http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm200102/cmhansrd/vo011112/debtext/11112-07.htmMr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The House will be aware of my farming interests. Will the Secretary of State tell the House why it is so urgent for the Bill to be introduced before, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made clear, any of the three inquiries has taken place?
Will the Secretary of State also comment on that aspect of the Bill that makes it a requirement only to pay 75 per cent. in compulsory compensation, with 25 per cent. being discretionary? That is a departure from most previous Bills. Will the right hon. Lady explain why that is?
Margaret Beckett: I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's second point in due course. As he said, it relates to parts of the Bill.
I think I have already dealt with the hon. Gentleman's first point—perhaps too briefly, if he did not follow my point. It became apparent during the handling of the disease, and through our experience of handling it, that the Department lacked what seemed to be necessary powers, and I shall say a little more about that shortly. Consequently, I agreed to the drafting of a Bill, and that drafting was continued. I will say quite frankly to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that I was not enthusiastic about seeking to take these powers, but I have become convinced that they are necessary. Obviously, all that took some time. As members of any Government will know, time can never automatically be found in the legislative programme for measures, however much Departments might require it. So the answer to the hon. Gentleman is that we feel the need to take action, and I shall come to that in a little more detail later.
The foot and mouth disease provisions fall into two main categories. First, there are powers if need be to enter premises on a precautionary basis, whether for culling, vaccination or testing, to prevent the spread of disease—without having to prove, as under present legislation, that the animal has been exposed to disease. Secondly, as the
12 Nov 2001 : Column 577hon. Gentleman has just identified, there is a new approach to compensation on infected premises, which is related to enforcement of biosecurity measures.
The current powers have proved insufficient in a number of cases. In stamping out the disease, it has for many years been the accepted policy approach to kill infected animals. However, it has also long been regarded as necessary to cull animals on contiguous premises as well as on infected premises, in order to protect against the spread of disease. Although that has been established policy, there has always been an issue of when animals could be culled. As required by existing legislation, only animals which have been "exposed" to FMD can be culled. Inevitably, when that is the criterion, there are liable to be, and have indeed been, disputes about whether animals have been in contact with or exposed to the disease.
The effect of those disputes has in some cases led to delays, which have in turn led to further spread of the disease. The Bill will give us wider powers to address that problem. It applies—I stress this—only to animals susceptible to FMD. Any such animals could be slaughtered if Ministers concluded that that would prevent the spread of FMD. There is no question of provisions in the Bill covering, as some media comment has suggested, hamsters or goldfish. Even animals susceptible to FMD could be slaughtered only when the scientific and veterinary advice is that that is necessary.
Although the Bill alters the circumstances in which an animal can be culled from culling following exposure to disease to culling in order to prevent disease, that would by no means automatically lead to the culling of more animals. In fact, considerable scientific evidence supports the view that, by culling quickly where it is necessary, we might prevent the further spread of disease and actually end up killing fewer animals.
Sadly, experience from the recent appalling outbreak has suggested that if we are to be able to act with the speed that is required, wider powers of entry are also needed. The current position is that if a farmer whose property is suspected of harbouring FMD refuses to allow access, vital days can be lost while an injunction is sought from the courts. That delay may mean—and we believe has on occasion meant—not only that the farm in question goes down with FMD but that the disease spreads even further.
I stress at this point that I am not saying that those who perfectly legally challenged action under the existing law should in some way be blamed. They were only trying to do what they believed to be best. The fact is, however, that there have sadly been times when taking such legitimate action may have hindered attempts to tackle the disease.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The right hon. Lady says that she believes that the actions of farmers may have helped to spread the disease—that that may have been a factor. What evidence does she have that farmers' attempts to protect their animals actively helped to spread the disease, and will she publish that evidence?
Margaret Beckett: I used the word "may", because I am someone who tries to use words with great accuracy,
12 Nov 2001 : Column 578and of course such things are never susceptible to 100 per cent. proof. I shall give the hon. Gentleman and the House an example.
In Thirsk this summer, 55 local appeals were lodged against the contiguous cull. Of the 29 upheld by the divisional veterinary manager, nine cases of infection were subsequently revealed—and that, in turn, triggered additional contiguous culling. In the cases where the appeal had been rejected by the DVM, two also became infected premises. Again, that, in turn, triggered culling on additional farms.
It is believed that the same occurred in the Brecon Beacons, where there was evidence to suggest that the handling of the disease lagged behind the spread of the disease because culling followed testing, which is what the Welsh Assembly decided to try to do, as it did not wish to kill unnecessarily. Only when a decision was taken to proceed with the contiguous cull to try to get ahead of the disease was that outbreak brought under control, so although these things can never be subject to 100 per cent. proof, it appears that there is evidence to suggest that that occurred. Certainly, that is very much the belief of the vets and scientists who dealt with those issues.
I repeat that we are not blaming people, but, sadly, without attributing blame, we still have to consider the facts and what may have been the unintended effects of people's actions. In the Thirsk area, for example, vets and epidemiologists believed that those events seriously hampered efforts to bring the disease under control.
Miss McIntosh: Will the right hon. Lady give way?
Margaret Beckett: Hon. Members repeatedly expressed in the House their considerable concern and anxiety—indeed, the hon. Lady who is seeking to intervene did so—because of the fear that the disease might spread to the pig-intensive areas of Yorkshire and around the Humber. Again, there was great concern at that time.
Miss McIntosh: The issue that the right hon. Lady raises is indeed very serious. Each of the farms in Thirsk to which she referred is, I think, situated along a road. The evidence raised at the time was that there was something uncanny about the roadside connection, and it should have been incumbent on the right hon. Lady's Department to investigate that before introducing the Bill.
Margaret Beckett: With respect to the hon. Lady, she is making the same point about waiting for the inquiry. I simply tell her, as I have done at each stage—and to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who raised the issue with Mr. Speaker earlier—that none of us knows what will happen. She will perhaps know that I told the Select Committee that I thought it would be a miracle if we got through the period of increased autumn movement without a resurgence of the disease. We have been extraordinarily fortunate that there has been no resurgence of the disease for some time, but no one can rule out the possibility that it will recur.
If we had waited, I suspect that, if the disease began to reappear tomorrow, next week or in three weeks' time and we had not produced any proposals to tackle some of the issues that have been raised, we would have been asked
12 Nov 2001 : Column 579why we had waited. As I shall say in a few moments, given that, unfortunately, contiguous culling may be needed to get ahead of the disease, the Government are trying to get ahead of the circumstances in which we may find ourselves.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If speed in introducing this measure is so much of the essence, why was it left until August this year to begin to draft the Bill?
Margaret Beckett: There was discussion on the matter and consideration of the issues raised a little earlier. It is only from memory that I say that it was about August when drafting began, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was with some reluctance—certainly from my point of view—that the Government embarked on this course. We are mindful of the fact that these are strong powers and that they should be used, if they ever are used, only with great caution. However, it seemed right at least to have the preparatory work done so that if the Government became convinced that such powers were indeed needed, it would be possible to try to convince colleagues that it was necessary to continue with the Bill. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that, as I shall say later, two diseases are specifically dealt with in the Bill—one is foot and mouth disease and the other is, of course, scrapie.
I want to repeat, because it is a matter of concern, that every time any of the issues concerning what actually happened and people's practical experience are raised, there is a tendency for people to respond by saying, "Oh, you are blaming X or Y," or, "You are blaming farmers." It is not a matter of blame; it is a matter of recording what seems to have happened so that we can try to ensure that we learn from some of that experience. It is also a matter of making a policy response that is related and proportionate to that experience.