HL Deb 19 November 2001 vol 628 cc865-8

2.40 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will publish a list of the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, giving in each instance the dates and places and the actions taken by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or its successor, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the number of animals slaughtered.

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

My Lords, throughout the outbreak, details of infected premises have been placed in the Library of the House, in the form of daily reports, and now weekly reports are being submitted. A full list of infected premises with the date on which foot and mouth disease was confirmed, along with the number and type of animals slaughtered, is also available on the department's website. The list has been updated daily.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, website or no, I cannot even claim to be disappointed with that Answer. Is the Minister aware that I understand that it would have been totally unreasonable to expect a modest and short Question of this kind to shift the Government from their adopted coyness into something approaching candour? Will the Minister agree, on reflection, that it would be better to let the whole thing come out rather than continue to feed the public belief that MAFF's performance throughout was pathetic?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it may be that the noble Lord did not hear me. Put more simply, the answer to his Question is that we are already doing it. I should have thought that he would be pleased with that. Throughout the foot and mouth outbreak, we have given the information that he wants. If he wants it in aggregate form, we can produce it. But it has been in the Library throughout. Clearly, as we move, it is to be hoped, to the end of this disease, more detailed evidence will be produced by the department and by others; and the various committees of inquiry that will examine the outbreak will present their conclusions. That is the way to get candour and truth and recommendations as to how better to deal with such outbreaks of disease in the future.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, of the estimated 3.9 million animals slaughtered as a result of suspected foot and mouth disease, how many were of the contiguous cull type and how many of those actually tested negative? That has a big bearing on the forthcoming Animal Health Bill.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, with respect, it does not. The whole point about contiguous cull is that disease is prevented from spreading to neighbouring premises before it becomes apparent in the animals. In other words, a cull is supposed to take place as rapidly as possible; there are 21 days up to which the disease can incubate. It would therefore be extremely surprising, where a cull was carried out rapidly, if there had been a large level of positive results. Therefore, people are drawing entirely the wrong conclusions from the fact that a relatively small number of contiguous cull premises showed positive results on immediate testing. If that is the basis for the criticism of the Government's strategy, it is seriously misplaced. I shall let the noble Lord have the precise figures in relation to contiguous cull premises and initial premises.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the lessons of the foot and mouth outbreak is that we need a European-level strategy to deal with it, possibly including the use of vaccination?

Lord Whitty

Indeed, my Lords, we have needed to keep in touch with our European partners throughout this epidemic. That closeness and, if I dare say it, candour as to how the disease was developing have paid off in terms of the relaxation in the past two months of the export bans on cattle and pigs, and now on sheep. So far as concerns future strategies, the Government, together with the Dutch Government, took the initiative in establishing the conference that will take place next month in Brussels, which will examine all aspects of disease control, including various forms of vaccination.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I declare an interest as one who lost his stock. As the Minister will be aware, foot and mouth is no respecter of national boundaries. The new Animal Health Bill applies to England and Wales only. Why is there no equivalent Scottish Bill? Or do the Scots think that the England and Wales Bill is unnecessary?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the provisions in devolved responsibilities are a matter for the Scottish Executive. What became clear in England, particularly in the latter stages of the disease, was that failure to carry out the cull in contiguous premises was slowing down the way in which we could contain the disease. Therefore, a more adequate procedure would have been appropriate. That is what the Bill provides. Other lessons may well emerge from the inquiries which both the Scottish and the England and Wales authorities will have to learn. But we have already learnt that particular lesson. That is the reason behind some of the Bill's provisions.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in how many cases in which legal action was taken by farmers or animal owners to prevent ministry officials killing our animals was foot and mouth disease subsequently spread?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, if I may say so, that is not the appropriate question, for the reasons that I have already explained. The number of cases in which any delay in the contiguous cull led to the final testing proving positive is relatively small—I think that the figure usually quoted is eight within one of the epidemic areas. The point is that had that cull not been carried out in hundreds of other cases, the spread of the disease would have been dramatically worse. That is the point of the cull and, to a large extent, the success of the strategy.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, I welcome the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil. I declare an interest as someone who has been subject to the regulations under the current foot and mouth regime. I expect that the Minister is aware of the ex-Home Office veterinary inspector who has written a report on his experiences in Cumbria. The report was referred to in another place just a week ago. Does the Minister agree that, from the evidence presented, it would have required three times the number of vets to handle the current outbreak as would have been required under the protocol that was in force in 1967? Will the Government concede that the ministry's contingency plan had not taken that into account? Without a thorough review of the protocol and its implementation, the public are left with the impression, as my noble friend suggested, that there is something to hide.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the noble Duke's last point, noble Lords should stop suggesting that the Government have something to hide in this process. The number of times that my predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and I have reported to the House in all candour on the developments throughout the outbreak can leave your Lordships in no doubt that we have throughout dealt openly and honestly with the House and others who inquired.

I have seen the report to which the noble Duke referred. There are many opinions on how the disease was handled and there may well be lessons to be learnt on the number and deployment of people from the State Veterinary Service. That is a matter for the inquiry. The Government look forward to its findings.