STATEMENT BY SECRETARY OF STATE MARGARET BECKETT

ON THE GOVERNMENT RESPONSE TO THE FMD INQUIRY REPORTS



With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government's response to the foot and mouth disease inquiry reports. That response is being published today.

When the Inquiry reports were published in July I told the House that I accepted that mistakes had been made and that I was determined to learn the lessons of what happened in 2001. The independent inquiry process that concluded in July has enabled us to do that , and to move forward quickly to implement their recommendations. We are indebted to Sir Brian Follett and Dr Iain Anderson, and I pay tribute again to them and to their teams for producing such thorough and useful reports so quickly. The Government accepts virtually all the detailed recommendations of the Lessons Learned report, and firmly endorses the lessons which Dr Anderson draws. The recommendations made by the Royal Society will also play a major role in shaping the Government's work in this area.

A separate report from the NAO is currently under consideration by the PAC.

The Government's response to the Inquiries contains a wide range of commitments and actions, including a stronger general framework for emergency preparedness, with special emphasis on response and disease control in an outbreak of animal disease, and work on strengthening disease prevention. Alongside publication of this response today, the latest version of our contingency plans is available on our website for comment and consultation.

Inevitably some of this considerable body of work is work in progress, and much requires further development and an open and transparent process of consultation with a wide range of players including the farming industry, the wider rural community and other key players such as the local authorities.

Dr Anderson identified 3 key areas for handling any outbreak; systems, speed of response and the necessity for good science as the basis of that response.

As the House may recall from my July statement, some steps, such as the establishment of a Civil Contingencies Secretariat, have already been taken. From next year they will be supplemented by dedicated contingency planning teams in every region, based in the Government Offices.

Plans are being developed for training and rehearsal of contingency plans together with other players such as local authorities. In addition procedures are being drawn up to ramp up organisation should this be required, including the maintenance of a register of staff willing to serve in an emergency, and their competences and skills.

Both inquiries called for a body to provide advice to Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser in emergencies, and for a review of priorities in animal health research. A Science Advisory Group has been set up, some additional funding for veterinary teaching and research has been identified and the review of priorities is underway. The Government is committed to funding necessary research into animal disease and to increasing spending on this.

Work is also underway on how to identify and manage risks as part of Defra's own development plans. In particular a risk assessment report on illegal imports is in preparation and I hope to receive it before the turn of the year.

In the meantime, we have secured the agreement of Commissioner Byrne to a ban on personal imports of meat. We have put extra resources into detection and enforcement, including piloting use of detector dogs, and I can announce today that the Government has agreed that responsibility for anti-smuggling checks on animals, fish, plants, and their products including meat, should be placed on one body, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, as soon as this can be achieved.

But no import controls can ever be 100% effective. That is why both inquiries emphasised the role animal movement controls can play in checking the spread of disease. The Government has accepted the advice that the 20 day standstill rules should remain in place until a detailed risk assessment and wide ranging cost benefit analysis had been completed.

We have commissioned the necessary economic and modelling studies from experts outside Defra, with the aim of deciding on a proportionate level of controls - and in particular, whether a movement standstill of 20 days strikes the right balance between the disease control benefits and the costs on the industry and livestock markets. Emerging findings from these studies should be available at the end of this month, to feed into decisions on the shape of movement controls to apply from next February. We expect full and final results in the first half of next year. As the inquiry reports recognise, the farming industry too shares responsibility for minimising disease risks and has a crucial role to play, particularly with regard to biosecurity. We will work closely with the industry in following up the inquiries' recommendations in this area.

We also intend to work closely with the industry in developing a comprehensive Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, which has been called for by both Inquiries and the Policy Commission. It is important that we share an agreed vision which must cover protection of public health, animal disease prevention and control, and animal welfare. Informal discussions with stakeholders are already taking place, before the launch of a public consultation exercise later in the year across the breadth of the stakeholder community. The Strategy will draw on the Inquiry reports and will provide a vehicle for implementing many recommendations.

We will also use the consultation on the Strategy as a means to discuss with stakeholders the best mechanism to provide regular reports on animal disease preparedness, so that the lessons learned as a result of the 2001 outbreak and the recommendations of the Inquiries are implemented, and help to ensure that the experience of 2001 is never repeated.

But the House will want to know what else would be different in any future outbreak of FMD. A national movement ban would be put in place as soon as the first case was confirmed, as my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary announced in the summer when our interim contingency plan was published.

Restricted Infected Areas (blue boxes) would be declared from the start in a minimum 10km radius around infected farms. But public rights of way would only need to be restricted in a 3km radius from those farms.

International and EU rules are based on the need to eradicate what is an unpleasant as well as a highly infectious disease. Hence the basic strategy in all FMD-free countries is that, as a first step, animals infected with FMD and animals which have had contact with them have to be culled. But what both Inquiries are saying, and what the Government accepts, is that in some circumstances, additional action may be needed to control an outbreak; and in that case, emergency vaccination will form part of the control strategy from the start, and this would be emergency vaccination to live, provided of course that scientific and veterinary advice is that this would be the most effective course.

The Inquiries themselves point out that the use of emergency vaccination to live raises a number of very difficult issues - scientific, logistical and economic. But the Government is committed to tackling these issues, in consultation with interested parties, with the aim of being in a position to trigger an emergency vaccination campaign should the need arise. But the issues are substantial and this process will take some time to complete.

And this does not mean that wider culling strategies will never again be needed. We must maintain a full armoury of weapons to tackle these diseases; hence our insistence on the flexibility proposed in the Animal Health Bill and in the Lessons Learned report to allow for pre-emptive culling, so as to enable us to deal with an outbreak more quickly, with fewer losses of animals and least disruption to the rural economy.

The Government is consulting on a "decision tree" on FMD control which would set out the factors to be taken into account in deciding the best disease control strategy for different circumstances. But we have to remember that each outbreak is unique, and we cannot prescribe in detail in advance how best to meet it. There will still be a need for scientific and veterinary judgement at the time.

For the longer term, the Royal Society recommended that research was needed on a vaccine that could be used routinely rather than just in an emergency, against all strains of FMD and for all species. The Government recognises this would be a desirable long term goal, and will encourage international collaboration to that end. But the House will appreciate that we are some considerable way from achieving this.

In short Mr Speaker, a mere 3 months after publication of the inquiry reports the Government is today able not only to respond formally to those reports but to identify a massive programme of work and reform which is underway.

Nothing can ever erase the horrors and the tragedies of the 2001 epidemic of FMD in the UK. But we can all resolve to establish more effective safeguards and - should those safeguards fail - an even more effective response.