Foot and Mouth Disease: Oct 31st: Lords: Questions to Lord Whitty :Public Inquiry, new bill

 

3.10 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the finding of the Devon County Council inquiry that the handling of the foot-and-mouth outbreak was "lamentable", they will now reconsider their refusal to set up a full public inquiry into these events.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the Devon County Council preliminary report provides a useful local perspective on the foot and mouth disease outbreak. It is to be passed on to the two inquiries and the policy commission on the future of farming and food. However, I see no reason to reconsider the decision announced by the Prime Minister to set up two independent inquiries into the foot and mouth outbreak.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I declare an interest as someone who has been involved in livestock rearing for the past 40 years. After the 1967 outbreak of foot and mouth, the Northumberland report put at the head of its recommendations for dealing with future outbreaks,

"the need for immediate action in stamping it out by slaughter and by the destruction of infected material",

even to the point that diagnosis should not be delayed by waiting for,

"confirmation over the telephone from Veterinary Headquarters".

 

The statistics in that report show that between October and December of that year, 97.4 per cent of cases were slaughtered by the day after diagnosis and 99.2 per cent by two days after.

The evidence from this outbreak--

Noble Lords: Question.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I am coming to that. The evidence from this outbreak, of which the Devon report is just one piece, leads one to believe that the Government had no contingency plan developed and ready that was capable of achieving similar results. Will the Minister enlighten us further on that point? If the Government no longer accept the stipulations of the Northumberland report in framing their policies, does the Minister not accept that a full public inquiry is necessary to establish a new set of criteria for handling such an emergency?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in relation to the last of the noble Duke's many points, I have already said that I do not think that a formal public inquiry would be the best method. As the Prime Minister has announced, the inquiry under Dr Anderson, coupled with the inquiry by the Royal Society, will provide a basis for dealing with such diseases in the future.

It is not true, as implied in the Devon report, that there was no contingency plan. Following the Northumberland committee report, there was a contingency plan. I have it here. It was lodged by my then colleague, Joyce Quin, in the Libraries of the House. We began working to it at the beginning of the outbreak.

We have to bear in mind that the outbreak was unprecedented anywhere in the world. The contingency plan related to a rather more limited form of outbreak, as one might have expected in view of international experience up to that date with foot and mouth and the then very recent outbreak of classical swine fever.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, in view of the total lack of confidence in the countryside about the Government's record and the inquiries that they have set up, and given the distinct possibility that we could have another totally different outbreak in the not too distant future, is it not imperative that we have an early independent inquiry to establish clear criteria so that we do not have a further disaster of the kind that we have suffered this year?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is precisely what we are doing. We are having an independent and open inquiry that will report as rapidly as possible. As the noble Lord well knows, a full public inquiry would take a considerable amount of time. People would be looking over their shoulders in relation to litigation. We would be much less likely to get at the truth in the timescale that the noble Lord is looking for.

I appreciate that dealing with the disease has led to a number of substantial concerns in what has necessarily been a very difficult situation for farmers and for all concerned. However, any lack of confidence is expressed by people in this House and by other commentators. People in the countryside want to know how we could better deal with the disease in the future. That is what the independent inquiry is designed to tell us.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the recommendation of the preliminary Devon inquiry that in future all information from DEFRA must be clear, open and honest and political considerations should be set aside? When does DEFRA propose to publish the foot and mouth risk assessment report on the resumption of hunting with dogs, which I understand has been with the department for five weeks?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have indeed received a risk assessment on all forms of hunting that are currently banned under the foot and mouth regulations. That has to be assessed against the developing state of the disease and the changing regulations that apply to autumn movements. We are now considering all those issues together so that we can treat hunting in the same way as we treat other countryside activities. An announcement will be made on that shortly.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, does the Minister think that enough resources are going into research on animal health? Does he agree that many strange diseases are appearing in pigs, cattle and sheep?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, a substantial amount of research on animal health is being undertaken. It is true that a number of diseases have appeared in various species here and in other countries. Most of those diseases are known and identifiable and we know how to deal with them. However, it is important that we keep up with the science, both on the analysis of the disease and its spread and on how to deal with any outbreak. That is one of the main issues that the Royal Society inquiry will address.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is considerable disquiet about the lack of a public inquiry, because independent inquiries cannot require evidence in the way that a public inquiry can? It remains unclear which decisions were taken for good scientific reasons and which for reasons of political expediency.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I challenge the noble Baroness to point to any decision that was taken for reasons of political expediency. She may disagree with decisions that were taken at various points in the campaign, but I assure her that neither I nor any of my fellow Ministers or our predecessors took any decision on the disease that related to political expediency. Everything was done on the basis of firm and clear veterinary and scientific advice with the aim of eradicating the disease. It is time that such allegations stopped and I am surprised at the noble Baroness.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, does the Minister not accept that there is still a call for a full public inquiry? He has suggested that it could take a long time, but it need not take as long as the Phillips inquiry did. Given that the Government are unable to control, check and stop infected meat coming into this country, why is there no provision for such in the Animal Health Bill published today?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that import checks and regulations are decided at European level to a large extent. Any change in the regulations would have to be made largely at that level. We have raised the issue in Europe and discussions are going on. I accept that import checks are an important part of restricting the possibility of that disease or any other breaking out again. We are addressing that.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, will my noble friend comment on the suggestions made in some quarters that the Government's strategy would have been much more effective if some farmers had not resisted the culling advice of vets?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, one reason why we have introduced the Bill referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is that resistance to the contiguous cull and to veterinary advice on what animals should be culled delayed some of the slaughter. Going back to the original remarks of the noble Duke, that meant that the achievement of our targets of 24-hour and 48-hour slaughter processes was not possible in every case in every part of the country. The judgment from all the studies that have so far been carried out is that that delayed the eradication of the disease.