HL Deb 26 April 2001 vol 625 cc323-39

3.38 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the foot and mouth outbreak.

"As I did on eight occasions before the Easter break, and have done once already this week in a session with the Agriculture Committee, I wish to update the House on the latest position on the disease, set out the measures that the Government are taking, and give right honourable and honourable Members the opportunity to raise points with me. I also wish to inform the House about the outcome of the Agriculture Council in Luxembourg this week and of my bilateral discussions there with the Dutch Agriculture Minister.

"As of 11 a.m. today, there had been 1,481 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease. For ease of reference, the House will wish to be aware that I am putting details of the number of cases in each constituency in the Library of the House today. This will be updated daily. I am also making available to individual Members full details of the cases in their own constituency to supplement the early warning system that we have had in place for some weeks now.

"Over 2 million animals have now been slaughtered for disease-control purposes, of which around three-quarters are sheep, 20 per cent are cattle and 5 per cent pigs. A further 475,000 animals have been slaughtered under the welfare slaughter scheme.

"The latest figures are that there are 152,000 animals awaiting slaughter and 218,000 carcasses awaiting disposal in Great Britain. The backlog of data not entered on the database which holds these figures has been greatly reduced. None the less, the figures still tend to overstate the position. There is a disposal backlog in Devon of around 85,000 animals but we are addressing that as a top priority. There are no significant disposal backlogs in other areas of the country.

"We continue to work closely with the Department of Health on the public health issues surrounding the various disposal routes. There are no completely risk-free options. Updated and consolidated guidelines were published on Tuesday. The method of disposal in each case is the safest and most effective in the circumstances.

"The House will be aware that the numbers of confirmed cases continue to fall week on week. From the highest point of on average 43 cases per day in the week ending 1st April, the average number of cases has fallen to 16 in the week to 22nd April.

"We have been able to lift restrictions in nine different areas where there have been no new cases for 30 days and thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. As a result, the tighter movement restrictions associated with infected areas have been lifted from some 5,000 square kilometres—some 1.25 million acres—of the country, affecting around 12,500 farms.

"These figures show that we are continuing to bear down on the outbreak. We can be cautiously optimistic about the future course of the epidemic. The scientific advice was that the single most important action we should take against the spread of the disease was to reduce the time between report and slaughter to 24 hours. That has been our policy and it has been shown to be the right one.

"The Government's policies for slaughter on infected premises within 24 hours, and on contiguous premises within 48 hours, have been crucial to the control of the epidemic. Following formal advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser and the Chief Veterinary Officer, I can today announce for England a broadening of the existing areas of discretion for local veterinary judgment in the light of the developing disease situation. The devolved administrations will be making their own statements.

"The joint advice from the chief scientist and chief vet follows detailed consultation with the veterinary profession and with the expert scientific group advising the Government on the course of the disease. This development is not, as some have reported, a relaxation; its purpose is to improve the achievement of the policy by refining the instructions given to staff in the field.

"The key points are as follows. We will continue to kill all animals that are dangerous contacts. That will include animals on a significant number of neighbouring farms and beyond. On other contiguous premises, susceptible animals will be killed. Cattle may, however, be spared if there is adequate biosecurity. This will be a matter for local veterinary judgment, taking account of all the circumstances. MAFF has already published guidance, agreed with the veterinary profession, on the biosecurity measures that farmers can take to help to protect their animals from infection. Where cattle are not culled, they will be subject to regular veterinary patrols.

"These refinements can be expected to provide some relief from automatic slaughter of cattle. They will not lead to a change in the policy of culling pigs and sheep on contiguous premises. Pigs pose a high disease risk and can spread the virus. Sheep can carry the disease without showing symptoms, thereby causing further undetected spread.

"Following consultation with interested parties, we shall be providing for the special circumstances of rare breeds of sheep and moorland or hefted flocks, based on tight biosecurity coupled with serological testing. Guidance on that will be issued to staff on the ground very shortly.

"These are complex matters of scientific and veterinary judgment. The new arrangements have to be right to ensure that they meet real needs and contribute to, rather than hinder, disease control.

"I would also like to update the House on the position regarding vaccination. The Government have given serious consideration to a cattle vaccination strategy in north Cumbria and possibly Devon, given the particular issues in those regions, particularly the intensity of infection in certain areas and the forthcoming turn-out of cattle from indoor housing to outdoor grazing. The Government accept the case for vaccinating cattle in those areas, but only if the vaccination programme is supported by a substantial majority of the farming community, by veterinarians, by the wider food industry and by consumers.

"As I said to the Agriculture Committee on Monday, that level of support is simply not there and the signs are that it will not now be achieved. Without that support, a vaccination programme would be very difficult to implement on the ground. We continue our discussions with all those who would be affected, but the case for a vaccination programme becomes less compelling as the number of daily confirmed cases and the weight of infection in the hot-spot area continue to fall.

"I turn now to the livestock welfare disposal scheme. In the first week of April, 53,000 animals were slaughtered under the scheme, rising to 143,000 in the second week of April and to more than 150,000 last week. Opening the scheme generated a great many applications—at one stage apparently it totalled close to 2 million animals. All applications have now been checked. That process has removed the many duplicated applications. One producer made 14 separate applications for the same animals. There are now applications covering some 1.3 million animals. Well over half a million of those animals have now been dealt with—either slaughtered and disposed of, or withdrawn voluntarily, or because there was no welfare case to answer. By the end of today the backlog in Great Britain will stand at fewer than three-quarters of a million animals. We are on course to have completely removed the backlog by mid-May.

"The welfare disposal scheme has been put in place to deal with severe welfare problems arising from the FMD movement restrictions that cannot be dealt with by any other means. I am glad that we have been able to extend progressively the options available to farmers to deal with welfare issues and to re-establish routes for their perfectly healthy livestock to be sold into the food chain.

"As of Monday of this week, farmers within infected areas but outside the three-kilometre protection zones surrounding infected premises have been able to enter healthy livestock into the food chain. As a result of those changes, the vast majority of farmers have practicable alternatives to the welfare disposal scheme. I am confident that the rate of withdrawals from the welfare scheme backlog will accelerate as a result.

"In re-establishing routes into the food chain across Great Britain as whole, it is imperative that the payment rates for the livestock welfare disposal scheme do not act as a disincentive to farmers by providing more attractive financial options than the market itself. To ensure that that is the case, I am announcing today that payment rates for those categories of livestock normally slaughtered for meat or meat products have been revised. All animals collected for slaughter or slaughtered on-farm from Monday 30th April will receive the new payment rates. The rates for cull and draft ewes, new season lamb, clean cattle and pigs are being revised to a level that represents about 70 per cent of current market prices. For hoggets and cull sows, a higher rate of 80 per cent is being established. Arrangements have been put in hand to ensure that all those who have animals killed under the scheme are aware of the financial returns they will receive before they formally hand over their animals. It is still my intention that the scheme be reviewed on 22nd May. Meanwhile, I shall discuss with the industry the separate market-related issues in respect of light lambs and cull sows that would normally have gone for export. It would be misleading to expect an early resumption of export markets, but taxpayers cannot be expected to buy out this problem.

"In my Statement of 27th March, I outlined a number of actions flowing from our initial assessment of the origins and spread of the disease. The consultation on the proposed ban on pigswill closed on 10th April. We received about 150 responses, almost all of which favoured a ban. A number of detailed issues were raised which we are urgently considering and I expect to make an announcement on that in the next week. We have also received a large number of comments on our proposed 20-day standstill period, after movements on farm, for sheep, goats and cattle. Again, the majority are in favour but a number of highly technical issues have emerged. Because of the considerable interest in this issue, I have decided to extend the consultation period for a further month from the initial deadline of 11th May. The cross-departmental examination of the controls on commercial and personal imports of meat and meat products is well under way, and I will have something more to say on that in the near future.

"At this week's meeting of the Agriculture Council, I reported in full to EU colleagues on the progress we have made to combat FMD and acknowledged the help that the Commission and other member states have given in that regard. As before, there was strong support for our efforts, and for those of my Dutch colleague, in our determination to eradicate FMD. At the instigation of Laurens Brinkhorst and myself, the EU will convene a conference later in the year to examine all aspects of our experience of this disease, in particular that of the UK and the Netherlands, in order to help to shape policy for the future, including vaccination policy.

"Combating foot and mouth disease remains the Government's top priority. But as the disease is brought under control, questions arise from farmers and others in the rural economy about options for the future. We therefore intend to work in partnership with farmers and others to identify ways of assisting the recovery of the farming sector. We shall focus in particular on farmers directly affected by FMD who face choices about their futures, and on those regions of the UK hardest hit by FMD, in particular Cumbria and Devon. As a first stage, the Government will concentrate on the need to provide high quality, targeted business and agronomic advice to individual farmers, and will explore ways of improving marketing in the livestock sector to the benefit of the whole food chain. The Government also intend to help livestock farmers to decide the optimum basis on which restocking should take place, taking into account the desirability of rebuilding flocks and herds which are high quality, disease free, extensively reared and farmed in environmentally sustainable ways. As a further component of our recovery strategy, we shall work with the industry to develop insurance options against both animal disease and the economic consequences which disease brings, and will share our thinking on this with other EU partners.

"Work to help farmers to emerge from the crisis has begun, and will form part of Government's longer-term strategy for helping UK farming to restructure in sustainable, market-oriented and environmentally responsible ways; and taking forward our policy for bringing about CAP reform."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.51 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place earlier today. We welcome the reduction in the daily number of outbreaks recorded but I add a note a caution because, although the low figure of nine outbreaks was recorded, 18 new cases were recorded yesterday.

I offer my thanks, as I am sure do others in this House, to all the professionals and volunteers who have been working so hard during this long crisis—nine weeks. Many of them have worked 24 hours per day. It has been a very, very difficult task for them.

Today's announcement is a definite change of direction. But is the Minister not worried that some of the recent outbreaks which have occurred have been outside the central point of infection? In particular, is she not concerned about the spread of the disease in the Lake District, the wider spread of cases in Northumberland and the other case in my own home county of Leicestershire, in Ashby?

The Statement refers to the numbers of animals awaiting slaughter. Will the Minister say when and why the system of recording was altered? How does she explain MAFF's figures for Sunday 22nd April, when some 321,000 animals appear to have been disposed of in that day? I stress those are MAFF's figures. I ask her to comment also on the NFU's suggestion that in Devon the definition for the disposal of carcasses has changed and that the movement of the carcass from a farm to a disposal point is counted as "animal disposed of" when, in fact, the animal has merely been moved.

Today's Statement has some key points, in particular the relief of cattle from culling on contiguous premises. I am sure that many will welcome that. But will the Minister enlarge upon the "adequate biosecurity" in the Statement? Will she also tell the House whether contiguous animals are routinely checked to establish whether or not they carry the infection? That has been so in the past. If not, will that be established? Obviously, that has important implications for neighbouring farmers who may think they are next to a clean farm, whereas, in fact, it has been identified as having the disease. Does the Minister concede that at best it is foolish for contiguous animals not to be tested as, as I said, that has huge implications for neighbouring farms?

The Statement refers to the special circumstances of rare breeds of sheep and moorland or hefted flocks which are being considered. I am sure that many in this House will, appreciate that. What are those considerations and how soon will they come into effect?

Likewise, have the Government reached any conclusions about the possible infectivity of the deer population? We have heard of individual cases where deer have been found with symptoms of the disease but there seems to be a problem in relation to the testing of those animals.

On the livestock welfare scheme, we welcome the fact that some 0.5 million animals have been dealt with. But that still leaves some 0.75 million animals awaiting slaughter. I understand that some of the animals may have been waiting up to six weeks. The Statement suggests that it is hoped that that will end by mid-May. Will the Minister confirm that even today there are still animals on farms which are suffering?

We also acknowledge the steps which are taken to enable more animals to go directly to the food chain. That is indeed welcome. We welcome also the proposed EU conference later this year to which the noble Baroness referred. But will the Minister confirm that that will happen only after our own inquiry has taken place and the results have been published?

The Statement speaks of government plans to work with the farming industry to assist the recovery of the farming sector. In that paragraph there is reference to the Government's desire to develop "insurance options". Will she enlarge on that and also on the phrase, the optimum basis on which restocking should take place"? In the previous Statement, the Minister announced the appointment of some 11 directors of operations. I thank her for the letter which she sent me in that regard. She told me that seven of them were MAFF personnel. But the letter did not—and nor does the Statement—define their role. Who is in charge nationally? Is it MAFF, the Ministry of Defence or No. 10? Secondly, at regional and local level who is in charge? Is it one of those newly appointed directors, MAFF, regional personnel or the Army? We are still not clear as to the line of command and who is responsible for what, either nationally or locally.

This outbreak is costing the country dear in terms of the misery of all the farmers and their families, the many small rural businesses and their suppliers, those who depend on visitors coming to the countryside and those who depend on the countryside for their living. I must say to the House that the Government's initial slow reaction to the gravity of the situation and their apparent lack of leadership have allowed this disease to get out of control.

Equally—and I welcome some of the measures in the Statement—I am sure the Minister will recognise that it is absolutely essential that that does not happen again through too rapid a relaxation of the procedures, just as there seems to be some regaining of control of the disease. We need to see an eradication of this outbreak as soon as possible. We look forward to the restructuring of the industry which offers hope to farmers and to the public as a whole.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. Having said that, we all realise that the countryside is in crisis and that the foot and mouth epidemic has been handled extremely badly for weeks. But yesterday, common sense prevailed at last.

I hold the Minister in very high esteem. She has done her job well for a long period of time. She has been very helpful to me and to others. At times, I have honestly felt sorry for her because she has been badly advised by some of her senior government advisers. Week after week the Minister has been given the wrong advice. I shall make reference to only one incident in Wales, in the Eppynt range area where thousands of lambs were buried. That was a big mistake on behalf of the ministry. All those animals then have to be lifted again and burnt. That is one example of bad advice from people who should have known better.

Like many others, I hold the view that thousands of healthy animals have been slaughtered for no good reason. It seems to me that many MAFF advisers are keen to slaughter and kill stock. I wonder whether they are trying to safeguard their own interests and jobs. They went to Devon yesterday and tried two or three times to kill the white calf, Phoenix, but failed. Here I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for offering help, guidance and common sense. That is what is needed in a crisis such as the present one.

On a positive and constructive note I should like to ask a few questions and put forward a few proposals. First, I hope that by June or July together we shall have conquered this epidemic. If so, can the Minister tell us when the livestock auction marts will again start selling livestock? Secondly, we on these Benches are seeking compensation for communities where there is one mass burial site or where mass burning has taken place. Will the Government help those communities which have suffered? The Minister put forward long-term proposals. However, the agricultural industry must survive this year.

Perhaps I may make a suggestion to the Minister. New Zealand sells 130,000 tonnes of lamb to this country annually. We export 120,000 tonnes to Europe. I hope that my figures are right; they are approximate. This year we shall not be able to export our lambs to Europe. I have spoken to members of the New Zealand lamb board. They are willing to help British farmers for one year by sending all their new stock to Europe this year. We could then benefit through that market and sell all our livestock here at home. That would help the trade enormously.

My next question is: have the Government any plans to stop importing cheap meat from foreign countries? I hold the view that we should not have bought it in the first place, but the answer will come from the Minister. I am disappointed that from next week farmers will receive 30 per cent less for their livestock than their friends received this week and last week. There is bound to be a reason for that, but I do not think that it is fair to the agricultural community.

My final question is to ask whether the Government will discuss the future of the agricultural industry with the supermarkets, which, as I have said many times, are in charge of our agricultural industry. I do not refer to the common agricultural policy but to the supermarket policy of paying less than the cost of production.

4.4 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the contributions from both Front Benches. I shall try to deal with the main issues raised. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that no one is being complacent. We noticed the figure of 18 new cases yesterday. No one suggests anything other than that the situation must be considered week on week. Noble Lords will recall me saying that we should not take only one day's figures, whether good or bad. However, the epidemiologists are clear with their advice; that is, that given the halving of the average weekly rate over the past two weeks, there are grounds for optimism about the course of the disease. I believe that the words of the Chief Scientific Adviser the other day were that it would be a rocky road. The progress of an epidemic cannot be predicted in advance. Undoubtedly there will be setbacks.

Of course I am worried and concerned about individual cases, particularly if they are in areas which have not previously been infected. However, the most serious concerns are not geographical; they relate to not being able to establish in epidemiological terms the link to the source of the case. Every new case is subject that sort of scrutiny.

The noble Baroness suggested that today's Statement is a change of direction. I do not believe that to be true. It is a refinement of policy, particularly regarding contiguous premises. I understood that that was welcomed by the noble Baroness and by the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, as a possible way of protecting more cattle. The noble Lord stated that many healthy animals have died in the course of this outbreak. That is true, but sadly it is only in retrospect that one knows which of the 20 per cent of animals were incubating the disease. One may never know which ones ended up being infectious. The odds are that in five contiguous premises, one will contain animals which are incubating the disease. If we wait until we find out which one it is, another five premises will have been infected, and so forth. That is why this situation is extremely difficult. An element of broad-brush policy must be invoked.

I assure the noble Baroness that this is not too rapid a relaxation. We shall undertake exactly the veterinary scrutiny which she suggests on cattle which are not taken out. We shall still be taking out any contiguous premises where there are dangerous contacts. However, there has been a great deal of representation for individual veterinary scrutiny. That is what we are able to deliver at present.

The noble Baroness asked about figures. I do not suggest, and I do not think that she really suggests, that anyone at MAFF said that on Sunday 22nd April we disposed of 322,000 animals. The figures changed—I believe it was made clear on the website why they changed—because the data collection had not kept up with the facts on the ground. For good reason, people on the ground were more concerned with doing the job than with counting, recording and inputting into central systems what had been done. We undertook a catching-up process in order to give more accurate data, which we can now do. I find it slightly ironic that we are being criticised for manipulating the data in the past in a way which made it look as if we were performing less well than we were. However, that is life.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister would give way?

Noble Lords


Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am happy to give way. However, I am conscious of trying to reply in 20 minutes.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I shall be brief. It is important to say that the figures are correct. The Minister agreed with that. There was no question of suggesting that there was anything wrong with them.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we certainly agree that it is important that the figures are correct. However, I was asking that there should be no suggestion that something underhand or deceitful was happening in our disposing of 322,000 animals in one day because we were trying to get the figures correct.

The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, for whom I have great affection and who has always been most kind to me, said that sometimes Ministers were badly advised and criticised some people in the field. An enormous number of people in the field have been working very long hours, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said, and have been putting in dedicated work as public servants. They have been denigrated in the press and elsewhere by people who find them an easy target because they cannot answer back. We have all depended on those people, and the fact that we are seeing a reduction in cases of the disease is due to their efforts.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked me about the work being carried out on insurance. She will recall that it began in the wake of the classical swine fever outbreak last year and has been developed from that experience. I cannot give details now but I shall do so as soon as possible.

The noble Baroness also asked about deer, and I can say that there have been no recorded cases of the disease in deer in this outbreak. A veterinary risk assessment on deer has been produced. There is no evidence that the disease has been passed either to farmed deer or the wild deer population. Although several possible cases have been reported and tests have been undertaken, all have been negative. The results of tests on two deer are awaited. I hope that that is reassuring.

The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, asked when livestock markets would re-open. I cannot give a definite date because it is a risk-based decision. Given the role of markets in the spread of this disease, we must look carefully at how we minimise and eliminate risk. That is tied closely to the consultation on the 20-clay restraint on movement.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked who was in charge. The person in the Government who is in charge is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister must be in charge in a situation such as this because the work of a large number of departments is involved.

My noble friend Lord Hunt spoke about health issues. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has been closely involved with local authorities, for example, in respect of footpaths. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the lead department in respect of tourism. MAFF has prime responsibility for disease control. It is important that we have the best scientific advice, so the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government is involved.

Equally, at local level the role of regional operational directors is to pull together the efforts which are made by everyone; for instance, veterinarians and local authorities. People who are seconded to their staff and the Army have always made it clear that they see the leadership in terms of disease control to be with MAFF and their responsibility to be supportive and operational. We must work together because this is not a matter for one department or one individual, either nationally or locally.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I want to refer to the intention of the Council of Ministers to set up a conference later this year for European Union countries to share their experiences. My experience is that those in Brussels do not always pay as much attention as they ought to scientific evidence. Will the noble Baroness return to a suggestion which I made when we previously debated the matter? I suggested that we ought immediately to set up a public inquiry on the same basis as the old Northumberland inquiry. The Minister was unable to answer on that occasion but I hope that today she will be able to tell us that an inquiry will be set up at some time. Setting up one immediately would appear to be best.

If there is to be an inquiry, I repeat that there would be no more distinguished or better person to be chairman of that inquiry than my noble friend Lord Plumb. He has the prestige, as a former President of the European Parliament, and the experience, as a former member of the Northumberland inquiry.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I share the noble Lord's respect for his noble friend Lord Plumb. I recognise the plea he put in for a public inquiry into the outbreak and his suggestion about its leadership. He will understand that it is not for me to respond directly to that. I must say that sometimes it has felt as though we have been conducting a public inquiry as we have gone along, but that is another issue.

The work within Europe is forward-looking. Of course it must draw on our experience and that of the Dutch in this outbreak. However, there is also the possibility that in the light of scientific advance the vaccination policy that has been commonplace throughout Europe will be looked at again. Most of all, I hope that we can use this opportunity as a lever to change the common agricultural policy.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, I want to ask the Minister about animal carcasses left on farms. I am sure that she will agree that in human or environmental terms it is not acceptable to leave dead animals on farms unburied for in excess of 24 hours, particularly as the weather is getting warmer.

In view of the difficulties in Devon, will she institute a review of on-farm burial where that is practical and can be carried out quickly? Where it is not practical, will she do what has been done elsewhere so successfully and set a target time for the removal of slaughtered animals if necessary to a suitable storage point if no immediate burial or other disposal point is available? It must be wrong to leave the animals as they are at present.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the seriousness of the position in Devon is beyond doubt. It would he wrong to offer my noble friend a review of on-farm burial. It has been an option from the beginning of the outbreak. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to put it in place because of the geology and the water table in particular, which have caused problems in Devon. There have been problems as regards burial not only on farms but at a number of sites which have been urgently examined and where it has not been possible. I assure the noble Baroness that I understand the consequences for the individual and the unacceptability of leaving animals on the ground. That is why a great effort is being put into the situation in Devon.

I suspect that there will not be a single answer and that a variety of means will be used. We are setting ourselves targets for clearing up the carcasses. Anyone who heard Brigadier Birtwistle on the radio this morning would acknowledge what he has managed to do in Cumbria, where there was a similar problem some time ago. We need to concentrate on the one remaining area in which there are a large numbers of carcasses awaiting disposal.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, as I speak every single animal on my farm is being destroyed, and I am not exaggerating. Do the figures to which the Minister referred in the Statement relate to the whole of the UK or purely to England and Wales? Furthermore, can she clarify the position re vaccination at the present time?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as for the animals awaiting slaughter and the carcasses, the figures relate to Great Britain, and I believe that the same applies to the number of animals that have been taken. If that is incorrect, I shall inform the noble Lord.

As far as concerns vaccination, we have not progressed a great deal further from our Statement about the possibility of limited vaccination in parts of Cumbria and Devon, for which we have cover from the European Union. That would be vaccination to live, not simply as a way to smooth over disposal. Such vaccination would not be across species; it would be for cattle. The Government would be willing to instigate vaccination as a measure en route to regaining FMD-free status, not FMD-free with vaccination. But we recognised that that policy could not be implemented if there was no buy-in on the part of the farmers involved because they felt that there was, in turn, no buy-in from consumers or retailers. The enormously strong opposition to vaccination among those representing farmers has made it very difficult to go forward with that policy. If one looks at the present Dutch experience, the introduction of a limited vaccination policy is not an easy ride.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement about progress in the control of the foot and mouth outbreak. Does the noble Baroness agree that, despite criticism as to what should have been done in the early stages of the outbreak, the present drastic policy has not only reduced the outbreak to controllable levels but, in the long run, will provide a greater safeguard to the national herds of this country than other means of control? Does the Minister also agree that the statement that contiguous culling is a necessary procedure emphasises that the disease is spread contiguously from animal to animal and farm to farm? The reason for contiguous culling is to take the infected animals out of circulation before they can pass on the infection.

The noble Baroness dealt with vaccination. I believe we all agree that there may well be a case for vaccination of specific groups of animals, such as dairy cattle, but it now appears that the danger to that sector of the livestock industry is receding as a result of the culling policy which takes out the infection and the fact that in certain areas of the country restrictions are now being removed. I hope the Minister agrees that it is right to have a local analysis of the situation. A local individual knows much better than, say, Whitehall what should and should not be done.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that we need to focus regimes on particular areas of the country. For example, those which have had no cases at all can have different movement arrangements from areas which have had high infectivity. I also understand the desire to have individual assessment of farms. The noble Lord described very well why there is danger in simply waiting to see when disease emerges because there is a possibility of it spreading. When we emerge from this it will be impossible for any of us to say whether the process would have been quicker or longer had another course of action been undertaken. One can never put the clock back and re-run history.

Sometimes people tend to overemphasise time. The noble Lord referred to the possibility of mistakes being made early on or policies requiring change. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said that animals had been waiting for six weeks in the welfare disposal scheme. The scheme was announced only on 22nd March, so I do not believe that any animals could have been waiting for six weeks.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I should like to return to scientific advice, to which my noble friend Lord Geraint has referred. The Minister referred to advice on the ground. The noble Baroness will be aware that on a worldwide basis highly qualified scientists have been critical of the advice available here. I am sure that, like me, the Minister has read the article in The Times this morning by Magnus Linklater which raises this matter. At the end of the Statement the Government said that they would further investigate the whole question of how the outbreak was handled and what we might do another time. Can the noble Baroness confirm that that will be looked at in whatever they do on that front?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it would be nice if there was such a thing as unanimous scientific advice which everyone agreed was the best and which told one that there was only one thing to do. I am afraid that that is not the position. Scientists vary in their views. It is not possible simply to say that one is getting the right scientific advice. The Chief Scientific Adviser has brought together a group of scientists, as he has brought together several different groups of epidemiologists, so that one is not relying simply on one person. There are always dissenting voices. That is in the nature of scientific debate and advance. It is right that we have that debate and dispute. I ask the House not to make the assumption—I know that the noble Baroness does not do so—that simply because someone challenges a policy based on a piece of advice it means that the original advice or policy must have been wrong.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, many of us will have been pleased with the tribute my noble friend paid to the staff of MAFF in their difficult job in present circumstances. Perhaps I may suggest that the same tribute should he paid to the staff working in the agriculture departments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which is the one that I know particularly well. I should like to put a specific question about the disposal of cattle which are over 30 months old. Can my noble friend say a little more about that disposal and the potential hazards from BSE?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am happy to extend support to everyone in the field, in whatever part of the United Kingdom. Whether they be in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or England, they have worked enormously hard; and equally colleagues in devolved authorities have been extremely supportive and helpful.

As to the disposal of cattle, there has been a very careful risk assessment throughout the period. The advice which followed the special meeting of SEAC was that the decision tree, if you like, of best disposal route for cattle would always be, first, rendering and, secondly, incineration. There is a different decision tree of possible routes. But the distinction that is made is between animals born after the ban—post-August 1996—and OTMS animals, based on the fact that the BSE epidemic has progressed since that time. But the committee's advice is being taken and implemented as far as concerns the disposal of cattle.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement today. Perhaps I may say in her support that her explanation for the fluctuations in the numbers was exactly as I understood the MAFF website. I was also aware that as early as January and February of this year MAFF was advising farmers to take out insurance for animal diseases. So that is not anything new.

The Minister obviously knows that Dr Fred Brown has been in London this week. I chaired a meeting in the House of Lords on Tuesday. Is the noble Baroness aware that I was informed that the scientists advising her were for once in total agreement about vaccination? In fact, the NFU dissented. In view of the huge number of letters that I have had from people wanting to vaccinate their animals, can the Minister bear in mind that the NFU does not represent the majority of farmers? A number of farmers who are not represented by the NFU would like to be able to vaccinate their animals.

I am pleased that the Government are now thinking about extensive farming instead of intensive farming. As an extensive farmer I find that very pleasing. It will enable the British to do what they do best: produce excellence in small numbers.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, having visited the farm of the noble Countess and seen the quality of the livestock that she keeps, I think that her farm could probably be a beacon farm for future agricultural developments.

I hear what the noble Countess says about the NFU. All I can say is that the Government have made their position on vaccination clear. That was based on advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer and from the Chief Scientific Adviser. However, we said very clearly that we needed majority support among those affected by it. Vaccination is a policy that would be put in place in order to support the livestock industry and, without its support, it would be hard to implement. I recognise, however, what the noble Countess says because I have received correspondence on this and know that many farmers, although perhaps not a majority, take a dissenting view from the leadership of the NFU and would support vaccination in certain cases.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can the Minister please answer the point raised by Professor Fred Brown? He offered the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food a machine and a test which would within two hours have shown whether or not sheep were infected. That would have obviated the need for slaughter. He goes on to say that, Culling animals on contiguous farms achieved nothing but unnecessary suffering". Is the Minister aware that Professor Fred Brown is not just your average professor; he was Professor of Virology at Yale University; he is a visiting scientist at one of the top testing laboratories in America; and he was deputy head of Pirbright. So he is not someone who should be looked down on.

Is the Minister aware that Dr Simon Barteling of the Netherlands also recommended vaccination? Is she further aware that the excellent article by Mr Linklater in The Times, quotes Dr Paul Kitching saying on "Channel 4 News" that the computer model that the institute is using was inaccurate. He said: Yet his institute has been the source of much of the information [to government] on which the slaughter policy has been predicated". He said that Pirbright has got it all wrong. That is what he said on the news.

Can the Minister answer any of those questions? But if any of them are true, it is such a damning indictment of government policy that it does not bear thinking about. Noble Lords opposite may smile, but that is what it is.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, Professor Brown is undoubtedly a distinguished scientist. He had a distinguished career at Pirbright before he retired and went to the United States. He has continued his interest in FMD since then. His views are important in this debate. But, as I said earlier, they are not the only views that are heard. The IAH and Pirbright are accepted world-wide as the authoritative scientific knowledge base for FMD and we are very lucky to have them in this country. I do not think that anyone should denigrate their reputation or their contribution.

So far as concerns the Smart Cycler, to which the noble Earl referred, I gently suggest to him that he should perhaps look at the statement that the Chief Scientific Adviser has put out about this machine before he thinks that it could have completely obviated the need for slaughter. The system has been used to diagnose animal influenza under field conditions. It has not been validated for the detection of FMD and has had no trial. We were asked whether it could be evaluated in the course of this outbreak. There are serious concerns about its effectiveness as a tool, not least regarding its potential for spreading infection. Members of your Lordships' House would be very quick to criticise if we had brought in an untried, untested and unverified technology on the basis simply of claim.