HL Deb 25 March 2002 vol 633 cc4-6

2.45 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many animals of each species have been slaughtered as foot and mouth disease suspects or contacts since 30th September 2001.

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

My Lords, in total, 6,113 animals—that is, 5,781 sheep, 330 cattle and two goats—have been slaughtered since the last case of foot and mouth disease on 30th September. These animals have been slaughtered as either dangerous contacts as a result of a sero-positive blood sample or as "slaughter on suspicion" cases.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong in my understanding that if animals are sero-positive they may be expressing live virus but that virus will be so coated that it will not be infectious. If that is so, why are the Government taking extreme precautions in such cases when they still have not closed the outlets at the airports for meat coming into this country?

Lord Witty

My Lords, the scientific basis on which we have engaged in the slaughter since 30th September is, in broad terms, the same as it was prior to that date. Individual sheep tests may show that the virus has passed through but they also indicate that the virus was present in the flock. Therefore animals which are sero-positive are slaughtered for a pro-bang test. Most of the animals slaughtered recently have not been sero-positive cases but suspect cases, with one "clinical signs" case. As to the import situation, the Government have significantly intensified their efforts in that area. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State held a meeting with all the enforcement authorities, the airlines and the ports only last week, during which we further determined to coordinate more effectively the checks on meat imports at ports and airports.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I do not suppose that the noble Lord will hurry to agree with me, but is he aware that many people feel that the ex-Ministry of Agriculture usually responded to scientific and well thought-out questions in a way that led one to doubt the merits of the scientific basis on which those answers were founded?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware that in a number of fields the advice that the Government have received from their scientists has been queried in this House and beyond. In a sense, that is as it should be. The nature of science involves varying interpretations of facts. However, both the Ministry of Agriculture, and my present department, had and had available to it the best scientific advice in their fields anywhere in this country and probably anywhere in Europe. That there are different opinions within the scientific community is a fact of life. Science is never 100 per cent certain, in this as in other fields.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, can the Minister say whether any of the animals he classified as "contacts" were slaughtered as a firebreak and did not have contact with any infected animals? What is the Government's policy on this issue at the present time?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, of those animals which have been slaughtered since the last confirmed case, about a third were slaughtered as a result of decisions taken prior to 30th September and may well have involved some contiguous cull premises, which I believe is what the noble Lord means. The majority were slaughtered because of sero-positive tests or other signs in the sheep rather than as part of a contiguous cull. Our policy in this regard is as set out in our interim contingency plan—that is, were the disease regrettably to recur, we would continue with a contiguous cull, although it could be subject to substantial local discretion in particular circumstances.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that 3,305 of the farms which lost their animals under the cull did not test positive for the virus and that 98 per cent of the animals slaughtered were killed unnecessarily? What progress has been made with regard to vaccination? And, to follow on from the question of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, how quickly can we expect the report of the group considering the issue of the importation of meat and food into this country?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have a continuous process of improving the checks on imports. There are certain matters that will require report, but a great deal of action is under way both by government agencies and by the industry.

On the question of what proportion of contiguous cull animals were subsequently found to have the disease, I do not entirely recognise the figures indicated by the noble Baroness; but it is bound to be a low number. The disease has a 21-day incubation period. Therefore, it would not necessarily be found immediately. However, had those cattle not been slaughtered, not only is it highly probable that many of them would have developed the disease, but also it would have led to a further spread of the disease in those premises that were contiguous to the initial contiguous cull. Indeed, in circumstances where there was a slow-down in engaging in the contiguous cull arrangements, there was a worse spread of the disease.

In response to the noble Baroness's other point, vaccination during the course of the disease would have been unlikely to avoid the death of the animals, as we saw in the Dutch case. The question of whether there should be a new European policy in relation to vaccination and to control of the disease in general is being pursued at that level.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, in the event of a return of foot and mouth disease—which I am sure we all hope will not happen—does my noble friend consider that there are sufficient powers in place to deal with it?

Lord Whitty

Not entirely, my Lords. In the interim contingency plan we have identified a number of measures that we would take to ensure that we had tight control. We have also identified, in relation to the Animal Health Bill, additional plans and powers which the Government would need to ensure the maximum containment of the disease. That Bill will begin its Committee stage in this place tomorrow.