HL Deb 19 July 2001 vol 626 cc1588-91

3.44 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

What extra safeguards are Her Majesty's Government putting in place to cope with the rising number of new foot and mouth cases, particularly in view of the Government's decision to reopen more footpaths.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, we are still experiencing a number of cases in five or six areas of the country. The Government are intensifying activity in those areas, especially by way of security measures, in order to prevent further spread. Decisions on reopening footpaths reflect the veterinary guidance on footpaths that was issued to local authorities on 23rd May, including codes detailing precautions that path users should take to reduce still further the risk of spreading foot and mouth disease. We also fund the Countryside Agency's campaign which promotes simple rules that people should follow.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the Government are clearly not in control of the outbreak, or of its logistical consequences? Indeed, 10 new outbreaks were confirmed yesterday, one of which has occurred in a totally new area. Moreover, 25 new cases were reported last week, with 24 cases being confirmed during the previous week. Does the Minister further agree that there is a lack of control in rigidly enforcing the biosecurity for farmers, while urging local authorities to open the countryside for riders and walkers? Can the Minister tell the House why the Official Secrets Act is part of the contract for the clear-up work by farmers, many of whom are still awaiting payment for work that has already been completed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not agree with very much of what the noble Baroness says. The disease has been contained. However, there is still active infectivity in the five or six areas to which I referred. That has been the case for some considerable time, except for the rather unusual and unique case to which the noble Baroness referred which was, regrettably, reported yesterday. All the recently reported cases over the past month have been within these "hot spot" areas. It is, therefore, vital that we crack down on the disease and eradicate it in those areas. Moreover, for the benefit of farmers and those in the rural community as a whole, it also means that we can relax restrictions in other areas, including on footpaths that bring ramblers and others to the countryside who will spend much needed money in economies that have been badly hit by the effects of this disease.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the time has come for a public inquiry to be opened; and, indeed, for evidence to be heard? The Government have still not come forward with clear advice—perhaps they have not received any—as to exactly how this disease is being spread. There is clear evidence to show that footpath closures have damaged the rural economy, but there is widespread anxiety about reopening them because, as we have heard, the number of cases is still rising. There is equally widespread anxiety about keeping them closed as regards the effects on the rural economy that arise as a result of such action. Is this not the time for all the advice that the Government have received, as well as all the known knowledge, to be aired in public? Why are not the Government commencing this inquiry now?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as far as concerns footpaths, I can tell the noble Baroness that we are not reopening them in the three kilometre zones around infected places. We are agreeing with the county councils in various areas where they wish to keep in place either the blanket measures or the selective measures—for example, in very substantial parts of North Yorkshire. This is not a blanket lifting exercise; it is simply a removal of the blanket closure. We are, therefore, being very selective in relation to footpaths and in listening to the representations from the counties.

I can confirm that the vast bulk of the advice given to the Government on the spread of the disease is already in the public arena. The noble Baroness now wishes us to set up an inquiry, while other people—indeed, the majority of the farming and rural community—are saying that our top priority now must be to eradicate the disease in the areas where it is still proving to be a problem. That is definitely the Government's overriding priority. However, we are also trying elsewhere to reopen the countryside and revive the rural economy. Therefore, now is not the time to open a public inquiry of the kind that some people have been demanding.

The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that there would be such an inquiry. He made it clear earlier that it would be an independent inquiry. The time to take such action is when we are at least within sight of finally eradicating the disease. There is no intention on the part of the Government to hide information. This inquiry, together with the review of what the Government have done and of how the disease has spread, will come in due course when FMD has been eradicated.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House how much compensation has so far been paid to farmers whose animals have been slaughtered in an effort to help to stop the disease spreading?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the total expenditure on compensation so far is over £1 billion, and the figure is rising. It comprises £900 million plus on the direct compensation scheme for FMD, and about £100 million under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. The total cost of the disease to the Exchequer is significantly over £2 billion. To return to the earlier point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on the time that compensation has taken to reach farmers, I appreciate that concern has been expressed in this respect. I can confirm that the delay has been very dramatically reduced. Such payments now fall within the target time of 21 days.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the headlines in Monday's Yorkshire Post referred to the frustration of vets because they were receiving conflicting information from DEFRA? Therefore, will the noble Lord please ensure that all vets are in receipt of the correct information so that it can be passed on to farmers and all those other people who need it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, from time to time I hear complaints of that kind. However, DEFRA's advice is clear. It has to be tailored to individual circumstances and many of the cases reported by vets require individual replies. As I say, the advice is clear. Hard pressed vets and others on the ground experience some frustration with the complexity of the issue, but we are trying to simplify the whole procedure.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells

My Lords, although we welcome the emphasis on eliminating the disease, is the Minister aware just how severe the breakdown of trust is between the farming and other communities and the Government? The severity of that breakdown of trust is extremely damaging. Unless trust begins to be restored, statements which are made not simply by those who have strong vested interests will not be believed and there will be no healing of the community and no opportunity, through better human relationships, to build a future for the farming community and for the countryside.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I regret that I receive reports of, and have experienced directly, what the right reverend Prelate refers to as the breakdown of trust. In the fraught situation in the countryside with everyone—the farming community, DEFRA and the people who work for it, the vets and so on—under severe pressure, some relationships are bound to break down. However, the attacks perpetrated by some people on DEFRA staff and people working for us who work for many hours a day under severe pressure are not acceptable. Much has been done to eradicate the disease by people working for MAFF, now DEFRA. I hope that when eventually we have the inquiry into the affair, at least the DEFRA staff will not be blamed for what has happened. Quite the contrary is the case.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, will the noble Lord reconsider the answer he gave which implied that the outbreak was substantially under control and was confined to existing hotspots? Is he aware of an entirely fresh outbreak within the past month on the Brecon Beacons on the very day they were opened to walkers and of a series of outbreaks within the past 10 days in the valley where I live around Llangenny and Crickhowell, an area previously unaffected? All the sheep have had to be culled on the Sugar Loaf, which I see from my home. That area has been opened to walkers recently. Indeed, I climbed the Sugar Loaf only about two weeks ago. Does not the fact that the disease is appearing in entirely new areas indicate just how dangerous it is and the care that must be taken before footpaths are opened?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the outbreak in the Brecon Beacons has existed for some time. It is regrettable that after a lull, there have been recent cases in the area described by the noble Lord. However, to ascribe that to the opening of footpaths is erroneous. There has been no evidence of a single case of foot and mouth being spread by walkers. Overwhelmingly, the highest risk in terms of spreading the disease is incurred by people who transport livestock in vehicles and who move from farm to farm and mingle flocks and herds. One has to strike a balance here. The situation in Powys is unfortunate. The administration of that situation is, of course, primarily a matter for the Welsh Assembly. Nevertheless that is one of the hotspots on which we now have to concentrate to eradicate the disease.