HL Deb 23 March 1981 vol 418 cc977-83

3.50 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, if it is convenient to your Lordships, I should like to repeat a Statement being made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about foot and mouth disease. As honourable Members will doubtless have heard, an outbreak of the disease was confirmed by the Ministry in the early hours of yesterday morning. In the middle of Saturday afternoon a veterinary officer from my department was called to a farm near Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. After examining the cattle, samples were rushed to the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright, where, at I am on Sunday, they confirmed foot and mouth disease. Slaughtering of all cattle on the farm in question began at daybreak on Sunday morning. They were slaughtered humanely and buried; so too were the pigs on an adjoining farm, which were considered to be dangerous contacts, and the cattle on another farm on the island which had been visited by a relief milker who earlier had been on the infected farm. So far, 213 cattle and 337 pigs have been slaughtered. I know I reflect the view of the whole House when I express sympathy to the farmers and their families whose livestock has had to be destroyed and who have seen a life's work come to a tragic end.

"Movement restrictions were applied immediately on all farm animals in an area comprising the whole of the Isle of Wight and the southern part of Hampshire and Dorset, roughly from Christchurch to Portsmouth. As the House would expect, the most stringent precautions are being taken to prevent the spread of the disease. The veterinary service are tracing all relevant movements which took place shortly before the outbreak was confirmed, including 16 cattle which were sent to Shaftesbury market, and have placed movement restrictions on the farms of destination. Close observation will be kept on the animals concerned.

"I would repeat the advice given to farmers on the radio and television at frequent intervals yesterday to be especially vigilant and to report any suspicious symptoms in their animals. I would also ask the public in the affected area to keep off farmland where there are livestock and to collaborate with farmers in their observance of the restrictions.

"It is too early to forecast the likely pattern of developments but I shall, of course, keep the House informed".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Peart

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for repeating the Statement. It is rather sad for many of us. I feel it myself because 13 years ago I was involved in a similar situation which we thought could be disastrous if it continued, and I well understand the worries of the farming community, and indeed of all the people in the Ministry of Agriculture, including veterinary surgeons and advisory officers who are involved. I am sorry that one Member of Parliament said that precautions lacked urgency; this is in today's Times, reporting a Tory Member of Parliament. I think it would be better if colleagues in both Houses realised that this is a difficult situation and we must leave it to the experts, the specialists, to see that we overcome it. I believe we shall. I will not press too much now, because I know that the department must be very active and that the centres which are responsible for giving information to farmers and others will operate virtually all through the night.

I would like to ask this. I hope there will not be a change of policy regarding the whole issue of slaughter and compensation. I believe that slaughter is the right policy and that vaccination is not. In other words I endorse basically what the Northumberland Report recommended. At this stage I would rather leave it to the department to get on with the job.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we too would like to express our sympathy to the farmers who have suffered this loss and hope that there will be no more. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Peart; basically I feel that our policy on these matters in dealing with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease is the right one. May I ask the noble Earl whether there is any confirmation of the suggestion, as reported in today's papers, that the infection was brought in airborne from France? Is there any means of identifying the virus as one that is of continental origin? Have we any further information about the source of the infection?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord Peart, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for their acceptance of this Statement and their confirmation that they agree with what is being done. The answer to the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, is that the virus in France is O-type virus, and it appears to be a virus of a similar nature in the outbreak which has occurred in the Isle of Wight. Clearly tests will have to go on, but at present it looks as if—and one can say no more than that—the outbreak in the Isle of Wight is one that has come from France.

The noble Lord, Lord Peart, said that one Member of the other place had referred to a lack of urgency by the Ministry of Agriculture. I would say that totally the reverse was the case. The farmer found after lunch on Saturday that he had suspicious signs in his cattle. He rang up his local private vet, who, on being told what the symptoms were, quite correctly said, "This is something for the Ministry of Agriculture". The Ministry of Agriculture veterinary surgeon arrived on the premises at 2.40 on Saturday afternoon, inspected the cattle and thought that the symptoms were bad. He contacted Tolworth at 4.15 on Saturday afternoon. They told him to take samples from the cattle affected, which he did. The samples were put on the ferry to Southampton at 8.15; at Southampton they were collected by someone from the Ministry of Agriculture and they were taken to the Animal Virus Research Institute at Pirbright, where they arrived at 9.45 on Saturday evening.

The tests were done, and at one o'clock in the morning it was confirmed that this was foot and mouth disease. The veterinary officer concerned was so informed that night. At six o'clock in the morning, at daybreak, the veterinary surgeon went along to the farm concerned and destroyed the cattle which were showing signs of infection and came to the usual agreement over compensation. Those that were not showing signs of infection were later destroyed by the normal processes. All the animals were destroyed and buried by three o'clock on the Sunday afternoon. I think that is an astonishing success story. At a time when it has become fashionable in some circumstances to criticise the Civil Service, I would like to put on record that I think this is a quite magnificent achievement of which we should all be intensely proud.

The noble Lord, Lord Peart, said he hoped the Government would stick to the slaughter and compensation policy. This is what we intend to do. I would remind the noble Lord of this, and I know that he knows it full well: that foot and mouth is the most infectious disease known to animals and humans. If this disease were allowed to let rip in this country it is estimated it would go through all the animals within four months. Other countries would like our island status. Of course, once you start vaccinating animals you cannot tell which animal has been vaccinated and which animal has got the disease; nor can you tell whether a vaccinated animal is a carrier of the disease.

I would only mention this finally to your Lordships. If we were to move to a vaccination policy it would be likely to cost £45 million in the first year and £23 million thereafter, that is, every single year. Those are figures which are seven years old, so it would now cost a great deal more. In the last outbreak, in 1968, the total cost was only £26 million, and of course for the succeeding 13 years there has been no cost. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Peart, is quite right to draw attention to the fact that it is our intention to keep on this slaughter and destroy policy, which in the interests of animal health is entirely right.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, from these Benches I would like to associate myself both with the words of sympathy that have been so eloquently expressed by speakers and also with the congratulations to those who have acted with such speed and with such efficiency. I was Bishop of Chester throughout the last terrible outbreak. I know what an appalling experience this can be for the communities who are involved. There are stock-breeders who wake up in the morning with their stock intact—stock upon which they may have expended a lifetime of care and expertise—but by midday they are all dead.

Moreover, the more terrible aspect is the effect that this disease has upon the community because obviously everybody suspects that everybody else is a carrier and infected, and therefore for a period of time there is a complete breakdown of any kind of social intercourse and friendship between various families and different people. It is a terrible and traumatic experience for those who have to undergo it. I only ask that the Government will see to it that those who suffer receive the very fullest compensation, not only for the loss of their herds, but also to meet as well as possible the dreadful suffering and sorrow that this disease causes to those who are involved.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the Government very much on the extreme urgency which they have deployed in this matter. I should like to ask my noble friend a question and I quite understand if he cannot answer it—I cannot answer it, but there is no reason why he should not be able to do so. I understand that the restricted area takes in the New Forest. In the New Forest there are a lot of wild deer, and of course deer are cloven-hoofed. Wild deer do not appear to catch foot and mouth, but they do carry it. Has the Ministry of Agriculture any policy regarding wild deer? Of course we could not slaughter them all—that would be impossible. However, has my noble friend any information on the position regarding wild deer and this horrible virus?

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, before the noble Earl answers that fascinating question, I should like to say that as one who, for about a quarter of a century, had the privilege of representing a large agricultural seat with thousands of farms in it, I know the tragic effect that even the threat of this disease can have. In the Pennine area in Leek we were near to the outbreak. It has a shattering effect on the farms of small acreage. I should like, contrary to some criticism, to pay a tribute also to the effect of television—both the independent networks and the BBC—in bringing home to the public the terrible problem that confronts us as regards the ease of spreading this disease. Finally, will the Government say what the chances are, since we are in the Common Market, of our now having a uniform policy throughout Europe for attacking the problem of foot and mouth disease?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I should like to reply to the three questions which have been put to me so far, otherwise I might become a little forgetful of exactly what has been asked. As regards the matter raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, I remember well his contribution when we debated this matter on another occasion. Indeed, I recalled only this morning what he had said way back in 1968 as regards the devastating effect that this disease has on the human community. Indeed, so well did I remember the right reverend Prelate making that remark that when he got up to speak I put down on my notes "Bishop of Chester" instead, of course, of "Bishop of London", because I remember him making that remark when he was the Bishop of Chester. I can tell the right reverend Prelate that the compensation which the Government offer is for the commercial value of the animals. It is for all expenses dealing with disinfection of the premises. However, of course, it does not cover loss of profit for which people have to take out their own insurances, and nor in any way can it begin to cover the desperate personal tragedy, inconvenience and sorrow which losing a lifetime's work—and many of the animals are one's personal friends—can have on a farmer. One recognises that only too well.

My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard quite rightly pointed to the problem of wild deer. The Ministry of Agriculture has the powers to round up and to slaughter wild deer if necessary. My noble friend has said that it would be an impossible task. I agree that it would not be an easy task, but I do not think that it would be impossible, in the same way as my noble friend said that it would be impossible for me to answer his question because he did not know the answer to it. I can only tell him that even miracles can happen and I hope that he will be satisfied with that answer.

As regards the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, I point out that the problem of the European Community is that in many countries—for instance, France—there is a vaccination policy. Many countries wish that they could have the status which we have here, which is a disease-free status. We have the advantage of being an island and that is how we can keep that status. I would remind him of the fact that a Ministry of Agriculture veterinary surgeon has been to see what is being done in France. He was most impressed by the way in which they were carrying out their precautions. Let me tell the noble Lord, because he may not be aware of it, that in France when they have an outbreak of foot and mouth disease even though they have vaccinated, those animals also are slaughtered.

Lord Collison

My Lords, it is rather difficult to put what I wish to say in the form of a question to the Minister. However he will, I am quite sure, be aware that while we all thank him for his Statement, we all regret that it had to be made. We all agree with every word that has been said about the damage that it will cause to the industry, the distress that it will bring and the cost that will be incurred by the farmers involved.

I wish to rise to my feet for just a few moments to call the attention of the House to the fact that farm workers and their wives are also involved, as indeed are farmers' wives. So far as the farm workers are concerned, they have to be extremely careful about their movements, about disinfecting their boots and anything else that is involved with an epidemic of this kind. So far as farm workers' wives and farmers' wives are concerned, they also have to be extremely careful and restricted in their movements both socially and in doing the household shopping. Although it is a long time since I was officially associated with the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, I am quite sure that I can, on behalf of the agricultural workers, give the House the assurance that they will do everything in their power to limit the spread of this most dreadful virus.

Lord Feversham

My Lords, perhaps I might just link a question in with those last remarks. I wonder whether the Minister can give us some idea of his thinking with regard to how the general public is to be warned about the seriousness of this matter. We have heard from a number of people about the strictures which will be placed upon farmers, farm workers and farmers' wives in the communities in which an outbreak of foot and mouth takes place. While agreeing with all the points which have been made, and the congratulations that have been expressed to the Ministry of Agriculture on the speed with which it has tackled this new outbreak—and I hope very much that its efforts will contain the outbreak—I would say this. If the outbreak is not to spread, then I think that it is absolutely essential that the general public, who now have greater access to the countryside than perhaps ever before and who use that access to a greater extent (and I am thinking of the Easter holiday and the Spring Bank Holiday which are coming up, when a lot of people from the cities will go to the countryside), should know how serious the situation is.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, first as regards the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Collison, I should like to say that he is absolutely right to refer to farm workers. When I used the expression "farmers" it was supposed to be an all-embracing term covering farmers and farm workers as opposed to specific employers and employees. Very often it is the farm workers themselves who are the stockmen and the ones who have lived with these animals, and who feel the blow to almost a greater extent in some cases than possibly the farmer himself. It is something which everyone gets involved with, and the noble Lord is absolutely right to refer to the fact that farm workers will be suffering just as much as others. He is totally right to refer to the fact that there are human constrictions and when a farm is an infected premises the farmers themselves are contained within the farm until that farm is released from infection.

As regards the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, he will know, of course, that when an outbreak occurs on a farm there is all the paraphernalia of the police and notices saying "This is an infected farm". Also a ring is drawn around the infected area concerned, about which I have explained, and tomorrow each farmer in that area will receive a booklet explaining the disease and exactly what he should and should not do in order to try to prevent the disease occurring and spreading.

With regard to the general public, the best thing that they can do is to watch very carefully the television and the press and to listen to the radio, and to take reasonable precautions, particularly if they are in an infected area; they should not just walk over people's farms when they can see disinfectant lying around, because, although this disease can be airborne, it can also be carried on vehicles and on people's shoes. It is essential that the public take all reasonable precautions.

I would only reiterate that part of the danger lies in the fact that this can be a wind-borne infection and, therefore, whatever physical precautions may be taken still may not prevent the damage occurring. However, that does not mean to say that each person should not conduct himself with an air of considerable responsibility.