This matter is extremely serious. I am sure that every Member will join me in expressing profound sympathy for farmers who are affected and in the front line of the crisis, and full support for everyone who is involved in the struggle to contain the disease.
The Opposition will give full backing to all the measures that are needed to contain the spread of foot and mouth disease, to assist livestock farmers through the crisis, to maintain food supplies and to restore export markets. We fully support the steps that have already been taken by the Government. I join the Minister in recognising the work of the state veterinary service, other vets and the many other people who have been under great pressure. It is likely that the work will have to continue for some time.
Will the Minister make it clear, at least in principle, that the Government recognise the problems of farmers who cannot move animals off their farms? Given the confirmation in his statement of further cases of foot and mouth disease, can he confirm that the seven day standstill of animal movements announced on Friday is likely to have to be extended? Does he appreciate that cashflow problems for many farmers will quickly become extremely acute? What help does he expect to offer those farmers and when is it likely that he will be able to make an announcement about such help? Does he agree that the £200 million of unclaimed agrimonetary compensation on the table in Brussels, much of which is due to the livestock sector, should be claimed in full immediately?
Containment is clearly the top priority, but understanding how foot and mouth disease came to Britain is crucial if the risk of a recurrence is to be minimised. What steps are the Government taking to identify the source of the outbreak? If it appears that the source was imported meat, is the right hon. Gentleman ready to tighten controls on imports? Is he able to confirm reports that the unit in Northumberland was feeding pigs on swill, and bought its supplies from airports whose own sources may have been overseas?
I endorse the Minister's advice to the public to avoid visiting livestock farming areas. Reports over the weekend suggest that not everyone has heeded that advice. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to conclude his consideration of whether action can be taken temporarily to suspend the use of footpaths and close rights of way. The Opposition will strongly support such moves. If parliamentary action is needed, we shall give it as fast a track as we reasonably can.
Does the Minister agree that the crisis is sufficiently important to warrant an urgent debate in Parliament? It is a pity that the Government have not seen fit to change their business this week. I can announce that the Opposition will use half of our day on Wednesday for a debate on the matter, to provide an opportunity to explore the subject in more detail.
Does the Minister agree also that the industry is too weak to survive such a crisis without urgent help? Does he recognise that the heartbreaking prospect for many farmers is not only the loss of their livelihood, but the destruction of their life's work? Does he understand that the risk of human tragedies in these circumstances is real? Will he therefore assure the House that no stone will be left unturned in tackling the threat that faces one of Britain's most important industries?
I do not welcome the idea of an urgent debate. It will divert both ministerial resources and scarce veterinary resources from the front line that is bearing down on the disease--[Interruption.] This Opposition have just said that they will do everything they can to help the Government to suppress the disease. If their idea of helping is to divert resources, including ministerial time, from dealing with the disease outbreak to dealing with a parliamentary debate, I am glad that they are not setting out to disrupt us--[Interruption.]
Mr. Brown: It is absolutely disgraceful that the Opposition should try to shout down a Minister who is trying to respond to questions that they raised under the pretence of trying to help, but with every intention of gaining party political advantage from what ought to be an issue that unites us all in the national interest.
On our understanding of the origin of the infection, I have already said in public that I have asked officials, first, to type the strain and give Ministers a list of potential sources if they cannot narrow it down to one; secondly, to consider whether our control measures are being enforced adequately--clearly, the law is firm, but the question is whether controls are being enforced adequately; and thirdly, to examine the way in which the food chain works nowadays, with intensive farming and just-in-time delivery, and to consider whether that makes us more vulnerable to disease.
On compensation for consequential losses, no Government have ever paid compensation for consequential losses. The previous Government did not; the present Government have not, except where animal welfare issues were involved in the recent outbreak of classical swine fever in East Anglia. The question of agrimonetary compensation is a separate one and is being considered separately.
As for future movement restrictions, of course that issue is being kept under review. As I pointed out in my statement, it is likely that the regime will have to be reshaped, and, subject to veterinary advice, that will happen.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on moving so quickly and comprehensively to freeze livestock movements. Does he agree with the British Veterinary Association that vaccination is not currently a viable policy? Vaccinated animals carry the virus, so all susceptible animals would have to be vaccinated repeatedly. That would mean that the disease would become endemic and would block exports from this country to a large section of the world.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the outbreak is further evidence of the importance of a well-equipped state veterinary service? Does he recall that under the Conservatives, between 1992 and 1997 the number of state vets was allowed to fall by about a third? Will he make it his objective in the medium to long term to restore the state veterinary service to its previous strength?
On vaccination, I am advised not just by the chief vet, but by the National Farmers Union, the livestock industry and the major processors and retailers, that they would not welcome the use of vaccination to control the disease, rather than the use of movement restrictions, quarantine and extinction. There are two reasons for that: we would lose our export markets for a very long time, and we would be acknowledging that we had foot and mouth disease here in the United Kingdom. Our intention is not to acknowledge that it is here, but to exterminate it and get back to our disease-free status.
I have a few questions. The ban on livestock movement will expire this Friday. What regime of controls is the right hon. Gentleman considering to follow the present ban? On the importation of food supplies, is he satisfied that food is being imported from foot and mouth disease-free countries? What consideration is he giving to banning the importation of food from countries that are known to have endemic foot and mouth disease?
Will he comment on the position of farmers with cattle that are approaching 30 months of age? Such farmers may have significant problems in respect of the over-30-months scheme. If they are prevented from selling cattle that are currently of 29 months of age, they will suffer considerable loss when those animals are more than 30-months-old. Finally, who has overall decision-making responsibility within the United Kingdom, bearing in mind the devolved responsibilities? What liaison is under way with Scotland in particular?
Mr. Brown: The devolved authorities and the Ministry are working closely together and are devising common approaches. Before any change is made, we speak at official level and, if necessary, consult on the telephone at ministerial level. What the hon. Gentleman said about the over-30-months scheme is true and we are keeping the matter under review. I cannot promise a relaxation of the regime to deal immediately with animals that are caught by the current circumstances, but I have it at the forefront of my mind. When veterinary authorities tell me that is possible to relax movement restrictions, that will be a priority for consideration.
On the question of food imports, it is already unlawful to import from an area where foot and mouth disease is endemic any product that might bear the virus. On livestock movements, although I cannot make a comprehensive statement to the House today, I can say two things: there is bound to be a successor regime