HL Deb 22 July 2002 vol 638 cc24-42

3.59 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. I begin by pointing out that, in parts, the Statement differs from the text available in the Printed Paper Office, largely as regards quotations, although the substance remains. The Statement is as follows:

"Following last week's publication by the Royal Society of its independent examination, chaired by Sir Brian Follett, of how we might prevent and combat future animal disease epidemics in the UK, today we publish the independent report of Dr Iain Anderson, identifying the lessons he believes can be learnt from the most recent of these—last year's outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Government are grateful to Dr Anderson for the huge amount of work and effort he has put in and to all the 800 to 900 individuals and organisations that gave him evidence.

"Foot and mouth disease is a devastating and highly infectious animal disease, feared and loathed across the world because of its impact and virulence. In Britain alone, the experiences of the 1967 outbreak are a remembered nightmare in many rural communities. But what hit us in February 2001 was, as Dr Anderson notes, due to a, 'rare set of circumstances [which] had already determined that this would be one of the worst epidemics of FMD the modern world has ever seen. Numbers alone cannot capture the sense of what unfolded. The great epidemic of 2001 left an indelible mark on communities, businesses and people from all walks of life'. "The Government are determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. That is why we so quickly set up an inquiry process with three strands, each of them independent. That decision means that within six months of the outbreak ending, we already have the scientific review, the Policy Commission report charting the way forward for the industry and, now, the report of lessons we need to learn.

"Dr Anderson's report, which concentrates primarily on the early part of the outbreak, is a sombre and thoughtful document, for the most part measured in its tone and content, although unquestionably grave in its import. What is crucial to future policy is that he makes a large number of strong recommendations, most, if not all, of which I believe we shall he able to accept. Indeed, many suggest actions that the Government, while trying not to prejudge his report, have begun to address.

"Separately, in his comment and observations he draws on the views and evidence put before him. Here, there is certainly scope for different interpretation—even for disagreement. However, he asks in his introduction whether, as a first step, 'DEFRA [can] simply…admit that government made mistakes during its handling of the crisis and that all involved are determined to learn from these mistakes'. I can and I do. The House will know that I have always acknowledged that, in the desperate circumstances faced not only by the farming community but by my department and its officials, as by our departmental and ministerial predecessors, mistakes were bound to have been made.

"Dr Anderson shows complete understanding and sympathy for the terrible experience of those in the field. But he also shows recognition of the dilemma of the centre, especially where there were clear or substantial deficiencies in management information. He suggests that for the first few weeks government did not realise the seriousness of the measures which would be needed to control the outbreak. I accept, although it is with hindsight, that that is so. But he also shows how often the action taken was entirely consistent with the information and advice then available.

"But if we are to learn the lessons from those dreadful months, we need most to consider whether, while, as I say, there are bound to have been mistakes, there were structural defects.

"Dr Anderson identifies what he regards as mistakes of strategy. I think it is right to say that many, if not all of these, we as government already acknowledge. Where there may be room for disagreement is on the question of how much of that was evident only, or at least primarily, with hindsight. As Dr Anderson himself says in the report on the issue of an immediate national ban on animal movements: 'Even today the State Veterinary Service believes it would not have had the justification or the support immediately to introduce widespread restrictions'. "Throughout the report, the reader returns again and again to what was known and to what was without precedent and consequently unanticipated. Dr Anderson says, for example: 'The disease could have been present at Burnside Farm for weeks, but it went unreported, despite the requirement of farmers to report suspected cases of notifiable diseases'. We now know, in fact, that there was virus present on at least 57 farms in 16 counties on the day that the first case was confirmed—20th February.

"As to the unknown origin of the first case, both inquiries stress the importance of effective import controls in order to prevent exotic infectious diseases entering the country. We have set in hand a wide-ranging programme of action against the risks posed by what have, I believe, been illegal imports of meat and animal products. But as both reports acknowledge, it will never be possible to reduce that risk to zero, so the necessary measures must be in place to limit the risks that, if disease enters the country, it will reach livestock and then subsequently spread.

"Both reports also highlight the importance of contingency planning. Dr Anderson examines the pre-existing contingency plan, which was followed, but he demonstrates that, although meeting the international standards then expected—the European Commission judged the UK's readiness for disease outbreak as among the best in Europe—we can see with hindsight its deficiencies. But that is an admission that make with hindsight. The European Commission is on record as having said recently: 'It cannot be reasonably expected from any Member State to design a contingency plan for the event of an epidemic causing more outbreaks within months than the 10 years' estimate for the whole Community'. "On all these issues the analysis in the report is detailed. It shows that, in Dr Anderson's own words—words echoed, among others, by Commissioner Byrne—the outbreak in Britain in 2001 was of a kind unanticipated in any country in the world.

"Dr Anderson makes some trenchant criticisms to which I shall return, but he also deals comprehensively with the myriad conspiracy theories in circulation then and since. He does not just dismiss them; he investigates and then dispels them. One in particular—the charge that the handling of the crisis was driven by concern over the general election—Iain Anderson explicitly rejects. He said, 'we found no evidence to support such a suggestion'. Indeed, officials at all levels and in many locations are adamant that they were never exposed to any pressure other than the need to control a disease in the best possible way.

"While awaiting these reports, we have already published a draft interim contingency plan and have invited stakeholders and operational partners to comment. We shall now review it comprehensively in the light of the recommendations of the inquiries for regular updating, involvement of stakeholders and rehearsals, all of which the Government accept.

"Dr Anderson calls for a mechanism to assess potential domestic civil threats and steps to improve our capacity to handle an emergency of national proportions. We have set up the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, reporting to a Cabinet Committee chaired by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, which is intended to do just that through horizon scanning, an assessment of capability and through work with departments facing disruptive challenges on how to prevent or manage crises. He also identifies the need to establish 'trigger points', where issues move to a new phase of crisis handling. Again, we agree.

"Also, both reports make important recommendations about how the Government should improve their ability to respond effectively in the event of a disease outbreak. Again, I can say that we support the thrust of these recommendations, especially where they relate to the need for high-quality management information systems.

"The Army is praised, rightly, for the role it played in helping to deal with the enormous logistical challenge—one it has identified as of larger dimensions logistically than the Gulf War. It did, indeed, do a remarkable job. I believe that, had we had better information systems in place, it would have been called into action earlier. But, as Dr Anderson demonstrates, that is not so in the context, as is so often claimed, of the Northumberland report, but when disposal options were failing to keep pace with slaughter.

"In addition, knowing what we now know, we would, on any future occasion, work on the presumption that a national ban on livestock movements would apply when the first FMD case was confirmed. But, because of the early silent spread of the disease in this outbreak, it is important not to assume that it would ever have been easy to check. Dr Anderson himself said that, 'even a perfectly implemented cull of infected premises within 24 hours of discovery would not, on its own, have controlled that epidemic until the disease itself had reduced the density of susceptible farms to such an extent that the epidemic ended naturally'. "We would not intend, in the future, to permit local authorities to impose a widespread ban on the closure of footpaths. That, too, is a judgment made with the benefit of hindsight, and the House will know that it is a contested judgment. Some local authorities clung to a blanket ban long after government had encouraged its lifting.

"Both inquiries have called for a strategic approach to animal health and disease control policies, and endorsed the call in the report of the Policy Commission on Food and Farming, chaired by Sir Don Curry, for a comprehensive animal health strategy. My department will be opening discussions with industry and other interests on the content and coverage of such a strategy in the near future. It would need to deal with the protection of public health, animal disease prevention control, surveillance, animal identification, animal welfare and emergency preparedness.

"One other key issue which draws much comment is the contentious issue of vaccination, on which both inquiries made recommendations. There are two specific recommendations which we can immediately accept: that, as in 2001, we should ensure that the option of emergency vaccination forms part of any future strategy for the control of foot and mouth disease; and that any emergency vaccination policy should in future not be 'vaccinate to kill' but 'vaccinate to live'. But that does not require action from government alone. It requires acceptance that meat and meat products from vaccinated animals enter the food chain normally.

"Quite rightly, the inquiry reports address most of their recommendations to government. But they both also recognise that the farming industry shares responsibility for minimising disease risks. Dr Anderson concludes that the Government can do only so much to prevent a recurrence of the disease. The farming industry has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity.

"This reminder is particularly pertinent after last month's foot and mouth disease scare in the Midlands. It is not enough for government to have the right approach or proper rules to mitigate disease risk. Everyone in the industry must follow those rules and they must be properly enforced. In that recent episode, existing pig identification rules were not followed. Had the tests confirmed the disease, the effort to track down the source of the infection would have been severely hampered. This episode strengthens our resolve to continue to work with the livestock industry to establish better livestock identification.

"But both this episode and the report lend weight to the call by Sir Don Curry's Policy Commission for farm assurance schemes, owned and operated by the industry itself, to reward good farm management practice in biosecurity and other areas. The Government endorse this principle.

"While the Government will give full consideration to all the lessons in the two reports, there are two areas in which we can and will move forward more quickly. The emphasis in the reports on the roles which might be played by emergency vaccination and pre-emptive culling underlines the importance of the passage of the Animal Health Bill, which my noble friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will be taking to Committee stage next week. The Bill contains powers which could be vital to the timely interventions for which the inquiries call.

"Secondly, the Government need to take an early decision on the animal movement rules to apply from the late summer, and in particular on the 20-day standstill. We will consult quickly with industry stakeholders in the next week or two, in the light of what the two reports say, on interim rules to apply from late August.

"This is a serious report into an outbreak of foot and mouth disease which was devastating for many parts of our country. I want to make one more quote from Dr Anderson. He said: 'Even had everything been done perfectly by all those concerned to tackle the disease, the country would have had a major epidemic with massive consequences. Second, many farmers, local people and government officials made heroic efforts to fight the disease and limits its effects. Through their efforts it was finally overcome and eradicated after 221 days, one day less than the epidemic in 1967–68'. This inquiry does make many important recommendations. It accepts that everyone involved was doing their level best to deal with the outbreak. It makes criticisms which are accepted. It makes recommendations on which we will act. Above all, it fulfils its remit and gives us the basis on which to learn lessons, and learn lessons we will".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement. I apologise for the fact that the quotations were not in the original version.

4.14 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that was made in another place earlier today and for the facility of being able to look at the report at MAFF this morning. These three wide-ranging reports confirm that the Government's handling of the foot and mouth disease crisis, particularly at its onset, was, at best, inept—so inept that the outbreak was much deeper and lasted much longer than it perhaps may have done. At this stage, I remind the House of my family's farming interests.

The Royal Society makes a number of recommendations relating to its concern about the lack of research. Will the Minister indicate whether new money will be available for funding research into, for example, alternative methods of disease control, alternative methods of cleansing, and particularly vaccination? Does the Minister envisage the thorough testing and approval of vaccines and the concept of "vaccinate to live"—the particularly welcome comment at the end of the report—for animals to live afterwards and then to cull? Will the Government make use of some of the overseas vaccines that are available?

The Anderson report is scathing about the lack of funding at Pirbright. Do the Government's future contingency plans include an intention to expand the important role of Pirbright in having acceptable vaccines and the testing facilities to which I referred earlier? The question of vaccination arose at all stages as various Statements were made to the House. Noble Lords will want further clarification of that matter in addition to what the Minister has said.

The Northumberland report on 1967–68 showed that there were 24 almost simultaneous outbreaks at the beginning of that outbreak. Will the Minister indicate why the UK contingency plan this time limited it to a scenario of only 10 farms? I do not understand why it should be lessened. Who made that decision, and why was it made?

On decisions, will the Minister explain it took 25 days before COBRA was called in; why it took nearly 31 days to call in the Army, when in fact the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, who is in her place, and I raised the issue of the Army being called in on 8th March; and why the scientific group was not established until 35 days after the onset of the disease? Those are disturbing figures. Will the Minister explain why, according to Anderson, scientific decisions were taken outside of COBRA by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Agriculture in the middle of the outbreak?

The Anderson report is also outspoken on the failures of joined-up government—members of various departments did not talk to each other—and the failure of the IT system has also been highlighted. In the Statement that has just been repeated. Anderson said that substantial deficiencies in management systems added to the difficulties.

I turn to the question of meat imports, which I divide into two categories, as does Anderson. Anderson accepts that the disease was not caused by the legal importation of meat, but was much more likely to have been caused by the illegal importation of meat, in respect of which, as noble Lords will know, we have called many times for a tightening up of the rules. Will the Minister therefore say why it has taken almost a year for the Government to put into action some extra contingency plans to stop the import of illegal meat into our country?

Throughout the course of this disease, we have unfortunately experienced a breakdown of trust not only between the farming communities but also the rural communities and the general public. The devastation directly affected farmers. It also affected those farmers who could not move their animals but who were not directly affected themselves. It affected rural business, and particularly tourism. I should therefore like to ask the Minister what proposals the Government have to ensure that whatever plans they put forward appreciate the very close interlink between the health of our livestock and the health of the countryside and rural business and tourism.

I turn to the Animal Health Bill, which we shall debate later this week. I again quote from Anderson: The powers available in the Animal Health Act 1981 should be re-examined". That is what we should be doing. Will the Minister assure us that the timetable for the current Animal Health Bill will allow such re-examination to be full and thorough? That is particularly important in the light of the research shortcomings, laid bare by the Follett report.

The Anderson report also shows that in the 1967 to 1968 FMD outbreak, 75 per cent of costs went in compensation to farmers. But in the 2001 outbreak that proportion was only 40 per cent. Can the Minister indicate how the Government will control that 60 per cent of costs in any future—heaven forbid—outbreak? Perhaps he may explain where the 60 per cent has gone.

I do not wish to shoot arrows. The report reflects that mistakes were made. I am grateful that the Statement and the Government accept that. However, we want to learn by those mistakes and to see where we can go.

All the reports reflect inadequate action at the start. Had there been more robust action the disease would not have spread as much. I call on the Minister and the Government to have a full debate when we return early in October. It is impossible in the short space of time left before the recess to do anything like justice to these three important reports. Indeed, it will not surprise the Minister when I say that however good these reports are, we should have had a full public inquiry.

The Government have expressed their regrets for some of the mistakes made and are determined to learn. Indeed, the industry should learn in order to find better ways forward. But I ask that we have regular updating; involvement of the stakeholders; and rehearsals of contingency plans. I understand that on a regular basis a review will be brought before Parliament.

It is impossible to pay tribute to all those who worked hard under difficult circumstances and to express sufficiently our sorrow and support for those who were devastated by the outbreak. The noble Lord, at the end of the Statement, referred to the 20-day standstill, which is still in being. As he knows, there is great concern in the industry about that being in effect long term. Can the noble Lord tell us more about the Government's position on the current 20-day standstill? I thank him for repeating the Statement. I look forward to his being able to assure the House that we shall have a full debate when we return in October.

4.23 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the courtesy of allowing me to see the report this morning. I associate these Benches with a great deal of what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said. I shall attempt not to repeat too much of it.

These three reports are an important stage in getting the farming industry and the countryside back to something like normal—or what normal will be in the future—after the devastation of the foot and mouth outbreak. They also will provide useful background for our discussions in the next few days and after the recess when the Animal Health Bill is in Committee.

The immediate issue raised in the Anderson report is the question of the 20-day standstill, to which the noble Baroness referred. There is a great feeling in the industry that not only would it be devastating to keep a 20-day standstill for a substantial period of time and through the autumn of this year, but that it is also almost unenforceable, placing farmers in a position where they would feel the need to break it on a large scale. It is important, therefore, that the Government find a compromise, which is accepted on all sides, which works, and which will do the job we want it to do. So we very much welcome the commitment in the Statement to a speedy review.

There are some interesting statistics in various parts of the report. On page 27, for example, it reveals that the State Veterinary Service has been run down. In 1979 to 1980 it employed 597 vets and in 1995 it employed 300. In that period it was believed—under the then Conservative government—that the state ought not to be doing things that other people could do them and that self-regulation was the way forward. It was also a time when efficiency savings were much in vogue. That is a good example of those two dogmas failing us badly. The reduced MAFF presence in the regions during that period and the cuts in research—not least at Pirbright—are other examples that should provide us with food for thought for policy in the future. I, too, ask the Government what they are doing to put more resources into those and similar areas.

The two sectors devastated more than any others by foot and mouth were farming and tourism. Tourism throughout the outbreak got a worse deal than farming. At least farmers whose animals were culled got compensation, although many others did not. On page 133 of the report, there are interesting statistics providing the sectoral economic effect of FMD 2001 to 2005. It suggests that for agricultural producers there will be a net loss of £710,000. For tourism, it is £5 billion. That indicates the huge impact on the whole of the varied tourist industry. It is absolutely vital that any future outbreak is not allowed to impact in that way on such an important industry, not just in terms of this country's economy but for the whole way in which the countryside now works.

The report's recommendations seem rather weak in the whole area of tourism and the rural economy in general. However, I very much welcome the statement from the Minister that in a future outbreak they would not be looking to impose any blanket ban on the closure of footpaths. There are all kinds of things which occurred during this outbreak which must never happen again. I cannot say that foot and mouth disease must never happen again. It is impossible to guarantee that. I mean the way that images of funeral pyres were beamed around the world; the way in which large areas of countryside were turned into war zones where it was living hell, not just for the affected farmers but for many other people; the human misery and tragedy, the suicides that took place—and the many other people who must have been on the brink of suicide—and the huge mistakes made right at the beginning in declaring that the countryside was closed.

I believe that vaccination and what the Follett report refers to as "preventive vaccination to live" is a fundamental key to the future. It is a fundamental key in getting the trust of farmers as well as the rest of society. The recommendations set out in the Royal Society report are vital. Again I very much welcome the statement by the Government that preventive vaccination to live would form a key part of future strategy. The Follett report points out that the whole area of vaccination needs a great deal more research before it becomes a practical strategy. It suggests a timescale of 18 months. I ask the Government whether this will be an absolute top priority.

The publication of these reports is a turning point. It is a chance to lance the wounds and to start a healing process in the countryside based on developing a consensus for the future. But I believe the Government must go further than merely admitting that mistakes were made. It would help enormously if they could apologise for those mistakes in a fulsome and genuine kind of way, saying that they are sorry for the farmers who suffered; that they are sorry for the tourist industry; sorry for everything else that happened in the countryside last year; and sorry for their contribution to what happened. Have the Government the guts and the sense to face the countryside and say, "Yes, we didn't just make mistakes in hindsight, but we are deeply sorry for them. We want to work with you to stop them happening again"?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their comments. If I may, I shall grind quickly through the specific points made and then turn to the general points.

On research, we shall clearly have to take seriously the substantial recommendations of the Royal Society report. How we fund research is a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the institutes and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Of course, there is also the question of whether that should be performed on a European scale, because we face the same problems across Europe and must take a consistent approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, asked why the contingency plan was based on 10 farms or 10 outbreaks. The reason for that was that for some years the European Union requirements for the contingency plan were for the most likely scenario. In the light of evidence, that was judged the most likely scenario. That is what the plan was based on, and it was clearly inadequate to deal with the massive outbreak that actually occurred. The key finding is that, before we knew it was there, the disease had entered 57 farms.

The noble Baroness asked several questions about the machinery and why there were delays in involving the military, COBRA and so on. We shall clearly have to consider those areas carefully. Co-ordination of government is an important issue, which is one reason why we have now set up a Civil Contingencies Committee. When we face future crises, whether or not involving animal disease, we ought to be able to pull together the resources of government more rapidly. At the time, of course, it was not immediately evident that the disease was of such crisis proportions. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learnt.

On imports, the noble Baroness will have heard me say many times that there is more to be done. An action plan is in place and we are tightening up both on smuggling through passenger imports and on potential illegal imports through commercial channels. The reports, together with the risk assessment that we are completing, will give us more of a basis to act on that front.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, both referred to the involvement of the tourist industry and others, including the farming industry and government. It is important that future contingency plans not only take them into account but involve other elements of rural society and the rural economy in the rehearsals for and understanding of the plan.

The noble Baroness also asked about two immediate issues to which I referred at the end of the Statement: the Animal Health Bill and the 20-day standstill period. Clearly, the reports may have implications for the Animal Health Bill. That is one reason for the timetable on which we eventually reached consensus, which gives us the summer to think about the matter. There may also be other, wider implications for animal health legislation that may have to be dealt with more broadly. We shall need to consider that in the light of the findings and recommendations of the reports. I do not expect that that will seriously affect the timetable, but we will need to consider that after the summer. No doubt, noble Lords will also have amendments to propose and points to make about that.

The noble Baroness raised the question of the proportion of costs, which is an interesting point. One of the differences between the 1967 outbreak and the latest one was, first, that more animals were killed but, perhaps more importantly, that the costs of disposal and the need for disposal effectively to be undertaken by the Government made those non-compensation costs much higher. There is an issue about cost efficiency, about which both these reports and the National Audit Office report make points, and, frankly, about who will bear those risks in future, which the industry and the Government need to discuss. But that is the main change: the non-disposal costs—the cleansing and disinfection costs—which were borne by the Government separate from compensation, were substantially higher than in 1967.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the noble Baroness referred to the 20-day standstill period. Clearly, that is the issue that most concerns the industry and the department at present. As I have told the industry, our veterinary and scientific advice is that we should maintain the 20-day standstill, or something like it. Indeed, the Anderson report states clearly that it should remain until an effective and thorough risk assessment is adopted. As I said in the Statement, we will continue to discuss with the livestock industry during the next few days what, if any, changes can be made to that regime in the immediate future and to consider the long-term regime that may be appropriate following that thorough risk assessment.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the number of people employed by the State Veterinary Service. The figures are slightly misleading. Far be it from me to defend the previous Conservative government, but the numbers at the outset include all of the managerial, structural and research grades, some of which were removed from the State Veterinary Service when the regions were rationalised. So there has been a significant reduction in the management structure of the SVS; but the number of field veterinarians has not altered that much—certainly during the past 10 years—when they are counted on the same basis. Although there has been a reduction in the total size of the service over the long term, the reduction in the field service during the past 10 years has been much smaller. Of course, the field service is the key element in spotting and immediately dealing with the disease.

I echo the views of both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness on the need to establish trust and understanding. There has been a serious breakdown of trust and the Government recognise our responsibility in that respect. If we are to use a "vaccinate to live" rather than a "vaccinate to kill" policy, understanding must be established in the farming industry and elsewhere both domestically and internationally of how the vaccinated meat and meat products would move into the normal food chain. That was one difficulty during the epidemic.

Trust also needs to be established in a wider sense; as I said, the Government accept our responsibility in that regard. Mistakes were of many different sorts. In retrospect and with hindsight, some strategic mistakes were made, most of which we have acknowledged. In what was a massive logistical exercise, mistakes were made in implementing the policy. Those are identified in the reports.

How many strategic mistakes were made at the centre because of the information then available—given the constraints on that identified in the report—is a different matter. I do not accept the challenge of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to make a general apology in that respect. Things occurred that we regret, but I do not believe that my predecessors, senior or local departmental officials are culpable in any individual or collective sense for what happened. We were all faced with an unprecedented situation—in effect, a wartime situation. Mistakes are made in war, however effective or otherwise the strategic direction. That is the case here. The main thing now is not to go blaming each other but to continue to build that basis of trust in the countryside that has been sadly missing in the wake of the disease.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for repeating the Statement, I refer him back to his quotation at its end from the report, which states: Even had everything been done perfectly by all those concerned to tackle the disease, the country would have had a major epidemic with massive consequences". Although no one would argue with that, Dr Anderson must have made a broad assessment of how many animals would have had to be slaughtered if everything had been done perfectly. Will the Minister tell us—in broad terms; clearly we cannot be precise—how many extra animals were slaughtered in that dreadful affair as a consequence of the unpreparedness, delay and incompetence to which he has admitted today?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, without accepting the terminology of the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, there are different forms of effect on the disease. There is no answer to his question. The lack of preparedness in certain respects relates to a wrong presumption of what was the most likely scenario. Clearly, had we made a different presumption, the level of preparedness and the speed with which we contained the disease would have been greater. However, the report states that, given where we were, it would have been more sensible to engage in a wider pre-emptive cull, in which case, per outbreak, more animals would have been slaughtered in order to contain the disease more rapidly. Similarly, given the fact that there were at least 57 seedings before we even knew of the existence of the disease, as well as others developing as we were trying to catch up with the spread, the balance between slaughtering more to contain the disease at the beginning and the total number involved will never be able to be calculated.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Minister recognises that mistakes were made, though I am not interested in whether they were blameworthy or whether one can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that any mistakes were made. I also welcome the fact that the noble Lord accepts most of the recommendations, and agrees that there are lessons to be learned. However, in the light of that, I find it totally incomprehensible that he is intending to press on with the relevant part of the Animal Health Bill on the very first day of our October sittings.

Is the noble Lord suggesting that there is nothing contained in these reports that would alter the contents of those parts of the Animal Health Bill? In view of these recommendations, does he intend to deluge the House with a whole raft of amendments to bring the legislation up to date? Alternatively, is he leaving it to the Opposition, or to Back-Benchers, to amend his Bill and thereby bring it into line with the recommendations?

Bearing in mind all that is to be learnt from these reports, how does the Minister consider that the Bill can possibly proceed until we have had a debate on these reports, and he has brought forward either a re-drafted Bill or amendments to it so as to bring it in line with the recommendations that the Government accept? If we do not follow that route, the entire postponement of the Bill's passage until such reports were made will have been a waste of time, and a farce.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I said earlier in response to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, we shall need to consider what is in these reports that may require amendment to the proposed Animal Health Bill. No doubt other noble Lords will be doing likewise during the Committee and subsequent stages of the legislation. There are two items that are already in the Animal Health Bill that meet some of the anxieties expressed by Dr Anderson. In particular, he is concerned that the contiguous cull was not carried out rapidly enough. Of course, there are additional powers in the Bill that are intended to speed up that process.

In addition to the provisions in the Animal Health Bill, there is a need to make provision for pre-emptive culls. That is also, in part, covered by firebreak cullings in similar provisions, as well as being covered by this legislation. Moreover, it would be even more important for those provisions to be there were we to adopt a substantial policy of vaccination. Powers to impose both a contiguous vaccination and firebreak vaccination would be a consequence of us adopting vaccination in the way that both reports suggest we should now consider. Therefore, the Animal Health Bill already contains some powers that are fairly controversial in this House, but which meet some of Dr Anderson's anxieties. However, there may be others.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that hindsight is a weapon that everyone can take advantage of after the event has taken place, but that, nevertheless, lessons should be drawn from such experience, and consequently acted upon? One observation that must be made on all this is the number of cases that developed—I believe that my noble friend mentioned 57—before the disease was reported. Is there not something that the farming community can learn from that; namely, that surveillance is necessary and early reporting essential?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I absolutely agree with both those observations. Clearly, hindsight must not be used to suggest that decisions taken at the time based on the information available were unreasonable or inequitable. However, it is not only important for government to learn such lessons; industry must do likewise. The bulk of industry is responsible for observing biosecurity and for reporting any sign of disease. Regrettably, the incident mentioned in the Statement reaffirmed that fact. The rules are sometimes not being observed, and the process of reporting is not being undertaken. As we now know, the almost certain origin of the disease—the farm where this occurred—noble Lords, and others, cannot fail but to be horrified at the conditions at that farm and the trading process that followed. There are lessons to be learnt by both government and industry.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, which may come as both a deep and a bad shock to him. Hindsight is a bad instrument. However, is the Minister aware that the use of the word "hindsight" on this occasion is totally irrelevant. Some of us were advocating vaccination as early as April, and the Prime Minister accepted the need for vaccination when he met the Soil Association, the National Trust, and four other bodies; but he then said "I've got to ask the farmers". Can the noble Lord imagine my noble friend Lady Thatcher taking that view once she had made up her mind? The answer is, no.

Vaccination was tried in Uruguay at the same time, where 10 million animals were vaccinated. As a result, they had to slaughter only 10,000 and the disease was contained and eradicated. The disease in that country started after our outbreak, but it finished before our outbreak was brought to a halt. That is not hindsight. It is all very well for the Minister to say that there is nothing to apologise for; there jolly well is something to apologise for. After all, the Prime Minister apologised for the famine in Ireland for which he had absolutely no responsibility, but he cannot apologise—or get his act together—as regards the foot and mouth disease, which was prolonged, exacerbated and made worse by the fatuous incompetence of the Treasury Bench.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I strongly resent the noble Earl's last few remarks. Indeed, his comments are not in the spirit within which the rest of this discussion has taken place. I believe that we all have lessons to learn; and we intend to do so. Many wrongdoings occurred during the course of that period, some on the part of government and others on the part of industry. We all need to recognise that fact.

As regards vaccination, I can confirm that we did consider vaccination at various points during the outbreak. However, it was vaccination for very specific purposes. The events to which the noble Earl referred related to cattle only and were in respect of Cumbria only. Once the disease had broken out, we would not have had the logistical resources or the availability of vaccine to enable us to carry out vaccination on a scale equivalent to the Uruguayan experience. It was not a feasible option as an alternative to the cull. The Netherlands was the only country to follow that route. It very efficiently used that process as a supportive mechanism, but did so on a "vaccinate to kill" rather than a "vaccinate to live" basis.

It is important that any future strategy not only has the involvement of the farmers and the rest of the community; it must also have the understanding of the farmers and the rest of the community. Therefore, although the methods of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, may be appealing to the noble Earl, I believe that both industry and government together need, at least broadly, to agree the future strategy, without conflict, if disease—God help us!—ever breaks out again.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, I refer to the Royal Society report, which I consider contains the most important analysis and recommendations for the future in the history of the control of foot and mouth disease. Obviously, the question now is how to prevent another disaster occurring. Does the Minister agree that it is significant that the report shows important recent advances in vaccines, and that it is now possible to distinguish vaccinated from non-vaccinated animals? Does he also agree that it is an error to suppose that a carrier animal is automatically infectious; on the contrary, the carrier animal is not likely to be a significant risk factor in spreading and maintaining foot and mouth disease? Does he further agree that the report positively recommends that emergency vaccination should be seen as a major tool of first resort? Does the noble Lord consider those three points significant? I do.

I hope that we shall not spend too much time on apportioning blame for the past—indeed, I shall not—but rather that we concentrate on planning for the future. It would be a serious blunder if the Follett report is not acted upon, and acted upon fast.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I accept that advances have been made over the course of the past year in some of the technology and in the provision of vaccine, some of which still has to be validated internationally in order for it to be fully effective. It is certainly true to say that some advances have been made that were not available—or would not have been accepted—had we wished to deploy them during the course of this epidemic.

It is also important that, in preparation, we use vaccination—emergency vaccination and firebreak vaccination—as a tool. At this stage, it is not possible to say that vaccination entirely replaces the culling system; we will not be at that stage for many years. However, vaccination ought to be one of the immediately available tools. Vaccination and its consequences must be understood in advance by the farming community, the rest of the food chain and the international regulators. Without that, vaccination will not be viable, but I believe that we can overcome those difficulties.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease was such as no other country has experienced. I can assure the Minister that the three reports into the handling of the outbreak and the lessons to be learnt will be read by people in many countries who will admire how we handled the problem. However, mistakes were made, including the lack of attention to the need for sufficient manpower to survey the health status of flocks and herds in this country; the dwindling level of research into highly infectious diseases; and the lack of control on imports, about which some of us have spoken. All those matters are mentioned in the three reports, each of which contains an enormous amount of information that requires careful study, as we consider the way ahead.

We did not know what sort of outbreak we faced. If it had been the sort of outbreak we experienced 20 years or more ago—a single outbreak—it would have been acceptable and satisfactory to react as we did at that time. However, the outbreak got away from us, and it was several weeks before we knew precisely what we were dealing with. Therein lies the major problem, given the shortage of manpower and the absence of the tools we now have. We must face the fact: some of the technology that could be used now to differentiate between vaccinated animals and infected animals and the new vaccines have come on line only in past months. We did not have them a year ago when we could have used them to great advantage for pen-side diagnosis, as mentioned on the radio this morning. We did not have that sort of test, and we cannot criticise people for trying to diagnose foot and mouth disease using the old clinical methods.

The Government must convince the general public that there is nothing wrong with meat from vaccinated animals: we eat it every day. All our chickens, sheep, pigs and cattle are vaccinated one way or another. It is ludicrous that there should be any revulsion against eating meat from animals vaccinated against foot and mouth disease. We import meat from countries that use vaccines against foot and mouth disease. The Government must make a major effort to convince the general public that such meat is safe and edible.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, for his remarks about what must now be done and about the quality of the reports. The reports show that there has been a thorough examination, and the three areas that the noble Lord identified will be addressed.

The noble Lord's final point—about the public view of vaccinated meat—is also important. I came to the matter halfway through, and it always seemed illogical to me. One of the reasons we did not pursue a policy of vaccination was that there was a view among consumers, in the wholesale and retail trade and internationally, that there should be a difference. There is a difference internationally between FMD-free status and FMD-with-vaccination-free status. That issue must be addressed domestically and internationally.

Lord Carter

My Lords, as several noble Lords have said, the three reports are extremely important. Can my noble friend deal, once and for all, with the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, about the absence of a public inquiry? Three reports, containing nearly 500 pages of closely argued scientific, logistical and policy argument, have been produced in six months. How long would a public inquiry have taken? What information would it have produced that is not already in those comprehensive reports?

The Royal Society report makes it clear that there was no alternative to the rapid culling of diseased animals and of those thought likely to have been infected. It supports the 24-hour and 48-hour policy, although it is hard to achieve in practice. To the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, I say that the Anderson report says that, on vaccination, the science is not yet clear enough. How long will it take to get agreed EU and international protocols in place for emergency vaccination? The National Audit Office report and the Anderson report refer to the widespread seeding of the virus before it was reported. Can my noble friend confirm that the failure to report the 57 outbreaks in 16 counties was the main factor in the speed and severity of the outbreak?

Can I also ask my noble friend to clarify, in the light of what we now know, what powers are required? It is an important point. It appears that the Government do not have sufficient powers to deal with another outbreak. What will happen if—please God it does not happen—there is another outbreak before the Animal Health Bill becomes law? I hope that we can get to the Committee stage when we return. The Anderson report was a little unclear about the issue; the Minister's Statement was clearer. Can the Minister confirm that the powers in the Bill and any other powers that the Government may wish to introduce will be sufficient to deal with another outbreak?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, to answer my noble friend's last point, I shall expand on what I said earlier. The powers in the Bill now address some of the problems identified by Anderson. We will need to take careful note of other comments about the powers and how they are exercised or inhibited before we can say whether they are adequate. As part of the overall animal health strategy recommended by both reports, there must be a wholesale consideration of animal health legislation in general. Subject to that consideration, the Animal Health Bill would go some way to meeting the requirements.

My noble friend referred to undetected spread. I was not suggesting that 57 people failed to report; I said that, by the time that the outbreak was reported, 57 cases were already seeded, not all of which would have been apparent at that stage. That meant that we were running behind the disease until, eventually, it reached its peak. That was the major strategic disadvantage that we faced. The outbreak was unlike most other epidemics, including the Dutch outbreak. There, they identified the fact that there was a problem immediately and dealt with it quickly and strategically, but not without culling large numbers of animals.

I have covered the points about vaccination. It is true that vaccination could not be carried out unless there were domestic and international agreement on the implications. In introducing its report, the Royal Society said that we ought to be able to reach some agreement at the level of the European Union and the Office International des Epizooties by the end of 2003. That seems optimistic and is the minimum time that we would need to get an international understanding that vaccinated animals could go into the national and international food chain.

Turning to the question of a public inquiry, I refrained from responding to the noble Baroness earlier lest I descended into party politics. However, whatever one may have thought of a public inquiry at the time, we now have three very authoritative reports on the table—or even four if we include the Curry/National Audit Office report. As the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, remarked, those reports will be read throughout the world and will become the authoritative account of how the epidemic began, how overcoming it was conducted and how we should approach any future outbreak.

To be frank, I do not think that a public inquiry could have reached this stage in this length of time. The Phillips inquiry lasted for three years, and we know that other inquiries have lasted even longer. Moreover, I shall repeat a point that I have made before in this House. People were probably more frank in their discussions with Dr Anderson and the Royal Society than they would have been had they had to give evidence in the quasi-judicial procedure through which the public inquiry process would have put them. For that reason, I think that the good doctor and the Royal Society have reached conclusions on the basis of the experiences of many people who have aired their views and understanding of the situation. I am not sure that those views would have emerged in a public inquiry, even after three years. In that respect at least, the Government are vindicated in their decision on how to review the conduct of the disease.

Now we must move on and learn the lesson—in the Government, in industry and in society as a whole.