HL Deb 21 June 2001 vol 626 cc27-45

3.27 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

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

"I want to take this, the earliest available opportunity, to update the House on developments since my right honourable friend, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, made his Statement on Thursday, 3rd May and to set out the measures the Government continue to take.

"As of midday today, there had been in total 1,771 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, including four in Northern Ireland. Yesterday, there was only one case. Since my right honourable friend addressed the House some seven weeks ago, there have been cases—an average of between four and five per day. This compares with the highest point of over 40 cases per day at the end of March.

"The number of animals slaughtered for disease control purposes has now reached nearly 3.4 million—an increase of 1 million since 3rd May. The percentages of each species remain roughly the same—around 80 per cent are sheep, 16 per cent are cattle and 4 per cent are pigs.

"A further 1.1 million animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. The total number of animals slaughtered under both headings is about 4.5 million so far—out of a total UK livestock population of around 55 million. To put that figure in context, although by anyone's standards a massive number of animals have had to be slaughtered, it is of course substantially a smaller number than we slaughter for consumption in an average week (some half a million cattle, sheep and pigs a week).

"My right honourable friend warned the House on 3rd May that the epidemiological advice was that cases would continue to occur for some time yet. That remains the case. He also warned that we expected that the outbreak would have a long tail, that there would be further outbreaks in some parts of the country and that the number of cases per day would fluctuate. That remains the position today.

"The objective also remains to eradicate the disease as quickly as we can. Let me make it perfectly clear that although we cannot put a definitive timescale on the achievement of that goal, no one is suggesting that it will be in the next few days or weeks. So it is hugely important that no one relaxes their guard. Certainly for us in government, all the resources we need to bear down on the disease—civil and military—will be deployed where they are needed for as long as they are needed.

"Over 900 vets are still actively working on the outbreak, including around 80 from abroad. As the number of daily cases declined, it has been possible to reduce the number of military personnel now working on the ground to around 250, mainly in the north of England.

"That reduction can, of course, speedily be reversed if the need should arise. Indeed, our immediate response to the outbreak in the Settle area of North Yorkshire showed that we are able to react rapidly when the situation requires it. And of course hundreds of administrative staff remain in place in control centres around the country.

"My right honourable friend was able to say on 3rd May that there were no backlogs of animals awaiting disposal anywhere in Great Britain. I am pleased to say that we have maintained this position ever since and it remains the case today. A new system, co-ordinated in the Page Street, London, headquarters, ensures that carcasses are picked up from farms promptly after slaughter and transported to their final destination without further delay.

"Of course, it is much easier to achieve rapid turnaround when there are just four or five cases per day than when there are 30 or 40. Nevertheless, the task of ensuring that many thousands of carcasses are collected and disposed of each day is itself a major logistical exercise. Seven or eight cases can lead to 30 or 40 farms, including the contiguous premises, and therefore up to 20,000 carcasses.

"Protection of the environment and human health are our priority for all disposal options. Rendering is the best way of disposing of carcasses and will always be our first choice. But rendering capacity is finite and can quickly become overstretched, at least in the short term, if on any given day the number of cases rises. The Department of Health has advised that the greatest public health hazard would be to leave carcasses out in the open, especially in warm weather, so other means of disposal may still need to be called upon from time to time.

"So, if other options are exhausted, we shall on occasion still have to turn to licensed landfills and mass burial sites. I understand the strength of local feelings about burial sites and I can assure the House that a decision to use such a site, even for just one day or a few lorryloads, is not taken lightly. But, as has been said many times, there are no easy options for disposal, and if the circumstances arise we must be prepared to utilise the national assets we have, including burial sites.

"However, these are the steps taken to deal effectively with the outbreak of the disease. Even more important is to prevent further spread of the disease. I cannot emphasise too highly the continuing importance of high standards of biosecurity on and around farms—that is, practical precautionary measures to prevent further spread of the disease. We are taking every opportunity to drive home this message, including interviews in the national and local media and advertisements in the local and farming press. We are also producing a video demonstrating a practical approach to biosecurity and this will shortly be made available to all livestock farmers and others in the industry, accompanied by a leaflet and letter from Jim Scudamore, the Chief Veterinary Officer. It really is essential to drive this message home and I appeal to all right honourable and honourable Members to play their part.

"As the House is aware, the outbreak continues in a number of areas of the country. But fortunately it is also the case that other regions have had no cases at all or have had no further cases for a long time and are looking forward to a return to normality. We are doing everything we can to facilitate this, subject naturally to the overriding priority not to put at risk the eradication of the disease.

"Thirty-seven infected areas have now been lifted. These are areas where not only have there been no new cases for over 30 days but also thorough veterinary and serological testing has taken place. Some 43,000 farms have now benefited from the lifting of restrictions, that is around one-third of the number of farms which were ever restricted.

"As I have said, wherever in the country there is a disease problem we will put all our efforts into eradicating it. At the same time I am also very conscious of the call from the farming industry and wider rural community for some of the tighter movement restrictions to be relaxed. As ever, there is a balance to be achieved between continuing to bear down on the disease—movement restrictions are an essential part of our armoury for controlling the disease—and allowing reasonably normal business to take place where the risk of spreading the disease is very low but the restrictions applied must be proportionate to that risk.

"I can announce today two significant changes to the rules on the movement of livestock. The industry has been pressing for some time for a relaxation of the licence restrictions to enable more normal trade to take place. Clearly our first priority is to ensure that nothing is done which puts al risk the eradication of the disease. The veterinary advice is that certain changes can be made provided that strict criteria are applied and the animals are otherwise eligible to be moved under the existing FMD rules.

"First, as from tomorrow, Friday, 22nd June, livestock (cattle, sheep and pigs) from within infected areas will be permitted to move, under licence, for slaughter in abattoirs outside the infected area, both for human consumption and under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. And, secondly, also from tomorrow, cattle and pigs from outside infected areas will be permitted to move, under licence, into provisionally free areas on welfare grounds. At the same time, welfare movements of cattle and pigs from one provisionally free area to another will also be permitted. The veterinary advice is that a similar easing of welfare movements for sheep would present too high a risk in the current situation.

"Relaxation of movement restrictions (where it is reasonable to do so) is important for our farming industry, but foot and mouth disease has also had a devastating impact on the wider rural economy. As part of our strategy for wider rural recovery, we want to see footpaths and other rights of way reopened wherever it is safe to do so. Considerable progress has been made in recent weeks, with over half of all paths now open. This reflects real effort and good will of many local authorities, farmers and walkers. However, some local authorities have kept paths shut when it is very difficult to see that it is justified in the face of what are assessed as very slight risks. What is also unhelpful is that even where most paths are open, people are often still confused about which paths are open and which shut.

"I have asked my right honourable friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to examine as a matter of urgency whether we can revoke the remaining blanket closures of paths in the near future. We would keep in place local authority powers to close paths selectively where necessary, mainly within three kilometres of infected premises, and we will listen to representations from local authorities and others who may wish to retain blanket closures in particular areas affected by disease. We fully recognise that this may be an appropriate response in areas where there is or has been a high concentration of disease, such that implementing path-by-path closures would be difficult.

"Revoking remaining blanket closures will both increase the number of paths open and, equally important, make much clearer which paths are open and which are closed. It will mean that by the summer holidays the vast majority of the countryside will be well and truly open and seen to be open for visitors and for business.

"We are also continuing to take action to help rural businesses, particularly in the worst affected areas, cope with the impact of foot and mouth. Over the last three months the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise have deferred some £71 million of tax without interest charge for severely affected businesses. Local authorities have granted or are considering 3,500 applications for hardship rate relief in addition to deferment of rates bills and applications for revaluation related to foot and mouth impacts.

"In addition we have provided additional funding of £39 million for the foot and mouth disease business Recovery Fund run by regional development agencies to add to the resources they had already been allocated and have themselves reprioritised for such use. In addition to business support and funding for local and regional promotion, over 200 businesses have now had offers of grant from this fund and we expect all RDAs to have the fund fully operational with their Business Link partners by the end of this month.

"This disease has been a terrible blow to farmers and the wider rural community. For some, recovery will still seem a distant dream. Nevertheless, work to help farmers emerge from the crisis has begun and is of course linked to the Government's aims to create sustainable and diverse farming and food industries and to promote thriving rural economies and communities.

"In the short term we have already paid out £790 million in compensation for slaughtered animals in addition to the £156 million announced for agrimonetary compensation and an estimated total of some £230 million under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. Looking to the longer term, members of the Rural Task Force and other stakeholders are already engaged in discussions with my department and my ministerial colleagues on how best to deliver a sustainable and thriving countryside.

"It is clear that we must learn the lessons from this outbreak. Although everyone was trying to do their best, it is in the nature of things that some errors are likely to have been made. What is important is not just to identify what we could and should do better next time, but also to highlight the many things which went well and which we should do again if the same or a similar situation should arise.

"We also need to look at issues such as the possible future shape of the disease control regime and what changes might be necessary at EU as well as at national level. Again, a review is planned for the autumn and we are keen to play an active part in this. I discussed all these points with EU colleagues at the Agriculture Council this week and other member states continue to be appreciative of our efforts.

"My department and I are determined to bring this outbreak to an end. I have been tremendously impressed by the commitment of all those working on foot and mouth I have met in my short time in office: vets, soldiers, administrative and technical staff, who are still in many areas of the country working long hours, seven days a week. I am most grateful to those who have contributed to the team effort and pay tribute to them all. I myself will be visiting one of the worst affected areas in the North of England soon.

"Let us, too, on all sides of the House, continue to work together as we move nearer to our ultimate goal of the complete eradication of the disease from the United Kingdom and a return to normality in farming and rural communities".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

The House might consider it remiss if I sat down without first paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Hayman in terms of the energy that she has demonstrated in combating this dreadful disease and the assiduousness with which she has reported to your Lordships' House.

3.41 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I should like to join in the thoughts and wishes in regard to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and to add our thanks for her conscientious work not only in relation to the outbreak of this disease but over the past two or three years. I shall say more about that on Tuesday, so perhaps the House will forgive my brevity today.

I congratulate the Minister on his new role. The noble Lord is well known for his work on environmental issues and we welcome the fact that he has particular responsibility for food and farming. He takes over at a time when there is a continuing depth of depression in farming and in other rural businesses.

We welcome parts of the Statement. I refer in particular to the two significant changes in the rules for the movement of livestock. They will bring relief in terms of the livestock welfare disposal schemes as well as bringing more animals into the food chain for human consumption.

We welcome the proposed easing of the blanket closure of footpaths. However, I remind the noble Lord that due care is necessary. Local consultation is essential, particularly in areas where livestock might be affected by the opening of footpaths.

The Statement acknowledges that it would be difficult for the general public to know which paths are open and which are closed. With the summer holidays coming up, perhaps I may again underline that difficulty. It has been said in the past that government guidelines have lacked clarity. It is an area that needs careful examination.

The devastation has not only directly affected farming; it has affected the tourist industry and other rural businesses. Takings in tourism were a quarter down in April, with repercussions felt in market towns and in London. Last weekend I had the opportunity of paying a brief visit to Cornwall, where it was encouraging to see some of the footpaths open.

In that context, what progress has been made on the cashflow problems reported during our previous discussions? There have been reports of late payments and of a great deal of bureaucracy making the delays even worse. Will the Minister tell the house what businesses are currently receiving help from local authorities and how many are still waiting for help? I understand that local authorities have granted, or are considering granting, some 3,500 payments. How many have been made to date?

The Statement refers to an inquiry. We on these Benches have pushed for a public inquiry. The Statement refers to lessons that need to be learnt and to a review of disease control. Why are the Government not willing to hold a public inquiry? It has been suggested that a Select Committee inquiry would be relevant. But is this right? All the Ministers responsible have either been moved or have left office. My understanding of Select Committee procedure is that those Ministers would not be called to give evidence; only the present incumbents would be asked to do so. Why are there difficulties about holding a public inquiry? Will the Minister give us some answers?

I raise the issue of the 20-day livestock movement ban. Has there been a government rethink on the proposal? It is impractical and it would further damage the future livelihood of livestock farmers.

Have the Government reconsidered the whole question of consequential loss which we have raised on many occasions? I refer directly to the matter of cattle over 30 months old and to sheep with second teeth. These issues have not gone away.

I also raise the question of meat imports at the port of entry. We understood from our debate on a previous Statement that inspection regimes were being stepped up. How many people have been employed in addition to those who were in post, say, six months ago? Does the Minister agree that the issue of honest labelling should be urgently reconsidered?

The Statement refers to the fact that some 1.1 million animals have been slaughtered under the livestock welfare disposal scheme. The Minister said that since 3rd May an additional 1 million animals have been slaughtered for control purposes. I was dismayed by that section of the Statement, which went on to say that, so far. 4.5 million animals out of a total livestock population of 55 million have been slaughtered. What concerns me—I believe that other noble Lords will also be concerned—is that, to put that figure in context, although by any standard a massive number of animals have been slaughtered, it is a substantially smaller number than are slaughtered for consumption in an average week. Such a figure is not relevant and it is unwise to have included it. I remind the noble Lord that among those numbers are many important breeding stock which have been lost for ever.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that certain geographical areas have been greatly damaged and that it will take a long time to build them up again. To say that I found that part of the Statement insensitive is an understatement, even for me.

We must not drop our guard. As I said, I am concerned about footpaths. In the talks that took place this week within the EU was the question of vaccination raised? It is an issue that has been raised previously in this House. Whatever we decide to do in this country has to be agreed by colleagues in Europe.

Will the Rural Task Force, led formerly by the right honourable Michael Meacher and which I understand is now to be led by Alun Michael, report to Parliament in due course?

The 1,771 confirmed cases of foot and mouth are 1,771 too many. Many more people have been directly affected by the outbreak. Despair, gloom, lack of direction and lack of hope are still common among the farming and rural communities. As I said, this affects tourism and other rural businesses. The Government's record has not been good. They have been slow to react. Dithering and confusing messages, often conflicting, have added to the misery. New out breaks are still occurring daily and in some cases we do not know the reason for them.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. The new team are crucially needed and have much to do. Before closing, perhaps I may add my thanks and congratulations to all those, both professionals and volunteers, who have worked and continue to work so hard to help farmers and others in rural areas at this depressing time.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, perhaps I may add the thanks of these Benches to those already expressed to the Minister for repeating the Statement in the House. I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord on taking on this new bed of nails. However, his shoulders are broad and I am sure that he will survive. I, too, express thanks for the work that was carried out by the former Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman.

Before I begin, I should apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. She is unable to be here today and, therefore, I am responding to the Statement in her stead. I do so in the knowledge that the foot and mouth outbreak in the central Pennines—in the Craven, Settle, Skipton and Ribble Valley area—is now about three or four miles away from the village in which I live, and still seems to be advancing. We hope that that is not so, but that seemed to be the case two days ago. In our area, we have perhaps a fortnight before we can breathe a little more gently in the belief that it has not jumped into our valley across the Pennine watershed. That is the situation in which we find ourselves.

When speaking to the farmers who have been affected by this dreadful outbreak, and everyone else in the communities situated not very far from us, one realises that there is an astonishing sense of depression, despair and anger, as well as a feeling that the rest of the country and the national media have forgotten about the outbreak. If one reads national newspapers, foot and mouth is no longer a major issue. However, we are in the middle of it. I have to say that there are many tales about the inefficiency and bungling on the part of the people who have been dealing with the outbreak, the like of which have previously occurred in other areas. I hope to acquaint your Lordships with such details on a later date.

I turn to the Statement. We, too, welcome the relaxations that have been introduced for the movement of livestock to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred. In that respect, I should like to ask the Minister a specific question regarding livestock that can be moved within England. Under the new arrangements, I understand that such livestock can be moved from infected areas to abattoirs outside those infected areas. Can the Minister say whether this will now apply to livestock in the north of England which would be destined for abattoirs in Scotland? I am thinking especially of the abattoir at Ayr. Up until now, this has been allowed in Scotland but has not applied to similar stock just over the Border.

There is no doubt that much of the countryside is in deep crisis. Those noble Lords who spoke on the subject during the many debates that took place before the Recess did not overestimate the problems that exist. What is needed now is a huge government effort, with the assistance of everyone else involved, which would give these rural areas new confidence for the future. That applies particularly to the people whose livelihoods depend on the activities in such communities. It is true of the farmers and the agricultural industry, as well as of the tourist and outdoor industries about which I have spoken previously.

As my noble friend has pointed out on several occasions, one of the real problems about this outbreak is that it affects too many places, and it has set the farmers against the tourist industry. More and more people are beginning to realise that the two interests stand or fall together; in other words, if farming goes then so, too, will the tourist industry. There are so many parts of the rural economy where farming alone can no longer sustain the village economies. Tourism is also needed. In many cases, the same families are involved in both sides of the equation. I suggest that the two industries should stand firm together in order to recreate prosperity in these rural areas.

The first fundamental question that I have for the Government is as follows. Given the complete lack of confidence that livestock farmers have in the future, what message can the Government give to them? What can the Government do to persuade people who have had their sheep and their cattle slaughtered out that there is a future for them? Like other noble Lords, I can tell the House that many of those farmers do not believe that they have a future. They do not believe that this Government care about them. I have with me a letter that I received only this morning from Mrs. Andrea Watson, who farms at West Marton in the Settle area, in which she says: I really still need to know the answer to the question that I wanted you to ask. Which was: We really need to know whether there is any point in us using all our compensation to start up farming again, and if not we need to know what we should do? This is a family farm that had sheep, goats and 2,000 cattle slaughtered out. The family are absolutely devastated. They are willing to start up again, but they want to hear the message from the Government that there is a future for such farms.

The second major issue is the question of the inquiry. A Minister seemed to suggest through the media previously that there would be a full public inquiry. However, that was not the impression to be gained from what Margaret Beckett said in another place earlier today. As far as these Benches are concerned, nothing less than a full public inquiry will do. If it takes longer to bring the full facts and the truth to light and to give everyone the opportunity to put his or her twopenn'orth in, that is more important than having a quick inquiry that people will inevitably perceive as something that just papers over the cracks. There is a real fear that the Government are trying to wriggle out of this. We should like to have an absolute assurance in that respect. Similarly, we do not understand why it is not possible to announce now that a public inquiry will be conducted. Much of the preliminary work could be undertaken, and the initial investigations necessary for such an inquiry could be started.

There are many other questions to be asked, but I should like to stress that there is much concern because the future of the countryside was not specifically mentioned in the Queen's Speech. People believe that the Government do not care and that they are abandoning the countryside. As far as concerns MAFF, it is not a change of name that is required: it is a change of culture. There is a real feeling that MAFF is dead—"Long live MAFF!" under a different name.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her welcome to the changes as regards the movement restrictions and even more so for her support for the staff, and others, involved throughout the country in combating this disease. Indeed, they work extraordinarily long hours in so doing. The noble Baroness also welcomed—at least broadly—the measures regarding footpaths. Clearly the restoration of the countryside to something like normality in those areas where it is safe to do so is most important. I agree completely with the noble Baroness that the question of clarity is absolutely paramount in the matter. I hope that the moves that my right honourable friend Alun Michael is likely to announce later today, and subsequently, will indicate that the position of tourists, walkers and local people will be clearer as a result of such changes. I can assure her that such developments will be conducted in consultation with local authorities and local communities.

The noble Baroness asked about cash flows. I can tell her that the cash flow situation in relation to farming has improved significantly since 3rd May. I believe that her main concern was about the position of non-farm businesses as regards local authorities. It is true that some consideration has been given by local authorities to hardship applications. Therefore, some delay has occurred in the process of dealing with such applications. The deferment of tax and rates was made quickly available from late March, so there has been some significant release.

The RDAs are now acting quickly by offering advice through the Business Links. The cash direct to business has also been a little delayed because of the need to assess significant offers as regards the applications from businesses. However, over 300 businesses have now been offered money from the RDA business recovery scheme. It is important that the money that we have supplied in this respect should be targeted and that applications should be properly assessed. We are making efforts through all means—local authorities, RDAs and the tax and rating authorities—to ensure that the benefit reaches those businesses as rapidly as possible. In those areas where we need to review the situation, we are conducting such reviews.

The noble Baroness also asked about the 20-day standstill in relation to movement of livestock and the consultation that was running in parallel with this outbreak. The consultation period has now ended and we are well aware of the concern that has been expressed about the proposition by a large proportion of those involved in the livestock industry. We have yet to reach a decision on the matter. We shall no doubt return to it at a later date.

The noble Baroness also referred to consequential losses. The Government have made clear that we are prepared to award compensation to farmers as regards the immediate effects of the disease. However, we have not proposed any change in other compensation arrangements. The utilisation of rendering capacity up to the maximum has meant that we have not been able to restore the over 30 months scheme in relation to older cattle. We are aware that that is creating a problem but at the moment the capacity does not exist to deal with that. We are keeping that situation under review.

The noble Baroness also referred to import measures. I cannot comment on the situation with regard to inspection personnel. We have intensified our efforts, both through inspectors and Customs and Excise. We have also arranged with ports of embarkation, the airlines and the shipping companies to provide stronger warnings and more information to people bringing in personal imports. We have vigorously taken up the issue of labelling with the relevant EU commissioner.

The noble Baroness mentioned vaccination. When we review what happened during the outbreak we shall consider the future use of vaccination. For the moment there are no plans to embark on a vaccination strategy, but that option remains should further unforeseen developments arise. She asked about the Rural Task Force. That is an operational body which would not normally report to Parliament. However, at a later date the outcome of some of the important issues that it addresses will be reported to Parliament via the Secretary of State and myself.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the general situation in the rural community. There is enormous distress in that community, for which we must all feel great sympathy. It is incumbent upon the Government to give some sense of hope to farmers and to the rural communities. However, the disease has not yet been eradicated and our priority must be to continue to suppress it where it is still occurring, particularly with regard to the new outbreaks which the noble Baroness mentioned.

Both the Opposition spokespeople asked about an inquiry. We need to learn lessons in terms of our understanding of the spread of the disease, the science of the disease and the effectiveness or otherwise of the control mechanisms that have been applied. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State referred to the need to learn those lessons and to ascertain what we did right and what we did wrong in all quarters once the disease is eradicated. There will therefore need to be a thorough-going inquiry into the disease and the handling of it. The exact form of the inquiry will be a matter for the Prime Minister to consider and to announce at a later date. However, the Government intend that the public and all parties involved should learn lessons from the way the disease has been handled.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the situation in his own area. The continuing outbreaks in Settle are deeply disturbing. In recent days there have been further cases. Strong biosecurity and transportation measures are necessary in that area. As he will know, stronger measures are in place than we have previously taken in relation to checking livestock movements in that area.

The noble Lord also mentioned the situation across the Border. The arrangements in Scotland differ slightly from those in England. If I may, I shall write to him on that issue. He rightly said that confidence is important both for farmers and for the rural community as a whole, as is the realisation of the interdependence of farming, tourism and other businesses in rural areas. We need to make the eradication of the disease our first priority and to develop in parallel an exit strategy.

However, we are also determined to consider the long-term future of farming and of rural areas. That is one of the reasons for the creation of my department which constitutes much more than a change of name on the departmental door. We are putting agriculture at the centre of the food chain in a vertical sense, as it were, and of the rural economy in a horizontal sense, as it were, by placing it within a framework which addresses environmental issues. That process should guarantee a future for agriculture. However, its future may not be the same as its past. In my limited discussions with farmers' leaders and others involved in the food chain I have been impressed by their recognition of that fact. We wish to return to a situation of normality and to restore confidence to the farming community. However, we recognise that that process may involve a long haul and that a return to normality may not constitute a return to the situation that pertained four or five years ago. The farming industry suffered from an underlying problem which we must address in the medium term. My colleagues and I are determined to do so in conjunction with the farming industry.

4.6 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's new appointment. I also thank his predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for the wonderful work that she did over the years. Despite the letter which I received from the noble Baroness about two weeks ago which stated that administrative staff at the regional offices were fully trained and were fully informed, I am aware of enormous difficulties at the Worcester regional office—presumably other people are aware of difficulties at other regional offices—where the staff who man the telephones lack information. We have not had an outbreak in Worcestershire since 12th April but we are still told that it is an infected area. No one will tell us why that is the case. However, someone else then tells us we are no longer an infected area. The staff do not seem to know the difference between 10 miles and 10 kilometres.

Recently my husband wanted to buy a bull. He was told that he was subject to a Section D notice. However, we had never been subject to a Section D notice. After much rigmarole we finally bought the bull but we have been told that we must wait until all the sheep in our locality have been serologically tested. Why is it that the former Ministry of Agriculture and the new department refuse to respond to Dr Colin Fink's request for some dead foot and mouth virus to create an assay for serological testing? He has been asked to do that by a number of organisations. He was assured by Professor Paul Kitching before he left Pirbright that that would be possible but he has still not received a reasonable answer as to why he cannot have the foot and mouth virus. I stress that it is a matter of dead virus.

There seems to be a feeling that the private sector may be competing with the public sector in this matter. I stress to the Minister the importance of the two sectors working together. They can help each other. There is expertise on both sides. There is no likelihood of a rivalry arising that will cause problems. I ask the Minister to intervene in the matter and to ensure that it is addressed.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree that it is important that the public and private sectors work together in this matter. The tremendous effort that has been expended in the veterinary and scientific worlds to counter the disease is a good example of that co-operation. I shall consider the precise research proposal that the noble Countess mentioned. However, the general position is that all research involving FMD viruses, dead or alive, can be carried out only in certain establishments where the highest degree of disease containment is applied. We need to maintain that position. It is not a question of fear of competition but of making sure that during the epidemic no problem arises from any research which may be conducted. Nevertheless, I undertake to let the noble Countess know the position with regard to this proposition.

I regret if misleading information was given. However, many of the staff drafted in come from departments other than the former MAFF. They have had to learn the job very rapidly, on the end of a telephone. I was yesterday at the control centre in Exeter and was deeply impressed with the way in which staff were dealing with inquiries. In general they have performed better as they have gone on. When one looks back, some mistakes will have been made. I am sorry that the noble Countess may have been a victim of that. However, in general the information given and the standardisation of that information has now been pretty effective.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I welcome very much the thrust of what the Minister said, in particular the support the Government will give to industries and businesses in rural areas. At the end of the Statement he said something very interesting: that farming and rural areas are not likely to get back to where they were previously; and he proposed to look into the future of agriculture and rural areas in a different way. Can my noble friend say a little more on that and about the process by which his department would embark on that thinking?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, some important decisions with regard to the eradication of the disease and the immediate exit from the disease will face Ministers in the coming days, weeks and months. In addition—the creation of the department is part of it—we shall look at the long-term future of farming and the food chain in this country. A number of economic, social and environmental problems confront them.

My noble friend, who reads party manifestos avidly, will know that within the Labour Party manifesto was a reference to such a policy commission. We hope to make an announcement on that in due course. That would help Ministers give strategic thought to the future of farming and food production and distribution within this country.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister one practical question. Shearing in some parts of the country is difficult because of the impossibility of moving sheep and because many of those who normally take part in shearing come from Australia and New Zealand and for obvious reasons have not visited the country. Is the noble Lord's department doing anything to ease the severe problem?

While we welcome his admission that there has to be an inquiry, we do not understand, and the agricultural industry will not accept, that the start of that inquiry should be delayed until the outbreak is completely over. There is strong belief that we should set up the inquiry to consider the issue as a matter of urgency. I am glad that the new Leader of the House is in his place. He will come to understand that the issue will not go away and that many strong feelings are held on it.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept that an inquiry will be necessary. I do not accept that we should divert the expertise that is currently still involved in the eradication of the disease—the outcome of which is not yet certain—to provide the information and historic analysis required for any inquiry to come to sensible conclusions. It is sensible to wait until the disease is eradicated before the establishment of an inquiry. Therefore, I do not accept the implications of his remarks.

The veterinary service has introduced a system of licensing for shearers and dippers which should control movements. Compared with the normal process at this time of the year, there is much greater control over movements on and off the farm and of the individual personnel involved.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that there is now no delay between diagnosis of the disease and slaughter of the animals affected? Are normal markets beginning to reopen in the de-restricted areas?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if the noble Lord refers to livestock markets, they are not operating in normal circumstances. There are restrictions on movements throughout the country. Therefore, in general, the markets are not operating normally.

We have a target of 24 hours from identification. In the majority of cases, that is now being met. In all cases it is being met within 36 hours.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, has the Minister noted the comparisons between outbreak in 1967 and the current outbreak? One comparison—it has been ignored—is that since 1967, and during the 1980s when the previous government were in power, there was a substantial reduction in the number of qualified staff employed by the Ministry of Agriculture. Those of us who expressed unease or criticism of that reduction now feel that our comments are vindicated.

Does my noble friend accept that had we had the number of staff which existed in 1967 the disease may well have been encountered earlier and that malpractice with regard to the movement of livestock may have been less likely? While it is fashionable to argue against regulation, is it not clear that regulations concerning animal health need to be supervised properly and adequately enforced?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it would not be sensible to agree entirely with my noble friend that the cause of the rapid spread of this outbreak in the past was attributable to lack of staff. Clearly that is one aspect which any review of the control of this disease would need to address. The department is aware of that aspect.

I agree with my noble friend that the proper enforcement of regulations and the appropriate nature of those regulations are part of what we need to learn from this sad episode. Contrary to what is sometimes said, clearly some of the problems of the agriculture industry stem from the non-application of regulations rather than over-regulation. It behoves everyone to recognise that. In future, the regulations governing the movement and treatment of stock should not only be observed but properly inspected and enforced.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, despite the good news of only a single case of foot and mouth disease in the past day or so, does the Minister agree that the urgency of this emergency is still with us? That urgency must be communicated to everyone associated with livestock. Many of the recent outbreaks have been due to people ignoring the biosecurity regulations. I hope that those concerned with the opening up of footpaths and the easing of restrictions, desirable as that may well be, w ill consult closely with the relevant authorities which know something about foot and mouth disease.

Complacency can creep easily into our thinking. The virus is no respecter of complacency. It is one of the most infectious viruses of which we know. I hope that the noble Lord's department will impress upon people in agriculture and the rural environment the need to respect the biosecurity which has been laid down.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord's remarks. Clearly, biosecurity is essential. Whatever caused some of the initial outbreaks in the areas with which we are now concerned, it is clear that the spread within those areas is in part due to the lack of observing relatively elementary biosecurity rules on-farm and in terms of transport. That needs to be addressed. The farming community and those who transport livestock need to be well aware of that. The Government insist on that. Others in the rural area, including those who would use the footpaths, need to be aware of the restrictions. It is necessary to ensure that any lifting of footpath restrictions takes account of the biosecurity implications.

I do not regard one case overnight as good news. As long as we have just one case, it is still bad news and we still have to tackle the issue.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, what is the time delay between vets in private practice or hunt servants submitting their bills for helping to cull livestock to help to eradicate this terrible disease and them receiving payment?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I shall need to give the noble Lord a detailed reply. There have been some complaints about delay in payment for veterinary services and other payments. It is important that we meet those obligations as rapidly as we can. We are committed to ensuring that those payments are made with due dispatch. I shall let the noble Lord know what the current delays are and how the situation is—hopefully—improving.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the Government's attitude to an inquiry into this outbreak of foot and mouth disease contrasts starkly with their attitude to an inquiry into BSE. That outbreak began a long time ago and, sadly, is still not over, yet paradoxically we have already had the conclusions from the inquiry while the disease continues. I simply make that point for what it is worth.

The Minister implied, even if he did not specifically state, that the Government were thinking of possibly having to override local authorities that appear reluctant to open up access to the countryside with the speed that the Government think desirable. We all thoroughly understand the Government's desire to help to rejuvenate the rural economy. In his response to the Opposition Front Benches, the Minister appeared to imply that that would be done after consultation. Will he clarify that? If he was correct in the Statement and the Government are planning to override local authorities, under which power will they do so? He will understand that I am suffering from a memory failure.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is not suffering from a memory failure. The situation is slightly complicated. More details of the announcement on footpaths will be given later. The animal disease regulations give us the powers to which I referred. A few local authorities that have had no incidence of the disease throughout have been somewhat reluctant to end the closure of footpaths. In those circumstances, we want blanket restrictions to be lifted. My reference to consultation with local people and local councils relates to areas where there is still some disease and the restrictions have not been completely removed.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that along the side of the A19 near Yarm, sheep have been penned and shot in full view of the public? That has caused great upset. If that has to be done in public view, is it not possible to provide some form of shielding?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it would obviously be desirable to do so. However, in order to carry out the necessary tasks, a number of things that we would rather not do have had to be done. The difficulties of rounding up, executing and disposing of sheep have undoubtedly caused distress to those on farms, to those passing and to neighbouring communities. It is regrettable, but in the circumstances some such instances are bound to occur.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, the Minister is well aware of the gravity of the situation, economically and socially, for many families throughout the country. Is he fully aware of the self-help available through the Addington fund and the various stress associations? Various bodies have been raising funds to help those who are suffering. For example, 240 of us in one organisation raised £30,000 on Saturday night. I hope that the Minister will fulfil the Government's commitment to match pound for pound everything that has been raised through the various charities.

Is the Minister prepared to read or re-read the 1969 statement of the committee of inquiry? It runs to only 264 pages. A lot of the evidence gathered at that time is relevant to today's circumstances. Apart from the fact that the virus has been far worse this time, we could almost repeat that report, which took evidence from 1,000 people.

Various people have called for a committee of inquiry. Now is the time to plan for that, not six months from now. It is imperative to look at the situation today before we go any further.

Is the Minister aware of a report in Farmers Weekly last week that referred to telephone calls made by an individual or individuals to farmers offering to take infected material on to farms for a cash payment to make sure that the farmer can claim compensation? If that story is anywhere near the truth, it is devastating. The police certainly need to be aware of it and to try to get hold of the rascals who are causing the problem.

On the real issue, will the Minister give an assurance that we shall think about following the practice of the United States and Australia and stopping imports of products from countries where foot and mouth disease exists? We have imported meat from 26 such countries over the past two years. I understand that 37,000 tonnes of pig meat has come in from those countries. We have been sitting on a time bomb, which has now exploded like a volcano, spreading the problem far and wide across the country.

Stopping the use of swill is also of great concern. Will the Minister give me an assurance that swill feed will be stopped forthwith?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there were quite a few questions there. I very much respect the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, on the issue, in particular his involvement in the post-1967 inquiry. The 264-page report is a lot shorter than some of the briefing that has fallen on my desk in recent days. I shall pay great attention to that report.

We are addressing imports nationally and at EU level. We need to tighten up on that. I am also aware of the reports in Farmers Weekly and elsewhere of the despicable practice that the noble Lord mentioned. However, as with other stories that are going around, it is difficult to pin down if and where the practice has happened. It is important that we identify and deal with the matter, if we can, and that we establish the facts rather than the anecdotes.

I have said what I intended to say about the inquiry. I shall simply repeat to your Lordships' House that, following the experience of this disease, we all need to learn the lessons. The best way in which to do so may not be through inquiries as they have been conducted in the past. Nevertheless, we are absolutely certain that we need to be open about how we learn those lessons.