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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. Many hon. Members are anxious to speak. If contributions are as brief as possible, I hope that not too many people will be disappointed.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I shall try to be brief, not least because I was not able to hear the opening speeches in full because of my commitment to sit on a Select Committee. I apologise for that.
On behalf of hon. Members who represent rural constituencies, I thank my right hon. Friend and his Ministers for their hard work and dedication, which Opposition Members also acknowledged. In Staffordshire, we are keeping our fingers crossed that we will escape the disease. I congratulate the Minister on his work, in particular for the information that has been made readily available on the website and for the full transparency surrounding events.
The words "foot and mouth" do strike terror in communities--I remember the 1967 outbreak. My late mother, many years before, had lived through a series of animals being killed and burned. The disease has brought terror to generations of farming communities. That is why it is so important that we do everything that we can to deal with it.
I have misgivings about the scale of agricultural production. I hope that this terrible crisis will mean that we have a debate about how to ensure that we look after the needs of local agricultural production. I agree with the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). I, too, have campaigned in the House for ways to protect smaller abattoirs, not least because of their contribution to the production of organic food.
I shall concentrate not on animal health, but on public health. I note that the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency have clearly stated that the crisis poses no direct risk to public health. I agree with them.
In any crisis, the first task is to get the emergency services to deal with the situation as it presents itself. Urgent action is being taken to deal with the current situation, but there will be secondary effects. I seek reassurances from my right hon. Friend the Minister that the Government will liaise with others, not least environmental health officers. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Where it is essential that carcases are burned following slaughter, it is important that there is
It is crucial that where there are vast pyres of slaughtered animals, none of the remains or the ash gets into water courses and systems. We want to avoid contamination of any kind. Joint action is needed by the Ministry, including its vets, and local authorities, waste agencies, the Environment Agency and environmental health officers. I should be grateful for assurances that liaison is taking place between the right people so that on-going problems can be dealt with.
Those pyres should not be sited close to food producers because we do not want cross-contamination to occur. In view of the work done by the Pennington taskforce on E. coli 0157, what risk assessment has been carried out of the possibility of E. coli 0157 reaching water supplies? What is the risk of fires burning at an insufficiently high temperature, which could mean that there is a danger of remains containing pathogens contaminating the ground and, subsequently, water courses? That is a critical point in view of the high number of private water supplies throughout the country.
What is being done about the risk of salmonella? The speed and temperatures at which the carcases are burned may mean that residue could contaminate the water supply. There is also concern about the destruction of prions. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how many of the cattle that are being slaughtered, and how many of those that have been burned, are in the high risk, over-30-month category? What precautions are the Government taking? Other public health issues include green-top milk, about which we need assurance. How do all those issues affect the Food Standards Agency?
The Government are rightly concentrating all their efforts on the dangers posed by the outbreak. However, I should be grateful for assurances on the secondary issues about which I am concerned and about the local consultation procedures that will be put in place.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I speak for three reasons. First, I have been a beef farmer in my constituency from long before I represented it in this place. Secondly, I am an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. Thirdly, by strange co-incidence, I was a young graduate researcher who acted as secretary to the specialist committee of Conservative Members in the affected areas that reported on the outcome of the 1967-68 epidemic. I have some back knowledge of these matters.
I am sure that the slaughter and stamping-out policy is the right one. We all agree that we must leave the vets and the authorities to get on with the job and not get in their way. The debate has not frustrated them in that sense. In my view, anything else must be secondary to that.
In the interests of time, I shall make four brief points about the current situation, and then move on to the medium and longer term. In Northamptonshire, there has been one outbreak just outside my constituency. There is concern about disinfectant, which the Minister has substantially answered. There are some slight concerns about price gouging. Given the 1967 experience, the right
Secondly, many colleagues have spoken about compensation. I add the consideration that if foot and mouth disease develops into a full-blown epidemic and there are large-scale slaughterings, there will be a tendency for the prices of replacement stock to drift upwards. The right hon. Gentleman will have to bear that in mind. Thirdly, there is the question of the resources that are available to the Minister. He responded satisfactorily by saying that he would be able to draw in other veterinary assistance, if necessary from the European Union or further afield.
There is also the importance of administration and the Ministry. We had some experience of these matters when the BSE crisis hit us in March 1996. Members, local authorities and other public bodies should be informed of the need to keep everybody up to speed. It is necessary also to plan for possible contingencies. I shall mention two. The first is whether the census will have to be put off; the second is what will happen to the county council elections, let alone one or two other possible elections at that time.
It is important that the Minister has sufficient firepower. It is important also that he should have an extra string to his bow--so he might get one or two bright officials who are not on the job to consider what has happened, to review the 1967 and subsequent experience and, as it were, to think outside the box so that the right hon. Gentleman can be kept up to speed.
Fourthly, I declare a direct interest in the licensed slaughter scheme. It happens that a motorway was built through my farm, and I have stock 400 yd down wind of it. Northamptonshire is criss-crossed by motorways and other major roads. I hope that the Minister will have regard to the importance of local disposal of stock--given the extreme virulence of foot and mouth disease, he should not even inadvertently pave the way for an incubating animal to take a trail of virus throughout the country, as happened to some extent before we knew that that could happen.
Those are my immediate concerns. In the medium term, there is a worry that the Minister and his policy of slaughter and stamping out will come under pressure. We hope that the disease will be contained by the rapid action that the right hon. Gentleman has taken, and we are pleased that he has done that. There is a striking difference from 1967. In contrast to everything that has been said about the intensification of the industry, there has been an intensification of media interest. When we got to the point where hundreds of thousands of animals were slaughtered, there was huge concern and people began to ask whether we were doing the right thing, and whether we would have to move to a vaccination policy, on a selective or a general basis.
We all very much hope that that will not happen. Perhaps, like Queen Victoria, the right hon. Gentleman must not counsel the possibility of defeat, but if he is a wise Minister, he will have that in mind as a long-term contingency, and he would be prepared to consider it if it ever became necessary. As we deal with the situation, it is extremely important that both the short-term tactical
From my experience at that time, I believe that the then shadow Minister, the late Joe Godber, of whom I was very fond and for whom I worked for a number of years, would have been proud of the speech made by the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). We emphasise the same sort of approach, but it depends on a degree of reciprocity, which the Minister has shown himself ready to undertake. He must be prepared to receive confidences and representations from all round the House and, if necessary, to share them.
When the pressures that we were experiencing became extreme, Joe Godber asked the then Minister, the late Fred Peart, who was widely respected, whether he could have a briefing from the chief vet. I happened to be the only other person in the room when that briefing was given. It was extremely useful and gave us a detailed and authoritative professional sitrep on where we were and how the epidemic could be contained and eventually stamped out, as I am confident it will be in the present case.
There is one final longer-term consideration for the Minister. I have dismissed from my remarks some of the speculation that properly exists about the origin of the outbreak. No doubt there will be deficiencies in the handling; there always are. There are already queries about information. The Minister should not be ashamed of that, and we should not press him too hard on it.
There will also be longer-term considerations about the structure of the agriculture industry, its intensification, and whether, for example--I mention this only as a possibility--it will be necessary to think in terms of a rest period between a series of moves. That would be very difficult for the commercial trade in agriculture, but it may come to that.
Those are all long-term considerations. In 1968, after the epidemic was contained within a period of six months and at a cost of almost 500,000 head of livestock, it was decided that there should be an authoritative report under a distinguished independent chairman into the entire matter and the lessons that were to be learned.
I suggest to the Minister that there will be serious long-term issues to consider. They need not be party politically contentious, but they will undoubtedly be sensitive areas. The best course may be for him to put them on one side for now. Perhaps we would back him on that, against the promise that when the outbreak is over, he will commission an independent inquiry to look at all the factors. That will help in the way that Lord Phillips did in relation to BSE.
Let us concentrate on the job today. Let us be aware that there are wider implications, which many hon. Members in all parts of the House have rehearsed. Let us hope, above all, that by concentrating on the immediate issue, and by having the right kind of dialogue on how to resolve it and any problems that arise, we can stamp the thing out in good time. Then, it will be the time for a longer look at what needs to be learned.