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Mr. Brown: The regulatory authorities have the power to shut rights of way and, if they deem it necessary--even on a pretty wide interpretation of the precautionary principle--I am content that that should be a matter for them.
There is a series of different risks, by far the largest of which is that animals that are susceptible to the disease will transmit it to other animals. The hon. Gentleman is quite right--the disease can be carried by vehicles, people, horses and other animals that are not directly susceptible, and it can, of course, be moved by travelling from farm to farm. Simple precautions can be taken that almost certainly reduce the risk of the transmission of an infective dose. Again, I appeal to everybody who enjoys the countryside to stay away from livestock and to take sensible precautions if they have to visit vulnerable premises.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): What guidance is the Minister giving to local authorities on how many footpaths should be closed? I spoke a short time ago to the chief legal officer of Brentwood council, who is obviously very much involved in tackling the disease. Of course, hon. Members who represent neighbouring constituencies are also concerned about the matter. No advice has been received and there is a meeting tonight to decide what footpaths should be closed. Clearly, there is a difference between areas of agricultural land that have not been affected and other locations, but my area is right at the epicentre. What advice has been offered to Brentwood council on the number of footpaths that should be closed?
Mr. Brown: I deliberately left the issue to the discretion of local authorities, on the understanding that they would know best the local circumstances. It is for them to make an assessment of risk. I could divert veterinary resources into conducting a risk assessment of all the rights of way, but I have got them all bearing down on the disease itself and I had hoped that I could leave the matter of footpaths to local authorities. Incidentally, if they want advice from me, I suggest that they act on a precautionary basis. I think that most people would understand that that is a sensible way to proceed.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I have been contacted by a company that collects milk from a number of farms in my constituency. It is anxious, as it has been trying to get in touch with the Ministry at Tolworth but so far has not managed to obtain a satisfactory response. It is concerned about spray suppression equipment, which must be fitted to heavy goods vehicles. The company is saying that the requirement to fit such equipment means that mud is being carried from one farm to another. It would be
Mr. Brown: I promise the hon. Gentleman that I will get officials in my Department to consider the issue as a matter of urgency and provide him with a definitive answer. It seems to me that there are competing claims about whether such intervention is correct. I urge caution on the dairy industry. We are trying at least to keep the milk routes going, but there are obviously vulnerabilities in doing farm-to-farm visits. Everybody needs to exercise extreme caution to ensure that people and vehicles are not spreading the disease.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I know that the Minister is doing his best with regard to public access, but I am afraid that he will have to do a lot more to convince the public that they must be more strong minded in choosing where to go at weekends. He will be interested in the case of my constituent, Mr. Matthews, of Skyborry farm on the Welsh border. I suppose that the farm is situated about 90 miles from Leicester, but at the weekend Mr. Matthews encountered people from Leicester walking in what can only be called intensive sheep country. With the best will in the world, local authorities will be up against it to stop that sort of thing happening. The Minister should say more about the subject, so the public are properly aware of the risk.
Mr. Brown: We have devolved power to local authorities so that they can use it. If they do so, it has the force of law. If people will not obey the law, it is perfectly permissible to call the police. We have not devolved that power because we expect policemen to be standing at the beginning of every right of way. When somebody in authority, whether it is a farmer or a public official, says "Please do not use this footpath during the outbreak", any sensible person will just go away. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that one or two people are quarrelling and asserting their rights, but in those circumstances I urge local authorities to take their names and addresses and prosecute them.
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I appreciate the blanket ban that has been put in place, and I understand the nightmare of trying gently to unravel it--of knowing where to start--and the problems of competing pressures. However, will the Minister ensure that officials consider the animal welfare problem that a farmer raised with me today? His cattle, which are wintering in slatted rented accommodation that is unsuitable for calving, need to move back to his farm to calve, but, obviously, the forces of nature mean that there is a time limit. I know that the Minister cannot answer fully now, but will he ensure that the matter is considered?
Mr. Brown: That problem is similar, although not on the same scale, to that of the breeding flock of sheep. We are very conscious of it, but the hon. Gentleman, having described the problem accurately enough, will realise how difficult it is to deal with. Also, he will be familiar with
Mr. William Cash (Stone): I am extremely grateful to the Minister for the manner in which he is taking these questions. May I ask about a matter that has just been raised in a European Scrutiny Committee? New European Union proposals--a draft directive and a draft regulation, of which I am sure he is aware--deal with health requirements for animal by-products not intended for human consumption. That will bear on the question of transport, as will the manner in which such a massive pile of documents deals with the question of animal by-products and their testing and the extent to which they may be dangerous to the public.
In the context of both present circumstances and the question whether the virus might have been imported--possibly from countries that do not have the high standards that we employ or from other countries, perhaps in Europe--can the Minister give an absolute assurance that these matters will be dealt with expeditiously so that there is no doubt as to the legislative situation and the dangers to animal and human health?
Mr. Brown: I must be the first Labour Minister who has been able to respond to the hon. Gentleman by saying yes, in general terms, I can give him the assurance he seeks. What is more, later on I shall say something further. Given that he has asked a question, perhaps this is an appropriate moment to say that I have just been informed by our veterinary authorities that the German authorities advise that the sheep involved in the earlier containment exercise are not antibody positive. There is a threshold of negative status and work is continuing on a precautionary basis to consider that, but the fact that the sheep are not antibody positive is a hopeful sign.
Mr. Burnett: I am grateful to the Minister, who has been incredibly generous in giving way. I am also extremely grateful to him for that announcement, which comes as a great relief to me because I know that the problem was worrying Mr. Cleave at Burdon farm, Highampton.
I am also grateful to a veterinary surgeon in Holsworthy in my constituency for drawing to my attention the point that all the interventions that have been made only emphasise the importance of knowledge and information, for farmers as well as for others. I hope that the Minister will at least consider that. Many farmers are not on the internet, so will he encourage his officials immediately to post information and orders on, for example, the Teletext and Ceefax services, which are available to nearly everybody? They are certainly available to nearly all my constituency farmers.
Mr. Brown: A helpline and other front-line advice is available and I shall write to all Members setting out the arrangements so that they will know where to turn if they are contacted by constituents. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is a good one and I shall have it examined by my officials. I specifically extend my sympathy to the farmers in his constituency, which is at the centre of this awful outbreak, and to the private veterinary officials who have been so helpful in dealing with it.