§ The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's response to the foot and mouth disease inquiry reports. That response is being published today.
When the inquiry reports were published in July, I told the House that I accepted that mistakes had been made and that I was determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. The independent inquiry process that concluded in July has enabled us to do that and to move forward quickly to implement the recommendations. We are indebted to Sir Brian Follett and Dr. Iain Anderson, and I pay tribute again to them and to their teams for producing such thorough and useful reports so quickly. The Government accept virtually all the detailed recommendations of the lessons learned report and firmly endorse the lessons that Dr. Anderson draws. The recommendations made by the Royal Society will also play a major role in shaping the Government's work in that area. The Public Accounts Committee is considering a separate report from the National Audit Office.
The Government's response to the inquiries contains a wide range of commitments and actions, including a stronger general framework for emergency preparedness, with special emphasis on response and disease control in an outbreak of animal disease and work on strengthening disease prevention. Alongside publication of that response today, the latest version of our contingency plans is available on our website for comment and consultation.
Inevitably, some of that considerable body of work is work in progress and much requires further development and an open and transparent process of consultation with a wide range of players, including the farming industry, the wider rural community and other key players such as the local authorities.
Dr. Anderson identified three key areas for handling any outbreak: systems, speed of response and the necessity for good science as the basis of that response. As the House may recall from my July statement, some steps, such as the establishment of a civil contingencies secretariat, have already been taken. From next year, they will be supplemented by dedicated contingency planning teams in every region, based in the Government offices.
Plans are being developed for training and rehearsal of contingency plans, together with other players, such as local authorities. In addition, procedures are being drawn up to ramp up organisation should that be required, including the maintenance of a register of staff willing to serve in an emergency, and of their competences and skills.
Both inquiries called for a body to provide advice to DEFRA's chief scientific adviser in emergencies, and for a review of priorities in animal health research. A science advisory group has been set up, some additional funding for veterinary teaching and research has been Identified and the review of priorities is under way. The Government are committed to funding necessary research into animal disease and to increasing spending 286 on that. Work is also under way on how to identify and manage risks as part of DEFRA's own development plans. In particular, a risk assessment report on illegal imports is in preparation, and I hope to receive it before the turn of the year.
In the meantime, we have secured the agreement of Commissioner Byrne to a ban on personal imports of meat. We have put extra resources into detection and enforcement, including piloting the use of detector dogs, and I can announce today that the Government have agreed that responsibility for anti-smuggling checks on animals, fish, plants and their products, including meat, should be placed on one body, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, as soon as that can be achieved.
No import controls can ever be 100 per cent. effective. That is why both inquiries emphasised the role that animal movement controls can play in checking the spread of disease. The Government have accepted the advice that the 20-day standstill rule should remain in place until a detailed risk assessment and wide-ranging cost-benefit analysis have been completed.
We have commissioned the necessary economic and modelling studies from experts outside DEFRA, with the aim of deciding on a proportionate level of controls, and in particular, whether a movement standstill of 20 days strikes the right balance between the disease control benefits and the costs on the industry and livestock markets. Emerging findings from these studies should be available at the end of this month, to feed into decisions on the shape of movement controls to apply from next February. We expect full and final results in the first half of next year. As the inquiry reports recognise, the farming industry, too, shares responsibility for minimising disease risks and has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity. We will work closely with the industry in following up the inquiries' recommendations in this regard.
We also intend to work closely with the industry in developing a comprehensive animal health and welfare strategy, which has been called for by both inquiries and by the policy commission chaired by Sir Don Curry. It is important that we share an agreed vision, which must cover protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control and animal welfare. Informal discussions with stakeholders are already taking place before the launch of a public consultation exercise later in the year across the breadth of the stakeholder community. The strategy will draw on the inquiry reports and will provide a vehicle for implementing many recommendations.
We will also use the consultation on the strategy as a means to discuss with stakeholders the best mechanism to provide regular reports on animal disease preparedness, so that the lessons learned as a result of the 2001 outbreak and the recommendations of the inquiries are implemented and help to ensure that the experience of 2001 is never repeated.
The House will want to know that else would be different in any future outbreak of foot and mouth disease. A national movement ban would be put in place as soon as the first case was confirmed, as my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced in the summer when our interim contingency plan was published.
287 Restricted infected areas, so-called blue boxes, would be declared from the start in a minimum 10 km radius around infected farms, but public rights of way would need to be restricted only in a 3 km radius from those farms.
International and European Union rules are based on the need to eradicate a disease that is unpleasant as well as highly infectious. Hence the basic strategy in all FMD-free countries is that, as a first step, animals infected with foot and mouth disease and animals that have had contact with them have to be culled. But both inquiries are saying and the Government accept that in some circumstances, additional action may be needed to control an outbreak. In that case, emergency vaccination will form part of the control strategy from the start, and this would be emergency vaccination to live, provided of course that scientific and veterinary advice is that this would be the most effective course.
The inquiries point out that the use of emergency vaccination to live raises a number of very difficult issues—scientific, logistical and economic—but the Government are committed to tackling those issues in consultation with interested parties, with the aim of being in a position to trigger an emergency vaccination campaign should the need arise. However, the issues are substantial and that process will take some time to complete.
Sadly, that does not mean that wider culling strategies will never again be needed. We must maintain a full armoury of weapons to tackle the diseases; hence our insistence on the flexibility proposed in the Animal Health Bill and in the lessons learned report to allow for pre-emptive culling to enable us to deal with an outbreak more quickly with fewer losses of animals and least disruption to the rural economy. The Government are consulting on a decision tree on foot and mouth disease control that would set out the factors to be taken into account in deciding the best disease control strategy for different circumstances, but we have to remember that each outbreak is unique and that we cannot prescribe in detail in advance how best to meet it. There will still be a need for scientific and veterinary judgment at the time.
For the longer term, the Royal Society recommended that research was needed on a vaccine that could be used routinely, rather than just in an emergency, against all strains of foot and mouth disease virus and for all species. The Government recognise that that would be a desirable long-term goal and will encourage international collaboration to that end, but the House will appreciate that we are some considerable way from achieving that.
In short, some three months only after publication of the inquiry reports, the Government are today able not only to respond formally to those reports, but to identify a massive programme of work and reform that is under way. Nothing can ever erase the horrors and tragedies of the 2001 epidemic of foot and mouth disease in the 288 United Kingdom, but we can all resolve to establish more effective safeguards and, should those safeguards fail, an even more effective response.
§ Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for her courtesy in letting me have early sight both of it and the accompanying document published by the Government.
We will obviously want to study the Government's response in detail, but on a first reading, I can say that much of what is proposed seems sensible and welcome and that the proposals include measures that we can support. I hope that the open and transparent process of consultation to which the Secretary of State referred will number Members of Parliament among the key stakeholders and that the Government will make an early opportunity available in Government time for a full debate in the House on their response to the various inquiries.
I should like to ask a couple of questions about vaccination. How long does the Secretary of State anticipate that it will be until the Government are in a position to include emergency vaccination in their armoury of measures for tackling a future outbreak? How does the approach outlined today in the response document relate to the draft European Commission proposals for a new directive on the control of foot and mouth disease?
Much of the document deals with the internal workings of the Department. I hope that she will be able to acknowledge that the Government recognise that one of the lessons from the 2001 outbreak was the need for greater freedom to be given to local veterinary surgeons and officials on the ground, so that they could take decisions quickly without always having to refer them back to head office to be second-guessed there.
Although there is much that we can welcome, I want to press the Secretary of State more critically on three subjects. I was somewhat disappointed to find when scanning the document that it contained only seven paragraphs on the illegal import of meat, compared with 14 on media strategy and communications. Does she appreciate that travellers who have been using British ports and airports in the seven months since the Government's action plan was published have found that even the limited and belated targets that the Government set themselves back in March have not made any difference to their experience when they arrive at a British port of entry?
Is she confident that Customs and Excise will give adequate priority to this important new responsibility when it is set alongside the many other responsibilities and targets set for it by Treasury Ministers? As it is now 13 months since the last case of foot and mouth, and seven months since the action plan was introduced, will her Department undertake to tackle the question of illegal imports with a much greater sense of importance, energy and urgency than it has hitherto demonstrated?
Does the Secretary of State appreciate the irony of the Government saying that it is impossible to have 100 per cent. security at our ports while continuing to insist—through their continued insistence on the 20-day rule on livestock movements—that farmers provide a 100 per cent. safeguard against the spread of disease? Does she understand that many livestock farmers now face a 289 stark choice: either they break the law, or they obey it and risk going out of business? Does she recall that both the Royal Society and Dr. Anderson called for urgent and detailed risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses to be carried out? Will she tell the House why we now have to wait until next February or even later for the results of those Government studies that ought to have been commissioned and undertaken a great deal earlier? Farmers are going out of business now; they cannot afford to wait many months more, as the Government seem to expect them to do.
I want to question the Secretary of State about the issues of stock valuation and disease insurance, which were tucked away at the end of the Government's document published this afternoon. The Government describe these areas as work still in progress, but will the right hon. Lady give us an indication of the time scale for decisions on these important matters? Will she give an assurance that she will not try to short-change farmers over compensation—for example, over compensation for the real value of breeding stock that is the fruit of a great deal of effort, sometimes put in over generations to build up a pedigree flock or herd? Farmers often look for a return on such investment over a number of years.
On insurance, do the Government recognise that the level of any disease insurance premium will depend not only on what a farmer does, but on what the market judges to be the effectiveness or otherwise of measures undertaken by the Government, and especially on the market's judgment of the efficacy of the Government's control of the illegal import of meat, given that, in their analysis, that was the cause of last year's epidemic?
Whenever possible, we will try to support the Government in their response to these important inquiries. After our experience last year, however, I believe that both Parliament and the industry will judge the Government not on the promises that they make but on the effectiveness of the measures that they deliver.
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman asked how long we thought the study on vaccination would take. I believe that Sir Brian Follett thought that it would be at least 18 months before we could get an assessment of what progress we could make. As to how that relates to the new directive, I have already sent Commissioner Byrne a copy of the Government's response, and drawn to his attention this particular aspect of it so as to encourage discussion of the matter in the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the freedom of local decision making. I accept that concerns were raised about that in some circumstances, although it is not my recollection that it was a major concern. We believe that the process of discussion and trial of the contingency plans that we are now developing will clarify some of those issues and help us to resolve them, so as to obtain the best balance between consistent decision making, which will tackle disease, and decision making where it is most effective.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about how much of the document is devoted to communications; I remind him that a lot of the inquiry report is devoted to communications. That relates, in part at least, to his point about freedom of local decision, which is regarded as a key issue that the Government should address.
290 The hon. Gentleman suggests that what the Government have done so far is belated and has made little difference. I take his point about the fact that travellers coming to and through the UK, particularly returning British travellers, perhaps do not all see some of the evidence, but I can tell him from my own observations that it is certainly the case that there is a great deal more publicity today than hitherto. It is also the case that, over the summer, the Government ran a publicity campaign entitled "Don't bring back more than you bargained for", and there is action through our embassies to ensure that people who apply for visas are given advice.
I have already mentioned our lobbying of the Commission to ensure that bringing in personal imports is now prohibited, and we have increased and are increasing funding at a number of ports to try to encourage enforcement as well as much more effective intelligence sharing on those issues. However, may I remind the hon. Gentleman that, if I recall correctly, the Select Committee suggested that it was reasonably impressed by the speed with which the Government acted on that front?
The hon. Gentleman also talked about movements, but I am not entirely sure what is his position and that of his party. I accept that there is a delicate balance to be struck, so I am not being entirely critical, although he is rather asking for it. The fact is that the inquiry reports both said that the 20-day rule should stay in place unless and until the Government have a detailed risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis. I accept that everybody would like to have them the day after tomorrow, but, if they are to be detailed, thorough and pertinent, we have—[Interruption.] We commissioned the work immediately, contrary to the implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. We must carry out a proper assessment.
I understand that Sir Brian Follett, for example, said as late as yesterday evening that there is a need for quarantine stops. I know that this is a matter of concern to the industry—I understand and accept that—and we did and we shall consider it as sympathetically as we can, but we cannot ignore either the scientific and veterinary advice or, indeed, the advice of both reports on which I am replying to the House.
There is a working party on valuation and disease insurance, which is discussing those matters with the industry, although it is in its early stages. Exactly the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised on the balance between a more standard approach to valuation, which has been the subject of some criticism, and recognising the needs of particular herds and flocks are being considered.
§ Andrew George (St. Ives)
I, too, am grateful for the courtesy of having advance notice of the statement and the background document. We regret the Government's failure to hold a public inquiry, as they may have found it a good opportunity to test for the existence of a human disease that was running in parallel with foot and mouth. I refer, of course, to benefit of hindsight disease, the symptoms of which are brass neck and short-term memory loss. It is important that we move forward and consider ways of learning lessons from what was a tragic experience for the countryside.
291 On that basis, I welcome the Government's concession on meat import controls and their acceptance, finally, of the Liberal Democrat amendment to the Animal Health Bill. However, what efforts will the Department make to ensure that the chances of illegal meat importation are measurably reduced? A number of questions have been asked already, but how do we measure those changes and improvements that the Government have committed themselves to achieving?
The Secretary of State said that the Government accept virtually all the Anderson report's detailed recommendations, but can she present the House with a timetable for implementing those recommendations? It is great to have the acceptance, but we need a clear indication of how long implementation will take. What action will she take to address the view expressed by Dr. Iain Anderson thatA reappraisal of prevailing attitudes and behaviours within the Department wouldbenefit the climate of decision taking?
What discussions has the Department had with the farming industry about the proposed review of the 20-day rule on movement restrictions? It would be good if the review was completed as quickly as possible. As the Secretary of State probably knows, anxiety is growing in the farming communities.
If the Department is considering farm insurance schemes to share the costs of any possible future outbreaks of animal disease, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the insurance industry? Is the proposal still under active consideration?
I note that the Secretary of State's friend Lord Haskins has been making his customary attacks on farmers. Will she tell us whether her Department has a genuine joined-up policy on food from plough to plate, given that farmers are receiving a decreasing proportion of the final consumer price? She must know that the British countryside will be turned over to prairie and ranch if Lord Haskins is let loose on the farming community. How many more thousands of farmers will be forced out of business before she and Lord Haskins are satisfied?
§ Margaret Beckett
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I was not sure what he meant by his first point, however. I must confess with deep sorrow that I do not precisely recall the detail of all the Liberal Democrat amendments to the Animal Health Bill, but if what the hon. Gentleman said about meat import controls related to imports for personal use. I must tell him that this is not a Government concession. We have discussed it, and have pressed the European Union to adopt it as an EU rule. We are delighted that the Commissioner has agreed that the present practice should stop.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the timetable for implementation. As he probably recalls, there are about 100 recommendations, and I cannot give a timetable for all of them. I can tell him, however, that when he has a chance to look through the detailed schedule containing the various recommendations and responses, he will gain an impression of where the balance lies. I can also tell him that the Department intends to establish a work 292 programme to show how we are dealing with the different issues, some of which require international action and consultation.
The hon. Gentleman asked about reappraisal of attitudes and behaviours in the Department. A substantial programme of change is under way in DEFRA, and we are consulting other Government agencies such as the Office of Public Service Reform. That has been proceeding for some time.
We are indeed discussing the issue of animal movements with the farming industry. As I have said, we hope and expect to receive some interim indications by the end of the month. We will not have the full report before the new year, but we hope we shall have it in time to look at what the overall regime should be.
I cannot add much to what I have already said about insurance, but we should bear in mind that Lord Haskins is a farmer himself. I think he would strongly reject the notion that either of us wants to see British farming as a series of featureless prairies. I agree, however, that we must try to find ways of enabling the British farming community to secure a greater share of the wealth that accrues from the produce that they rear or grow. That is dealt with in the Curry report and in our response to it.
§ Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)
As my right hon. Friend knows, the situation was dealt with much more quickly north of the border. That is because local authorities went into action speedily with emergency planning procedures. I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about local authorities; I hope she will impress on them the need for regular updates on contingency plans, and desktop exercises in relation to such procedures.
There is heavy emphasis on illegal imports. That problem worries us all, but Conservative Members seem to be suffering from selective amnesia. There was a combination of factors: there was an illegal import, but there was also a farmer who did not prepare swill properly. That should never be forgotten. May I also say that there has been a significant cost, not only in terms of heartbreak, but in terms of finance. We need to look at insurance. This is about plough to plate and the food chain. It is not about hobby farming, which cost us significantly in terms of compensation to many farmers.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, I should say that I certainly want brief questions. There is no way that I can get through the list of hon. Members unless they ask brief questions.
§ Margaret Beckett
Of course I take my hon. Friend's point about the need for greater co-operation and rehearsal with local authorities. That is very much part of the purpose of the rehearsal and training that we intend to undertake in future.
§ Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)
The right hon. Lady is a frequent flier, often over some quite long distances, so she will know that it is entirely possible to pass through a British airport without any sight of the 293 sign warning against illegal imports. The carousels where passengers wait for their baggage are the most obvious places to put the signs, yet they are entirely innocent of such signs. Now that we have a co-ordinated service, will she please make sure that the signs are where passengers can see them, not decorating the back of the arrivals hall where nobody has the time or would think to look at them?
§ Margaret Beckett
I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's point about the carousels. We have been endeavouring to work with the airlines and to encourage them to do more to remind people in-flight about illegal imports and to take other related action. I hope and anticipate that much more will be done to combat illegal imports as I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that it is important that people understand that they must not act illegally in that respect.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree with me that the real lesson to be learned is never again should we have the disaster that affected Cumbria and other parts of the United Kingdom last year. Nowhere in the EU should people have to suffer as we did. Is not the only way to do that to develop a vaccine and use it routinely? My right hon. Friend said that such a vaccination programme was a long way away, but my understanding is that it could be introduced within 18 months, given the resources. When we have that vaccine, whenever that is, will it be the Government's policy to vaccinate all animals routinely?
§ Margaret Beckett
I share and understand my hon. Friend's concern for his constituents in Cumbria. There are two separate issues with regard to vaccination. The first relates to emergency vaccination that we hope will be available within some 18 months or so. It may be possible to get validated tests, for example, to distinguish between an animal that is infected and an animal that has been vaccinated, but that still requires some work. The other issue concerns the development of vaccines that could be used in an non-emergency. I fear that a routine prophylactic vaccination for every animal is a lot further away, because, as I think my hon. Friend will be aware, there is a plethora of different strains of the virus and up to now the international community has not shown much interest in such an enormous undertaking. However, I can assure him that the Government are taking seriously the advice of the Royal Society that it is something that we should encourage the international community to re-examine and I have already written to this effect.
§ Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)
May I start with a quick plug for Herefordshire tourism at the Britain visitor centre? One of the subjects discussed there this morning was the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak, so I am pleased that the three points that the Minister identified—systems, speed of response and the necessity for good science—are in the statement.
On the issue of systems, can the Secretary of State tell us whether people who are wandering around in the countryside will also be in some way responsible for contributing to the biosecurity that farmers will need in order to avoid this disease, should it ever break out again? In terms of speed of response, Dr. Anderson 294 identified the qualifications of veterinary surgeons as being key. Can the Secretary of State explain why, during the summer, after Dr. Anderson reported, there was an embargo on hiring state vets? On the necessity for good science, the gamma inteferon blood test that is currently available for bovine tuberculosis is not being used or trialled yet. Perhaps the Secretary of State might bring that about shortly.
§ Margaret Beckett
If I may, I shall begin where the hon. Gentleman ended. I believe that a pilot scheme is currently examining that issue, and we hope—
§ Margaret Beckett
The scheme is being rolled out. [Interruption.] I shall write to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on the matter, as I am afraid that the geographical location of the pilot scheme is not present in my mind.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the general issue of biosecurity, and we accept that there is a need to remind everyone of the importance of behaving with caution and common sense. On vets and speed of response, unfortunately there was something of a hiatus in recruitment in the summer. Frankly, after all the expenditure of the past year or so, we ran out of money. However, I can assure him that the problem is being overcome.
§ Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Does the report state that never again will we see piles of animals being burned or even buried, usually in the wrong place? We witnessed such scenes during the foot and mouth crisis, and many constituents were very concerned about the smell, and about the burying of animals beside streams and schools. Does the report make it clear that such things will never happen again?
§ Margaret Beckett
I of course accept that distress was caused by the action that had to be undertaken during the outbreak. I did not go into detail about everything in the reports, but I know that Dr. Anderson considered whether there were hazards from such burials. He said that there was no evidence of that, but I fully accept that there is a difference between actual hazards and people experiencing great discomfort and unpleasantness. As a result of reassessment of the handling of the last outbreak, the hierarchy of steps taken in respect of disposal—beginning with commercial incineration and proceeding to rendering—is different from that which applied last time. That means that the issues that my hon. Friend has raised should not, we hope, ever need to be raised again.
§ David Burnside (South Antrim)
If the Secretary of State were to fly into Belfast international airport, in my constituency, she would find out immediately how the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development brands livestock and produce to stop illegal food imports. That is carried out professionally and well, and we would like to offer that lesson to the rest of the 295 United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State give the House some more details on policing resources, which is a major concern? She referred in her statement to Her Majesty's Customs and Excise getting more resources. We in Northern Ireland have a land border, which poses a greater problem than that on the mainland, and the policing of foot and mouth is absolutely crucial. Will she also give the House some information on the reason why very few prosecutions were brought after the foot and mouth outbreak? The two cases in Northern Ireland—in Armagh and the glens of Antrim—resulted from the illegal transfer of animals from the British mainland. Prosecutions were brought but no convictions were achieved.
§ Margaret Beckett
I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the hon. Gentleman's last question. Obviously, the issue of who is prosecuted, and under what circumstances, is a matter not for me but for the relevant authorities. However, I shall inquire as to whether any general information is available that I can give to him.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the additional resources that are being provided, to which I have already referred. Some £ 1.5 million is funding additional enforcement officers at ports and airports. That funding began in October, and is being provided for a number of ports and airports across the United Kingdom, so we are beginning to step up our policing efforts. Of course, we took some relevant action earlier, such as increasing the powers of enforcement officers.
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)
May I raise with the Minister what I believe to be a major omission from her report? One of the most worrying and upsetting elements of the crisis was the way in which some saw the opportunity for price gouging and fraud. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that any fraud in future events is thoroughly punished? What steps has she taken to ensure that price gouging is avoided? What is she doing to tackle the culture of milking the system, which is so prevalent in agriculture?
§ Margaret Beckett
I accept my hon. Friend's concerns. I am aware of the vigour with which he and other hon. Members raise those issues on the Public Accounts Committee. All I can say to him is that we are looking very carefully at what is being said about those issues and we look forward to the report from the PAC, as well as that from the National Audit Office. Perhaps "looking forward" is not quite the right phrase, but we are certainly in anticipation of them. That is very much the background to some of the issues that are being and have been discussed about how we handle the valuation issue in future.
May I also add for the information of the House that I am advised that there are definitely posters about illegal imports on the carousels at terminal 2, Heathrow?
§ Mr. James Paice (South-West Cambridgeshire)
May I congratulate the Minister on her statement that it is impossible to guarantee that any situation is 100 per cent. risk free? I hope that that heralds a change in attitude for the whole Government because it would 296 save the House a tremendous amount of time legislating. Given that that is the case, as she rightly says, may I emphasise to her that whether there are labels on carousels in terminal 2 is actually a small point, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was right to make it? However, countless travellers, including myself and some of her hon. Friends, who flew into Heathrow direct from central Africa about three weeks ago not only did not see any notice, but did not even see a Customs officer when we went through Customs control. There was no way that anyone would have been able to stop or deal with us if one of us had been transgressing. May I also repeat the point that was made earlier—
§ Mr. Paice
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I simply want to reinforce the point about the number of officers required to police our efforts: £1.5 million is very welcome, but the right hon. Lady knows that it is not a large number when translated into people. We need to match what other countries have in terms of the number people policing imports into our country.
§ Margaret Beckett
The hon. Gentleman may not have seen the information or the warnings, but I reiterate that our embassies and consulates have been giving out warnings, particularly to people applying for visas. We have been pressing the airlines to use some of the material that we are producing. Very recently, I received an e-mail from west Africa from someone saying, "Congratulations. I have just come through the airport"—wherever it was—"and seen the right kind of warnings. It is about time, and it never happened before."
I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's question about why he did not see any Customs officers when he last came through the airport, but may I observe, without prejudice, that, of course, the fact that he could not see them does not mean that they could not see him?
§ Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
The Secretary of State has made it clear that, in the event of a major outbreak, there will be no blanket closure of footpaths. Is not one of the important lessons to be learned the value of visitors to the countryside in terms of their contribution to the local rural economy? Against that background, will she quicken her efforts to switch payments to farmers from subsidises on production to payments to farmers who lift the landscape, enhance the environment and encourage visitors into the countryside?
§ Margaret Beckett
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the fact that the outbreak brought home to people the value of access to the countryside and the contribution that visitors make to the countryside, but it brought home to a lot of people just how much they valued their access, and there was a welcome resurgence of visits to the English countryside and tourism spots in the United Kingdom.
Secondly, my hon. Friend asks whether I can quicken the process. I do not know about that, but I assure him that we are pursuing CAP reform with all the vigour at 297 our command. Although I have not seen the assessment on which the figure is based, I recently heard the chief executive of the Environment Agency observe that, in her judgment, it was possible that farmers were contributing environmental benefit and improvement to our economy to the tune of some £900 million, and that they were not being reimbursed for it.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
What is the Secretary of State doing about Dr. Anderson's recommendation that there should be research into compensation for communities where mass burial has taken place? What is she doing to dispel the impression that, although the authorities could find Widdrington in my constituency pretty quickly when they had more than 100,000 carcases to bury, they are not sure where it is now?
§ Margaret Beckett
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Dr. Anderson suggested that we research the issue of compensation, although I believe that that was in international context. Some work on that is being undertaken.
§ Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)
As a fellow Derbyshire MP, my right hon. Friend will know that High Peak escaped the direct effects of foot and mouth, but that there were indirect effects on farming and tourism. As a result, the measures that she has announced today, especially those to do with rights of way, will be welcome. I talk to my farmers regularly. They have expressed concerns about the 20-day standstill, but I believe that they know in their hearts why that is necessary, and why the industry is being asked to play its part.
However, other hon. Members will recognise the message that my farmers give to me, which is that the restrictions on imports—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Levitt
Is there not a political imperative to ensure that imports are controlled—and seen to be so—as well as to put in place the practical imperatives that my right hon. Friend has described?
§ Margaret Beckett
I recognise the concern that my hon. Friend expresses. It will be interesting to see what the risk assessment on this issue produces, although I am pretty confident that it will say that illegal imports pose a risk. However, we shall have to see what balance should be struck between personal imports and bulk imports made illegally. One feels a natural revulsion at many of the personal imports that one hears about, and the introduction of the new procedures has increased protection. However, there are questions about how easy it is for a personal import of that sort to get so far that it is likely to be in contact with a susceptible animal. Illegal bulk imports are perhaps a greater risk, but I have not seen the result of the risk assessment, and that is exactly the sort of issue that it must address.
§ Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)
Given the comments made by Sir Brian Follett to the Select Committee, will the Secretary of State say what work is to be done to 298 improve understanding of the pathways of disease spread for diseases such as foot and mouth? That understanding is needed if we are to develop better on-farm biosecurity measures. Also, what is the right hon. Lady doing to deal with the fact that Britain still faces a threat from diseases such as West Isle fever, another problem pointed out by Sir Brian? What is being done to counter other major threats of animal disease?
§ Margaret Beckett
First, consideration of such matters is very much part of the animal health strategy. I accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I must say that I had no idea of the range of diseases to which animals are prone until I had the good fortune to occupy this post. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Sir Brian Follett's recommendations about studies of disease, a matter that I touched on in my opening remarks. Our new chief scientific adviser, with the assistance of the new board appointed to support him, is undertaking a thorough review of all the Department's work. That will involve a thorough reassessment of priorities, and the right hon. Gentleman has identified exactly the sort of matter that will be looked at.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
The Secretary of State will know that the independent inquiries held in Cumbria and Northumberland made some important recommendations based on experience on the front line. Why will she not give a formal response to those reports?
§ Margaret Beckett
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we gave a broad general response. Certainly those reports were fed in and enlightened the course of the other inquiries. It is just not possible to go through all the inquiries in the degree of detail that would be required.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the assessment that she is making of the 20-day rule for animal movements? Will that assessment take into account alternative strategies, particularly, for example, thorough animal movement recording as an alternative to the 20-day rule, which is very injurious to farmers in my constituency in west Wales?
Buried in the back of the document is a reference to the Government's response to lessons learned no. 37 in which the right hon. Lady says that she is in discussion with the National Assembly for Wales regarding the devolution of further powers on animals to the National Assembly. Will she support such moves if they prove to be equally or more efficacious than the present situation?
§ Margaret Beckett
On the hon. Gentleman's latter point, all I can say is that the discussion continues, but it is a very cordial one. On the 20-day rule, I am not carrying out the assessment—it is being carried out by the relevant bodies which are considering what alternatives could provide reassurance.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Can the Secretary of State give the House regular updates on vaccination? I think that she said that it may be at least 18 months 299 before a vaccination is available, but we would like to know what progress is being made on testing the vaccines.
On the 20-day standstill period, notwithstanding what she has said and what the two reports recommended, she will know that there will be huge disappointment among livestock farmers that there appears to be no progress on this. When will the risk analysis and the cost-benefit analysis be concluded? Livestock farmers need some certainty because they have to plan their businesses too.
§ Margaret Beckett
I understand that great disappointment will be felt, and I understand that many people in livestock farming simply wish the Government I o abandon all movement controls. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman in all sincerity, given the strong recommendations of the Royal Society inquiry as well as of the lessons learned inquiry that we do no such thing, that I am afraid that the Government did not feel that it would be responsible to take such steps. We have made some minor amendments and exemptions, as he knows, to try to take account of some of the concerns about the movement of breeding stock. However disappointed people may be, I hope that they will understand why we did not feel able simply to abandon the restrictions. We hope that we will have some preliminary results by the end of the month, although we do not expect the full report until into the new year. Of course we will endeavour to keep the House informed about vaccination but I am not sure whether it is as simple as saying every so often that we will have a report on progress.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
Now that the right hon. Lady has had a chance to study the reports that she commissioned, what, in her judgment, was the cause of last year's outbreak?
§ Margaret Beckett
Someone acted illegally in importing diseased meat and someone else acted illegally in not reporting the incidence of foot and mouth disease and in allowing movement, which meant that the disease was spread. If blame there is, that is where it lies.
§ Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)
First, may I say how much I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will now be given sole responsibility for the control of animal and animal health products at ports and airports? I have long advocated that approach, and I am glad that it has been accepted by the Government. There remains the issue of what priority Customs and Excise will give that responsibility and what resources will be made available to them to carry it out.
§ Margaret Beckett
We are discussing increased resources with Customs and Excise. Responsibility for the material remains with DEFRA, but import controls will be the responsibility of Customs and Excise, and I feel sure that they will give the matter the priority that it deserves. That is, in part, something to which Members of the House might turn their attention.
§ Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) 300 in welcoming most of what the right hon. Lady has said? Given the criticisms contained in the Anderson report in particular and the flurry of activity that it has engendered, does she still maintain, as she once said, that the Government's response to foot and mouth had been a minor triumph? Or will she take possibly the last opportunity—that I will offer her anyway—to apologise and say sorry for the trauma of foot and mouth?
§ Margaret Beckett
I made it plain following the publication of the Anderson report that the Government accept that mistakes were made. I also made it plain, as Dr. Anderson's report clearly shows, that a huge effort was undertaken to try to bring the disease under control. Dr. Anderson has previously identified the huge amount of utterly devoted work by staff in my Department and many others across the country. He pointed out:many farmers, local people and government officials made heroic efforts to fight this 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.Given the unprecedented nature of the outbreak, that was an achievement. If I used the words "minor triumph", it was against the background of ferocious and unjustified criticism of staff in the field, not least staff in my Department.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
Do the Government's contingency plans include the ability in an emergency to introduce a welfare cull? Does the right hon. Lady accept that they should, and that a welfare cull with fair compensation should be able to function swiftly and efficiently in the early days of an emergency?
§ Margaret Beckett
It is our hope that there will never again have to be a welfare cull. One aim of the trialling and the work that is being undertaken is try to ensure that we do not find ourselves in circumstances where such a thing has to be contemplated.
§ Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)
Having flown earlier this year from Ascension Island near equatorial Africa into a British airport and entered the country without speaking to a single human being, and having yesterday spent several hours with Customs and Excise at Dover seeing what it does, I am not persuaded that the Government's recently announced publicity campaign has got any traction. Is the Secretary of State aware that the main priorities of Customs and Excise are tobacco, alcohol and class A drugs? Does she accept that while the inclusion in the statement of a ban on personal imports was extremely welcome—although the fact that she has to ask Commissioner Byrne for permission is deeply offensive—what is required is a fundamental step-change in the understanding and psychology of people travelling to this country such as that which occurs when people go to Australia and the United States? Much more is needed, and soon.
§ Margaret Beckett
I can only repeat that there are posters at Heathrow, regional airports and other international airports. Some 20 international airlines have now agreed to distribute leaflets, either in-flight or at check-in desks and information points—I assure the hon. Gentleman that that has taken some work—and 301 we are looking at other outlets for distributing leaflets, including high street travel agents, vaccination centres and regional post offices. I have mentioned already the advice that visitors get. A radio filler has been distributed to 118 regional commercial radio stations and a couple of campaign videos are due to be distributed soon. A great deal of work is therefore under way, much of which has to done through other people and agencies, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to pursue it.
§ Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)
I welcome the Secretary of State's remarks about the responsibilities of Customs and Excise, but will she make the point to her colleagues in the Treasury that that work needs to be done in uncanalised routes of entry as much as at Dover and the airports? What steps is she taking to enable farmers to take their animals to slaughter locally instead of being forced by supermarkets to drag them halfway across the country?
§ Margaret Beckett
I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the implications of various movements, but I believe that he is talking about commercial contracts, and I am not in a position to interfere with them.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
The right hon. Lady will be aware that foot and mouth came late to the Vale of York and that the strongest criticism in the Anderson inquiry concerned the question of a contingency plan. What message can I take back to my farmers to satisfy them that there is a contingency plan for North Yorkshire? Will the right hon. Lady assure them that the high standards of animal biosecurity that apply to everyone else will apply to her own Department? A picture of her departmental colleague, Lord Whitty, appeared in our local newspaper on the same day as an advertisement saying that waterproof overall trousers and wellington boots must be worn, but he was visibly wearing neither.
§ Margaret Beckett
I am afraid that I am not familiar with the episode to which the hon. Lady refers, nor do I know where that photograph is supposed to have been taken. One of the less attractive features of the desperate attempt to make all of this stick to the Government was the pretence in some quarters that the disease was spread by officials from the Ministry rather than by the type of movement that actually led to its spread.
I realise that it is not much help to say that the contingency plan is available on the website—but it is. We shall of course look for other ways to make it 302 available. The most important thing that we want and need from the hon. Lady's constituents and anyone else with relevant experience is their input to that contingency plan. It is a living document on which we shall continually be carrying out much more training, trialling and rehearsal. What we need most is the input of practitioners in the field to identify the weaknesses before there are any further animal disease outbreaks, not after.
§ Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)
On behalf of my farmers and constituents, who are deeply concerned, I endorse all the points made about the 20-day rule. The Secretary of State will have noticed that paragraph 4.6.3 of the report observes that the Government do not rule out the possibility of on-farm burial. My constituency was the epicentre of the 1967 epidemic in which there was an enormous amount of on-farm burial, yet there were no after-effects for any animal or person, nor any type of crop distress that proved that infection had resulted. I would recommend burial on farm. How does the right hon. Lady reconcile that possibility with the EU directive that her Government are intent on implementing that would stop on-farm burial in all circumstances from 2003, as a result of the concerns of the Environment Agency?
§ Margaret Beckett
The phraseology of the report shows that, at present, there are circumstances in which on-farm burial could not be ruled out if it was necessary. It is not a preferred option. The hon. Gentleman knows that there were, and would be, environmental considerations, such as the level of the water table. One thing that was often left out of the discussions of the impact of on-farm burial during the period of the disease outbreak was that we must now take account of the aftermath of BSE.