Government and all those likely to be involved in tackling a disease outbreak will be very important? I hope that there will he a longer debate on this subject in the autumn, because there are many points that it is impossible to make in a supplementary question to a statement, and they need to be brought out in such a debate. I also recommend to my hon. Friends a re-reading of Hansard, particularly in the light of some of the comments of Opposition Members. Hansard shows that, between February and May last year, the Opposition endorsed the Government's actions very strongly, and that there was co-ordination between Departments from day one.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that nothing in the report contradicts the fact that the cause of the outbreak was two illegal acts: one a failure to heat pig swill to the temperature at which disease would have been eradicated, the other a failure to notify the disease of foot and mouth, which was the disease that farmers and those in the countryside rightly dreaded most?

Finally, I endorse the tributes that my right hon. Friend paid to the many people who worked tirelessly during the outbreak. Although mistakes were made and there are lessons to be learned, there are none the less many unsung heroes who deserve to be recognised.

Margaret Beckett


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, let me remind Members that they are entitled to only one supplementary question.

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and pay tribute to the work that she did, along with the rest of the ministerial team in which she served, in helping to deal with the terrible consequences of the outbreak.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend about the need for a memorandum of understanding. One thing that emerges very clearly from Dr. Anderson's consideration of how crises of this kind can be handled is the need for better flows of information and communication, and for rehearsal and crisis planning. He obviously thinks we should be giving much more attention to that.

I apologise to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague): I forgot to respond to his request for a debate. While I recognise, as always, that the way in which business is scheduled is not a matter for me, I am well aware that Members want to explore these matters in more depth than is generally possible on occasions such as this.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that, whatever the origin of the specific source of infection, illegal acts were undoubtedly committed at the outset. That is something that none of us should overlook.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

If the Secretary of State is so confident that Dr. Anderson has cleared No. 10 of interfering and preventing the Army from coming in, why does she not ask him to publish tapes and full transcripts of the interviews with Ministers, so that the House can at least know the questions that were asked and the replies that were given?

Margaret Beckett

I realise that the Conservative party will be extraordinarily disappointed by what Dr. Anderson has found. He has found that the Prime Minister performed a helpful role in dealing with the disease, and that there is not the slightest evidence of any kind that, in any way or at any level, there was political interference for electoral reasons in the running of the campaign. As for what Dr. Anderson decides to publish, this is, as I have said, an independent report, and it is for Dr. Anderson to decide what he wishes to do.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I was delighted to hear what my right hon. Friend said about contingency plans and the need to review continually from now on. I was also delighted to learn of the genuine recognition that mistakes were made.

As for the question of bringing in the armed forces, it will not surprise my right hon. Friend to learn that the situation was dealt with better in Scotland. In fact, the Secretary of State for Scotland offered to bring in the forces six days before the local authority accepted that kind offer.

One issue that was not raised in the report, perhaps because it was not appropriate to do so, is that of not just the personal but the financial costs incurred by many people. May I suggest that when we debate this matter—as I hope we shall—we consider financial costs, and look seriously at the possibility of insurance, especially for farmers wishing to deal with rare breeds and pedigree stock?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the whole issue of financial costs and the way in which we can encourage and provide incentives for good practice in the industry. As he says, many people—not least, I suspect, members of the Select Committee—will want to consider all those matters.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Dr. Anderson has written a clear, crisp and clinical report. He has judged the events against five criteria. He mentions planning, and asks whether the contingency plan was comprehensive, up to date and detailed. He mentions the speed of response, the provision of first-rate intelligence and information systems showing what was happening on the ground, the effective mobilisation of the wider resources of Government, and the establishment of trust and the communication between all players. He concludes that the Government fell down on all five criteria.

What is even more alarming, however—because this applied to a BSE incident as well—is the evidence, highlighted by Dr. Anderson, of a silo mentality and an aversion to risk in the Department. Senior people were concerned about the state of preparedness and about whether the Department could respond to an outbreak in terms of resources and mobilisation, but they did not communicate that to the most senior level of management or to Ministers. Will the Secretary of State make it absolutely clear to her Department not just that machinery should exist to enable people's concerns to reach the top, but that people should be not merely encouraged but obliged to communicate those concerns to the top, so that we can hold to account those who must ultimately take political responsibility?

Margaret Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is probably right in identifying that those are the areas where Dr. Anderson has addressed his concerns. The right hon. Gentleman refers, rightly, to the issue of BSE, which I suspect lies underneath some of the problems of building trust and maintaining good communication.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a fair-minded person. Inevitably, many of these things have an element of hindsight. I accept that, when it was thought that there was less than adequate resourcing in, say, the state veterinary service for the scale of problems that it was conceived might at some stage come along, that should have been communicated further up the Department, but those who were expressing those concerns at that time had foot and mouth disease as a relatively low priority on their agenda. Much more immediate issues had hit them.

In his report, Dr. Anderson identifies, for example, that the resources available to the veterinary service were very much what were thought to be adequate in the face of a severe outbreak of foot and mouth disease. What is clearly the case is that no one ever envisaged an outbreak of the severity and precise nature of the one that this country faced.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

I have not yet read the Anderson report—I will save it for the beach because anything is better than Frederick Forsyth—hut my right hon. Friend does not have to be defensive. It was not Ministers who went round creating foot and mouth disease. How many million pound cheques were issued to the farming community in terms of compensation? Who will apologise for the slaughter of all those millions of animals, many of which were totally unaffected by foot and mouth disease?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to identify that there were substantial costs associated with the disease. I cannot give him offhand the figures that he seeks, but he probably will find them in Hansard. If not, I am sure we can supply them. He is right to mention the terrible impact on the farming community, not least the animal population. One of the things that he will probably welcome in the report is Dr. Anderson's identification of the effects of the disease. I spoke about Dr. Anderson dismissing many of the myths. One that he dismisses is the often made assertion that foot and mouth disease is not a big problem and that it is like having a common cold. He identifies clearly that it causes considerable suffering to animals, although it is usually only fatal perhaps to very young animals. In consequence, as well as its economic impact, it is not a disease that any country should wish to let go unchecked.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that in view of the nature of international trade it is likely that there will be future outbreaks of foot and mouth and other animal diseases? Does she accept that one of the problems that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food experienced was an absence of sufficient numbers of policy makers? Against that, will she give an undertaking that if there be future outbreaks she will draft in policy makers urgently? With regard to contingency plans, if they are not to become stale, will she undertake that Ministers would personally cause them to be regularly and comprehensively reviewed?

Margaret Beckett

One of the recommendations that Dr. Anderson makes, which I have made clear, I hope. the Government accept, is for regular review and indeed regular rehearsal of contingency plans as a way of keeping them fresh. With his previous ministerial experience, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the Northumberland report recommended that contingency plans should be reviewed regularly. At that time, foot and mouth disease had been so endemic in the country that the recommendation was that they should be reviewed, particularly if there had not been an outbreak for a couple of years. Of course, it was some 30 years before we had another major outbreak; there was a small one in the Isle of Wight under different circumstances.

As I have identified already, we all have to recognise that there is no such thing as zero risk. One of the instruments of policy development on which my Department is now diverting much work is improvement in our methods of risk assessment as well as risk management. That will inform the future work and the reform of the Department.

On the number of policy makers, the key point that comes through clearly from the tone and tenor of Dr. Anderson's remarks is that he feels that Government as a whole should rehearse more and get better at knowing when the trigger is to move things up a stage and involve local authorities, other Departments and so on. That is precisely why we have set up the civil contingencies unit. and we will study its work in the light of these reports.

Tony Cunningham (Workington)

I welcome the report. As a Cumbrian Member, I fully appreciate the suffering not only of the farmers who had foot and mouth but of those who did not but lived in affected areas and were subject to the restrictions. Yet another group who suffered were people in the tourism industry. Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot again allow the widespread closure of footpaths, which had a devastating effect on tourism in many parts of my constituency?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. With hindsight, we may note that some local authorities resisted the lifting of the footpaths ban. We need to examine Dr. Anderson's recommendations in this respect more carefully. It is true that the farmers who were not hit by the disease but suffered the economic impact when they could not move their animals were in perhaps the worst position of all. I accept that those were very difficult circumstances. I note that the report says that the disease was thoroughly seeded in Cumbria before the first case was ever identified.

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

As well as accepting the criticisms in the report that are relevant to people in Northumberland, which was devastated in farming, tourism and other businesses, will the Secretary of State accept the specific suggestion in recommendation 45 that she should conduct research into compensation for communities affected by mass burials, bearing in mind the fact that not one penny of compensation has gone to local businesses or individuals in the Widdrington area, where more than 100,000 carcases were buried and thousands more burned beside the beach?

Margaret Beckett

Dr. Anderson does indeed suggest that we research the issue, although he recognises that it is fraught with legal and other complications. I accept entirely the right hon. Gentleman's concerns for his constituents, but he will know that a great deal of investment has already had to be made to mitigate the impact of what had to be done. Certainly, the issue of how one handles something on this scale pervades the report, and Dr. Anderson has a great deal of value to say on it.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a really excellent statement. Does she recall that her predecessor was also rightly praised for his skilful handling of the outbreak, by the National Farmers Union, the vets and even the Opposition—understandably, because he was following the advice of the National Farmers Union, the vets and, in some cases, even the Opposition—and that things changed only when the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) realised that he could make party political gain out of the situation in the run-up to the general election?

As the report is called "Lessons to be Learned", I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has read the article in the Glasgow Herald today, suggesting that there may be infected meat imported from China, and what action she intends to take.

Margaret Beckett

My right hon. Friend is kind enough to compliment both me and my distinguished predecessor. He is right to say that there was much in the latter's handling of an unprecedented and dreadful set of events that was worthy of praise, and indeed it received it in the House. It comes through clearly in Dr. Anderson's account of the dreadful situation that my predecessor and his ministerial team and officials did their utmost in the face of a situation in which they were not getting the information that they needed to deal with the crisis as effectively as they would wish.

I fear that I have not yet read today's edition of The Herald, but my right hon. Friend puts his finger on a point that was made a moment ago by a Conservative Member—perhaps it was the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)—who said that there is no such thing as zero risk. There will always be risks, and it is important to maintain surveillance, and to ensure that we identify and obstruct imports; however, that is just the very first step. Even if disease enters this country, there is much more to be done to prevent it from coming into contact with the animal community and—should that happen—to prevent it from spreading. Great emphasis is sometimes placed on the role of imports, but one of the most important lessons in the report is that if disease comes in, we must also address issues such as handling.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Although nobody would impugn the integrity of her predecessor. does the right hon. Lady accept that this report is such a damning indictment of the Government's handling of the outbreak—and such a vindication of the many who offered criticism at the time by calling for vaccination, and so on—that it will be incomprehensible to those whose lives were shattered if the Minister who formerly presided over the Department remains in the Government?

Margaret Beckett

I am really quite shocked at the hon. Gentleman, not least because he is a long-serving and normally sensible Member of this House. It is not true that the report bears out all the criticisms that were made of the use of vaccination; nor is it true that it, or the scientific report, says that vaccination offers an easy answer. Indeed, both reports make it plain that much work is still required before vaccination could be a tool to replace culling. I particularly deplore the hon. Gentleman's remarks because, as a regular and assiduous attender of this House. he was present when my right hon. Friend presented the Phillips inquiry report, and absolutely and adamantly refused to attribute blame to any of those involved, or to call for their resignation. In the light of that, the hon. Gentleman's comments are wrong and quite disgraceful.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's straightforward and honest response to the report; indeed, that was the approach taken by her predecessor during the crisis. However, can she assure me that she will implement all the recommendations, and not just those that she mentioned in passing in her statement? The burning of animals on mass pyres should not be used as a strategy for disposal. It caused not only great distress but considerable damage to the rural economy—particularly to tourism—through the images that were seen on television and in the newspapers. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that, should we ever have to go down this route again, other methods of disposal will be at hand?

Margaret Beckett

I anticipate that we will accept almost all the recommendations—indeed, we may be able to accept them all—but there are some to which we will need to give further consideration. My hon. Friend will know the perils of saying never in politics, or in life in general. I accept that Dr. Anderson suggests that we should rule out the method to which she refers. If we can follow his other recommendations—such as developing a hierarchy and getting much more information on the capacity to use rendering, along with his various other suggestions concerning the disposal of carcases—it might not be necessary to proceed to such steps, should a similar event occur in future. That is certainly highly desirable, but I am cautious at this stage about saying never. Nevertheless, we will examine that recommendation with great care, along with the others.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Royal Society's report makes it clear that, in the past 15 years, animal diseases have cost this country £15 billion. Has the Secretary of State considered establishing a national centre of excellence to look into all aspects of animal disease? What work is planned to provide a better understanding of how foot and mouth disease spreads? It was the reaction to the disease, and our perhaps inadequate knowledge of how it spreads, that led to much of the countryside being closed down.

Margaret Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion, which I undertake to consider, although I am not sure whether we need exactly the sort of institution that he suggests. I accept that we can always benefit from more information about the way in which the disease spreads. However, my understanding of the evidence that has been put forward so far is that it does so through contact, poor biosecurity and so on. Those are relatively familiar mechanisms of spread, although little mention has been made of the variety of strains of foot and mouth disease that exist. As it happens, the strain that hit this country in 2001 was less easily spread by plume. In other circumstances, with different viruses, the position could be different. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's view that there is much to be learned from the Royal Society's investigation, and the Government intend to learn those lessons.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

The Secretary of State has already accepted one of the lessons to be learned from this tragic episode, which is the value of visitors to the countryside. When the footpaths were closed and local authorities such as Lincolnshire were hesitant and reluctant to open them, it was the pub, the local shop and the broader rural economy that suffered. Given that, will she move quickly with her already established policy to switch payments to farmers from subsidies for production to payments for creating a landscape and environment that people will want to visit?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend is correct to say that one of the clear lessons from the outbreak was the impact on the wider rural economy, and Dr. Anderson makes it clear that we should take that into account in future planning. On my hon. Friend's final point, the Government will do as much as they can in present circumstances, but he will know that some element of common agricultural policy reform would be of great assistance in that change and that is why we are pursuing it.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I preface my question by expressing the hope that the Secretary of State will find at least two full days for debating this important subject when the House returns in the autumn. Does she understand that the people of Throckmorton are still learning daily the lessons of foot and mouth, with continuing concerns about the environment, the health impact and the total inability to sell houses and rebuild their shattered lives? In the light of recommendation 45, will she look again at the question of compensation? Will she also launch a proper investigation of their concerns about the health and environmental impact of the foot and mouth disease landfill burial site that is located on their doorstep?

Margaret Beckett

I am conscious of the difficulties that have been experienced by the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I am also aware that he has constituency cases in which the issue that was raised by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) concerning compensation particularly arise. I cannot say any more than I have said in the past on that subject, but I accept the points that he makes. He may like to know that in the report Dr. Anderson also considers the environmental and health impacts, and his words about the investigations and inquiries he has made will—I hope—be of some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My right hon. Friend will know about the significant impact of the disease in north Yorkshire, especially the moorland areas. I pay tribute to the former ministerial team, the officials and the vets, especially for what happened in the hefted areas of the moorland. The BBC, the trading standards people and the national parks people all played an important part in disseminating information. In the light of the lessons learned about biosecurity measures, as outlined in the report, what training will be provided for people in agriculture and vets and what measures will be taken to improve information dissemination in remote areas in future?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important point and, indeed, Dr. Anderson reports how, in several areas, the best and most effective source of information was the local radio, with regular bulletins and so on. Dr. Anderson is clear that that is one of the lessons that we can all learn. He also identifies the need for an overall communications strategy, not least about subjects such as biosecurity and ensuring better information, training and practice on farms to minimise some of the difficulties that were experienced in the outbreak.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Secretary of State will agree with me that the whole of the farming community and inward tourism in the United Kingdom suffered in the same way, but will she not learn lessons from different parts of the UK? Northern Ireland managed the disease better; it had very few outbreaks. Given that the disease came into Northern Ireland with smuggled sheep from the north of England and that there are a lot of operators—not the whole of the farming community—in the dealers' yard who need to be penalised and sanctioned, will the right hon. Lady give a commitment to the House that in her review and her recommendations on contingency plans, she will include penalties for those who spread the disease through the mainland and into Northern Ireland?

Margaret Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. To some degree, but in a slightly different context, he echoes the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin): it was illegal behaviour on someone's part that led to the disease having any impact in the Province. It is clear that one of the things that we must do is to discourage such behaviour because of the dreadful consequences that it has had for so many.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on to the next statement