Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.7 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): Before dealing with the motion, I want to say that in view of the tragic circumstances of

28 Feb 2001 : Column 918

this morning's rail accident, the Opposition were right to change the business in the way that they have. I want to identify Ministers and officials in my Department with the expressions of sorrow, from both sides of the House, about the accident and the victims. I want particularly to add my personal expression of sorrow and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State--friends and neighbours may well have been travelling on that train this morning.

I now come to the debate, and I thank the Opposition for their support for the Government's actions as expressed in their motion. There is nothing in the motion with which I disagree. This more bipartisan approach is the right way to respond to the serious situation that confronts us.

I know that the House will want to join me in expressing support and sympathy for all those who are caught up in the outbreak and the control measures that we have had to put in place. There have been a further six confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease today, taking the total to 24. The new cases include two in Powys, one in Herefordshire, one in Devon, one in Leicestershire and one in Lancashire. Yesterday, I confirmed new cases in Anglesey, Lancashire, Northampton and County Durham. Most of those new cases can be linked to previous cases. For the cases confirmed today, investigations into links with other cases are still continuing. All animals in confirmed cases and potentially dangerous contacts are slaughtered. So far, just over 15,000 animals have been slaughtered to control the disease--more than 3,000 cattle, about 11,000 sheep and almost 2,000 pigs.

I know that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to the work of those who are in the front line in combating this disease outbreak. They include farmers and others in the livestock industry, the staff of the state veterinary service, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food animal health offices and regional service centres, local authorities, the Meat Hygiene Service, private veterinarians and the police.

The Government's disease control policy remains as I reported to the House on Monday. I shall summarise the sequence of events. Foot and mouth disease was first confirmed on Tuesday evening last week in pigs at an abattoir and in cattle on a neighbouring farm near Brentwood in Essex. A further case was confirmed at Heddon-on-the-Wall in Northumberland on Friday. Because that case was in another region and because of the suspicion, subsequently confirmed, that it had been present for up to two weeks, the same day the whole of Great Britain was made a controlled area. All livestock movements and markets have been banned, as have country fairs, hunts and hare coursing held on farm land.

The Government have granted a special licence to allow the movement, under strict conditions, of fallen stock to a rendering plant, a knacker's yard, incinerators or hunt kennels. In conjunction with the European Union, we have stopped the export of live animals and products to the EU and beyond so that we do not export the disease.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I welcome the steps that the Government have taken and give them my party's full support. What will be the position with ewes that need to be moved for lambing purposes, perhaps from one farm

28 Feb 2001 : Column 919

to another owned by the same farmer? Given that there is a derogation for injured animals, is the right hon. Gentleman considering a derogation for ewes?

Mr. Brown: When I said yesterday that the situation was becoming increasingly complex, that was one of the issues that I had in mind. In an earlier exchange, a perfectly proper question was asked about the movement of ewes that are about to give birth to lambs from one farmholding to an adjacent farmholding, across an area where travel is not allowed. Indeed, travel is not allowed from one farmholding to another--but that is only one part of the issue.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are getting to the time of the year when breeding animals move from their winter grazing to the original farmholding where they are expected to give birth. Lambing is a period of intensive activity, which rather conflicts with our desire to impose rigid movement restrictions. I am very aware of the problem. I cannot announce a solution today, except to say that the imposition of movement restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease must be given first priority, but we will have urgent discussions with the industry to see how we should handle the situation in the current circumstances.

Although we have discovered foot and mouth disease in what are called fat lambs--animals that have been fattened for slaughter--we have not yet discovered it in the breeding flock. That is a significant fact for those who have to decide policy. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is familiar with the industry and therefore understands the complexities. I can explain the problem, but I am afraid that I am not in a position today to explain the comprehensive solution. All I can do is assert that priority is being given to the need to exterminate the disease.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I thank the Minister for giving way and also for his tireless work over the past week. He mentioned two cases in Powys. In fact, they are in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, and the evidence is that they originate from the Devon outbreak, which has been traced back to Northumberland. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that all the cases so far are linked to the original outbreak?

Mr. Brown: Because of the movements to and from Essex to neighbouring farms, and in view of the similar pattern where other outbreaks have been discovered, it does seem that every outbreak can be traced back to the Heddon-on-the-Wall farm, where the disease has been for longer than anywhere else in this country. That seems to be the position. I cannot be categorical, but it is a fair assumption.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): What is the position of graziers on common land? Having spoken to the Minister's office about this earlier, it seems that MAFF has no powers over graziers on common land. Is that true?

Mr. Brown: The position of common land is one of the other complexities with which we are grappling. While the animals are not moving, there is no danger of them spreading the disease beyond the common land, but the problem that the hon. Gentleman is getting at, of how

28 Feb 2001 : Column 920

to sort flock by flock, is an intractable one. He describes it well, and if he has an idea for dealing with it immediately I shall be grateful to him. Perhaps the best way to proceed is exactly as we are doing and not allow animals to move, except for slaughter, and to bear down where the disease is found. That, as the hon. Gentleman knows, means bearing down on the cohorts with all the implications that that has for common land.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The Minister referred to the market in lambs, and one particular problem that we have in Scotland, perhaps more than elsewhere, is the trade in overwintered lambs, which should be coming on to the market just now. If they do not come on to the market now, apart from the loss to the farmers the danger is that they will come on later in the year and so destroy the market for new lambs. Will he consider a scheme to take the lambs off the market so that the market later in the year is not destroyed?

Mr. Brown: We are giving consideration to such trade issues. The main thrust of our work is to bear down on the disease, but the hon. Gentleman is right to mention the trade issues. Perhaps now is the appropriate point for me to say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that his suggestion, in the context of the pig industry, concerning the use of private storage aid in some circumstances is a useful one, and I promise to keep it under review and at the forefront of my mind in my discussions with the Commission. I would require a derogation--it would be deemed a state aid if it were not in place throughout the Community.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I understand the right hon. Gentleman's necessarily cautious approach and the absolute premium that he attaches to safety. However, given that the issue of the possible grant of special licences has been raised by a number of sheep farmers in my constituency--and, I am sure, in those of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House--can the Minister at least confirm that he is holding discussions with the national veterinary inspection service on the issue?

Mr. Brown: The veterinary authorities are involved in a range of discussions. I am not in a position to describe them all. In current circumstances, I rely on the advice being summarised by the chief veterinary officer and given to me in terms that assist me in making policy decisions. The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question is clearly right, but what I cannot do is describe to the House today how we will devise a solution that will deal with the vexed problem that he accurately describes. Clearly, if a measure is to be found, it will most certainly involve the strictest of controls, if animal movement is to be permitted at all. I ask everyone to bear at the forefront of their minds what I have just said about having discovered foot and mouth disease in the animals being fattened for the market but not yet having discovered it in the breeding flock. However, that does not mean that they are not susceptible to it; they most certainly are.

Next Section

IndexHome Page