HL Deb 31 January 2002 vol 631 cc344-6

3.14 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether their decision that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should submit only written answers to Northumberland County Council's inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak was in the public interest.

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

My Lords, I have given the Northumberland County Council inquiry into foot and mouth disease substantial written information about the outbreak and have replied to specific questions from the inquiry chair, Professor Dower.

The decision for Ministers not to attend the oral hearings of the Northumberland and other inquiries was because we are co-operating fully with the official inquiries under Dr lain Anderson and Sir Brian Follett. The decision not to send officials to attend these local inquiries was primarily to prevent staff resources being diverted from the task of final eradication of the disease and its aftermath.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I fear that noble Lords will find the Minister's response inadequate and disappointing. I refer to the European Parliament inquiry. Will the Government submit written evidence to that or will they attend in person and give oral evidence? As I am sure the Minister understands, oral evidence comprises much more than simply answering specific questions. When discussing DEFRA's future, the Minister, Alun Michael, said that it would be appropriate for the Government to respond to those inquiries. In the end the Government will have to respond anyway.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, issues may be raised in those inquiries to which we shall need to respond. But the full government response will depend on the outcome of the official inquiries under Dr Anderson and the scientific inquiry conducted by the Royal Society. As regards the European Parliament, it is not a case of a committee of inquiry; it is a temporary committee of the European Parliament. We shall need to take a decision on that matter.

In addition, there are other parliamentary inquiries to which we shall afford the normal courtesy. I refer to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in another place which has reported, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Ministers will fully co-operate with all those inquiries. There are also numerous local committees in addition to the Northumberland committee and a substantial number of other committees in different parts of the United Kingdom. It was much more sensible for the Government to take a decision to give evidence in total to those central inquiries. That we shall do. If we were to spend our time attending every inquiry—I refer to those dealing largely with local issues—that would be a misuse of Ministers' and officials' time and effort.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, the Minister said that the central inquiries would have precedence or be given the government support that a public inquiry has not been given. The Minister has always said that speed is of the essence. As I understand that those inquiries are now due to report in June or July, will the Government consider not holding the Committee stage of the Animal Health Bill until those inquiries have reported?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as the noble Baroness knows, the answer to that question is "no" for the very good reason that should the disease, in spite of all the stringent precautions that the industry and government have put in place, reappear within the next few months, we need the powers contained in the Bill to deal with that situation. We may need other powers. A totally new approach to tackling the disease may emerge as a result of the inquiries. Those who oppose the Animal Health Bill are attempting to deprive the Government of powers to deal with an emergency in the interim. We shall have the outcomes of those inquiries by the summer and we shall address them. We shall also have the outcome of the EU inquiries and considerations at about that time. However, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to attempt to take the powers that might be needed should the disease recur. In my view it would be irresponsible of the Opposition to oppose our taking those powers.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, is it not a reality that one of the principal reasons why we are faced—as the Minister has told us—with a large number of separate inquiries is that the Government failed to set up a comprehensive inquiry in the first place?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I have frequently explained to the House, the Government have not set up the full judicial public inquiry that the noble Lord and others have advocated frequently in this House because we would not get the outcome of that inquiry in the six months' period that will be the case with the two inquiries we have set up. Such an inquiry would be hampered by people looking over their shoulders in fear of litigation. We have the example of many public inquiries which have taken years to produce a result for that reason. We do not want an inquiry which is hindered by people feeling that they cannot tell the truth in case litigation should follow. We want to get at the truth as rapidly as possible and we—both Ministers and officials—are prepared to co-operate fully with both of those inquiries. A public inquiry would be less likely to get at the reality of what we need to do.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I want to pursue the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the Animal Health Bill. Will the Minister tell the House why the Scottish Executive has made it quite clear that it does not require legislation immediately and that it is quite happy to consult with people before bringing forward any legislation? Why on earth cannot the Westminster Government emulate the Scottish Executive on this occasion?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Scottish Executive's legislative process is somewhat different from ours and it can afford the time—we should like to have such time—to engage in that consultation and still be able to move fairly rapidly towards legislation. The Scottish Executive has made it clear that it wants similar powers to those in the Animal Health Bill, but it has the luxury of consulting, whereas I only have the luxury of taking the Bill through this House.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, following on from the Minister's admirable intention to obtain the truth and his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, that staff would be occupied if they went to the Northumberland inquiry, how many staff at the Newcastle centre have been involved in making up the logs that were required for the European Union in order to prove that disinfection routines had been carried out? I believe that 460 farmers were written to because logs were not written up when they should have been—in March and April last year—and they are now expected to remember what happened during that period.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am a little surprised that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, returns to that issue. That is simply a matter of ensuring that the European audit—that is yet another inquiry into the disease with which we have to comply—has sufficient information about what happened in the early stages of the disease. Clearly, staff in the Northumberland offices have been required to participate in that. I remind the House, however, that Northumberland was declared an FM D-free county on 14th January. All levels of veterinary and administrative staff are making a considerable effort to deal with the aftermath of the disease until after the main stages of the inquiry that the county is holding.