HL Deb 30 November 2004 vol 667 cc381-3

2.59 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the European Court of Auditors' report on the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the conclusions and recommendations made in the Court of Auditors' report are, in the main, sensible. The UK will continue to work with the EU Commission and other member states to ensure that the lessons learned from the outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in 2001 are applied here and in other member states.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. The report of the Court of Auditors makes a number of devastating criticisms of the Government's handling of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. Do the Government accept those criticisms and the fact that about 62 per cent of the claims for £948 million from the EU will be disallowed by the Commission? Will he confirm that the Government will not seek to recover the shortfall of around £600 million from farmers and the rural community, which is already hard hit by the Government's incompetent handling of the crisis?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the first point, the criticisms in this report are fairly well accepted and, indeed, reflect the views of the Anderson inquiry and other inquiries that we conducted domestically following the foot and mouth outbreak. Certainly, we accept the broad thrust of those recommendations.

On the question of the contribution from European funds towards the cost of compensation, the noble Lord is right to say that the Commission has judged that we overpaid in certain circumstances and failed to maintain some financial control over some of the other payments. That has led to a shortfall of approximately £600 million, but I can assure him that we shall not seek to recoup that from the farming community.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, given that the European Commission is very concerned about the costs of the contiguous cull—and that I understand is the bulk of the overspend—will the Government review whether the first option should be vaccination in any future outbreak, which might cost a great deal less?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the contingency plan we now have in place—and it was one of the criticisms of the Court of Auditors that prior to 2001 we did not have an adequate contingency plan—is robust and asks to consider vaccination in circumstances beyond the initial exposure. That does not, however, mean that there will be no culling of animals. Clearly, those with the disease and those directly exposed to the disease will continue to need to be culled.

What the noble Lord refers to as the "overspend" is not in fact an overspend, it is the valuation of all animals, whether they were killed in the primary cull or in the contiguous cull. Therefore, the issue of control of compensation arises in all circumstances.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, following the criticism by the Audit Commission on that report, how many more unsettled claims are there—I have raised this question several times—and is that figure included in the £600 million or is it in addition? Secondly, in respect of the criticism of the Government's handling of the foot and mouth outbreak, did the Government take into account the apparent failure of a Defra official to be aware of what was going on at Burnside Farm?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the first point, it is clear that there are still a number of claims. I will have to give the noble Baroness the details in writing. A relatively small number of claims have yet to be settled. Those claims and the estimated outcome of those claims are included within the total, so there is no additional money as regards the figures in the Court of Auditors' report.

In respect of the situation at Burnside Farm, we have made clear that the Defra vet who saw the condition of the farm reported it at the earliest opportunity. I do not think that—despite what has occasionally been alleged—there is any additional evidence which would point to any other conclusion on the origin of the disease than that reached by the Anderson and Royal Society inquiries in 2001.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the crisis was better handled in Scotland—I suspect, mainly due to the tighter community—and that the mistakes that occurred in England did not occur there? Has the Ministry learned anything from that?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, certainly the outbreak was brought under control in that limited part of Scotland which was affected more rapidly than it was in England. To that extent, I would certainly applaud the actions of the Scottish authorities. However, the problem in England was that the disease had substantially spread all over the country before we realised it was there. One of the recommendations of the Court of Auditors was that we should have stopped all movements on day one. That is very much part of our contingency plan now.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, as the Minister knows well, a video was taken by Northumberland trading standards officers four days after the outbreak. The noble Lord kindly told me that he saw the video in 2002, whereas his parliamentary colleague Ben Bradshaw said that he saw it in September 2003. Will the Minister clarify who saw it first, when, and what action was taken?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the video tape was taken by Northumberland County Council, as the noble Baroness says, just after the outbreak. The Defra vet to whom she referred was also present. It was then kept by Northumberland County Council for the prosecution of Bobby Waugh, the owner of the farm where the disease originated and was used in evidence. At that point—when the case against him was found—the video was in the public domain and was on the national media, at which point I saw it. At no point prior to that had I or any other Defra Minister seen it, and of course my colleague Ben Bradshaw was not a Minister at that time. It was a video kept in the possession of Northumberland County Council as evidence in a particular case.

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