HL Deb 23 July 2001 vol 626 cc1677-81

3.17 p.m.

Lord Luke

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

Will Her Majesty's Government confirm that they are ceasing to disinfect farms which have been contaminated by foot and mouth disease and, if so, on what grounds.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the Government are not ceasing to cleanse and disinfect contaminated farms. Cleansing and disinfection which takes place immediately after animals have been slaughtered, and which is designed to prevent the spread of disease, continues at government expense.

Secondary cleansing and disinfection, which is aimed at preventing recurrence of disease when farms are restocked, takes place later and over a longer time-scale. It can be paid for either by the farmer or by the Government; there is no legal obligation on Her Majesty's Government to pay.

The Government are currently reviewing the arrangements for secondary disinfection in the light of management data which suggest that the costs involved are higher than might reasonably be expected. However, at this stage these higher than anticipated figures are just estimates. To date some £75 million has been paid out. It seems right in the light of this developing information to review the basis on which this secondary cleansing and disinfection work is carried out and on which costs are being calculated.

We also need to re-examine arrangements with contractors to ensure that proper value for money is being attained. While this review is being carried out we are temporarily halting further expenditure on secondary cleansing and disinfection work.

In the interim, if they are anxious to make early progress, farmers can continue at their own expense cleansing work which has already begun. We must emphasise that preliminary cleansing and disinfection work will continue to be carried out at the Government's expense.

Lord Luke

My Lords, is this not a further example of the shambles into which the Government's policy on foot and mouth has descended? Surely data regarding costs of farm cleaning have been available since last February. What has the statistical section of the department been doing all this time? For long-suffering farmers, is this not the final straw in an extended line of broken promises?

Lord Carter

My Lords, as I said, the pay out to date has been £75 million. The secondary cleansing and disinfection started only in June with regard to the earliest outbreaks. Until the invoices began to come in, it was not clear what the costs would be. The earliest estimates indicated costs that the Government found surprising. We feel that the time to cost and forecast is now in order to have proper control of public expenditure.

I am interested in the noble Lord's remarks. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords opposite what happened in the BSE outbreak when the previous administration negotiated a scheme with the renderers. It is a great pity that that scheme was not quickly reviewed. At the time the government were warned about excessive costs. I was one of those who warned them. They did nothing. When they eventually renegotiated, there was a considerable cost saving.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we on these Benches have called consistently for a cohesive, all-embracing emergency plan to be put in place region by region. Had that been done, those contracts could have been overseen by the public sector which has overseen effectively those parts of this fiasco that it was able to oversee. Would it not be better to have one consistent plan rather than a U-turn every time the Prime Minister becomes involved? Although we have been assured that the primary biosecurity measures will be in place, the secondary ones will not. The situation has been mishandled. I must again call for a public inquiry.

Lord Carter

My Lords, we have a plan. The incidence of FMD is decreasing rapidly, as the noble Baroness knows. But it is not decreasing as fast as we would like. We want to learn lessons from this outbreak. We look forward to an inquiry when the outbreak is over. That is the sensible time to have an inquiry. That inquiry will be open and will get at the facts. It will not be unnecessarily long drawn out or expensive.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, how long will the review take; and why did it not take place earlier?

Lord Carter

My Lords, it will take not more than two weeks. It did not take place earlier because the secondary cleansing and disinfection had to begin first. We have paid out only £75 million. Immediately the invoices began to come in, the Government stopped it and are having a review which will last no more than two weeks.

The quality of invoicing is both poor and variable. Inclusion of some items is definitely open to question. The review is intended to improve the basis of payment and to put it on a proper footing for the control of public expenditure.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, the Government naturally wish to get best value on this as on everything else. However, does not basic justice require that if secondary cleansing has been paid for at government expense to some farmers it must be so paid to all farmers? Is the Minister prepared to give the undertaking that once the review has taken place and perhaps more effective pricing mechanisms put in place the Government will continue to pay for secondary cleansing on all those farms which need it?

Lord Carter

My Lords, I cannot give that undertaking because the purpose of the review is to find out the proper basis for payment and control of public expenditure. There is no statutory obligation on the Government to pay for the secondary cleansing. They are doing so at present. As soon as it started, it was clear that the costs were unacceptably high. That is why they are being reviewed. We intend to control public expenditure and to deal fairly with farmers.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the average cost of disinfecting farms in Scotland is about a quarter of the reported cost in England and Wales? How do the Government explain that difference? Is there not a case for investigating extraordinary and exorbitant charges in. England and Wales?

Lord Carter

My Lords, that is exactly the purpose of the review: to find out the reason for the difference and to deal with it quickly.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, some of us believe that it is entirely correct that the First Lord of the Treasury should take an interest in the costs of any department. However, will the Minister confirm the reports on television that such action is costing £2 million a day? I make that £730 million a year. Will the noble Lord also confirm that those costs are well out of line with costs from other parts of the country and Europe?

Lord Carter

My Lords, yes, the noble Lord is correct. We understand that the average payment for cleansing and disinfection in Europe is about one-tenth of the compensation which is paid for animals. At present in this country the payment for cleansing and disinfection roughly equals the amount of compensation paid for animals.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, the factor missing from the Minister's reply is whether the secondary disinfection is necessary to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease. If necessary, at the end of the day the cost will have to be carried by the Government. The noble Lord cites the figure of £75 million. Does he set that against the cost of the £2 billion to £3 billion that the foot and mouth disease has to date cost the country? Is the secondary disinfection necessary?

Lord Carter

My Lords, it is necessary for restocking. The purpose of the review is to get a proper basis for payment for cleansing and disinfection. The review will take only two weeks. The figure paid at present is clearly not correct in the light of the Scottish experience, European costs and other factors which are coming to light. The Government are exercising their duty to protect the expenditure of public funds on such an important issue and to ensure that the right amount is paid for the right job. Certain matters are being included in the invoices which are clearly not part of the requirement for secondary cleansing and disinfection. As I said—I chose my words with care—the quality of the invoicing is both poor and variable.

Baroness Lockwood

My Lords, are the contracts made by individual farmers or representatives of the department?

Lord Carter

My Lords, contracts are made between the department and the contractor. It is the nature of those contracts, what is included in them and what should be paid for which is to be looked at.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the Minister will no doubt be aware that the headline news on the BBC radio and television was that Her Majesty's Government were about to cease disinfection of infected premises. I am sure the noble Lord will give us an absolute assurance that disinfection will not cease. Following an outbreak—whether initial or secondary—the virus cannot be got rid of easily without a thorough and rigorous disinfection procedure.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. We are pleased to be able to answer this Private Notice Question to get the facts on the record. Not for the first time, the media were just plain wrong. We are not ceasing to cleanse and disinfect contaminated farms. The primary cleansing and disinfection continues at government expense on all infected farms. It takes place immediately after slaughter. The secondary cleansing and disinfection takes place some time later, as the noble Lord well knows, when the farmer has to start the process of getting the farm ready for restocking. That only began in June with regard to the earliest outbreaks. As soon as the figures started to come in, we called a temporary halt—we hope for only two weeks or less—to get the facts right, the contracts right and to ensure that the proper money is being paid. The noble Lord is correct. We are not ceasing to cleanse and disinfect contaminated premises.