HL Deb 26 February 2001 vol 622 cc957-68

4.39 p.m.

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

My Lords, I apologise to the right reverend Prelate but I think that the time for the previous Statement has expired.

With the leave of the House I should like to repeat a Statement being made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture in another place about the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Statement is as follows:

"As my right honourable and noble friend Baroness Hayman reported on 21st February, the first case of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom for 20 years was confirmed on the evening of last Tuesday, 20th February, in pigs at an abattoir and in cattle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex.

"The number of confirmed foot and mouth disease cases rose to nine this morning. Three further cases, bringing the total to 12, have been confirmed early this afternoon. Today's cases are: first, in sheep at Hatherleigh near Okehampton, Devon, at another farm in the same ownership as the one confirmed yesterday; at Bromham, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, in sheep at an abattoir which received animals from the Devon source; in a farm between the two cases in Northumberland, which is likely to have been windborne spread; at a farm near the Welsh border in Herefordshire which had also received sheep from Devon, and at a further farm in Devon linked to the Hatherleigh case. Infected area restrictions are being imposed. A decision was taken at lunchtime today to kill the remaining animals on the several premises in Devon under the same ownership, and on one neighbouring farm, as dangerous contacts.

"Investigations are continuing into a number of other premises where there is reason to believe there may be disease. The Government's overriding priority is the containment and eradication of this disease.

"On 21st February, the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission acted swiftly to prohibit temporarily the export of live animals, meat, fresh milk and other animal products from the United Kingdom. Given the acutely infectious nature of foot and mouth disease, this was a necessary step in helping to prevent the spread of the disease to other countries. We are able to export non-susceptible animals and their products provided they meet certain conditions and are accompanied by veterinary certificates. Appropriate certificates are now available for issue from MAFF animal health offices.

"We immediately ceased issuing export health certificates for export to third countries for any animals or products which cannot also be exported to other EU member states. This applies whether or not the import conditions for a given country would allow us to export.

"We are urgently tracing all exports of FMD susceptible animals from areas under suspicion to other member states since 1st February but before the export ban came into effect. The EU Commission has been kept informed at every stage, along with our EU partners. I shall be updating the Council of Agriculture Ministers tomorrow. In particular we advised the German authorities of a consignment of sheep from the Devon outbreak and these were slaughtered by the German authorities yesterday.

"Some of the cases have been on premises which are associated with substantial movement of animals. The confirmation of the cases in Northumberland on Friday 23rd February showed that the disease was not confined to Essex and had been in the country longer than had at first been apparent. In these new circumstances, the Chief Veterinary Officer advised that stringent controls were needed. After discussion with the food and farming industries, and with the devolved administrations, I announced later on Friday 23rd February that there should be a seven-day standstill of livestock movements throughout Great Britain. This exceptional measure was imposed at 5 p.m. on Friday, and is due to expire at midnight this Friday 2nd March.

"The Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency have confirmed that foot and mouth disease has no implications for human health or food. The disease causes serious loss of condition, and therefore commercial value, to the main farmed species of cattle, pigs and sheep. The presence of disease also blocks our export markets. The disease is highly infectious between animals. It can be transmitted by movements of people and vehicles. Unlike classical swine fever, with which we had to deal in East Anglia last year, it is carried through the air.

"Firm control measures had to be taken. The Government are well aware of the disruption the temporary controlled area in Great Britain has caused to farming, the food chain and the wider rural community. I pay tribute to the responsible approach that the industry and the public are taking.

"During the course of this week, the State Veterinary Service, under the Chief Veterinary Officer, will continue its huge task of tracing and controlling the disease. They have been assured of all the resources they need for that task. The Government are calling on the private veterinary profession and other countries' state veterinary services for assistance.

"Baroness Hayman, the Minister of State, will be meeting industry and veterinary representatives tomorrow with the Chief Veterinary Officer. Among other matters they will discuss whether it is possible, consistent with a rigorous approach to the control of disease, to allow for some tightly-controlled movement of livestock for slaughter. Consideration will also be given to the possible temporary closure of footpaths and rights of way where this is necessary on disease control grounds.

"We are keeping in the closest touch with the retailers and food producers to ensure that there should be no serious disruption to food supplies. I am grateful to consumers who have, as I have requested, continued their normal pattern of buying.

"The House will know that the policy of successive governments has been that compensation is paid only for animals which are slaughtered for disease control purposes—in the case of foot and mouth disease, at full market value. Foot and mouth disease presents a relatively clear clinical picture. Incubation periods tend to be short. I therefore hope that movement restrictions necessary for disease control will not have to be too protracted.

"The Government are determined to eliminate this disease. I, my ministerial team and my department's staff will give this work the highest priority. I welcome the firm support we have received from the industry, from people throughout the country, from our European partners, and from others further afield, in our efforts to do so."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, we welcome the Statement repeated by the noble Baroness. I thank the Minister for bringing us up to date in this tragic circumstance. When the original Statement was made, as she rightly said, there were only nine cases. Now there are 12. This is an appalling crisis. We express our sympathy to all those directly involved in the foot and mouth outbreak and to those suffering as a result of restrictions being imposed; to hauliers and others, many in the allied trades. We support the stance of the Government in dealing with this crisis. It has been an horrendous blow to the farming industry coming so soon after the swine fever outbreak.

The most important thing the Government must do is to find out the cause of the outbreak and how it carne into this country. That, together with the containment of the outbreak is the number one priority. We support the Government in their efforts. Perhaps I may pose some questions to the Minister.

First, as the Minister stated, at this stage compensation is being paid only for animals which are slaughtered and not for those which are confined because of restrictions. The Statement refers to protracted movement restrictions. Can the Minister be specific about that because obviously it will have cash flow implications.

Secondly, some £200 million of agrimoney has not yet been claimed by the Government, much of which was allocated for livestock. Are the Government considering giving cash help to those affected, who cannot move their animals off the farms? Thirdly, I refer to closure of access. It is important that we discourage the public from going on rights of way. Has the closure of access been extended to land owned by the MoD and other departments which might involve public access? I was disturbed earlier today to hear somebody say that they had seen more people on the moors this weekend than earlier times, which is tragic. Fourthly, the Minister referred to the seven-day movement ban. That is presumably due to expire on Friday 2nd March. If the dreadful crisis continues, presumably that also will be extended. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that.

Fifthly, am I correct in understanding that the ban applies to the whole of the UK and not to the separate devolved parts of the United Kingdom? Can the Minister comment on a rumour in the press that perhaps there will be regional bans and sanctions may be lifted in some regions if the disease ceases to spread?

The Minister told us that the last three identified outbreaks were linked to Devon. Given that there are substantial animal movements around the country, of which the Minister is well aware, do we need to be more cautious than in the past? Obviously, it is possible that if a greater number of animals are moved, the disease may tragically spread wider than originally estimated.

Finally, I should like to ask about the logistics to deal with the slaughtered animals. I am aware that a great deal of organisation is required to ensure that the necessary coal and wood is available and so on. Presumably, those arrangements are either being put in hand or are already in hand. Originally, only one area was affected but now it is many. I do not want to take up the time of the House, but I have many other questions to ask.

Before I sit down, I should again like to express our sympathy, which I know is shared around the House, for all those who find themselves in this dreadful crisis. Sadly, over the past two years we have had debates which reflect the dire situation in farming. This is just one more dreadful blow. We support the Government's stance and look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

4.53 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we on these Benches are appalled that this disease has become a countrywide problem. We feel deeply for farmers and all those who are involved in the rural infrastructure. It is particularly hard to be plunged into something so dire at a time when the industry appears to be emerging from the depths of depression after the BSE crisis. We feel very deeply for those in the west country who last week had the small hope that the problem was contained and learnt that the first case was confirmed on Sunday morning.

It is right that the Government should act with decisiveness and ruthlessness. As the Minister made clear in the Statement, the Government will continue to slaughter animals. This is not the time for indecision. We are pleased that the Government have been so decisive.

I should like to put a few questions to the Minister. First, there is a report in today's Evening Standard that modelling is being done based on wind and weather and the statistic to emerge is that some 2,000 farms will be affected. Is the noble Baroness aware of that? Can the Minister say whether MAFF is involved in that modelling? Secondly, obviously some people need to drive from farm to farm, for example those who drive milk tankers to collect milk, postmen and so on. What guidance is being given to those who perhaps are not directly involved in agriculture; for example, postmen?

At the moment, is there any compensation for those who are directly affected? Obviously, if the ban extends much beyond Friday, and for weeks, it will begin to affect, for example, cattle in the over-30-month scheme; they will fall within it because they will have aged during that time. Will the Government consider compensation in respect of those animals which become unsaleable because they cannot be taken anywhere for slaughter?

I hope that in the longer term the Government will do all that they can to persuade supermarkets, which have done so much damage over time to the British farming industry, not to redevelop an import culture. I hope that they will regard this as a very short-term issue. I was pleased to see the weekend before this happened posters in Tesco which promoted Somerset farmers. I very much hope that supermarkets will continue to support the British market when this is over and that all of the initiatives which have been taken to encourage people to buy British produce will continue.

There are other questions, but because there are many here who are deeply involved I shall not put them now.

4.56 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of both noble Baronesses. Both are well aware of the impact of this disease on the industry, the whole of the rural economy and the food chain. In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, epidemiological teams are already looking particularly at the Northumberland farm, where the disease appears to be of longest standing, and, therefore, is probably the index case, to determine the initial route of infection. I ask everybody not to leap to conclusions. There are a number of possible routes of transmission and we must find out exactly how it happened. We must find the cause in parallel with, but not at the expense of, containment of the disease. The House will be aware from the Statement and the change in the numbers of confirmed cases that this is a rapidly developing disease and containment must be the highest priority.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, described how this matter would be received in the west country. The area concerned already has a high incidence of bovine TB and this is an added burden for farmers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked about the continuation of the controlled area status of Great Britain as of Friday midnight when the current controls expire. We are looking at this on a daily basis. We shall take whatever measures are necessary for disease control based on advice from the Chief Veterinary Officer. However, as the Statement makes clear, in relation to domestic produce going into the food chain we shall look very carefully at the possibility, within the parameters of disease control, of the limited licensing of direct slaughter, which is one way to ensure that we do not have the prolonged restrictions about which the noble Baroness asked me. I have talked about prolonged restrictions because some people have asked about the pig welfare disposal scheme in East Anglia. That was a unique scheme to deal with animals on farms where there were severe welfare problems because of overcrowding as a result of prolonged restrictions. We hope that we shall not be in that situation.

The noble Baroness asked me about agrimonetary compensation. She will not be surprised to learn that the president of the NFU made the same point when he saw me and the Minister this morning. Obviously, we shall take into account what he says. However, the pig sector, for example, will not be helped by agrimonetary compensation because it is a very lightly supported regime. Equally, as both noble Baronesses have pointed out, the impact of this disease goes far wider than simply the farming industry; for example, the haulage industry.

I was asked about the logistics to undertake the disposal of animals. Yesterday I was at the disease control centre in Chelmsford. To provide coal and railway sleepers and dig the pits is a matter of logistics. That has been done in Northumberland and Chelmsford. There is a central facility at Page Street in London that is looking at providing what is necessary and at taking good practice into needy areas.

I turn to the point about the Evening Standard article. I have not seen that myself. Certainly, in terms of drawing up exclusion zones around the infected areas where disease has been established, we take into account meteorological information. It is not just a 10 kilometre circle around the farm. Wind and weather conditions are very much taken into account because of the ability for the disease to be wind-borne.

Any regional lifting of restrictions, either national or export, will need to be done on the basis of disease control. That will only be done, either by ourselves as an exporter or internally, when it is considered safe in terms of disease to do so.

On the last point about the practical issue of milk tankers that have to visit farms, advice is being put out about disinfectant regimes. Sadly, there is a great deal of knowledge of what needs to be done. But we discussed the issue of making sure that unnecessary visits to farms by utilities or by government departments are not made. One matter we discussed with the NFU this morning was the possibility of sharing the advice that goes out from our helpline and their helpline; for example, making sure that good practice on simple issues, such as leaving a car used for domestic purposes outside rather than inside the farm, is carried through.

5 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, those of us who are farmers, and especially those who were Members of another place during the dreadful epidemic of 1967, remember that situation with a shudder and can only hope that this outbreak does not develop in the same way. The vast majority of people, particularly in the farming world, believe that the slaughter policy is correct and that the Government's prompt action in stopping all livestock movements last week was also correct. Can the Minister say whether any of the pigs at the primary outbreak were fed on pigswill and food residues and remains? Can she further say that if it becomes clear in the next days and weeks that all farmers in the country on all occasions cannot be relied on to boil pigswill according to the regulations, the Government will move in immediately and put a ban on the feeding of that type of material?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, is correct to say that the farm in question was licensed not to produce but to feed swill to the animals concerned. Perhaps I may answer his question in very general terms. We shall do everything we can to investigate the route of transmission of foot and mouth disease. When we have investigated and found out what that route is, we shall take the necessary measures to ensure that that risk is eliminated.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I well remember the 1967 outbreak and seeing the country areas of Worcestershire alive with burning funeral pyres at night and the smoke reaching up to the sky in the daytime. I sincerely hope that that will not happen again. I also hope that my goats will not have to go the same way as many people's cows, sheep and pigs. I know that I would be devastated. I am sure that those farmers are as well.

On that basis, perhaps I may ask the Minister what emotional support is being given to farmers who are bound to be extremely isolated because or the restrictions. Also, what is to happen with fallen stock? We are at the height of the lambing season and ewes do die in the process of lambing. Will farmers be required to produce a veterinary certificate to prove that their animals have not died from foot and mouth disease? How are they to be disposed of? We normally send our dead animals to kennels. What is to happen there?

As the abattoirs are closed at the moment, is it possible that some of the Spanish vets who I understand work for the Meat Hygiene Service could be taken into the State Veterinary Service for a temporary period to help out?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, on the last point, the answer is, yes, we have already been in touch with the Meat Hygiene Service. There are vets there who are available for this work. There are other areas that are shut down and there have been offers of staff; for example, ADAS and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Those staff are already acting. Yesterday, in Chelmsford, there were 67 staff when the complement is normally around seven. Those were people drawn from all over the country and from different areas.

The disposal of fallen stock is an area that we recognised we would need to deal with. Over the weekend we drew up a general licence to allow the disposal of fallen stock. We had already made an exception for BSE suspects. But the disposal will have to be done under licence. Obviously there are individual routes of disposal, whether to a knacker's yard or to hunt kennels or an abattoir. There is a real problem about the potential spread of disease if someone is on a collection round. One of the issues that we are discussing is the actual terms of that licensing. But we shall be giving advice.

The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked about advice for individual farmers. That is a matter about which we are very aware. We discussed, both yesterday and today, ensuring that there is liaison between the disease control centre and the local farming union representative, so that they have up-to-date information to give out. We opened up a helpline last week. There have been thousands of calls to it. The number of that helpline is, for example, on CEEFAX. The website is regularly updated and used.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend the Minister and, indeed, the Government, on the way they reacted to this crisis. Clearly, there is support for that all around the House. Perhaps I may ask a couple of questions. First, I should like to ask about compensation. That is really important for the agricultural industry, which has received devastating blows, one after another. The farming industry will have to bear many additional costs; for example, the additional feed costs of keeping animals longer than they otherwise would. Secondly, how on earth will some farmers, because there will be no cash flow, pay their bills and how will they pay their labour, let alone themselves? I hope the Minister will give attention to that matter.

Perhaps I may ask one other question. We are well aware that nearly 1,000 small abattoirs have closed over the past five years as a result of the imposition of the Meat Hygiene Service by the previous government and the European Community. Foot and mouth disease spreads very easily and quickly. Animals have been taken hundreds of miles to be slaughtered, whereas previously they would be slaughtered within 30 miles of the farm. Will the Minister give serious consideration to this problem with a view to reopening small abattoirs with Government assistance, so that cattle for slaughter are not moved over long distances? That is bad for the cattle and bad for the consumer.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we understand the implications of my noble friend's point. As I said earlier, compensation arrangements are there for those whose animals are slaughtered. There are widespread consequences for the industry and the industry will, I am sure, want to argue its case in that respect. We recognise the issue, but there are such widespread ramifications, as was the case with classical swine fever, that we have to look at particular issues, such as the welfare of animals on farms.

I hear what my noble friend says about small abattoirs, but we have to be careful in this respect. The centre for disease transmission is between live animals at markets intermingling with other live animals. The disease was first detected at an abattoir because of the attentiveness of a vet from the Meat Hygiene Service, who saw the symptoms. There are issues about long-distance travel, but animals travelled long distances to this abattoir because of its specialised nature as a business. It has been going on for many years. While there are many issues to be raised about small abattoirs and their importance in the countryside, I do not think that they can be raised specifically in terms of the spread of disease in this situation.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, against the background of the devolved assemblies, perhaps I may press the noble Baroness on the answers that she has given about there being an integrated—I hope totally integrated—approach for the whole of the United Kingdom. She referred to the devolved administrations. She referred to the fact that there was an outbreak in Hereford, close to the Welsh border. I was concerned to see the extraordinary comments of the National Assembly's rural affairs Minister, Carwyn Jones, in Cardiff, who said that it would be possible to export from Wales even though the export ban might be in place in the rest of the United Kingdom. Can the noble Baroness assure me that in these horrible circumstances, where the threat applies equally to every part of the United Kingdom, there will be only one approach and that that will apply to the export ban as to every other aspect of the way the matter is tackled?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, disease does not respect national barriers, local government or devolution boundaries. The export ban was put in place on a UK basis. We are working with partners. If there were any potential for the regionalisation of a ban in the future, as takes place in some areas of the world with regard to disease control and disease status, such as foot and mouth disease, it would be decided not on politics but on disease. That is all that I can say. I have not seen the comments to which the noble Lord refers.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say a little about her troubles in coping with this enormous outbreak? She said that the ministry is looking everywhere for help. The veterinary profession and agriculture have declined enormously since the previous outbreak. Is there any possibility of all the vets who have gone to the profitable care of small animals coming in to help in this case? It appears to be the only source that the Government have.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the Chief Veterinary Officer has made an appeal to private practice to see whether any vets in private practice—small animal practice or farm animal practice—would be willing to work temporarily for the State Veterinary Service. There are in existence reciprocal arrangements with other countries. We are putting those into place. I understand that some vets are coming in from New Zealand today. During the outbreak of classical swine fever we had vets from Ireland, America, Australia and Holland. We have had offers from those countries. We will be accepting those offers. People are often very interested in gaining experience. We are certainly accepting offers of veterinary assistance.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I express our deep sympathy to the farming community. I pay tribute to the Government and to the veterinary profession for the speed with which they have dealt with this dreadful outbreak.

I wish to press two points. The first concerns compensation. It is well known that the farming community is at a very low ebb indeed. For the mostly small farmers in the beef, sheep and pig producing areas who have simply no resources to fall back on, the question of compensation is desperate and urgent. Does the Minister recognise that even though agrimonetary compensation is not available right across these sectors, that is not a reason for not paying it to those who are eligible to receive it? The Government could find some means of compensating those who are not eligible for that source of help. Is it possible to consider making, for example, an exceptional and large block grant to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which is well practised in these matters—sadly, it has become extremely well practised in recent years—to allow it to care pastorally for farming families, which are desperate in terms of cash flow and do not have money to buy food? Is that one channel through which emergency help could be given?

Secondly, will the noble Baroness look again at the issue of abattoirs? Farmers travel the length and breadth of the country. Some like to do it and are used to buying animals from the other end of the kingdom. However, at the same time any travel that can be avoided should be avoided. The Government are introducing new regulations and a new charging regime for abattoirs. There are small abattoirs that have closed in recent years. They could reopen and be viable. Will the noble Baroness look again at that possibility'? I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said on that point.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of the concern about small abattoirs. We have put £8.7 million into the charging structure, recognising the importance of small abattoirs in the rural economy. We shall continue to look at that issue and give support where we can. In terms of disease control and disease spread, the movement of live animals from market to market, being parcelled up and sold on, is a more potent factor in the spread of disease.

I appreciate what the right reverend Prelate said about the case for compensation. As I said earlier, it is being put very clearly. I have stated the position as it is at the moment. We are in continuous dialogue with those representing the industry. We have a meeting with all sectors of the industry tomorrow morning. These issues are kept under the closest review.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister about wild deer. I am a farmer and also manage park deer and wild deer. Is the noble Baroness aware that there are more freely roaming deer around than ever before—certainly more than was the case 25 years ago? They roam not just through forest and woodland. They are the muntjac that come into our gardens. Has the Minister considered the implications of our wild deer being infected by foot and mouth? It takes professional stalkers approximately a year to kill a significant number of deer. Can the Government make sure that the general public are made aware that the open countryside and forests are just as vulnerable to foot and mouth as the farmyards?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is absolutely correct to state that deer are a susceptible species. The export ban and controls apply to farmed deer as well as to cattle, sheep and pigs. The issues of wild deer and wild boar are being considered and have been included in the thinking of the Chief Veterinary Officer as regards any necessary action to be taken within infected areas.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I must declare an interest as the owner of a flock of pedigree Texel sheep which are presently lambing. Can birds such as crows and starlings spread the disease? Furthermore, what is the position as regards animals such as hedgehogs and foxes? What can be done about this?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I may need to make this up to an extent. As a matter of extrapolation from the fact that human beings and other non-susceptible species such as horses can carry the virus when travelling, then I must assume that, equally, other animals and birds could do so. However, a sentient vector is not needed because the wind can carry the virus.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, while f wholly agree with the noble Baroness that one should not be in too much of a hurry to reach a decision on where this awful business began, will she accept that I have often driven past the farm at Heddon-on-the-Wall and that two points have struck me about it? First, it is an extremely untidy farm. Secondly, if the wind is in the wrong direction, a strong smell comes from it.

The noble Baroness will know that the pig in the first abattoir came from that farm. Is she also aware that many complaints have been lodged about the conditions suffered by animals on that farm? Neighbours have complained over and over again. An animal welfare organisation took up the case as recently as last December. Local veterinarians have constantly appealed for action to be taken as regards this farm. However, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have turned clown any requests to take action beyond telling the brothers who farm there to "get their act together".

Finally, does the Minister agree that it is appalling, having seen photographs in the local press of the conditions on that farm, to see animals being, kept in such a way? Surely stronger regulation should be put in place to curb such fearful squalor, irrespective of whether the animals are the cause of this outbreak? We need better regulation to keep under control such appalling practices.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is interesting to hear the call for more regulation.

I understand the points made by the noble Lord. However, I hope that the House will understand if I do not comment in any way on the circumstances of an individual farmer or an individual farm. As I said earlier, the necessary investigations are taking place. If the House will allow me, I should like to leave it at that.