HL Deb 06 February 2002 vol 631 cc631-4

2.43 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have fully implemented the European Union Foot-and-Mouth Disease Contingency Plans for Great Britain (last revised in July 2000) and, if so, when this took place.

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

My Lords, the contingency plan provided a general overview of our planned response to an outbreak and was approved by the European Commission. It was a strategic plan supported by detailed operational guidance and veterinary instructions. An interim contingency plan is now being prepared based on recent disease experience and current policy and it will build on existing relationships between interested parties. It codifies the operational regime developed during the recent outbreak and since, and will complement the existing strategic framework and the detailed instructions.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am puzzled. The Minister has not answered my question. I asked whether the contingency plan has been implemented and, if so, when. I have the impression that it never was implemented. Am I correct?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. The noble Countess should listen more carefully. I indicated that the contingency plan provided the general overview by which we responded to the disease. I have told the House before that part of the problem with the original contingency plan was that we assumed that we were faced with a new outbreak, whereas in fact the outbreak had been spreading for some considerable time due to the trading patterns within the industry at that time. Nevertheless, it provided the strategic overview that we followed. Therefore, it was implemented in line with what we had told the European Commission. Since then, in some respects we have had experience of the shortcomings of that plan, although the bulk of it still stands. We are learning those lessons and we are now drawing up a new contingency plan.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I am slightly surprised by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, being "smidgy"— sharp—to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, as he did not answer her Question. The guidance clearly states that the person in charge should be the chief vet. Can the Minister confirm that, at the beginning of the outbreak, the chief vet was in charge but was removed, that the chief scientist then took charge and was removed, and that the Prime Minister then took charge and everything went wrong?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, perhaps I was wasting my "smidginess", if that was the expression, on the noble Countess. Perhaps I should be more negative in my reaction to the noble Baroness, but hers was such a hilariously misleading view of history that I do not believe it is sensible for us to pursue it. The Government are presenting their own evidence to the Anderson inquiry, as will other parties, on the sequence of events. The noble Baroness is correct in saying that the original contingency plan required the chief vet to be in charge. In the event we were dealing with the kind of outbreak that was not really covered by the contingency plan, which is what I said earlier.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister believe that it is relevant to consider whether the implementation of this plan was in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights and, if so, why?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in my view the actions taken during the course of the disease came under legislation that was consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights. In so far as the contingency plan is relevant, it was cleared with the European Commission in advance. No doubt we shall return to this topic when we deal with the latter stage of the Animal Health Bill.

Lord Campbell of Alloway


Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how and at what stage local authorities were involved in discussing the contingency plan, given their role in relation to animal health and as the highway authority that had to close footpaths? Will he also tell the House at what stage they will he involved in discussions on the current contingency plan so that they can include it in their emergency planning?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness has put her finger on one of the problems with the process of contingency planning prior to the disease. The contingency plan had been discussed with various parties, including the local authorities, but the dry runs of the plan that have been conducted with the vets and with other officials were entirely internal. From that experience we have learned that we need to engage not only in the planning process but also in the testing of the process with the local authorities, the farmers, the hauliers and everyone else. Therefore, in the future we need a stakeholder-based contingency plan. Future contingency plans will pursue that.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I was surprised to see that Article 9.2 of the contingency plans for Great Britain estimates that specimens can be delivered to the laboratories within a maximum of eight hours. Clearly, that was not the experience of farmers who desperately wanted to know whether their animals were infected or not. Can the Minister tell the House why there is a considerable divergence between what the European Union is saying on this subject and what actually happened?

Lord Whitey

My Lords, two or three different issues are wrapped up in that question. The European Commission's guidelines would relate to delivering samples as quickly as possible to the laboratory. In the early stages, there were only one or two sites to which they could be delivered. As the disease progressed we stepped up the capacity from about 400 tests a week to over 200,000 tests a week. In the beginning there was the problem of having to travel some distance and there were other logistical delays in delivering samples. As a result of the disease we have learned of techniques that would mean quicker testing.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that after the 1969 outbreak Western Command produced for the Army its report on the lessons learned. Can the Minister say whether, in connection with the absolutely crucial role played by the Army in trying to bring the disease under control, the Government's response will contain a separate report from the Ministry of Defence on the lessons it learned in tackling the outbreak?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I understand that the Ministry of Defence has internally drawn tip its own assessment of the disease and of the Army's role. That will be fed into the committees of inquiry and will be part of the overall government response. But certainly it has drawn those lessons together.

Lord Soulsby of Swaftham Prior

My Lords. will the Government take note of the findings of the various committees that are looking into the lessons learned, especially those from the Royal Society, before they draw up the final contingency plans that are on the board?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the process I described was an interim contingency plan which will take into account from the Government and other bodies the lessons learned up until now. Clearly, any final or definitive contingency plan will have to take into account the outcome of both the Royal Society and Dr Anderson's considerations and, indeed, of the assessment being made by the EU of the contingency planning and other matters. So the final version will have taken those points into account.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, following upon my noble friend's question, will the Ministry of Defence findings be published?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there will be an overall government response which will incorporate the Ministry of Defence's part of that.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

Well, my Lords, I referred carefully in response to the noble Lord, Lord King, to an internal document from the Ministry of Defence which will form part therefore of the overall response. Whether or not that gets published will be a matter for Dr Anderson and his inquiry. Certainly, the Government would have no objection to the Government's submission being published with the eventual report.