Foot and Mouth Disease Inquiry Reports

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett) : 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.  etc etc (see her statement below)

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury):
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for her courtesy in letting me have early sight both of it and the accompanying document published by the Government.

We will obviously want to study the Government's response in detail, but on a first reading, I can say that much of what is proposed seems sensible and welcome and that the proposals include measures that we can support. 

 I hope that the open and transparent process of consultation to which the Secretary of State referred will number Members of Parliament among the key stakeholders and that the Government will make an early opportunity available in Government time for a full debate in the House on their response to the various inquiries.

I should like to ask a couple of questions about vaccination. How long does the Secretary of State anticipate that it will be until the Government are in a position to include emergency vaccination in their armoury of measures for tackling a future outbreak? How does the approach outlined today in the response document relate to the draft European Commission proposals for a new directive on the control of foot and mouth disease?

Much of the document deals with the internal workings of the Department. I hope that she will be able to acknowledge that the Government recognise that one of the lessons from the 2001 outbreak was the need for greater freedom to be given to local veterinary surgeons and officials on the ground, so that they could take decisions quickly without always having to refer them back to head office to be second-guessed there.

Although there is much that we can welcome, I want to press the Secretary of State more critically on three subjects. I was somewhat disappointed to find when scanning the document that it contained only seven paragraphs on the illegal import of meat, compared with 14 on media strategy and communications. Does she appreciate that travellers who have been using British ports and airports in the seven months since the Government's action plan was published have found that even the limited and belated targets that they set themselves back in March have not made any difference to their experience when they arrive at a British port of entry?

Is she confident that Customs and Excise will give adequate priority to this important new responsibility when it is set alongside the many other responsibilities and targets set for it by Treasury Ministers? As it is now 13 months since the last case of foot and mouth, and seven months since the action plan was introduced, will her Department undertake to tackle the question of illegal imports with much a much greater sense of importance, energy and urgency than it has hitherto demonstrated?

Does the Secretary of State appreciate the irony of the Government saying that it is impossible to have 100 per cent. security at our ports while continuing to insist—through their continued insistence on the 20-day rule on livestock movements—that farmers provide a 100 per cent. safeguard against the spread of disease? Does she

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understand that many livestock farmers now face a stark choice: either they break the law, or they obey it and risk going out of business? Does she recall that both the Royal Society and Dr. Anderson called for urgent and detailed risk assessments and cost benefit analyses to be carried out? Will she tell the House why we now have to wait until next February or even later for the results of those Government studies that ought to have been commissioned and undertaken a great deal earlier? Farmers are going out of business now; they cannot afford to wait many months more, as the Government seem to expect them to do.

I want to question the Secretary of State about the issues of stock valuation and disease insurance, which were tucked away at the end of the Government's document published this afternoon. The Government describe these areas as work still in progress, but will the right hon. Lady give us an indication of the time scale for decisions on these important matters? Will she give an assurance that she will not try to short-change farmers over compensation—for example, over compensation for the real value of breeding stock that is the fruit of a great deal of effort, sometimes put in over generations to build up a pedigree flock or herd? Farmers often look for a return on such investment over a number of years.

On insurance, do the Government recognise that the level of any disease insurance premium will depend not only on what a farmer does, but on what the market judges to be the effectiveness or otherwise of measures undertaken by the Government, and especially on the market's judgment of the efficacy of the Government's control of the illegal import of meat, given that, in their analysis, that was the cause of last year's epidemic?

Whenever possible, we will try to support the Government in their response to these important inquiries. After our experience last year, however, I believe that both Parliament and the industry will judge the Government not on the promises that they make but on the effectiveness of the measures that they deliver.



Andrew George (St. Ives): I, too, am grateful for the courtesy of having advance notice of the statement and the background document. We regret the Government's failure to hold a public inquiry, as they may have found it a good opportunity to test for the existence of a human disease that was running in parallel with foot and mouth. I refer, of course, to benefit of hindsight disease, the symptoms of which are brass neck and short-term memory loss. It is important that we move forward and consider ways of learning lessons from what was a tragic experience for the countryside. .....What action will she take to address the view expressed by Dr. Iain Anderson:

benefit the climate of decision taking?

What discussions has the Department had with the farming industry about the proposed review of the 20-day rule on movement restrictions? It would be good if the review was completed as quickly as possible. As the Secretary of State probably knows, anxiety is growing in the farming communities.

If the Department is considering farm insurance schemes to share the costs of any possible future outbreaks of animal disease, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the insurance industry? Is the proposal still under active consideration?

I note that the Secretary of State's friend Lord Haskins has been making his customary attacks on farmers. Will she tell us whether her Department has a genuine joined-up policy on food from plough to plate, given that farmers are receiving a decreasing proportion of the final consumer price? She must know that the British countryside will be turned over to prairie and ranch if Lord Haskins is let loose on the farming community. How many more thousands of farmers will be forced out of business before she and Lord Haskins are satisfied?




Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Now that the right hon. Lady has had a chance to study the reports that she commissioned, what, in her judgment, was the cause of last year's outbreak?

Margaret Beckett: Someone acted illegally in importing diseased meat and someone else acted illegally in not reporting the incidence of foot and mouth disease and in allowing movement, which meant that the disease was spread. If blame there is, that is where it lies.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): First, may I say how much I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will now be given sole responsibility for the control of animal and animal health products at ports and airports? I have long advocated that approach, and I am glad that it has been accepted by the Government. There remains the issue of what priority Customs and Excise will give that responsibility and what resources will be made available to them to carry it out.

Margaret Beckett: We are discussing increased resources with Customs and Excise. Responsibility for the material remains with DEFRA, but import controls will be the responsibility of Customs and Excise, and I feel sure that they will give the matter the priority that it deserves. That is, in part, something to which Members of the House might turn their attention.



Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)

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in welcoming most of what the right hon. Lady has said? Given the criticisms contained in the Anderson report in particular and the flurry of activity that it has engendered, does she still maintain, as she once said, that the Government's response to foot and mouth had been a minor triumph? Or will she take possibly the last opportunity—that I will offer her anyway—to apologise and say sorry for the trauma of foot and mouth?

Margaret Beckett: I made it plain following the publication of the Anderson report that the Government accept that mistakes were made. I also made it plain, as Dr. Anderson's report clearly shows, that a huge effort was undertaken to try to bring the disease under control. Dr. Anderson has previously identified the huge amount of utterly devoted work by staff in my Department and many others across the country. He pointed out:

    "many farmers, local people and government officials made heroic efforts to fight this disease and limit its effects. Through their efforts it was finally overcome and eradicated after 221 days, one day less than the epidemic of 1967–68."

Given the unprecedented nature of the outbreak, that was an achievement. If I used the words "minor triumph", it was against the background of ferocious and unjustified criticism of staff in the field, not least staff in my Department.


Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The right hon. Lady will be aware that foot and mouth came late to the Vale of York and that the strongest criticism in the Anderson inquiry concerned the question of a contingency plan. What message can I take back to my farmers to satisfy them that there is a contingency plan for North Yorkshire? Will the right hon. Lady assure them that the high standards of animal biosecurity that apply to everyone else will apply to her own Department? A picture of her departmental colleague, Lord Whitty, appeared in our local newspaper on the same day as an advertisement saying that waterproof overall trousers and wellington boots must be worn, but he was visibly wearing neither.

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that I am not familiar with the episode to which the hon. Lady refers, nor do I know where that photograph is supposed to have been taken. One of the less attractive features of the desperate attempt to make all of this stick to the Government was the pretence in some quarters that the disease was spread by officials from the Ministry rather than by the type of movement that actually led to its spread.




Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): On behalf of my farmers and constituents, who are deeply concerned, I endorse all the points made about the 20-day rule. The Secretary of State will have noticed that paragraph 4.6.3 of the report observes that the Government do not rule out the possibility of on-farm burial. My constituency was the epicentre of the 1967 epidemic in which there was an enormous amount of on-farm burial, yet there were no after-effects for any animal or person, nor any type of crop distress that proved that infection had resulted. I would recommend burial on farm. How does the right hon. Lady reconcile that possibility with the EU directive that her Government are intent on implementing that would stop on-farm burial in all circumstances from 2003, as a result of the concerns of the Environment Agency?

Margaret Beckett: The phraseology of the report shows that, at present, there are circumstances in which on-farm burial could not be ruled out if it was necessary. It is not a preferred option. The hon. Gentleman knows that there were, and would be, environmental considerations, such as the level of the water table. One thing that was often left out of the discussions of the impact of on-farm burial during the period of the disease outbreak was that we must now take account of the aftermath of BSE.