HL Deb 08 May 2002 vol 634 cc1142-5

2.52 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the contiguous cull in the face of the foot and mouth outbreak was legal, was approved by the European Union and was tested in the courts; and whether veterinary resources to deal with the outbreak were the same as they were in 1997.

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

My Lords, the contiguous cull was legal and was carried out using powers contained in the Animal Health Act 1981. The European Commission was at all times aware of the UK's culling policy and approved of the approach. The operation of the cull was tested and upheld in the English and Scottish courts.

The number of permanent veterinary staff at the beginning of the outbreak was broadly similar in 1997. Following confirmation of foot and mouth disease in 2001 the department moved rapidly to deploy additional veterinary resources.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Animal Health Act 1981, which he cited, begins by stating that the Minister may, if he thinks fit, in any case cause to be slaughtered various animals and it goes on to list the categories in which the power may be exercised? Does that not imply that if in legal terms he is to be reasonable and in compliance with the Wednesbury rules on evidence, particular circumstances must be considered in each case? If that is so, how can he take the Westerhall and Winslade judgments, which the judges admit were considered on particular evidence, to apply to the blanket three-kilometre cull?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Question was about the contiguous cull and the Scottish judges included the three-kilometre cull. On the two occasions when the contiguous cull was tested in the courts it was upheld. There was no challenge to the general operation of the cull; therefore, all precedent indicates that the cull was legal.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most important aspect is that he has powers to act quickly and so contain the outbreak? Does he have those powers now?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Animal Health Act 1981 provides a number of powers which the Minister can use. There are some gaps in those powers which were brought to the attention of the House at the time of the the Animal Health Bill but regrettably the House rejected the proposed remedy. There is therefore some gap in our armoury.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, with respect to the third part of my noble friend's question about the shortage of veterinary personnel at the outbreak of the recent epidemic, will the Minister consider setting up an organisation, similar to the Territorial Army, of reserved trained veterinarians drawn from retired personnel from the ministry, practices and universities to supply that manpower need when an emergency such as the recent foot and mouth outbreak demands it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there is already such an arrangement. We were able to deploy 2,500 temporary veterinary inspectors during the course of the disease and had the help of a further 650 people from overseas. However, as the noble Lord implies, it may be sensible to put that on a more formal and mechanistic basis. We will be examining the matter in the course of the current inquiries into the conduct of the disease.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, does the Minister believe that it is now appropriate to put on record the sterling work of the veterinary service and others in the profession who in difficult circumstances did a first-class job on behalf of the British people?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thoroughly agree with my noble friend. I believe that the whole House will endorse what he says. In very difficult circumstances, sometimes subject to serious local pressures and criticisms, the men and women of the State Veterinary Service performed an absolutely sterling job, as did those who were temporarily deployed to tackle the horrendous disease.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, is the Minister's department now staffed to a level which could actively and effectively implement a contingency plan? How many staff of his department have taken leave of absence due to post-traumatic stress syndrome arising from the foot and mouth outbreak since November last year?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not aware of statistics regarding absences. A number of people have been absent but I shall need to consult my personnel staff if it is appropriate to give a reply to that question.

The current staffing levels are as indicated in my Answer; they are broadly similar to what they were five years ago. There are some vacancies which are being filled. Indeed, we have filled a substantial number over the past four years. The interim contingency plan is operable with the number of staff provided. We can also trigger the deployment of additional resources from the private veterinary service, from students and from retired vets.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, the Minister said that he relies on theWinslade case to justify the contiguous cull. Can he tell the House what scientific evidence was made available to the court in the case which was brought at short notice, as I hope he will be able to confirm? For example, were the papers written by Professor Donaldson, of the Pirbright Institute, made available in evidence to the court before judgment was passed? If not, how can the Minister possibly say that that case justified the contiguous cull?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can clearly say so because that was the decision of the judge and the court on the only occasion in the English courts on which the validity of the cull has been challenged. We were successful in resisting the contiguous cull challenge. In regard to the evidence, I would need to check the books, but it was effectively the same evidence which was received by Ministers and was available to veterinary surgeons on the spot in determining exposure to the disease. That is the whole basis of the contiguous cull.

The noble Lord and those who pursue this question are raking up potential difficulties which understandably existed among those most directly involved but which hide the fact that the cull was necessary in order to contain the disease. The legality was never in question. The appropriateness of the strategy is for others to judge; nevertheless it was carried out most effectively by the State Veterinary Service.

Baroness Byford

My Lords—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords—Noble Lords: Next Question!

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we must move on. There is a most important Question to come and we need to be fair to all questioners.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords —

Noble Lords

Order! Sit down!

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I know that the noble Earl is pointing at the clock. We are in the 24th minute and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has a very important Question on the Order Paper. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, courteously gave way.