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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): My hon. Friend may like to point out to the Minister that, as I understand it, underwriters at Lloyd's received inquiries from the German equivalent of the NFU about getting exceptional insurance for foot and mouth before Christmas.

Mr. Yeo: My hon. Friend suggests another important line of inquiry, which reminds me to ask the Minister whether any officials in the British Government had contact with officials in other Governments and European Union institutions prior to the confirmation of the outbreak in Britain on 19 February. As I said, there are persistent rumours relating to several different aspects of the outbreak. At the very least, there were suspicions in the Ministry about the possibility of an outbreak occurring. Even if the Minister was unaware of such suspicions, I am sure that he will want to make inquiries among his officials to find out at what level and in which offices they might have arisen.

Let me return to the resources that are available for curbing the spread of the disease. I understand that there is now a shortage of vets. Is the Minister satisfied that the private sector is being used as much as necessary? I hope that resource constraints are not preventing more use of vets from private practice. Are retired vets being returned to the state veterinary service, or are there obstacles to prevent that from happening? Some retired vets may have invaluable inexperience of foot and mouth.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Will my hon. Friend also seek to discover whether any positive attempt has been made to recruit members of the veterinary profession? I understand that it is relatively easy to pick up additional veterinary resources from abroad, but it has been reported to me that, for whatever reason, a lack of attention has been paid to options such as approaching private veterinary practitioners in this country to see whether they have spare vets who could help to deal with the outbreak.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He has a great deal of experience in the industry and, like others, he shares my concern that there may be a repository of expertise that is still not being fully utilised. Earlier in the week, we heard from the chief vet that he was concerned about the shortage of vets and about overstretch among those who work in the state veterinary service.

Where slaughter is delayed, is full use being made of the slaughtermen attached to hunts? That issue has already been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). I understand that the Countryside

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Alliance is ready to make additional slaughtermen available at very short notice. I hope, therefore, that whatever the reasons for the mounting numbers of unslaughtered animals, the figures are not increasing because of any reluctance on the part of officials. Such officials will not necessarily be in London; they could be in the regions. Will the Minister confirm that appropriate instructions have been given to regional offices to ensure that they take advantage of that resource? Furthermore, can slaughtermen employed in abattoirs that are currently closed because of the outbreak also be deployed?

Now that we are four weeks into the outbreak, clear regional differences are emerging. Of course, the overriding aim is to contain the disease and to prevent it from spreading, and no risks must be run that would jeopardise progress towards that goal. The Minister has previously acknowledged the problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) with regard to ewes in the lambing season. These problems are now acute in a number of areas. I recognise the difficulty of trying to alleviate them without running unacceptable risks such as those that I have mentioned. However, is it possible on a short-term basis to authorise vets in private practice to license limited movements of sheep over short distances? Could vets issue such authorisation when they, in conjunction with farmers and any other local people who are directly concerned, are satisfied that it is safe to do so?

I should like to mention two further questions that I faxed to the Minister last night. Why are only sheep traced from markets to be destroyed, and not pigs or cattle on the farm where the sheep are now located? What is the scientific advice concerning infectivity of dead animals, not least with regard to attacks by foxes or other vermin, and how does that relate to the ban on meat imports from foot and mouth countries?

I should like to speak about many other detailed matters, but I know that many hon. Members want to raise important constituency matters and I must leave time for them to do so. This is a crisis that is getting worse, not better, and which needs to be at the top not only of the Minister's agenda, but of that of the Prime Minister. More than one industry is now suffering serious damage and time is of the essence in the response. The Opposition are ready to back any emergency measures that are needed to tackle the problem. The Government should now act with greater urgency and on a bigger scale than hitherto. I commend our motion to the House.

4.19 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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Hon. Members will notice that the amendment is not very different from the motion. I hope that we can continue to deal with matters in a relatively bipartisan manner.

I wish to take the opportunity to update hon. Members on the latest position on the foot and mouth disease outbreak, and then set out the Government's response to the matters that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) perfectly properly raised.

At 1 pm today, there were 410 confirmed cases in Great Britain and one case in Northern Ireland. Out of a total United Kingdom cattle, sheep and pig population of more than 55 million, 390,000 animals have been authorised for slaughter, and 262,000 have already been slaughtered.

There are two confirmed cases in cattle on farms in east Holland, and two suspected cases. The link appears to be a slaughterhouse in Holland where sheep imported from France were slaughtered. A European Commission decision to block exports is expected later today.

The Dutch Government have declared an intention to use ring vaccination. The Commission is applying strict conditions, including the early slaughter of vaccinated animals. An emergency meeting of the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee will take place on Friday.

Out of 160,000 livestock farms in the UK, 1,937 have been placed under restriction because of a confirmed or suspected case of the disease. We have been able to lift restrictions on more than 1,077 of those farms, leaving 860 still restricted.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Outside the worst affected areas, there are restrictions on movement. One of my constituents, who has a sheep farm, wanted to move his sheep for lambing. He was told that he could not. He wanted to move them so that they could have some grass because they were running out of food and needed attention. In 48 hours, he got four different versions of what he could do in the ensuing week. Will Ministers look into that urgently, and provide strong, clear and consistent guidance so that farmers who are worried to death know what they can do within the rules?

Mr. Brown: As other Conservative Members can tell the right hon. Gentleman, those matters have been much discussed in the House over the past few weeks. The whole of Great Britain is a controlled zone. There are no unauthorised, unlicensed movements of livestock--at least, there are not supposed to be. A range of schemes has been designed to help the trade and animal welfare. I will say more about that later.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Following on from the point of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), on Thursday, the Minister announced a voluntary welfare disposal scheme, which, we believed, would affect sheep and pigs. On that day, I asked the Minister when it would start, and whether it could begin within 48 hours because people were desperate. Nearly a week later, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office in Leicester has received no communication from MAFF to explain the way in which the scheme will work. Mr. Stevens in my

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constituency is absolutely desperate. Will the Minister apply his ministerial toecap to the posterior of his officials to ensure that they communicate with people on the ground? Mr. Stevens can then get on with slaughtering his fattened sheep within 24 or 48 hours.

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