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Mr. Brown: As the person who devised the scheme over the long, hot summer last year for the classical swine fever outbreak, I am as keen on it as anyone.

Mr. Duncan: What is the delay?

Mr. Brown: It all sounds so easy, but there are special problems in the sheep sector. A small part of the market--approximately 37 per cent.--is working normally, but the market price for the product that people want to move has collapsed. There is a question about the rate one would pay under the welfare scheme for animals that are coming into it without disrupting the part of the market that is working normally. The Intervention Board is considering that with the industry.

Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire): Delay, delay, delay.

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman may shout, "Delay, delay, delay", but people will not willingly offer their animals for a scheme without knowing what they will be paid. Frankly, I do not blame them. If hon. Members will allow me, perhaps I can make some progress.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Brown: I always give way to hon. Members, and I shall, but I wish to make some progress first.

The development of the disease in the United Kingdom continues to reflect the pattern that we identified from the start. The continuing rise in outbreaks largely reflects the spread of infection before the first outbreak was confirmed. The spread mostly occurred in sheep, which do not always show clear symptoms. As a result, further waves of outbreaks have occurred because of local spread.

We still cannot know how many outbreaks there will be. However, leading epidemiologists are working on predictions which I will, of course, share with the House. We expect the rising trend to continue and new cases to occur for a considerable time. As I have said before, this is a devastating disease for farming and for the rural communities affected by it. I have on a number of occasions expressed my sympathy to all those suffering at a time of uncertainty and distress. I do so again today, and I know that that is an expression that unites the whole House.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Minister will know that two of my constituents spoke on the radio today on the timing of the notification of the outbreak. One of the people, Mr. Mike Littlehales, said that he had been called up by a lady in MAFF who wished know how it could update its records in case of a further outbreak of foot and mouth. Mrs. Fran Talbot had a similar point to make.

If we do not know exactly when the outbreak began--it having started and first been notified in Essex, but having apparently originated in Northumberland--and if it turns out that there was notification at an earlier stage, that

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would be very serious. Will the Minister be good enough to ensure that we have full published transcripts and details of the operational plans, so that the suspicion that the outbreak started at an earlier stage will now be made clear?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech.

Mr. Brown: If I misled the House in the way in which the BBC misled the country this morning, I would have to come here and resign. I shall make that point to Mr. John Humphrys when I next see him.

The first case of foot and mouth disease in this country of which I was aware was that in the Essex abattoir, and the case on the farm adjacent to it. I was notified on the Tuesday night during our week's recess that there was a suspected case. I understand that my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Hayman had also been notified. The following morning--the Wednesday morning--that case was confirmed to me. On the Thursday night of that same week, I was told that there was a suspected case in Northumberland, at Heddon-on-the-Wall. That case was confirmed on that Friday. I telephoned the Prime Minister, who was in the United States of America, and later on that Friday we imposed complete and absolute movement restrictions by declaring the whole of Great Britain a controlled area by 5 o'clock that same day. That is the sequence of events. Officials in my Department, and Ministers, were not aware that the infectivity was present in the country for an earlier time period for the simple reason that it was not.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Brown: Perhaps it will be easier, Mr. Speaker, if I deal with this urban legend at the appropriate point in my speech, because urban legend it is.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Brown: There are times, Mr. Speaker, when I think that I am talking to myself. What I said was: perhaps it would be easier if I dealt with this in the appropriate passage of my speech. I will then take interventions on the point, if anybody wishes to perpetuate the myth, or, indeed, raise another one. Perhaps the Martians have visited us, or something like that. But for the minute, I will make some progress because I want to deal with the perfectly proper points that have been raised by the Leader of the Opposition and by the hon. Member for South Suffolk. I would like to consider the way in which the Government are dealing with the disease, and I will take interventions that arise from what I say. However, I ask the House to let me say it first.

From the outset, we rapidly put in place firm disease control measures.

Mr. McLoughlin rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister has said that he wants some time before he gives way.

Mr. Brown: That action, and every action since then, has been taken on professional advice, and, in particular, on the advice of the chief veterinary officer, Mr. Jim Scudamore.

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I want to deal with that famous urban legend--the question of MAFF having known about the outbreak in January on the basis of inquiries made by MAFF staff about supplies of railway sleepers. I understand that there is a similar legend about disinfectant supplies from another supplier company, and the answer is the same. The rumours that we knew in January are completely untrue. The Government first learned about a possible outbreak on 20 February. The first case was confirmed on 21 February.

I understand that, in January, my Department's animal health office in Staffordshire carried out a regular foot and mouth disease contingency planning exercise. This is conducted every year; there is nothing unusual about it. Staff were contacting vets, slaughtermen, disinfectant suppliers and suppliers of railway sleepers for incineration. It is sheer coincidence that the exercise took place a month before a genuine outbreak, but coincidence it is. If the question is why we rang that particular supplier after other suppliers had been rung--I understand that that is a caveat to this urban legend--the answer is that the Department was checking prices.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way because I want to talk to him about that exact point. I quote not a Martian, but a MAFF spokesman who said today:

Can the right hon. Gentleman understand that it is deeply worrying when MAFF officials say that there may be a planning exercise going on, but they are not sure? The very person they approached about railway sleepers says that the last time he was approached was 1967. That raises suspicions and mere abuse about Martians does not answer them.

Mr. Brown: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the sentence I uttered before he intervened, he would understand that that particular supplier was contacted because the local office was checking prices. In other words, it was getting the competitive rate. That is the answer and that is all there is to it. The exercise--the local area offices' update--is conducted annually region by region. There is nothing unusual in it. We check the availability of a range of items that we might need to procure from time to time. The exercise is not an invention of the Labour Government--exactly the same procedure was carried out under the previous Government, and perfectly properly.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I want to make a procedural point. A number of people in business, whether they be farmers or those associated with tourism, or the trout farmer in my constituency who cannot move any of his fish, are affected by the crisis. Members of Parliament are receiving an increasing number of telephone calls from concerned constituents, so it might be useful if the Minister elaborated on policy. Are such people able to claim compensation? Can they get some restrictions lifted? I have been telephoning his Department, the staff of which have been diligent and courteous, but can Members have a dedicated helpline so they can get action taken on requests that they make?

Mr. Brown: I have written to all Members setting out the helplines and contact lines and a regular daily update

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is provided for Members of Parliament, which I place in the Library of the House, the Government Whips Office, the Opposition Whips Office and the Whips Offices of the other parties. That front-line information is available.

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